The Confusing Hierarchy of the Board Game Community

This morning I received a text asking if I could come up with an emergency blog post for today. As my kids are (maybe) asleep, I figured I’d sit down to see what I could come up with. Earlier this morning I asked for a topic. Someone suggested I write about my biggest disappointments in gaming. I could do that, but honestly, I’d have to give it some thought. My biggest disappointments involving games aren’t usually the games themselves but the experiences I have playing them. As I’ve learned, people make or break a game. So, while I have filed this topic away for a rainy day, I thought I would write about something a little more controversial-ish: the hierarchy of the board game world.

Now, this hierarchy is totally my perspective obviously. I’ve talked with a few people who seem to echo my sentiments, but as far as I know, it’s not the prevailing thought. And, if it happens to be, sorry for boring you with what you’re about to read. Actually. Forget it. Just stop here if it is.

To kick us off, I want to play a little game. Below you will find a bunch of pictures of people. We’re going to do a little Who’s Who of Board Games if you will. There will be designers, publishers, and media people. For those of you who are wondering, my selection process was to ask the fine people of the twitter for the “first [category] that comes to mind” and went from there.

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Well, how’d you do? How many publishers did you know? How many designers? Reviewers? How many do you have no clue who they are? (The answers are way at the bottom of this article because cheaters.)

Now, here’s where my possibly-not-new-train-train-of-thought comes in. I’m going to go out on a limb (and probably not all that far) and guess that the people you knew the most of were the reviewers. Am I right? I figured.

It’s not unheard of that you are most familiar with the reviewers. After all, they are the ones who are putting themselves out there. They’re on video. They record podcasts. They may even write the occasional blog post or two. But, really, what else do they do? Bring your attention to a game? Unfairly sway your judgement on one because you’re not considering the context in which they speak?

Take me for example. How much do you know about what drives my decision to be so vocal in the board game community? I’m very particular in my gaming habits. I only like to game with certain types of people, and I tend to gravitate towards heavier games. Now, I realize I talk about a wide variety of games in my Spooning Meeples videos. I personally purchased 98% of the games that I talk about on there. Some of them, like my Postcards from the Gathering video, are games I don’t own but felt comfortable talking about because of a little thing called research. Truth be told, that video was specifically to highlight the torture my friends (so called) bestowed upon me while they were there and I wasn’t, but I digress. My gaming life is naturally extremely varied, and it makes sense that my videos reflect that.

Speaking of videos, why do I talk about the games I talk about? Well, first let me tell you why I talk about games at all. I’m at home AAALLLLLLLLL day with two toddlers. They’re eighteen months apart, and they’re a lot of work. Playing games is an outlet for me to be sure. I get to be loud and sassy and use my brain for something other than counting to ten or trying to guess what ails them at any given moment. I write about games because I like to write. I love it actually. I started doing Spooning Meeples because someone suggested it. Fortunately, it has turned out to be another creative outlet for me, talking about one of the hobbies I enjoy the most in the world. Would I still be doing it if no one cared? Well, I’d argue very few people do anyway, but the answer is yes. Maybe not the video because that’s more community-based than the writing (and it takes a heck of a lot more time to create), but I’d definitely still be writing about games.

All right. Back to why I talk about the games I talk about. It’s obvious isn’t it? Because I like them. Not always though. I did talk about Quarriors in a video, and I could throw that game in a blender without thinking twice, but my kid likes it, so I play it with him. Anyway. I try to pick a topic that is relevant based on a holiday or buzz on the twitter or whatever, and I talk about games that I enjoy playing. I may say “I love this game” or something to that effect in the video, but my purpose isn’t to tell you that I love it. My purpose is to briefly expose you to a game you might not have otherwise come across. I, and I mean this, truly want you to decide whether it’s something you would enjoy playing and seek it out. Of course, seeking it out in my book means that you’ll go to Board Game Geek – the best place to get board game information hands down I don’t care what anyone else says – and read about, watch about, look at pictures, familiarize yourself as much as possible with it and make the decision to play or purchase or kill it with fire on your own. Because, at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with it. I already own it, so I’m stuck with my bad decisions and poor taste.

I know what you’re thinking. What the hell does all this have to do with the board game hierarchy I was talking about before my tangent? It’s simple. Do you know that much about the reviewers you subscribe to? Why are they doing what they do? How ethical are they in their reviews? Can they be ethical if they’re accepting payment for their efforts?

I’ve already talked about how my Gen Con experience was surreal. People came up to me knowing who I was. Weirder still, they were being nice to me. It blows my mind. People were seeking me out because of the silly little things I do on the internet to keep my brain from turning into toddler mush. I’m nobody, and I had this reaction. What blew my mind even more was the amount of love “real” reviewers and media people were getting – rahdo, Joel Eddy, Tom Vasel, Rodney Smith, Lance Myxter. People were falling all over themselves to play a game with them or take a picture or smell their cologne or stroke their beard. It was bizarre. I’ll admit to being a bit of a radho fangirl hence standing in line to buy a game he wasn’t even going to keep! Again, I digress. What amazes me about the “Oh my God that’s [enter reviewer’s name here]” is that they’re just reviewers. They simply talk about a game. OK. Rodney does more than talk. He presents! Anyway. Whether presenting or talking, that’s all it really is: hot air.

I can’t tell you how many times I walked by Antoine Bauza just sitting there at Gen Con all by his lonesome. He was there with the sole purpose of being available to his fans, yet there was rarely people around when I walked by. Bruno Cathala was also there. If he wasn’t teaching Five Tribes, would anyone even have bothered to buy the man a drink or hold the door open for him? Probably not. And, it’s bullshit.

Moreover, there are people like Nigel and Lloyd Pyne who fall under both the publisher and designer umbrella who participate in an online league for oddball Aeronauts weekly. They are playing their game with whoever wants to participate. Online. Weekly. How many people are taking advantage of this opportunity? Very little at the moment, and it’s a shame. When a designer makes themselves available, people should be chomping at the bit. Yet, people are still more excited to play games with their favorite reviewer.

In our lovely little board gaming world filled with bubbles and sunshine, the reviewers are the first in the hearts and minds of board gamers. Then designers. Then, maybe, a publisher. Sure, publishers are a little more tricky because they’re all business in the front, but they’re still providing a valuable service. One could argue that without them, designers wouldn’t matter because games wouldn’t be made ergo reviewers wouldn’t matter because there’d be nothing to talk about other than the weather and the state of the roads.

Don’t buy my publisher argument? That’s fine. Some publishers, usually from smaller companies, i.e. James Mathe from Minion Games or Jamey Stegmaier from Stonemaier Games, are very translucent and available. Mathe runes several active groups on Facebook on top having a blog that serves as a resource for many and Stegmaier’s blog is equally as accessible and informative. Then, of course there’s people like Ignacy Trzewiczek who, despite his questionable English abilities, is making a concerted effort to connect with the people who love his games. For the record, I admire Ignacy immensely for taking on the enormous task of reaching people in a second language. I couldn’t do it; I’ve barely mastered the English language myself.

I’m not saying that reviewers in general aren’t accessible. Some people are incredibly active on the twitter or in guilds or on the forums in BGG. Again, I think these tend to be smaller people though. Because, for some reason that escapes me, if a reviewer has an opinion that differs from “the people”, he may as well kiss his viability as a reviewer goodbye.

And, that brings me to this point. What is wrong with a dissenting opinion? I’d rather have someone be very vocal about what they love and what they hate than always have to toe the line all because they’re afraid (and maybe they’re not really afraid but I can’t think of a better term) of internet trolls waiting to pounce and defame/demorazlie/de-whatever-the-point-of-being-a-troll-is. As a matter of fact, liking a game is inconsequential. It doesn’t help you at all to know someone likes a game. Good for them. Up top. Why do they like it? Even better, why do they hate it? What people should be looking for is a reviewer who can articulate the reasons a game works or doesn’t and then be able to translate that into what they personally like about a game. The onus is on the gamer not the reviewer or designer or publisher. Let them say/design/publish what they want. You can play what you want.

I may have shifted gears just there, but maybe not as much as I thought. I started out writing this thinking about why Reviewers > Designers > Publishers. Now that we’re here, I wonder why everyone holds reviewers to the higher standards. Sure there are some publishers that are horrendously inept and can’t seem to get anything out on time or to the quality promised (I’m not just talking Game Salute either).

Actually, you know what, let’s take minute to talk about Game Salute. They are historically, epically bad at delivering on their commitments. It could simply be the incompetence of the person in charge, or it could be a combination of the insanity that is Kickstarter, but I think that’s a story for a different day. Yet, despite their inability to produce the things they’ve already been paid for in a timely manner, people keep backing games they kickstart. I’m guilty of this. Enter Luchador! Twice. However, people lose their flippin’ minds whenever Tom Vasel says something negative about a game, i.e. Hawaii or Lagoon. Maybe he just doesn’t like tropical places. Although, he does live in Florida, so that can’t be it. In fairness, he may be a little dramatic at times, but it’s his opinion; he’s entitled to them. Even when I did an entire video on Ameritrash games that I enjoy playing, people jumped all over me for my use of the word “Ameritrash”. It’s asinine. Not liking a game isn’t a problem. Crappy customer service is.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a million more times: this hobby of ours, while great, is backwards. The people who do all the work get very little of the credit. Yeah, people will toss Feld around on the twitter like hotcakes, but if he needed help carrying bags down the street, would you stop to ask him if he needed help? Would you even know it was him? On the flip side, if you saw your favorite reviewer walking out of a convention with bags of games, are you stopping to hold the door for them? Unless you’re holding the door for everyone, do you see a problem with this?

Feld & Nickell
Who do you recognize in this image? Reposted from Twitter with permission.

Speaking of bags of games, it’s illegal for college athletes to be given kickbacks. Why isn’t there some sort of monitoring organization for reviewer kickbacks? How many games were they given with expectation that it would be reviewed? Is saying “I don’t review games I don’t like, so you can send it to me, but if I don’t like it, I won’t review it” enough? Should all reviewers have some sort of ethics (there’s that pesky word again) policy outlining their standard operating procedure? Is it unfair of them to take a game knowing full well they have no intention of playing it? Will they even be able to play it enough to give it its full rundown? Worse, are they reviewing it when they haven’t played it at all but simply read the rules?

This is where it all gets hazy for me. I tend to talk about games I own or have personal experience playing. I have been sent games to review, and those reviews haven’t always been favorable. I am nothing compared to the big dogs, and I’m okay with that. Not to sound too much like Felicia Day, but I am honestly hesitant to publish this article because I know people from all branches of the industry (some I’d even say I’m on friendly terms with surprisingly). For some reason, I felt the need to write this. When I started, I wasn’t sure where it was going. I have a deep love and respect for this cardboard-based hobby of mine. It angers me when I hop on the twitter and participate in discussion, albeit limited discussion, with morons. My allegiance isn’t to any one reviewer; I use them all for various reasons. My allegiance isn’t to any one designer; so many of them make great games. My allegiance isn’t to any one publisher; there are reasons to buy from them all. My allegiance is to the games and the experiences they create.

And, this is why our community is weird. If this were Hollywood, the designers would be the movie stars because they’re the ones creating the magic. People would be screaming like teenagers, autograph books in hand, passing out because Nuno Sentieiro touched their hand. I sure would. Instead, our community idolizes the Siskel and Eberts, who by the way, were allowed to be as curmudgeony as they pleased. Movie studios still made movies. Actors still had jobs. Fans still went nuts when their favorite entertainer rolled up to the red carpet.

Here are the answers:

  1. Ignacy Trzewiczek – Publisher, Portal Games
  2. Erin Ryan (now LaFlamme?) – Reviewer, Cardboard Republic
  3. Uwe Rosenberg – Designer – Agricola et al.
  4. Ryan Metzler – Reviewer – The Dice Tower Network
  5. John Zinser – CEO, AEG
  6. Tom Vasel – Reviewer, The Dice Tower Network
  7. Maureen Hiron – Designer, 7 Ate 9
  8. Stéphane Carville – Managing Partner, Asmodee
  9. Lance Myxter – Reviewer, Undead Viking
  10. Mark Herman – Designer, Across Suez
  11. Richard Ham – Reviewer, rahdo
  12. Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback – Designers, Fleet
  13. W Eric Martin – Board Game News, BGG
  14. Reiner Knizia – Designer, Tigris & Euphrates
  15. Eric Lang – Designer, Quarriors!
  16. Antoine Buaza – Designer, 7 Wonders
  17. Donald Vaccarino – Designer, Dominion
  18. Hunter Shelburne – Reviewer, Weaponsgrade Tabletop
  19. Mac Gerdts – Designer, Navegador
  20. Joel Eddy – Reviewer, Drive Thru Review

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