Friday, May 19, 2006

Likes and Dislikes

The latest post on The Games Journal is about Risk and its descendants, and it is excellent, as usual. Which only serves to confirm my earlier comment that it is a hard job to produce unedited material with the same quality as edited material.

I'm back in Beit Shemesh for shabbat to see my parents. I will probably play some cards with my Mom, but other than that I don't know what to expect. Sometimes I end up playing with some of the teenage kids in the neighborhood. I brought Torres, Havoc, Modern Art, and something else. I also should have brought Puerto Rico to play with Rachel; it's been a while. I would like to try her on Caylus sometime next week.

In a BGG thread I explained again why I don't like St Petersburg, but only because someone asked me to. I really have no desire to convince anyone not to like a game that they like, simply because I don't like it. I guess my only purpose was to help someone whose tastes match my own and who is considering buying the game. They may save themselves some money.

Everyone knows that likes and dislikes are a funny sort of thing. In looking over why I don't like the game, the reasons that I give can be divided into two types: critical (objective) and subjective.

My critical reasons are those that serve to objectively evaluate the game design and its success or failure at achieving game balance. For instance, suppose that the game designer wanted to provide three strategic paths: path A, path B, or a mixture of both.

If I demonstrate that path B is either uninteresting or unachievable, then the only serious remaining strategy in the game is path A. Or, at least, the only interesting tension in the game is path A. Whether I demonstrate this or not, this is a critical assessment, which is, at least purportedly, objective.

Subjective reasons are where I say that I don't like this or that type of game mechanic, such as roll-and-move, or what have you. In fact, people may not really care if there are multiple paths to strategy in a game, so even if the game objectively fails in this fashion, it may not bother them.

These two types of reasons combine into one unhelpful mess of a numeric rating. That's why comments are so much more helpful than numbers. Or than "I really like this game!" But you know that.

This division between assessment types is no more nor less than the distinctions we make when evaluating anything, be it music, art, movies, food, and so on.

One evening about three years ago I tried to explain to my son this distinction. I said that I think that a particular (heavy metal) band is objectively talented and makes good music, but that I just don't like to hear it. It took him about a half a year before he could accept this, and I'm not sure that he really has. To him, there was music you like and music you don't, and nothing can be said to be objectively good or bad. No one ever says that something is good or bad except according to their own perspective, said he. Moral relativism is a big comfort to kids whose battle cry is "You can't tell me what to do! You're not the boss of me! Why do I have to do that just because you say so?!"

Alas for him, I don't believe in moral relativism. But I digress.

Is there a solid line between objective and subjective evaluation? Most people don't agree with my particular assessment of Saint Petersburg, and not only due to my subjective criticisms. It's possible that my objective criticisms are more subjective than I am willing to believe. Is it tautological that when people disagree about a criticism that it must be subjective? Or do we just fundamentally disagree on the conclusions? Have I simply not been articulate enough in my objective criticisms?


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Anonymous said...

I think your points about St. Petersburg make sense. I think it's more about whether I think those points equal "bad game" for me.

I kind of mind the lack of strategies besides the aristocrat way. However, I do feel the buildings play some role in the game, and every now and then they are the key to victory.

Orange cards are what ultimately decides the winner, but sometimes two players have the same amount of aristocrats, and then the buildings do count a lot.

I don't think Observatory is overpowered. It's good, but I don't like to use it, so I'm happy even if I don't get it. Mistress isn't really a problem except in the early game. That happens rarely, and even then the player who gets her doesn't always succeed.

Workers are boring, that's very true. Buildings are somewhat boring, and the game indeed repeats.

Anyway, I like the game. It has it's flaws, and after my initial enthusiasm waned, I've come to accept St. Pete as a nice game I enjoy, despite it's flaws which I see and accept.

It's also less about the game but the players for me: my mother and her gang love the game very, very much and these days I pretty much only play the game with them. I could play pretty much anything with them and enjoy it...

Hmm, I should probably write a blog entry about this. Interblogistic discourse, you know!

Yehuda Berlinger said...

mikko: Does that you mean that you think all attempts to qualify "goodness" in a game are necessarily subjective?


Anonymous said...

I think objective measurements of goodness in games are hard. So many issues of what makes game good or bad depend on the gamer (just see the eurogame-hating Geeklist recently mentioned on Best of Board Games).

However, I do recognise there are games that I think are really good, which I don't enjoy a bit. Is that subjective goodness? For example, I think Diplomacy is a game really well-designed, even though I don't enjoy playing it anymore. I'd say it's an objectively good game.

Can a game be objectively bad, if some people like it a lot? I could imagine you considering St. Petersburg a flawed game, yet I enjoy it and while I do see those flaws as well, I can't accept St. Petersburg as objectively bad game. Slightly flawed with a room for improvement, perhaps. But maybe that's your take on it, as well.

I guess my point is that you can point out flaws in many games, but it doesn't matter: some people will still think that game is the best thing ever. Like Monopoly. It certainly has flaws, yet I constantly see people who are in love with the game.

Objective evaluation is, I suppose, where you can say "I like this game, but I do see its flaws" or "I don't like this game, but I can see why others would like it even if it doesn't match my tastes".

Good review is both objective and subjective. I want to know what's good and bad about something (and preferably in as objective way as possible), but I'm also interested in reviewer's subjective experience, particularly if I'm familiar with the reviewer.

I also think world would be a better place, if people were more adept at separating objective from subjective =)