Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I've Invoked Godwin's Law! Or, The Review Nazi

I recently did what I call "buyer's remorse" research on a game I recently bought and played, which is to say I went and looked up reviews of the game post-purchase. One of the reviews I saw was, to say the least, on the muddled side. The game is fully co-operative, or what I'll call an FCG. The reviewer complained that the game was neither a luck-fest nor a skill-based game, which is of course silly - all you *have* in an FCG is the balance of luck and skill. He had also played a single scenario of the game and had dismissed the entire game as too easy to win.

So I wrote in the forum that the OP didn't seem to understand that this was the very nature of an FCG, and (like many others) that a single scenario, which the OP has not come back to say whether or not was actually intended for solitaire play (he says the first scenario, but no details beyond that, and Scenario 1 is solitaire) and his group played it multiplayer. I responded because I thought the OP was far too unaware of the nature of FCGs as well as not giving the game even close to a fair shake, and felt it would be a disservice not to.

For my trouble, I got the usual focus on things I hadn't discussed (he talked about how the games I listed as examples of FCGs were all terrible games and in some cases not in fact FCGs because there was a time element), and a personal note suggesting that it wasn't polite to critique one's opinions in a review. Really.

Of course, I reiterated my points, refuted his, and privately explained that this was a public forum and perhaps he didn't fully understand what those were for either. He responded by saying I was the worst review Nazi he'd ever seen on the "Geek, both the first time Godwin's Law has been invoked (if tangentially) on my behalf, and also as a badge of honor. I would love for Glenn Beck, for example, to call me a commie. Not that this guy is in Beck's league, but he did use a lot of the same arguing techniques.

Of course, if you're a Glenn Beck fan, I've lost your attention right now. Darn. Before you go, could you call me a Nazi? That would make my day!

Back to my point, which is to explain to the general population that understanding how to present a considered opinion of merit is probably something that you don't see a lot of, but at the same time you should learn how to do unless you go into politics, where it's all about quantity and volume and nothing to do with logic or reason.

Let's start with the idea of a public forum. Traditionally, a forum is a place where you present a thesis of some sort, whether it's an idea, a law, or a review. When you do so, you are putting your thesis up to public scrutiny. In fact, that's the entire *point* of a forum, that you *want* people to try to knock down what you have put up and to have it withstand that scrutiny. There are no rules that others have to be overly concerned with your feelings (although on the 'Geek the standard is that you should respect others and not engage in ad hominum attacks, which I did *not* do unless you consider saying "I don't think you understand the essential nature of an FCG" as a personal attack, and in most arenas people see right through those anyway). There is no rule that says because you label something as an opinion that we have to accept it as having equal merit to other opinions. That's antithetical to the entire operation.

Clearly there are opinions that are matters of taste, and opinions that have good arguments for and against on either side. I wasn't complaining about that. If the OP didn't like the heft of the cards or their lack of color, that's a matter of taste to a large extent. Saying that a game can't make up it's mind between randomness and skill-based play in an FCG (equivalent to a solitaire game) is simply ignorant of what drives tension in such a game.

It's probably worth while to expound on what that means, just in case some of you haven't noticed this core element of pretty much every solitaire/FCG out there (which I'll just call FCGs for short, but they are basically team solitaire). In adversarial games, you have an opponent who is making choices to either improve or maintain his position and/or thwart yours. How each game is designed determines how those strategies can be implemented (if at all), but the tension comes from your comparative end result compared to your opponents. In other words, your opponents provide the tension and release in the game, while the game provides the arc of play.

In an FCG, there is no opponent sitting across the table, but instead an AI or system that the players play against. Their success or failure is based on how they do against a fixed system. That system may have random elements, but in the end there's an algorithm and it doesn't vary from it's path. There may be multiple algorithms, but at any given point the system has a very high degree of determinism. Of course, an FCG with no chaos elements is really only a puzzle, a diversion with a single solution set that once understood effectively ends any interest in the FCG. You don't go back and erase your crossword puzzles and then do them again, at least without some sort of OCD or other condition. Let's call this half of the design paradigm consonance, or the part that stays the same.

In order to make an FCG a repeatable and enjoyable experience, the designer needs to throw in chaos elements to keep things interesting. No matter what you do in the game, there is always a chance that things won't turn out the way you hoped or planned. The downside is that even if you play a "perfect" strategy, at some times the game will smack you in the face and you'll lose. At the same time, even an abject beginner can play the game and win with terrible strategy. The design challenge is to figure out how to implement the chaos so that the game remains interesting even for the experienced player but still rewards good play. We'll call this dissonance, or the tension element. You're doing everything right, but is this the turn when the AA over target hits everything it shoots at? When four ghosts pop up on the board? When the random event knocks your aircraft out of the sky for a mechanical failure?

Art is full of consonance/dissonance, especially in the time-based arts of music and drama. Imagine a movie with no tension, which is called an information film. To anyone not interested in how to assemble an IKEA desk, it's boring as hell. Even documentaries such as Super Size Me had tension in them, as the audience wonders if the subject really *can* eat nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. It's a critical part of how humans view the world. Think of driving to work and now much of it you remember when you get there. Chances are you remember nothing unless something interesting or memorable happens. Most entertainment leverages this idea, and games are no exception, and FCGs by their very nature *must* leverage it or else you have a game that is no fun at all once you've cracked it. The exception is the puzzle, and in gaming there are few more damning terms than to say a game is on a rail or devolves to a puzzle.

As it happened, my complaint that the OP didn't understand this had not been picked up on by anyone else in this thread. They *had* picked up on the fact that the OP really hadn't played enough scenarios in this game to warrant claiming that it was far too easy to win, and one of the responses to my complaint was that others had already noticed that, although the OP had not bothered to explain whether he'd played the solo scenario or not. In my experience, that means he did in fact play the solitaire scenario and was too embarrassed to say so.

I found the OPs response to my complaints to be typical of the average forum junkie. Rather than thinking about my point and realizing that it's pretty obvious, he chose instead to denigrate the games I'd put up as examples of FCGs and say that there was no distinction between an FCG and a semi-cooperative game such as Battlestar Galactica. Hello, this is Number Six calling and we'd like our organic brain back. While BSG has a lot of the same elements as an FCG, which it *can* be in the first half of the game, at some point there is an adversarial relationship between players and the tension comes from that. Shadows Over Camelot, which the OP extolled as a "skill-based" game. Which, again, may be an FCG or may not, but until the game end the players don't know so in effect it might as well be a semi-cooperative game.

The OP also said two other things that amazed me. First was that his complaint was about where the randomness was in the game, although two minutes with the original post showed that he said no such thing. Second, he claimed that in any event his argument was about the lack of theme, which was mentioned parenthetically in the OP and not listed at all in the breakdown list at the end of the review. It must have been the part where he said the game wasn't memorable, which is a different animal.

Here are the problems with the OPs response:

1) Distraction from the main points. A common technique used by children through their teens and often even into their twenties. Find something to complain about in your opponent's argument, and hope they bite. In this case, it was saying that Space Alert wasn't a co-op game because of the time element. Actually, the time element is used both in the chaos and skill sides of the game, it doesn't change the nature of the FCG.

2) Complaining that the issue of scenario selection and number of scenarios played had already been brought up. Perhaps, but not resolved. We still didn't know which scenario was played, and in any event my point that the OP didn't have enough experience with the game to be able to call what he did a "review". I rarely review games on the 'Geek for that reason. Instead, I use the rating system and it's comment field.

3) Rewriting the OP after the fact. Very common. It's almost like people forget that they can go back and see what they wrote in the past. The OPs biggest complaint was theme? Really? Hardly mentioned. It's where the randomness is, not that there is randomness? Directly contradicted by the OPs own words.

4) Claiming that his opinion has merit simply because it's an opinion and thus above reproach. Also incredibly common and also the first bastion of defense when you're 18. Just because Fox News claims to be fair and balanced doesn't mean they are. Far from it. No media is, it's all a commercial enterprise intended to generate money for someone in the end. Just because there are two sides to a story doesn't mean that those points are worth airing. The Holocaust, pro and con. Discuss! This is not to say that the OP didn't have good points, all I'm saying is that you have to demonstrate that the points have merit. Just because you *have* them is not enough unless we are talking about issues of taste. The OP was not saying he didn't like FCGs, he was saying that he didn't like the core design philosophy behind FCGs (albeit in the context of this single game) without seeming to understand that it was the nature of the beast. The effect was to say that he didn't like the circus because the clowns were scary, which is useless in any sort of review of a circus as most people who are afraid of clowns wouldn't go in the first place.

When you review a game, which by its very nature is trying to let people know whether they should invest time or money in it from your experience, you need to understand the nature of the game and be able to compare it to the existing body of work. You also need to have enough time spent with the game to be able to understand the interactions between the mechanisms. Five minutes with any Martin Wallace game will tell you that just because you see the mechanisms doesn't mean you necessarily see how they interact. In a scenario-based game, it's even more critical. The OP also said that he doubted his opinion of the game would change (it would only "possibly change one item" he found lacking, although he neglected to say what that item was. That's like playing an introductory scenario in ASL and claiming the game doesn't have enough tanks.

Those of you have been following this blog know that there are a few games that I have had a strong negative reaction to after one play, or even after part of a play. There are certainly times when you can see enough to realize that a game is either not going to be your cup of tea, or that the designer has made some critical errors. Age of Empires III comes to mind, where the Discovery mechanism, effectively random, throws off what is otherwise a pretty good game. The Kaiser's Pirates, as another, takes the main chaos element (drawing cards) and allows so few card draws during a hand and over such a long time (a hand can last for up to 30 minutes) that there is very little likelihood that an average statistical outcome will be realized. It's like deciding the outcome of a game on a single die roll. Without a compelling literary element (and I will admit that this is a shortcoming of the game the OP was talking about), that small of a sample set is going to be a problem. When you see problems like that, you can point them out. You can say that a car with three wheels is going to be much more likely to tip over than one with four without spending a lot of time in the car.

The lesson is that when you review a game with the intent of helping others decide whether or not to invest time or money in it that it is a good idea to know what the hell you're talking about. The OP in this case clearly didn't. To make matters worse, he couched the review in his Subject line as being of value because he had experience in a thematically related game system. He ended the review by saying that he really couldn't say whether people interested in the related game system would enjoy the review topic game.

That by itself should have been a clue.

I'm not responding to the OP at this point. Calling me a Nazi is a pretty clear indication that he hasn't taken in a single word I've said, which is not unusual. I really have no skin in this game other than to let anyone reading it that the OP doesn't know what he's talking about. A little thin skinned, too.

I have avoided going into detail intentionally, as I have no desire to further embarrass the OP. This is intended as an object lesson in defending a thesis, which every high school student should have learned how to do if they cared to. And I'm pretty sure this is not a high school student from the context of some of his comments. However, it wouldn't take anyone too much detective work to put the various elements together. This was intended to be a case study of how not to write a review and definitely on how not to defend it effectively.

Well, and also to celebrate my admission to the National Socialist Party's game review review wing. I'm a review Nazi, I'm a review Nazi! Woohoo! My mother will be so proud.

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