Guest on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Podcast

Joe Sallen reached out to me to inquire if I’d be interested in appearing on his fine broadcast, and I accepted with gratitude. The episode has now aired, and I’m pleased to report that having heard it I believe I only come across as 93%-97% douchebag. Deception accomplished.

I’d like to thank Mr. Sallen and his partner Trent Hamm for being so gracious, especially in the face of my complete technical incompetence.

Here’s the link to the episode.

Wanting to Lose: Painful Cognitive Dissonance

Let’s start by observing that there’s an obligation, when playing most games, to try to win. Obviously this obligation doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it doesn’t trump your obligation to, for example, not cheat or not stab your fellow human in the neck–but it’s nonetheless binding all things being equal. Your average game ceases to function if the players play purely arbitrarily, or if someone is colluding to help another player win, or whatever. The other players will not be able to play the game as intended if the game state is being constantly undermined by someone who refuses to acknowledge this background consideration. I will not go into whether this is a social or moral obligation, but it’s there.

Now, most of the time, your obligation to try to win is not a motivating factor, because all things being equal people want to win. If you told me that I had an obligation to eat chocolate, that wouldn’t substantially alter my behaviour, because I already want to. My obligation to not be rude to people, on the other hand…

Sometimes, though, you want the game to end. Maybe the game is just bad, or perhaps it’s merely overstayed its welcome–even good games can do that. Then your obligation to try to win and your desire to no longer play can be very starkly at odds, especially in games where the end condition is someone winning (as opposed to a game that lasts a fixed number of rounds, or a game where the ending player isn’t necessarily the winning player). Many of the games I mentioned in my Zimby Mojo review can potentially fall victim to such circumstances–such as Cosmic Encounter or Munchkin.

Whether you like any of those games are not, when and if the game drags (and if you don’t like them they might start dragging pretty early in the game!) you’re in a very awkward position: your obligation starts to clash with your self-interest. Moral philosophers find this phenomenon interesting and illuminating (except for those misguided souls who argue that this conflict is impossible, like Aristotle), but I find this tension prevalent enough in ordinary life that I can safely say I want no part of it in my leisure activities. That’s not so say morality has no place in how to play a board game (q.v. the above examples of cheating or puncturing), but I vastly prefer my moral conflict to be minimized when I’m ostensibly doing something chiefly to enjoy myself.

That cognitive dissonance–between wanting to win because you have to, and wanting to lose because you want to move on–is such a unique sensation and one I find extremely characteristic. I don’t dislike all games that have ever featured it, but I never regard it as a good feature.

About Review Copies

So, let’s start with the obvious: that cold open for my Zimby Mojo review was a joke, both about myself and a little about some community attitudes towards review copies. Let me start, though, with some transparency.

I’ve been approached by a small number of publishers and/or designers with offers of review copies. I know, I was surprised too. When I started my channel, I had no pretensions towards review copies (that’s one of the reasons why I named it what I did), but then again I didn’t expect to get the number of subscribers I did–so clearly this has been a learning experience. Also, once again, I sincerely thank all of you for your support and your viewing time (really).

I decided to tell them the following, and it’s become my policy: I can’t guarantee I’ll review your game. I only review games when I think I can try to say something interesting. Honestly, were I to ever get a review copy of, say, a mediocre auction or worker-placement game, I don’t think I’d be able to say much of value. Other reviewers would, of course, both because they’re funnier and/or are inclined to do rules explanations; but that’s not my thing, and I’m not inclined to make it my thing. It’s not only bad or derivative games, either–people have been asking for a “Top X Games” video for some time, and I’ve been trying (really!) to find a way to do that in a way I think would be worthwhile for me–but I’m having trouble. Many games I think are best in class have proven difficult for me to present interesting, substantial analysis for (I’m also having trouble presenting analysis in a succinct enough way for such a video, but that’s a different story).

At any rate, I disclose up front that I can’t promise any airtime to a publisher when they send me a game. I assume this goes as a matter of course for when a publisher sends a game to the Big Names, but disclosure is important to me, especially when someone has taken the time to reach out to a nobody such as myself. I’ve had people then decide not to send me a game, but most have gone ahead.

As for the possibility that I’ll say bad things about the game, well, I assume they know that–if they’ve seen my stuff they know that I tend to criticize even games I love. And obviously, they’ve seen the title.

I did once try to solicit a publisher for a review copy, and that was only because the game was not yet available retail and I received quite a few requests. That game was Inis, and Asmodee sent me a very polite but very hard pass. I’m rather amazed they even bothered to respond, frankly.

That’s enough policy. Let’s talk trust.

I’ve written before that I think some concerns about reviewers are misplaced. But now let me directly address a common claim: that a positive review is quid pro quo for free stuff. I would be very surprised if that’s a common danger. First of all, as I said, there’s not a guarantee that the game will garner a review; certainly not in my case, and I imagine in the case of the Big Names (though I could be wrong). Second, once you’re at a certain point in the hobby, and definitely if you’re a collector of board games, getting random games in the mail is as much an inconvenience as it is a gift. Sometimes moreso. I don’t have room or (more importantly) time for a random game. Seriously, pick a random game in the BGG database, and odds are excellent that I don’t want to play it, much less own it. Besides which, there is no correlation between negative reviews and a cessation of review copies that I know of, either historical, threatened, or implied. As I said in my review, Jim Felli sent me Zimby Mojo even though he knew I didn’t like his previous design–being the dedicated community guy that he is, he just monitors the ratings on BGG and found out before he mailed me Zimby Mojo. Third, I try to do reviews that are the least susceptible to schilling, but that’s a separate topic.

I do promise to continue to disclose whenever I’m reviewing a review copy. That seems like a reasonable expectation from a reviewer. And there are games I wouldn’t be willing to review because of a conflict of interest–a game designed or published by a personal friend, for example, is straight out. I similarly try to minimize my contact with a publisher or designer prior to reviewing their game because I’d like to minimize personal bias an try to assure that my experience with the game is as close as possible to that of any other consumer.

I do realize that I’m not like another consumer when I review a game I got for free, though. I am sensitive to that. The best tool is thus disclosure, and that’s why I keep writing stuff like this.

Physical Design and Codex

Codex, as I said in my review, gets a lot of things very right. I briefly mention that the physical design of the binders is very well done; David Sirlin said it was a priority for him to make sure that the custom pockets made removing and inserting cards easy, and I think he succeeded admirably.

Indeed, the binders are arguably necessary to play the game at all (in its default 3 heroes mode). Without them the game would be pretty much unplayable. Not being able to glance at all your available builds would make the decision of which cards to add to your deck tedious in the extreme. I thus find it unfortunate that the expansions will not be including binders. As it stands, you either buy the Deluxe version (as of this writing still available from Sirlin Games’ online store) or you get the Core Set and its two eventual expansions (available soon). The Deluxe set is, to put it mildly, costly, but there is a significant downside to waiting and getting everything piecemeal: you won’t get more binders.

The notion of having to remove all your cards (in the standard configuration, from 45 pockets) and put in new ones from your binder every time you want to play a new color strikes me as tedious and unpleasant. One gets the impression that Mr. Sirlin prides himself on designing games that have above-average replayability, but one also gets the impression that a virtue of games with a plurality of asymmetric factions is that you can try different things. What the Core Set + expansions version offers, therefore, is a game whose virtue is being undermined by its physical limitations. And that’s unfortunate, because the joy of trying a new color shouldn’t face the obstacle of the tedium of some card wrangling. It’s doubly unfortunate since some of the game’s innovations are only possible due to its clever and thoughtful binders.

I would contrast this with Mage Wars. Mage Wars uses binders because your hand-equivalent is huge, and you can play pretty much any card in your binder. I never found a good organizational scheme that allowed me to intuit what my deck consisted of in Mage Wars, and while I enjoyed the game I felt that the physical design was always holding me back.

I always appreciate it when clever use of physical components allows a game to do neat stuff. I’m not referring here to mere usability, though that is certainly a valuable asset for a game to have. I’m referring instead to game mechanics that function only because of the physical design of a thing. Dexterity games, obviously, do this as a matter of course. Glory to Rome was probably the first game I played that leveraged card layout in a way that let cards be multi-use in a novel way, and Innovation does a similar thing with its splaying mechanic (indeed, whenever I play Innovation I ignore the actual victory conditions and instead just try to have all my stacks splayed; I have more fun, and am actually more successful, that way). I especially appreciate it when dice games do this. Many dice games have custom dice that don’t actually do anything that a d6 isn’t already doing; 6 unique possible results. The way Pandemic: The Cure uses custom dice to juke the probability of certain diseases appearing in certain regions pleases me a great deal.

I have the Deluxe edition, and while it was expensive I’m glad I have the extra binders. While Sirlin Games promised that the white, blue, purple, and black binders would be Kickstarter-exclusive, I don’t perceive any inhibition to them selling generic binders (or extra copies of the green and red ones in the Core Set). Please note that I am in no way suggesting that this was anything remotely resembling an extortionate market strategy; indeed the Deluxe Set was a limited print run, so I’m far more inclined to think that this was the result of a genuine attempt to keep the price of the expansions down.

But everyone should be able to get those binders. Binders make the game sing.