We’re not all equal. There are small things which can skew our opinions. They can make a universally hated game seem brilliant to one person. There are also games which may seem wonderful to the masses but generate near table-flipping emotions in some. Much of popular media shares this quality.
The movies aren’t exactly like gaming, but I have an anecdote from movie going that can shed some light on this. My wife and I went to see the Christopher Nolan directed film Inception. About 45 minutes in to the film, we walked out. Now some people may equate this to a table flip, but consider it for a second. We didn’t see the need to continue an activity we found boring, and we certainly didn’t cause a mass exit of other filmgoers. But beyond that, you’re probably wondering why.
I’m certainly no stranger to bad movies. There are some pretty bad ones out there that I just plain love. Whether because I saw them when I was a kid and the imagery stuck, or because it was a movie I saw and the central character hit home. There’s no way out of it. And even now, I recognize the movies as bad and can still like them. So it’s not because I can’t tell a bad movie from a good movie.
So you next might argue that I have limited experience when watching movies. Sorry, my degree in college was Radio/TV/Film with a focus on media analysis and criticism. I’ve seen lots of movies. It has gotten to the point that my wife and in-laws won’t play movie trivia games with me anymore. It’s just a competition for second place.
So, how can a person well versed in film and has a good sense with what makes a movie good or bad still not like Inception? It has to do with what you can’t see on the screen. For me, there is one core element that drives the entire film, and with that lacking, the whole film is pointless. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is not a personality I can identify with, nor is the character someone in whom I see any morality beyond trying to get back with his family. His career is one of criminality invading people’s privacy and DiCaprio does not have the personal charm, in my opinion, to drive that character. As such, he falls flat and the performance is boring.
As my love for encyclopedic knowledge of movies is slowly shifting to board games, this same method of analysis drives me in the same way. Often when I am analyzing a game, I’m not just looking at the game itself, but I’m also trying to step outside of my psyche and think if I am having fun. What does the game do and what levers is it pulling that make me enjoy it? It is not enough to say this game is fun and that game isn’t. As a board game reviewer, the product, the experience, and the person must all come together. Some games only drive a good experience with a certain number or type of player. Some games achieve high marks as a game but fail as a product because the art or graphic design is bad, leading to a degradation in experience. The nexus of these criteria make for great gaming.
And so, finding these isn’t easy. Once you’ve seen and played A LOT of games, you might start to like games less and less or be overly critical of those which underperform. Nothing is more enjoyable to me than seeing a reviewer who finds the right game for them. But for readers, or viewers, you must be cautious. The reviewer must explain WHY the game is right for them. They cannot begin to sell the game to you. And if they cannot articulate what it is about the product, experience, or what it is in themselves that creates that nexus of perfection, there’s no value in the review at all. How else would you be able to digest the critique otherwise?