Anybody who has spent a reasonable amount of time in the video game world will likely, at some point, have realized our serious lack of thoughtful and intelligent video game criticism. Or if not that, then at least countless people pointing out that lack and arguing about it. Approximately a year ago designer Dan Cook created a bit of an Internet firestorm with his "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." I personally do not agree with everything Cook said (especially the need for criticism to be useful to designers), but I mention it to highlight the fact that this is a continual topic. This is not to say that nobody is trying, of course, and collections such as The Well Played journal have been wonderfully helpful in advancing the practice.
As much as the video gaming world lacks solid criticism, however, the board game world does doubly so. However, one of my favorite thinkers and writers on BoardGameGeek, who goes by "Nate Straight," has recently posted an article entitled "What is / are Roads & Boats?--An attempt at ludomorphology.".
This piece is a fascinating look at one of my all-time favorite board games, Roads & Boats, an enormous, impossible game of logistics, route building and resource management. I am amazed it exists at all, the high prices it fetches on the aftermarket are a testament to how small the market is for such a game (and hence how small the print runs have been).
But to return to Straight's piece, it has what I believe to be the three components essential to solid games criticism.
1. A thorough description of the game. Straight does not just describe how it works, but why it works, and the consequences thereof. This naturally leads to a discussion of strategy, which reveals a deep understanding of the game. I am quite familiar with Roads & Boats, but Straight's article lead me to rethink what I thought I understood about it.
2. Context. Straight also puts on his media archaeology hat and argues for a lineage from which R&B was derived. He smartly avoids the intentionalist fallacy by showing where the game fell historically, while implying inspiration by highlighting similar mechanics. As such the article traces a history of route building and resource management mechanics in modern European board games. This is a method I am quite fond of (links to a .pdf), and one that I feel game studies could benefit greatly from.
3. Outside knowledge and information. Straight's piece is not just an analysis based on a deep understanding of play, but by bringing topology into the discussion he helps the reader understand where he is coming from and how he understands the game, while also giving them a new tool for understanding other games.
My one critique stems from the glossing-over of the wall mechanic, which is the major way players can negatively affect each other. Straight does mention it, however this particular mechanic can create situations where the game spirals downward from planning and management to spitefulness and bickering. When this happens everybody's score suffers, but the potential for it to happen (and I have seen it happen) is a defining attribute of the game. In other words, players have the ability to affect a near-collapse of the system by making resources inaccessible and in doing so severely limiting their own progress. That the game enables this sort of petty, very human behavior, but does not at all require it, is in itself fascinating. Your civilization can collapse because of your own greed or spitefulness, and I find that very compelling.
However, overall I find Straight's article to be a deeply intelligent and well thought-out look at a landmark game, and a solid example of effective board game criticism. I do not doubt I will be showing it to my students in the coming years.