Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Game Conflict: “Man Against Game”

“Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.”
H.G. Wells

Wandering through Target’s toy and game section I couldn’t help but spot a surge of new games from Ravensburger, the German board game and puzzle company. Seems like the company recently started acquiring licenses to produce games based on popular media properties: Disney Villainous, Jurassic Park Danger!, a JAWS game, and Horrified, based on the Universal Studios monster movies...even Star Wars and Harry Potter re-skins of the company’s well-established Labyrinth game (not tied to the Labyrinth film). The ones that sparked my interest – JAWS and Jurassic Park – both seemed to offer opportunities for interesting cooperative gameplay, with players controlling the characters and the game rules determining the actions of the shark or dinosaurs. But when I took a closer look at these, it was clear one player ran the antagonists while the rest got stuck trying to survive.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Game Reviews in the Internet Age

In a world where everyone is a publisher, no one is an editor.
And that is the danger that we face today.”
Scott Pelley

A game designer I greatly admire recently lamented the lack of quality game reviews. With the explosion of roleplaying game publishers thanks to the internet and Open Game License (OGL) one might naturally expect a concurrent explosion of online punditry would include blogs, podcasts, forums, and other outlets with intelligent opinions of game product. But their quality and critical approach has always varied so greatly...and toward the less-than-satisfying end. So where does one go for intelligent, carefully considered reviews of game product across the seemingly infinite and ever-changing expanse of the internet? Rather than trust the old outlets with some vestiges of authority today’s consumer must become an internet-savvy editor of their own review sources, finding, evaluating, and choosing those they personally find most useful from among the seemingly infinite internet landscape.

The internet has moved our society from more insular, intimate communities toward larger, more inclusive communities of casual acquaintances and strangers. While this broadened the scope of information available to us, it has also exponentially increased the volume of content and hence diluted the quality of content we see. Where once we trusted game magazine editors, local hobby store employees, and our gaming buddies to curate our game experience (including reviews), we must now ingest and evaluate a vast flood of game and review content from innumerable sources. The ease of the internet encourages everyone with an opinion to post it (unfortunately a practice not limited to gaming), even enabling consumers to casually and often anonymously rate products with little inkling as to their critical concerns.

Certainly reviews in the past had their issues, but it seemed easier to navigate given the more limited content to peruse; today the sheer flood of material, despite offering “more options” on the surface, threatens to overwhelm those seeking quality game reviews.

The Way It Was....

Where did we find game reviews back in the Golden Age of Roleplaying (the early 1980s) and the years before the internet?

Magazines: Periodicals provided my primary source for game reviews before the internet. The long-lamented Dragon Magazine provided me with plenty of intelligence about new games that might interest me; over the years I read other magazines for reviews, but few managed to cover the scope of Dragon. For years it not only provided game reviews but brief evaluations of fantasy and science fiction novels. Although one might raise concerns about corporate bias, most reviews covered a host of other publisher’s product. The advertisements in magazines could also pique one’s interest about upcoming games, showcasing their amazing artwork and tempting us with the potential for future game sessions.

Hobby Stores: Hanging out at the local hobby store (or book store, or game store, which seemed rare back in the early days) one could not only peruse the latest releases and judge for ourselves, but we could ask sometimes-knowledgeable staff for opinions or talk with fellow gamers we met there. Here we might also read magazine reviews without having to purchase the periodicals themselves; on one of my earliest purchases (the Dungeons & Dragons Expert boxed set) the clerk tossed in an outdated copy of Adventure Gaming magazine, which contained a comprehensive look at Chaosium’s Thieves’ World box, which quickly rose to the top of my gaming with list.

Friends: Game table chatter with buddies often veered toward product...what folks heard about, what they wanted, what they’d bought and were showing off. Their recommendations mattered because these players shared the same tastes in gaming. Their interest in a particular game indicated a potential new pursuit to bring to the table, one with seemingly guaranteed players.

Conventions: In my youth I rarely attended conventions. GenCon was too far an too expensive, an the only local convention. PointCon, at the West Point Military Academy, focused more on wargames. Still, over the years conventions have offered me a chance to check out new games first-hand, often beyond simply perusing the rules through chats with designers and occasional demo games. While these weren’t reviews or recommendations from other consumers, they gave me a firsthand look at potential purchases.

Were these always reliable, satisfying, and useful reviews? Of course not. But they served us well in their own way, offered us a reasonable number of resources to evaluate and make educated decisions on whether particular products were right for us. Like a good reviewer, a cautious consumer knows what they like content-wise and can discern a reviewer’s biases and critical failings. In most cases those offering reviews were accountable to others or face-to-face to the consumer. Those writing for magazines answered to an editor, who represented a publisher. Store clerks, gaming friends, and even those hawking games at conventions had an in-person relationship with potential consumers who could easily return if the review proved incorrect. This accountability – to whatever degree – imbued reviews with some semblance of authority or trust...something often lacking in the Internet Age’s easy anonymity and lack of accountability.

The Here and Now....

The internet enabled an explosion of creative minds who could publish whatever they wanted, all without the infrastructure of a traditional analog publishing house...including editors who could evaluate, revise, and even reject work that seemed unacceptable. Some view editors as “gate-keepers” who limited one’s freedom to produce whatever they wanted of whatever varied subject and quality. One naturally assumes the great material would float to the top of the internet deluge while the dreck settled to the murky layers below. Editors used to help with that job...now it’s determined by internet mobs sending things “viral,” clustering around products and producers like rabid cultists, fueling the ever-ephemeral immediacy of the internet before something else bursts into the public consciousness and knocks much of what came before into forgotten oblivion.

The deluge of content also let loose a similar torrent of commentary about that content. With little accountability to an editor or publisher and beholden only and directly to their media consumers, reviewers share their opinions across a multitude of platforms. Just like the roleplaying game publishing scene, traditional avenues for reviews have faded in the face of an onslaught of content – forums, websites, blogs, videos, podcasts – all offering widely varying formats, depth, coverage, and quality in their reviews. Instead of relying on trusted publishers, each consumer’s responsible for finding and evaluating internet “influencers” offering reviews. Individual gamers must now serve as their own curators of the review experience...and indeed of their overall experience on the internet.

One might think I’m rather angry with the internet – I’ll admit at time various aspects of it frustrate me – but I believe it’s enabled more positive changes than negative ones in the adventure gaming community. Even in the move from established review publishers to the onslaught of online reviewers I find something positive: where once we trusted someone else’s opinion and choice of review subject (and their authority in publishing it) we must now cultivate our own critical eye while scanning the vast, turbulent ocean of content. We ourselves must each be our own “editor” in the absence of competent editors holding reviewers to quality standards of criticism.

Where Do I Find My Reviews?

I rely on my “Internet Radar,” a combination of websites I monitor, some social media platforms, a forum or two, and particular resources catering to my interests. Not all of these provide reviews – many simply inform me of new products – but they’re enough to make a quick decision whether a new game piques my interest and deserves greater consideration for purchase. After the demise of Google Plus someone recommended consolidating my website browsing through an aggregator for my web browser, primarily filled with bookmarks from my gaming links. It’s proven a great time-saver and gets me the latest updates in a timely, easily digestible format. I also rely on the occasional personal recommendation, though these remain rare in these times of limited online engagement in the post-Google Plus era.

When examining my sources for reviews, several sites come to mind:

BoardGameGeek: Along with its roleplaying game sister site RPGGeek BGG provides a treasure trove of useful information about games, including images of components, reviews, and files for rules, alternate rules, quick reference sheets, and other resources. I can’t bring myself to sift through the aggregated news and announcements, but if I know what I’m looking for I can easily find it with the search function. Most reviews skew toward the comprehensive, higher-quality end of the spectrum; many include actual play reports to enhance comprehensive commentary on rules and gameplay. Note: I primarily check BGG over RPGGeek given how few roleplaying game products I purchase these days.

Tabletop Gaming News: Perhaps my most useful source for new product information, TGN offers material submitted from numerous gaming companies about new releases, including links to the company website. It covers the full range of board games, roleplaying games, an miniature wargames (hitting most of my gaming interests). Granted, this is more a line into my “Internet Radar” but it serves as starting point hearing about and evaluating new products. Most posts appearing in my aggregator I gloss over since product doesn’t fit any of my genres of interest, but some tempt me enough to read and pursue.

Game Nite Magazine: TGN always announces new issues of this online PDF magazine devoted primarily to board and card games. In-depth reviews last several pages each, provide excellent photography of components, and offer succinct recommendations at the end.

Amazon: Assuming Amazon offers a gaming product I’m considering I check it for a preview (if available), more details on the content and author, and, of course, reviews. Despite the notoriety of online reviews of any platform I find I glean the most useful information from Amazon reviews. I usually start with the worst ones, discounting any dismissing a product because it wasn’t what the buyer expected or it arrived damaged and couldn’t be replaced easily. Beyond that I look for clues that reveal critical positive and negative points, compared to my own expectations and gaming style.

Left by the Wayside: I have numerous websites I used to visit seeking product reviews that, alas, no longer satisfy me (if they’re around at all). I mourn the passing of two in particular. I still occasionally check the reviews at RPGNet, but their trickling pace of release and limited scope (rarely covering games that interest me) pales in comparison with review materials other online venues offer. The Dreams of Mythic Fantasy website compiled news of Old School Renaissance (OSR) resources every week; alas, James A. Smith, Jr., who worked so hard collecting, organizing, and presenting all that information, passed away on April 10, 2019. Other sites offer relatively comprehensive and sometimes overtly biased roundups of OSR content, but James was both comprehensive and objective. I will miss his contribution to my gaming radar and his services to OSR gamers. I’m afraid I have little time or patience for video and podcast reviews. I might turn to video reviews I find if I’m seriously on the fence about a product, but my love of print runs deep, being better able to scan and digest it.