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Mark Herman's Wargaming Blog
Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Dialog on my views of Game Reviewers and Ratings
Topic: Wargame Design Musings
bentlarsen wrote:
MarkHerman wrote:
Thanks for posting your views over on the Washington's War folder. Based on your comments I did re-read Chris Farrell's comments again and I am not sure why you think that this is a better review than the more positive ones other than it is more negative.

Chris is a smart fellow who is very impressed with his own opinion. I read all comments about my games, so I have a view of what does and does not make a good review. A good review sets metrics for how the game will be judged, otherwise it is just opinion with no objective standard. One of the reviews that you did not like did a very good job in this regard. 

Chris fails as a reviewer as he has very distinct tastes, which is fine for a gamer, but a major problem for a reviewer. He makes ascertains without any supporting thoughts and thinks he is stating facts. He has reviewed all of my recent games and he has disliked all of them. No problem, but all I can conclude from his reviews is he has not played any of my designs all that much, so his comments on design features and their impact on game strategy are misguided at best. As a consequence he offers a professional game designer and the reader nothing much beyond his personal tastes in games.

He starts off by saying in the review that you wanted me to re-read that he did not like We The People all that much, then points out several factors that he thinks make Washington's War a worse game (discard mechanism and OPs Queue) and then later contradicts himself by saying that the activation system does not work because the British need 3OPS cards, which is the point of the OPS Queue. It is my belief that he imagines how the game should play out vice actually figuring it out through play. The discard mechanism is generating a lot of positive comment, so people like it. Chris does not like it, but as usual without much explanation other than it makes the game more complicated. Complexity is in the eye of the beholder not some objective standard of goodness. 

Frankly I have read all of Chris's reviews and all that comes through is he seems to know how to design a better version of the game he is playing. That's fine, but upon reading his remarks it is clear that he really hasn't played Washington's War many times as his comments about the worthless American generals demonstrates to me that he does not understand how to play the Americans well. This point was true in We The People, but the new attrition rules require the Americans to play very differently, so it is my belief given how quickly his review came out that he read the rules and applied his thinking to what he remembers from We The People. I was told at a recent convention from serious players that Chris does not know what he is talking about on this specific point. Again this demonstrates to me that he is just doing a drive by review with little thought or time invested.

It is my understanding that the basis of the BGG game rating was tied to a player's willingness to play it again. From what I can tell on BGG and over on CSW, the players that are rating the game very highly are playing it constantly, which may be the basis for their high ratings vice some philosophical design standard. In the end if a game grabs someones fancy, and most of my designs do not generate this level of enthusiasm, then it is what it is.

I decided to write you privately as I find that open forums are not useful for real communications, but I do take all comments seriously and I wanted you to know that I took your advice.

Take care,


Thank you again for reading my comment and writing to me.

Before I get to your response, I do not want you to take any criticisms of your designs as criticisms of you, Mark Herman. Your games must be like your family, so I imagine it might be tough. Second, you are the "guy" who started it all with these Card-driven wargames. You are the inovator. We the People might not be a game I like, but your original concept and design has led to many games that I do like. Third, I would rank you among the very best designers. I never try to rate a list like that from best on down; it is just too difficult.

If you reread my comments, what I hoped you could influence in the BGG community are those individuals who helped develop or play-test the game, and who are rating it highly. I think it is not ethical for these individuals (there are two for sure, are there more?) to have ratings, not that anyone is going to go to hell for loving or hating a game. I think they are entitled to comment, but they should leave off the numbers. This issue is a frequent flyer on BGG. You are not responsible for what they do or say. If you see my concern, maybe you could give them a nudge. If they do not budge, that is not your fault. 

"Sycophant" is a strong term, a fighting word, as Yosimite Sam would say. I haven't read any hate mail about it, so I guess that no one has seen my comment because it does not have a number rating. Either that, or these people do not know what it means.

None of these tens qualify as a review in my understanding of the term. None of the reviews under the review forum qualify as a real discussion of the strengths and weaknesses--no game is perfect, not any on my top ten list, that's for sure--a your design. The geeks leaving tens come across as people kissing up. You have earned your place among the best of the best (and I am not kissing up, just stating a fact), and your behind does not need any lips on it (the image makes me go "ewww!"). 

Most of the reviews I have read for wargames are an embarrassment to anyone who wants to have a serious discussion. These kinds of comments should just go under the "genera" forum so that everyone gets to exercise his or her freedom of speech. I know this is a social networking site for gamers, but if I am going to write a serious piece by way of review, I want to sweat before I write it. I have written at least six reviews for Paper Wars, not that anyone would know it because there has not been an issued published during the past two years or so. I have typed out 35 pages or more. When I gripe about this on the geek, I am looked down as an eliteist. I just want an intelligent discussion.

How many times have you see the mob mentality at work on BGG? You go with the flow or you get dumped on. The first serious (it likely won't be, it will just be a rant) negative review of your new WW will bring out the wolves in force to tear the nay-sayer apart.

Now, turning to Chris Farrell. He is an odd duck (so am I, for that matter). He has tremendous influence (anyone with tremendous influence has too much power) on the BGG community. It would seem he has earned his position with comments that I find sober and serious and free of the nastiness that I sometimes--sometimes?--leave when I am on a roll of one sort or another. It is sad, but I find I have to "yell" to be noticed around this place, that is when I want to be noticed. 

The comments that Chris left with his six rating do not qualify as a review (nor, as I said above, do any of the tens or other ratings, for that matter). But Chris says it without rancour. 

Take another look at what I said about his comments and the six:

Is anyone taking Chris Farrell's comments, and his six, seriously? Chris can be wrong (just look at his comments on Pursuit of Glory and compare them with the actual game). Chris has good gaming instincts, if you choose to ignore the time factor (everything is too long for him) and chrome (everything is too detailed). Other than these, he is usually okay. 

Mark, do you see there is a fair bit of agreement between you and I concerning Chris. One, he can be wrong. The five rating he gave for Pursuit of Glory, with his brief comments, is a joke. How do I know this? Look at my review that I wrote after playing the game for at least a full week. Two, I note how everthing is too long or too detailed for his taste. I use hyperbole, but I am well aware that Chris has, or seems to have, a strict set of guidelines for every game, and woe be to the game that falls out of him. For me, as an example, I can find Paths of Glory a blast to play, lots of fun, but do not confuse it with an historical wargame. Raicer has a great design with history pasted all over it, but that's all it is: paste. I prefer a game to be both good history and good game, but I can like it if it is only one or the other.

I want Chris' six, his sober, non-insulting tone, and his comments to put a brake on the lips of the sycophant chorus. He would need to move his comments into the review section. Given what passes for reviews, he would have no problem being accepted. Then the community might enter into a serious discussion of your game.

When I wanted to discuss ACW leadership ratings in games like For the People and others, I did a pretty botched job of trying to express my points. I think Chris, with his comparision to how the generals are rated in Hannibal, made a valid point that perhaps you could consider for a variant for the GMT magazine (the name escapes me).

Mark, I understand if I cross historical swords with you that I am likely to be on the losing end, but I think you have rated the American generals to highly in their combat capabilities. How many major battles did the British lose during the Revolution? Three at best? Howe bested Washington at New York and during the Philadelphia campaign, but you only have one point of difference between them. Washington is a great leader, but competant only, at best, general. 

To go back to For the People, I think you are of the traditional school that sees Grant, Lee, Sherman and Jackson as being on an equal plane of skill, and I feel this view has been overturned in the past ten years (if not before). For FtP, it would be nice to see a Hannibal aspect to the generals in these games. Grant is better on strategy that Lee. Lee is the tactician bar none. Jackson is at his best in a subordinate role. Sherman is a lousy tactician--he was at least honest enough to admit that he was not the best--but you have him equal with the others. Argh! 

But I digress.

In fairness, I do not know how any designer, even one as experienced and wise as you, can do full justice to the complexities of the the American Revolution. 

I hope you will consider me part of the loyal opposition, and I want to stress the loyal part. I have WW on order through the p-500, but Canada seems to be on the other side of the globe for all the time I have been waiting for its arrival. I want to get your Pacific War game, and I have heard that you and Richard Berg are working on a monster ACW game. Is this true? You can be sure that I will buy a copy. I want to help put food in your table, even while I preach to you how you have some--only some--things wrong. 

Invite me to your house for a week, or come to mine, teach me the basics of wargame design, and you won't have me as an armchair critic. Or hopefully even a critic.

I do wish you the best. If time allows, I will try to review WW, but I have to master the rules to Berg's Dead of Winter for a Paper Wars review--do you have an "easy guide" to these GBACW games?

Let me know how you feel about what I have said. 

Take care, and I hope you continue to do well with WW and with all your other designs.


Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. You bring up many points so I will focus on a couple. First off thank you for your warm remarks about my overall body of work, I appreciate the sentiments.

To your game review remarks I also read Chris's comments on Pursuit of Glory and based on my single play I mostly agreed with him. On the other hand I only played the game one time and I think that is all Chris may have played it. As a professional designer I feel that I can ethically support a game that I actually play and enjoy, but I will not criticize a design as it would be perceived as a conflict of interest. As far as the playtesters rating the game on BGG goes I do not see this an unethical or a conflict of interest, because they gain nothing by doing so. The review that I liked from the guy who was Sean or Paul, I forget, was a playtester and gave it a nine instead of a ten because I did not take one of his suggestions. So it is not clear that the playtesters are always a home field crowd. 

You state that Chris writes without rancor. That is in the eye of the beholder, but lets for argument state that I agree. That is not my issue with Chris' reviews. Why people think he deserves his reputation is not for me to say, but what he says is never supported or measured against any objective standard. So, for me all I am getting is Chris' opinion, his right, and based on the sameness of his reviews I find that they have little value for me as a professional designer. 

For example he has panned my EoTS game not once but twice. He does not like the War in Europe mechanic and states that it has driven every game that he has played. As background, I am a professional OPS Research analyst and I have taught Analytics (probability and statistics) at the graduate school level for Georgetown University. So, I am very strong in probability mathematics. When I built the decks of cards I ran them through a simulation and this was validated by independent gamers who have posted the spreadsheets that are available on CSW for all to see. So what he claims is not mathematically possible or he does not know how to shuffle a deck of cards. Based on this his remarks carry no weight with me as they cannot be substantiated in mathematical reality.

In the same review he makes a comment about how unrealistic in EoTS it is for a fleet to be pinned by a bomber. I wrote a monograph on this specific point with all of my research that is posted on my website. It seems to me that unless a reviewer is willing to wade into the historical detail that he is commenting on how seriously can I take said review. On a review he did for my For The People game he made a similar offhand remark about the CRT and how it was ridiculous or some such. Yet, I built that table out of actual data and every battle of the war can be reflected through that table. As I said Chris does not do his homework, just levies his opinion. For me that makes him no better than any other opinion on BGG or CSW.

I could go on but you get the point. Later in your letter you make note of the general ratings in Washington's War and then I remembered our earlier exchange and your thoughts on the For The People general ratings. If done well and I think I know what I am doing, a design is an intrinsic whole. If you take out one piece and evaluate it alone without the remainder of the design you can draw incorrect conclusions.

I agree with your analysis that the British won most of the battles they fought in the war. Actually, if you find my old General article on We The People what you really find is the attacker won the majority of the battles during the AmRev. This by the way is characteristic of most low density battles in musket and rifled musket period (AmRev and ACW). 

Your point is that Howe is only one point better than Washington, so it must be incorrect, because he won all of his battles. However, that is only one piece of the battle puzzle. First off you can never more than double your combat unit strength, so since the Americans lose half their CUs each winter (except the Continental army if it is in winter quarters) the ability to achieve those full ratings for the Americans is very rare. Another issue is the British gain a regulars advantage and in ports the navy, which is two more ticks. On top of all that the attacker wins ties which is effectively another tick. The end result from actually playing the game is that the combination of all of the above creates a large British advantage in combat. If you look at the message traffic it appears that the British strategies in the game are more obvious so no one is having any problem winning battles or the game with the British. My point is you have to look at the totality of the battle system, not just the General ratings, to see how the game achieves the historical result.

What Chris is totally missing, which makes me believe that all I am getting is a rehash of his We The People review is his point about the worthless American generals. Due to attrition the Americans do not want to over invest in large armies that will just evaporate. However, any General will never lose his last CU due to attrition. Think guerrilla army. The Americans have 7 generals to the British 5 and if the French come into the game it is 8 to 5. For the Americans to achieve a strategic maneuver advantage, which was not necessary or desired in WTP, you want to have as many 1CU armies in the game as you can get. If you do this the Americans can maneuver to gain leverage over PC markers, which the British are hard pressed to do. The point is to demonstrate, albeit abstractly, a key feature of the real war. Therefore, Lincoln is a very useful general if he has 1 CU, but dangerous if you give him a substantial force. Lincoln with 1 CU protects a group of PC markers from isolation and is expensive to kill as the British do not move as easily as the Americans. 

The same is true in my For The People design. The ratings are not my evaluation of Lee or Grant specifically, but generally. What is also being represented is their ability to eschew logistic certainty and their impact on their subordinated command structures. The ratings are also how the game represents terrain. Note that there is no terrain distinction between spaces. How could that make sense? My view is there is defensible terrain everywhere, but it is the ability of the commander to find it that generates a terrain advantage as reflected in the rating. As you can see unless you bring in all of the factors, the ratings make no sense. Besides on any given day everyone had a bad day, which was an improvement that I brought into Washington's War.

Another point that you raise is about synchophants and people following the herd mentality and shouting down those that they disagree with etc. All I can say is that is not a BGG phenomena, but an internet feature. I have hardly ever seen any open forum discussion, anywhere, remain civil or change anyones view from the one they held when the shouting began. It is not a problem, but a feature, so I just avoid those situation as they go nowhere. What I will say is that David Dockter who is a first class consultant did a very detailed analysis of BGG ratings and CSW message traffic. Not perfect, but better than one persons' opinion. Empire of the Sun and For The People which are two games that Chris dislikes are in the top four games of total player activity. My point is the BGG rating system is interesting, but it is the temperature not the weather. Before they modified the algorithms not one of the games that I actually play were in the top 100 wargames of all time. Now I may not represent the mainstream of gamers, but that is too statistically odd for me to think much of the BGG rating system. Now that they have modified how they calculate things at least a couple of the games that I play are in the top 100 and not one that is in the top 10 or 25. Not much for me there.

Note that For The People has been played continuously for over a decade by a very active group of gamers. Not many wargames can claim that. Is For The People perfect, no, and neither is any game, but lots of people play it despite Chris panning it. Clearly they do not give a hoot about what Chris says or thinks. The same is true for Empire of the Sun. So, if a BGG rating represents your desire to play a game, not a subjective rating of design goodness, then activity should equal a high rating for these people. Does that make them synchophants? On another level who cares if they are having fun. 

My last point is important to me. I do not design games for money any longer. There is no money in it to be had and the amount of time I spend discoursing with gamers if put on a per hour basis would be less than I made when I had a paper route as a kid. I do this because of my passion for wargaming. I design games that I want to play. I spend most of my time playing For The People, Empire of the Sun and now Washington's War. If I do not want to play them why would anyone else. I only like to play games that are in my opinion, historically accurate. I actually research and think about all that goes into one of my games because if it bothers me I would change it. 

Well time to write another lecture and get some sleep,

Be well,


Posted by markherman at 9:09 PM EDT
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