The limitations of wargame reviews are manifold. For one, tastes vary. For another thing, many wargame reviews get published after a hasty period spent within the confines of the honeymoon period for any title. The simple fact is that every review is going to have its issues, but determining what your limitations for appreciating (or not) those reviews is what matters most.
I have no patience for sponsored content outside of previews. Any sense of credibility is lost for me when someone gets a title for free and produces a review for that title. Especially since the cost of games has grown. If gifts were not an issue than they’d be standard fare outside of the gaming world, but increasingly companies, local, state, and federal government employees are banned from accepting anything outside of a ‘de minimis’ gift. Wargames are expensive at their MSRP value and after market values, as a result they are clearly not de minimis by any interpretation.
The ONE exception I hold for this is when a reviewed both declares up front that the publisher provided the game and then subsequently indicates that they will be either sending the game back to the publisher or passing it along to fans of their website, youtube channel as a part of a promotional event. Anything else is suspect in my eyes.
Solitaire Reviews of multiplayer games
Let’s face it, a lot of wargamers enjoy playing games in ‘solo mode’ even when the game is not a solitaire title. In fact, there are even systems games with 3+ players that folks have devised and shared online. Wargaming is a niche hobby, so bringing a game with a 20+ page rulebook to game night at the local boardgame store is unlikely to yield many (if any) takers. So, it stands to reason that solo play will result in content creation including reviews.
First, let’s get something out the way: Solitaire playthrough of a multiplayer game will not yield that same insights as playing opposed. More on the weaknesses of multiplayer reviews later though.
Solitaire play dwells solidly in the world of confirmation bias. In effect, the reviewer bought the game because they thought they’d like it. If it was particularly expensive…then it’s even more likely that they’ll crave the game being worth their money and anticipation. As a result, the tendency will be to give it a generous rating unless something is glaringly incorrect.
Secondly, I’ve never played a game where I was able to master all the rules on my own. A second set of eyeballs always yields great conversation about the rules and their interpretation. Since these are complex games with multi-dozens of pages of rules and details…solitaire players are apt to simply accept that they understand the rules. The lack of an external voice to challenge that assumption creates problems. Consequently, any review that dives into great depth on gameplay mechanics is going to be suspect and should be carefully considered to ensure the person is playing accurately.
In terms of whether a multiplayer group will like the game or not, solitaire reviews of multiplayer games are inherently going to be problematic. They only represent a single viewpoint. I tend to be a super cautious player, perhaps overly so considering the genre. As a result, the way I handle my forces even in a two-handed game is going to reflect that built-in style which will invalidate my ability to recognize, employ, and potentially counter a more aggressive play style. If no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no self-directed conclusion about a game is going to survive first contact with another player!
Multiplayer Reviews of multiplayer games
So, the holy grail is clearly going to be multiplayer reviews of multiplayer games. You might think so, but there are issues here as well! For example, how many times did the pair play it? Is it two people who play wargames together all the time? Did they get the rules right or did the more aggressive personality dominate the rules discussion and an incorrect interpretation of the rules pop up?
In short, yes multiplayer reviews may seem better and they certainly represent at least the opportunity for poor rules knowledge to come in contact with opposition. However, folks like busy lives. Getting more than 1 or 2 plays completed with a live opponent for a 2-player game, or even more complicated with a 3+ player count game is 80% of the battle. Even with online play it’s challenging to coordinate, and we know that the number of plays is a critical component of better understanding of the game system.
Finally, the question STILL arises about rules fidelity. That’s always an issue, but the larger issue may be the after-game reflection session. People are inclined to avoid conflict. Go cut in line at the supermarket and simply say, “I REALLY need to go ahead of you because <<insert some excuse>>.” That’s a research-based approach that relies on people’s eagerness to avoid conflict. As a result, one opinion (usually the first) will tend to get self-reinforced in a sort of echo-chamber of hot takes.
Want proof of this? Go talk to Mark Herman about Churchill’s play balance or the reaction he faced about how historically inaccurate his game was. Go talk to Harold Buchanan about the Native faction feedback he got after Liberty or Death was released. These weren’t isolated cases of individuals complaining about their insulated experiences, they were groups of players with no contact with each other raising faulty conclusions based largely on group-think and the multitude of reasons that cause it.
So, who do you trust?
If it sounds like I’m painting a picture where you can’t trust anyone…good. I am.
The person you need to trust is yourself. The most important questions you’re going to ask yourself are likely:
Have I trusted this reviewer’s opinion about a game in the past?
Was there anything in the review that gives me pause about the analysis of this particular title?
What’s my comfort level with solo play reviews of multiplayer games?
In essence, everyone has their own mixture of variables that gives them confidence in a game’s analysis. There’s no “right way” that encompasses all potential scenarios because these games are designed (if done well) to accommodate a broad variety of play and skill.
The heart of the hobby is adult play that stimulates learning. Boardgames, whether wargaming or otherwise, help us be flexible thinkers and learning new games creates new neural pathways. It’s the fun of the hobby that draws people back, not some dogmatic view of “my way is the right way to encounter content freely generated for the hobby I enjoy.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Content creators for our hobby are passionate about sharing their experiences whether any one person likes their take or not.
The lesson is to forge your own opinion about the way you find credibility in the flawed reflections of others. Know that your opinion on that topic may be just as varied as the content creators themselves though and above all else…have fun.