Everyone, everywhere in the world with the least exposure to modern media will, at some time or other, have engaged in a conversation along the lines of picking their top ten of something, or perhaps rating films, books or albums out of ten. It’s a natural instinct to want to list, compare and rate things. But unsurprisingly we board gamers tend to indulge it to an unnatural degree: it’s almost become a sub-hobby in and of itself and has spawned countless hours of online effort and discussion. Look at the popularity of boardgamegeek’s “geeklist” feature for example, or the fact that the enfent terrible of game journalism, Micheal Barnes, has taken to structuring many of his articles around lists.
However all those people who’ve engaged in that type of conversation have also run up against a similar barrier, although many may not have realised it, which is that it’s difficult to impossible to slap an objective number on something as subjective as taste. It gets worse because people consume large quantities of books or films or albums over the course of their lives and comparing their relative merits, or even remembering favourites that you might only have has access to a couple of times becomes all but impossible. Same goes with board games, especially now that we’re seeing a market glut of quickly designed and published games in the wake of the German design revolution. It’s common to see people who’ve played and attempted to rate a hundred or more board games, and a few have even reached a thousand.
But being gamer types, bright and given over to analysis and critical thinking we’ve spotted these sorts of issues in advance and, generally, when we rate items we’re given some sort of clarification as to what these sorts of ratings are supposed to mean in order that we can apply some vague sort of consistent approach to rating our collections. We can’t just do the simple thing and “rate it by fun” because of the reasons I’ve outlined above. It even boils down to individuals: I used to use a five-star rating system in my reviews in which I classified games depending on how I’d behave in a group when trying to pick games ranging from “always want to play without question” through to “would lobby hard to play” then “would not suggest but would happily play as a group choice”, “would lobby against but accept as a group choice” and finally “would rather walk away than play again”. That worked for me, but it might not work for you. Hence trying to apply some guidelines to the choice of rating leads us into a labyrinthine nightmare of conflicting semantics and personal taste.
Boardgamegeek for example tries to use a method a bit similar to my own but which is even more subjective, presumably in the interests of trying to get consensus from its user base. The idea is that you base your rating on how frequently you want to play the game. The trouble is that of course your desire to play any particular title is influenced strongly by your group - I, for example, enjoy a lot of historical war games but I know virtually no-one who is interested enough in that sort of material to play them face-to-face with me. So I play online and when I go out to game groups I don’t normally bother to take my wargames with me. Favourites also change over time and it’s not realistic to expect people to re-rate games as their tastes change, and nor is it entirely fair to the games themselves, since you may have no desire to play a game you’ve already played fifty times again, but that hardly makes it a bad game for a neophyte player! There’s also another issue which is, of course, that although you can offer some guidelines you can’t force people to follow them. So on boardgamegeek you’ve got people who try and follow the rules, people who “rate by fun” and people who make up their own ratings system and advertise it in their profile and rather foolishly assume that people will bother to read it, as I once did. Indeed exactly these sorts of issues were partly what inspired me to eventually stop rating games as part of my reviews and rely on the tone and pace of the writing to convey my feelings instead.
And so we come to where we actually are: boardgameinfo. Having appreciated, no doubt, the exact same problems I’ve outline here, they’ve tried to improve on matters by splitting the “out of ten” rating into five for “style” (effectively a combination of visual design and approachability) and five for “substance” (enjoyment and strategic depth) to get a total. This is a much better approach although not without its flaws - personally I find devoting half the rating to “style” is a bit much: it’s just not quite that important to me.
So if I were going to invent a detailed rating system of my own, how would I do it? Well I’d stick with the BGI invention of trying to break it down a bit further into categories and giving each a score, and what’s more I’d stick with the “substance” concept as a base and give it 1-5. What they label as style I’d trim back to 1-2, a point each for visual design and approachability. That leaves us with three more points to find. Another 1-2 should come from narrative and thematic cohesion, which might sound like a personal tilt against abstracts (I don’t like abstracts) but I’d argue that abstracts can certainly have some narrative and that “cohesion” can include no theme at all: that’s better than games that slap a theme on the top of abstract mechanics and then fail to deliver. The final point I’d give for something that’s hard to define but which you could call “rules tightness”. This isn’t ease of understanding but the sense that a design isn’t open to abuse from rules lawyer-types: there are quite a number of games such as Fury of Dracula and other semi and fully co-operative games that work extremely well when either house-ruled or when played with an open-minded group but which have exploitable “gamey” flaws that can cause a session to be ruined by someone in the know and determined to win. Again, sounds like a bit of a personal issue but I’d argue that in an age where strategy tips for pretty much every popular game are freely available on the internet, and online organisation makes it more likely you’ll be playing with a dedicated gaming group rather than just your friends, this has become an important issue.
Of course if no-one can be bothered to read the simple boardgamegeek guidelines, no-one is going to bother reading mine. But I think it gives a general sense of how most gamers would break down their ten point ratings, give a point here or there.
I’ve devoted a lot of space to this issue now. To wrap up I think it’s worthwhile considering why I think this is important above and beyond my natural nerdy desire to classify and clarify with which we opened the piece. The reason is that, as I said before, we live in an age with an absolute glut of games to choose from at the same time as the economic conditions mean we’ve got less to spend. We need help to pick games that we’re really going to enjoy and get use out of from the massive selection before us. Written reviews are very helpful, of course, but mass opinion - in the form of ratings - is perhaps even more so. So getting the ratings right in the first place is important, and the place it starts is with you: have you checked the rating guidelines on your favourite gaming site lately?