I love gaming, and spend way too much time and money doing it, but not all games are created equal. Some of my more popular blog posts have been my game reviews. Let’s go through what I look for in a game, and what I want in each area.
When I examine a board game, I look at four areas: mechanics, theme, instructions, and execution.
Mechanics-Board games are applying logic and people skills to better handling a situation compared to your competitors. The way that logic works is the mechanics- mechanics covers how a game works. Be it a deck building game, area control, dice rolls, randomocracy, or something mixed between everything, this can really make or break a game. I like when I see several dimensions of mechanics at play. Games like Tiny Epic Kingdoms or Trains take two or more simple mechanics and mix them into something better like flour and eggs making a cake. Some games do this amazingly well like Rococo. Some games fail at doing something as basic as rummy….LOOKING RIGHT AT YOU TENTICAL BENTO! If a game feels like it runs smoothly, then that game will most likely get a five. If the game runs like a car on its last legs about to die on a bumpy road, that game will most likely be a one or less.
Theme-Theme is the story of a game. Chess is a war between two kingdoms. Rococo is different dressmakers vying for the most prestige at a ball. Besides beating your friends at a game, this is the thing that will keep you playing. If you lose the Lord of the Rings card game, you’ve not only lost, but the world will be plunged into darkness! But, theme is hard to make happen. It might just be a simple intro story like in Lost Legends, or it might be an ever pervasive thing that winds through the whole game like Arkham Horror. Weaving a story into the theme is the height of game design for me. Games that have tons of story like Eldritch Horror are great games that deserve a five for theme, while some games like euchre don’t even score a one as there is no story to the game. As the amount of story you want is a game varies from person to person, this is consequently one of the most subject portions of my scoring.
Instructions-I’m a pretty smart guy. I got me a PhD and everything! (cue people pointing out all the grammar and spelling mistakes….) But, if you can’t tell me how to play your magnum opus of a game, then that game is crap to me. Getting your point across is important, but also how you do it is really key. If you hit me with a wall of text in size 4 fonts on a plain white sheet of paper, then I’m going to hate you. What you write has to be entertaining and informative while still being easy and fun to read. Top marks go to games like Dungeon Petz where not only are the rules taught with lots of pictures, but there are lots of small jokes for the players. Games like CO2 are horrible. It is only a few pictures with several pages of just black text in three columns on white pages. Also, if your rules are flat out wrong like pointing to a card that says weapon and discussing how armor works, you are going to make me very mad! The original rules for The Lord of the Rings Dice Game had massive misprints that completely broke the game. Needless to say the online rules were much better. Pictures say a thousand words, as well as, breaking up the text. Even if I can play your game after reading your rules, your rules still have to serve as a quick reference. If I can’t find the rules I need even after a few plays, then those rules are still bad. Layout, text size, text type, word choice, easy of readability, and pictures really define this section.
Execution-Here is my kind of catch all. This encompasses some of the instruction that you might see on cards, the art on all the components, component quality, and even the box. Execution is easy to mess up. If the game is about shuffling cards, and you buy the cheapest cards you can find, then the cards will break/fold/tear and the game is crap. Fantasy Flight games is the king of game execution. Their games have lots of nice tokens with good quality cards. Some games fall apart in the box like my copy of Machina Arcana which had a few warped ties and the cardboard standees for the monsters that broke or bent. This won’t kill a game, but it will make the game more or less fun to play depending on the quality of what you get to play with.
Role Playing Games
RPG’s cover paradoxically more and less ground than a board game. This category covers both a completely new game that is its own thing while also covering a short adventure for an established game. I tend to cover both roughly the same, but some reviews are much longer because of what I have to cover. Let’s look at the pieces that are out there. I roughly divide my reviews on games into: mechanics or crunch, theme or fluff, and execution.
Mechanics or Crunch-The real solids of an RPG is its mechanics. This is the part you will argue over with your GM. I judge an RPG based on how well the mechanics work by themselves or work with the existing rules. I also tend to judge the mechanics of how well the work with the story. RPGs have to have much more focus on the story than a board game does. Players are much more ok with just rolling dice in a Shoots in Ladders to decide how their characters move, but no role playing game person wants to play a game where all their actions are completely out of their hands without some story behind it. Some mechanics are amazing like the simplicity of Dungeons and Dragons 5e, and those systems earn the fives I give them. Some systems are just way to much crap like Fatal (DON’T, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LOOK THAT UP!).
Theme or Fluff-If something is the crunch, then the other side has to be the fluffy bits. Theme and story are the story you play in. You can play a simple game where you just go around and kill monsters by rolling a die and adding a number, but you won’t play that for weeks on end with your friends. A great story is what draws players back to the table. I judge this aspect of the story by how well the story is written and how involved I get in that story. I love when a story draws you in and won’t let you go. I really enjoy the theme of the second part of the Skull and Shackles adventure path. The whole adventure path is about being a pirate, and this whole module is about having a ship, raiding other ships and being a pirate. Weak stories just turn your players away and bore them to tears. If you can’t keep me, the GM, in your story, then how can I be expected to keep my players in your story?
Execution-As with board games, this tends to be a catch all for a lot of little things. Text size, art, layout, spacing, font, tables of information, and even the paper quality all factor into this score. I really like how the Dungeons and Dragons 5e players hand book is laid out. For a lot of RPG’s, I know I’m basically reading a text book about a place that doesn’t exist. Here is where you keep me reading. Giving me a boring list of places with little regard to art or spacing will drive me away in a flash.
This is how I judge the games I play. I’d also like to make an aside. I tend to give higher scores than most reviewers. There are multiple reasons for that. For one, I tend to like most of the games I play. I don’t often read bad RPGs or play horrible board games. I tend to see the best out there, but some games are bad, and I know it. And another major factor is I don’t have time to tell my readers about the bad stuff out there. I review one RPG and one board game a week. Reading through 300+ pages of a horrible RPG is not only a poor investment of time; it robs me of time to read and do the things I like. I have way too many stacks of good games and RPGs to read and play that I can’t waste the time to tell you about any bad ones. Oh, I do play them, and sometimes I do talk about them. But, for the most part, I just don’t have the time to spend 3-4 hours playing a bad game/10+ hours to read and play a bad RPG, and hour to write about it, an hour to (poorly) edit my writing about it, and an hour to post that around the internet. If I’m talking about your product, then most likely I like what I see. If I don’t, and you know I’ve seen your stuff, then maybe there is a problem we should discuss.
How about you? How do you evaluate the games that come across your desk?