Alright, here we go – I’m writing about board games.
While I alluded to this in my COVID-inspired ‘A New Chapter for ccpopculture’ post, this time I committing. These new pieces – tentatively titled Board Game Bits, which may even become its own site at some point – will focus on discrete aspects of a board game. By focusing in one particular mechanic, thematic element, or even a single component, I’m going to unpack what works (or what doesn’t) and what I like (or what I don’t like) about the board game in question.
We’ll get into those pieces soon enough. But before I begin writing about board games, I want to write about writing about board games. This direction for the site reflects ccpopculture’s original intent, which was a loose collection of pop culture “stuff” I was engaging with: concerts, games, books, television and, of course, movies. Though the latter eventually dominated the site, my shift back to a more holistic approach makes sense in light of ccpopculture’s initial incarnation as a personal blog with a critical eye.
The problem is that board games don’t fit neatly into the same critical paradigm as these aforementioned texts. To clarify: what made me progress from short blog posts to semi-professional film writing was a belief that, to be frank, I could do better than a lot of what was out there. This is perhaps less of an issue nowadays, but circa 2012 the recap model of reviewing was dominant in mid-tier publications. What this meant that many reviews were dominated by Wikipedia-esque plot synopses with a side of opinions at the expense of full-throated criticism. The majority of my movie reviews were driven by an avoidance of story summaries (along with a preponderance of parentheticals, naturally).
That approach isn’t as effective when it comes to board games, and it’s taken me a little while to unpack why. The equivalent of a plot synopsis in a board game review would be a summary of the game’s rules and components: see the emblematic form of a Dice Tower review for what I’m taking about, a mode frequently and clumsily replicated in BoardGameGeek forums everywhere. Too many middling board game reviews spend pages and pages dutifully summarising the ruleset before concluding with a half-hearted ‘it was pretty fun I suppose, 6 out of 10.’
The natural solution would be seemingly obvious; ditch the mechanics, cut the components, get to the good stuff. And yet – I’m choosing an approach that focuses solely on the former. Why? Because board games are unique in comparison to concerts, books or movies. Other than the most generic worker placement/polyomino games, there are very few games that you could meaningfully discuss without a cursory understanding of the mechanics. Even the best board game reviewers – think ThinkerThemer, No Pun Included and, of course, Shut Up and Sit Down – devote at least a portion (if not the whole hog) to rules explanations.
If you have a passing familiarity with board game media, you might note that the three aforementioned review sites all focus primarily on audiovisual media. That makes sense. Explaining the mechanics of a visual, tactile experience in written form is hard; a video clarifies the confusion. I’ve even found myself drawn to board game podcasts – this coming from a staunchly anti-podcast contrarian – because a conversationcan convey the experience of a board game in ways that a written review can, again, struggle to achieve.
My solution, then, stems from the inadequacies of the written form at encapsulating board games. I don’t want to write extensive rules summaries; nor am I really interested in splashing out a high-end camera and some better skin treatment to move to YouTube. Instead, I’m going to narrow the focus. First and foremost, I’m not interested in consumer advice; I never have been – I want to be a critic more so than a ‘reviewer’, if that distinction makes any sense. By focusing on the individual aspects of a game – the minor innovations that make it shine, the misguided features that make it fail – I can hopefully get into the meat of criticism without having to deal with the aforementioned whole hog.
My initial modus operandi – and this will no doubt mutate over time – is to focus on advice that’s accessible to anyone (so trying to avoid or at least explain board game jargon as much as possible) but that’s primarily useful to hobbyist board gamers. I’m not interested in trying to tell you whether, say, A Feast for Odin is a game you’ll enjoy, because I’m convinced the best way to answer that question is to watch a playthrough of the game (or simply play it yourself). But what A Feast for Odin does to make it stand out from its worker placement, resource collection peers? That’s something I want to unpack.
(Is ‘worker placement’ already board game jargon? Maybe!)
I have a few games in mind to cover initially. Games I love, like Dune Imperium – and why it’s not as intuitive as I would like. Games I like, such as Quacks of Quedlinburg and how it encourages risky, exciting plays. And I’ll even explore games like Gùgōng that I merely tolerate, and why it doesn’t hit the spot…though to be totally honest, they’ll be comparatively rarely as I genuinely like most board games I’ve played! And ultimately, that’s what this comes down to: an opportunity to share my passion for this medium, and try and unpack why board games are so exciting.