A recent article on Tabletop Gaming Magazine, a fine periodical I suggest you check out, about the opinions of some higher ups in Asmodee on games exposure has had me thinking. Can there be such a thing as too many games? The article said that there were about 10 games released a day! That’s kind of an amazing number and obviously more than any reviewer could ever get through.
How do I as a reviewer help filter the wheat from the chaff? Is it healthy that BoardGameGeek (BGG) has a basically unassailable place as a taste maker for our hobby. How do you, and I as a consumer, know what is good especially when encouraged to buy games that in some cases may not exist yet?
What is the job of the Reviewer?
If you are a film reviewer you can’t see every film that releases in a year, but you can get to a lot, the time investment per film being relatively low. Also as a film reviewer it’s fine to see a film once then write your opinion on it, these are basically accepted facts. However, the latter is not necessarily true when it comes to reviewing board games.
Something I have come across a lot in board gaming is where some folk expect you to play a game more than once to review it. Whilst I agree this is probably necessary for deeper games, that is a lot of time to invest in a particular article before even writing it. This means reviewers have to self select to a degree, immediately biasing them to the games they choose to spend time shining a light on. That’s OK though, as long as the audience and reviewer are aware of this. One of the reasons I have my collection as a link from my blog is that it lets people know the kind of games that make it into my collection, a coveted place held by only 60 titles as of the start of the year, and hopefully many less by the end but we will come back to that.
Reviewers should act as filters for their audiences, that is sort of the point, but there is an issue here. If you only follow reviewers who look at the new hotness, then that is all you are going to see, so you are self selecting as well to a degree. This is totally fine, but because the new hotness is also the way BGG aggregates it means older games get lost more and also independent publishers need to work harder to poke their head out from the crowd.
Coming back to the world of films, it is frequently the case that small independent films might shine at something like Cannes or other film festivals. They get a small amount of time in the spotlight, but are drowned out when it comes to a general release. It feels a lot like this is what is happening on Kickstarter, where something might grab the zeitgeist and then seems to disappear once actually released.
Is there anything to be done about this? I guess the first thing comes down to a personal shift in perspective and that is to realise that you don’t need to have played the new hotness to have an opinion on the games you do and don’t like. A recent poll in the BGE group I am a reviewer for was all about the best games they had played that were also released in 2017 and I came to the realisation that I had played almost nothing released in 2017. I had played lots of games, just not much that would be considered ‘hot’. Does that make me a bad reviewer? I don’t think so, just means I am not always reviewing the latest thing I guess.
You don’t need to keep up with BGG to enjoy boardgames, but on the flipside of that I would say that if the only thing you play is cluedo over christmas, or whatever other family favourite you have, that there is a wealth of cool, interesting and fun games out there to try out and getting to ‘play before you buy’ has never been easier with games cafes popping up absolutely everywhere.
Find reviewers that entertain you, whose taste seems to align with your own by all means, but occasionally peak your head over that particular walled garden and see what is on the other side. Try new things and even come back to things you may have not liked in the past. If you aren’t a fan of a particular genre it won’t hurt you to sample it again from time to time to see if your tastes have changed, you might surprise yourself.
Who is actually putting out all these games?
According to the interview, and I thoroughly recommend giving all the stuff on IcV2 a read with regards to those pieces, with some of the top dogs in Asmodee they, and the companies they own, are not really putting out that many more games. This would imply that the rise in number of games is coming from the independents and smaller outfits and that’s a good thing. Kickstarter is allowing lots of different people to realise their visions. Sure some of those visions are terrible but there are a good number which aren’t and now those smaller companies can realise their dreams. That’s great!
The issue comes that it is not all about the quality, or apparent quality, of the games anymore. A good kickstarter project now needs marketing, PR and a good understanding of manufacturing, basically coming full circle back to pre-kickstarter setups for any good company. The ones who get this right will succeed, the ones who fail may just squeak over their target but that may not be enough for some. The bigger companies obviously have this stuff sorted out already, though some are better than others, giving them a distinct advantage on the platform and drowning out the smaller companies that Kickstarter was originally intended to support.
I do worry about companies that constantly come back to Kickstarter for funding for their next project. I can totally understand why they do but it may only take one flop to push those companies under. I would much rather see companies that use Kickstarter to launch themselves and get enough traction from that launch to reinvest in the company and go to a more traditional publishing model.
Many reviewers are caught up in this cycle as well, having their channels revolve around the new hotness and to a greater or lesser extent the ups and downs of Kickstarter. I think reviewing Kickstarter games is an extremely tricky proposition, having done some myself. Maybe you are seeing the final product and it won’t change mechanically between now and full release, but what if it does? What did you review? As a reviewer it’s hard to turn down the opportunity to review a game that sounds like it might be up your street, and getting in on a Kickstarter and getting the links from that campaign, as I did for ‘Escape the Dark Castle’, is always going to be tempting.
This is however the reality of the hobby at the moment, Kickstarter is now entwined with the ebb and flow of new releases and I don’t see that changing a lot in the near future. I don’t have any easy answers for how smaller companies should get themselves seen but there is a lot of great advice out there and I would recommend Jamey Stegmaier’s Blog as an excellent place to start.
Quality Checks and Innovation
Though the component quality of recent releases has been through the roof, the mechanical design can be a bit lacking and the explanation of rules doesn’t feel like it’s really evolved much for a long time. Honestly I would rather see ugly games that sing mechanically over pretty games that feel like no one has thought about how it should work. Of course some companies are better at this than others but the sheer difference between the best and worst leaves me wondering why the producers of boardgames are still pretty bad at a fundamental part of games: explaining it to a new player.
The one thing that gives me a lot of hope for the future of the hobby is that designers are now setting out to tackle lots of different themes. Kickstarter has allowed people to realise a lot of different themes for their games and it feels like that innovation is now bleeding into the more traditional publishing model. There are games with themes as diverse as the Underground Railroads for freeing slaves in the states to the RomCom in Fog of Love. This exploration of themes will expand as the hobby does, leading to more people finding the game for them, something I thoroughly believe exists for everyone.
What can we do?
So what can we do as a consumer. My first thing would be to say again that you don’t need to keep up with the new hotness if you don’t want to, nor do you need to buy every game that comes across your table. Play and buy the games that make you and your group happy. I would also recommend keeping your collection as tight as possible as I find it gives clarity into what you might add or discard. Think of your collection as an exclusive club that only the games you really enjoy and are likely to want to play again and again get into.
Keeping your collection small makes your games more valuable to you as well in terms of money spent and time enjoyed. If you have 5 different deckbuilder variants are you really exploring any of them to their full potential? Wouldn’t it be better to just pick the one you really like and play that more? If you keep your collection small it is also easier to see things you aren’t playing, and if you have a small budget like me you can turn those unwanted games back into cold, hard cash. I’ve been trying to use the BGstats app to track my plays, and it will hopefully be my Bouncer when it comes time to throw the riff raff out of the club.
Don’t back Kickstarters if you don’t want to. Although there are some Kickstarter exclusives on a lot of projects, and some purely Kickstarter exclusive games, the world won’t end if you miss out on something. I personally back very little on Kickstarter, but I have a small budget for games in general, and I find it really hard to get excited by something I can only watch videos for. I’d much rather go to a con and try some games, hope to be excited by something and buy it there and then, or back the Kickstarter and help the company out that way.
I don’t think you are a bad person if you have a huge collection, but I might throw some questions your way if you have a big pile of shame or numerous unopened Kickstarters lying around. This article is not meant to admonish or praise any particular philosophy with regards to consuming and collecting games, though clearly I favour a small, curated library.
I hope that we can all take the time over the coming year to highlight the smaller games that don’t get played as much, champion the ones that we hold close to our hearts and to not be afraid to realise that the hype is sometimes just that and we do not need to fear missing out.