Reconstructive criticism

While video game criticism suffers from sloppy writing, board game criticism suffers from sloppy thinking. Too often, board game reviews sound like back-of-the-box press blurbs, content to regurgitate rulesets and offer a limp yea or nay recommendation. They tell you all about the plastic bits inside the box instead of recreating the feeling of play, those moments when the game rises above its punch-out counters and plastic dudes to become a miniature zeitgeist, an instrument of shared goodwill or night-ruining drudgery.

When most board game reviews talk about the experience of play, it’s as procedural analysis.

Michael Barnes, on the other hand, has been writing critical discussion on board games for years in his Cracked LCD column, which migrated this year from Gameshark to its new home at No High Scores. Barnes has a talent for relaying the experience of play, and champions fun-first design over stodgy rulesets that limit player choice and interaction.

A weary man.

But it seems he’s growing weary.

In his recent article, “The Day Board Game Criticism Died,” Barnes argues that, since board games are an experiential, group-led medium, perhaps it’s futile to write proper criticism:

“There are several damning points of failure that undermine serious writing and analysis of tabletop games, deep-striking notions such as subjective experience and the sublimation of the media to social interaction threaten to render games criticism invalid or even irrelevant. Although these factors are often not addressed by most self-styled amateur games reviewers, who are content to provide readers with a summary of rules and product qualities bookended by a thin statement establishing credibility and a noncommittal opinion, they weigh heavily on the writer seeking to evaluate games as a viable medium of expression. But how do you critically and comparatively assess a design such as Chaostle, which is a regressive Neanderthal of a rules set, when you have fun playing it and it meets its design goals?”

I value that Barnes is writing columns like these, questioning the medium’s critical voice and outing himself by asking if board game criticism is even worthwhile. These sorts of examinations help people grow as writers and as readers.

Even so, I don’t agree with his conclusions, and I think he’s selling himself short. Barnes is saying that board games are an experiential medium, varying drastically based on the specific instance of play, while art, music, and literature remain constant and can be critically examined. There’s some appeal to this: board and video games seem more open; they can be altered by the act of play.

What Barnes is ignoring is that every medium is experiential. That novel you’re reading may have the same words on the page, but it’s not the same as it’s always been. When you’re twelve and you read a Philip K Dick book, it is not the same experience you would or will have if you read it at thirty-five. You bring accumulated life experiences with you to inform your reading.

Movies are the same. Last spring, I watched The Thing and Cemetery Man with a group. These are two of my favorite movies, but I just wasn’t enjoying them, and neither was the group. One person was constantly saying “this doesn’t make sense” and “this is stupid.” He overrode anyone’s chance to really engage with the films. Group experiences were brought into the viewing.

This happens with painting and sculpture, too. Even when you’re viewing a static work, your life experiences are changing it. That particular experience might be different because you just read a book on mythology or because you just broke up with your girlfriend. Every medium, every individual viewing, is experiential, and changes with the world around it.

So, if works and mediums are always changing, how do we engage them in meaningful discussion? We simply try. We take the parts that stand out to us, for good or bad, and we try to understand them, contextualize them. For everyone who’s played Cosmic Encounter, it’s clear that the game is better for letting players utilize distinct alien abilities. Some people might rather have six very deep and well-balanced powers than the smorgasbord of light and random ones, but it’s clear that the design is purposeful- it leads to highly emergent gameplay as the different powers clash or fizzle against each other. The game doesn’t have to work amazingly every single time; it just has to work great most of the time, and not have glaring faults all of the time.

I understand what Barnes is saying. Knowing whether a board game is great after a couple of plays is difficult. In his article, Barnes is working himself into a philosophical argument, asking whether a critic can truly know whether the game was good or if his group was simply on that night. There’s a reason philosophical arguments get tied up into knots, and that’s because no, you can’t really know.

But the critic’s job is to make an argument or analyze an idea. The critic says “this is what I believe and here’s why I believe it.” Maybe he starts out arguing one side and ends up arguing the other. The discussion, the working through, is what’s important.

Even if I disagree with his conclusions, I commend Michael Barnes for this article. He’s fighting, and struggling, and wrestling with the question of what it means to be a critic, about his role and how much it matters. And I think that’s a wonderful question. Keep asking.

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