Flash of Steel header image 2

Old Games Journalism at its best

May 6th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

Now that E3 is around the corner, we can expect a lot more bloggish criticism of how the game media does its job. And where E3 is concerned, there are a lot of valid issues. The coverage is often shallow, focused on glitzy presentations and chasing the same two or three stories.

These reports will blend into a call for greater analysis of games – some want more business stories, some want developer interviews, some want cultural critique and others want more personal insights about game culture from a gamer perspective (so-called New Games Journalism).

Me? I’d be happy to read an article like this once a month (hat tip to Bruce Geryk). Chris Farrell plays a lot of boardgames and has a lot of opinions on them. But his articles aren’t just the typical good/bad stuff you find on most blogs (including my own from time to time). And this article on card deck size and what it tells you about game design has one brilliant insight that too many game critics ignore.

Many game design decisions have nothing to do with game design.

Finding that a wide range of games from the same publisher have decks of the exact same size, Farrell writes:

I would consider it a monumental coincidence if all 10 of these games, from two-player single-deck games to two-player individual-deck games to multi-player games, covering conflicts from the Reformation to the Cold War, with game lengths running from 3 to 20 turns, all just happened to have worked out such that they really required 110 cards to work properly. I find it far more likely that the designers were told, “you’ve got 110 cards to work with on the press sheet”, and they used all these slots up by picking their 110 favorite events from the period and figuring out how to express them in game terms.

This type of observation has major consequences for the utility of certain cards, player learning curves and information management. Too many cards that do too little can make a game drag out too long or stick one player with an underpowered hand. On the obverse side, what ideas are unexplored because of a hard limit on deck size.

See how easy it is? Only it can’t be that easy, since this sort of obvious insight can be applied to computer game criticism but often isn’t. And I’m as guilty as the next guy/gal – my commentary on the level of this single piece is few and far between. This could not have been a difficult item for Farrell to write, but sometimes I think that this basic design analysis gets lost in writers’ efforts to make things look more complicated than they really are.

Most of Farrell’s blog is good, and is useful even if you don’t play boardgames. His design comments are top notch and have given me things to look for in computer strategy games.

So maybe we don’t need a revolution in gaming criticism; we just need more people to focus on the games themselves at a very basic level.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael A.

    All hail Farrell. He is, by far, the most insightful reviewer of boardgames on the WWW. It is good to see that he has acquired yet another disciple. ;)

  • Bruce

    Farrell is indeed the king. He’s a great counterpoint to some of the less discriminating but prolific reviewers, like Tom Vasel. Actually, he’s on a completely different level.