Pressure

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pressure a reviewer can put on themselves. More than any other year I’ve been feeling that this year. Got to put out an article weekly, got to keep the podcast on track, got to get those games reviewed. It has felt like a lot from time to time.

My job, I work in a bike shop, has been incredibly intense, as people turn to two wheels instead of public transport. During the first lockdown in Scotland, which began in March this year, I was pretty much exhausted for weeks. Exhausted or not, the site was still there and a podcast had to be wrangled. I could feel the pressure of it bearing down on me.

A quick caveat before I get into this proper. As most readers, and listeners, will know I am not, nor are any of the team, reliant on The Giant Brain for their income. I could shut everything down tomorrow and it wouldn’t have a financial impact on me or the team. What I am about to say needs this caveat as I can’t speak to, nor can I imagine, the additional pressure from making this your job.

That said let’s ask this question: How do reviewers cope with the pressure to keep producing, stay relevant, and most importantly stay sane?

Quality over quantity

In the long, long ago The Giant Brain was a solo effort. Ignoring its history as a design site for now, when I first started critical writing I aimed for two articles a week. I did OK but it lasted not more than a year before I tamed it down. I lifted the pressure from myself and as a result the writing got better. I was happier writing, so the product improved. I got in touch with how I felt about games more and gave myself room to play and think about them.

I kept a schedule, weekly now, as I found it helped me focus. Now however I no longer felt beholden to it and have frequently taken a break of a week when I have felt the need to relieve the pressure even further. The first time I did this I felt really nervous and apologetic to my readership. Turned out that it didn’t really matter and the world did not fall on my head. Here is the lesson then: schedules are good, but don’t let yourself become beholden to them.

It Takes a Village

As I wrote, and wrote better, I started to think about what the site might look like as it grew. I’ve always wanted to bring more people onto the site, to allow those who wanted to write but didn’t have even my small reach as a platform. I’d be the first to admit that hasn’t really happened yet. I am really grateful to those who have put pen to paper and contributed to the site thus far: Peter Hopkins writing about Warcry, Jamie for his Megagame report, and Iain and Jamie for various contributions throughout the last year.

The team idea really came to the fore when I started Brainwaves. Most successful casts I listened to had a strict schedule and they always hit it. Now I can’t pay anyone and life will get in the way in unexpected ways, so my solution was to put a team together that could weather the storm.

To have a news cast I wanted at least two presenters to have a good back and forth. In order to have that happen regularly I got a three person team together allowing someone to drop out from time to time without affecting how the cast sounds. Whatever you are doing, if you need a team for it, go bigger than you think you need.

Beyond the podcast team, I rely on Jamie and Iain, and Sam before Iain joined, to bounce ideas off. They look over drafts, gather news, and basically keep me in check. Friends outside of the core team get involved from time to time and I am grateful to anyone who gives feedback to myself and the team.

Although boardgaming is a social hobby, reviewing can sometimes be a lonely affair. I would advise anyone getting into it, or in it, to surround themselves with people willing to give you honest feedback. Without good feedback you can’t improve, and it’s always good to have a support network.

Letting Down, Letting Go

I’ve let people down this year. I feel that strongly. I got a bunch of games just before lockdown and I’ve barely touched them. Without my regular group to play with, getting games to the table is borderline impossible.

To be clear, all the companies whose games I have in my review pile have been 100% understanding about the situation we all find ourselves in. That doesn’t stop the feeling of letting people down. I established some principles, you can read them here, and one of those was that I would review every game we take on. I can do this because I’m a small fry in a big pond. I don’t get 20-30 games a month. I get 20 – 30 games a year, if I’m lucky and not including games I buy myself.

I especially feel that I’ve let someone down when it comes to small companies. We have always been focused on smaller publishers and I feel a great responsibility when they entrust me with their products, whether I end up liking them or not. I don’t know how big reviewers manage the expectations of those that send them games, but for me the commitments I’ve made weigh on me.

To counter this feeling I’ve gotten myself more organised this year. I’ve got a spreadsheet with all the games I’ve got for review with dates received. I’ve also said no to anymore games until I’ve got my pile down, there is no benefit to me piling new pressure on pressure. I’ve found this little bit of admin has really helped me get my head straight on what needs done. A little organisation can go a long way to keeping the mind straight and I personally find that relaxing. With administration I can let the computer take some of the mental weight.

Keeping relevant

I’m going to keep this bit short. I don’t stay relevant and I don’t think you need to be reviewing the latest and greatest to be a fantastic reviewer. That said, if you do want to pursue this as a career that calculation greatly changes. You’ll want to keep up with the latest releases, post your content on BoardGameGeek and chase the numbers as hard as you can. I don’t want any part of that at the moment and am happy helping out the smaller publishers where I can, and reviewing games that have already passed the hurdle of persuading me to buy them. Bigger reviewers than me can tell you how to stay on top of things more than I ever can.

No One must fall

There is a certain irony to me writing this piece on a day when I skipped putting out an article on the site. I wanted to say this out loud as the other side of pressure is that it lessens when shared. When written aloud, we can realise that others feel the same way and the pressure ebbs.

To my fellow reviewers out there: I feel the pressure the same as you. It’s been a weird year to say the least. Our capacity to review has been diminished but the releases keep on coming. I hope that some of you will come and talk to me about your own experiences, or at the very least reach out to a friend to share the burden you feel. In sharing the weight, we ease the pressure, and all of us stand a little taller.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

2 thoughts

  1. Sorry if this is multi posting, but it doesn’t seem to be coming up for me.

    Self motivation and self pressure are such a weird thing. Some days it can feel both hard to get motivated and as though there’s huge pressure to get things done at the same time, when they should be mutually exclusive. A while ago I found that I was analyzing games as part of design, and that some of my notes looked a lot like reviews, somehow that turned into my posting weekly reviews on my site. I’m pretty sure that not many people read them, but I find that on days when I can’t be bothered to come to the page they call me to sit down at my desk and I get other things done because of them. That said some days they’re a way to procrastinate from work getting done (the length of this comment might have something to do with the fact that I have notes for a full re-write sitting next to my laptop right now).

    I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between critical review and critical analysis, we seem to have tons of the first and very little of the second in the boardgame world. With getting new titles to the table becoming more of an issue in recent times, and since you don’t seem to put as much pressure on yourself to get the new hotness reviewed, have you considered attempting something more in the way of considered analysis of some games? Some of your reviews are already more analytical than most and I for one would be interested to see something far more considered, even of far older games.

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    1. I’ve found my mind drifting a bit on days when I should be writing, so much so I’ve started to write in the Kitchen as oppose to my study some my computer isn’t right in front of me. I’m drafting with pen and paper for the most part, so this is sort of working for me.

      I try and do as much critical analysis as I feel comfortable doing. All the Beyond the Veils are of that ilk and I’ve certainly written about aspects of the hobby that I would consider more general criticism rather than reviews. I am tempted to take a deeper dive into my collection in terms of games, especially when it comes to games that have survived multiple culls. I wouldn’t want to review them again but a more critical analysis of what makes them tick could be a thing I look at.

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