Why Video Reviews Suck, and How To Fix Them

Video review watcher

As you may or may not have noticed, I love the written word. It’s a medium in which I am the most comfortable, which is why you may noticed I can be a little flowery in my wording. Don’t worry, I’m working on it. And as niche and narrow as this hobby can be, I love to write about board games. I’ve heard it said that when one engages in creative work regularly, further creative work flows more naturally, and that has proven true for me. The truth is that our hobby can go as deep as we want it to go, and since most board game writers aren’t really pushing too far past “should I buy, Y/N,” I sometimes feel like we’re forging new ground whenever we just talk about games and how they impact us. That’s a cool thought.

But communication is obviously so much more than writing, and as the board game hobby advances, we’re seeing more and more of the “board gaming press,” for lack of a better word, utilize video as a way for them to get reviews out there. I hope it won’t sound like sour grapes from this writer when I say that I mostly hate board game video reviews. It’s not the existence of them, you understand. I think that we need fresh ways of communicating our hobby, and in the age of YouTube, video has the potential to inform, provoke, and entertain in a far more immediate way than my 1200 words ever could. No, the problem is a maddening lack of meaningful content, and the extremely low standard that they are held to by the viewers.

To start off with, I hate that most of the video content in the hobby is in the form of reviews. Reviews are a tiny part of what’s possible with the board gaming press. They are important, yes. But the most thought-provoking material is an idea or discussion about how we relate to other players, or about consumerism in the hobby, or even just talking about a particular series of games that was cool. Unfortunately, video isn’t simple. It takes time to produce and edit, and so most content producers are satisfied to simply churn out a 10-minute video about the latest whatnot. Often, even these are limited in scope. It’s usually a guy sitting in front of his game shelf. He introduces the game, spends 8 minutes explaining the rules, and then 2 minutes giving an opinion. It’s the 8-minute explanation that truly galls me, especially when I’m already familiar with the game. Invariably I will skip to the part where they give their opinion, usually in a way that suggests they just walked in front of the camera and started talking.

The weirdest thing is that so many people seem to think this is perfectly fine. We’ve conditioned ourselves to just expect a reviewer to tell us whether or not we should buy something, and video reviews make this problem especially bad. I am tired of trying to determine whether or not I should buy something. I’m ready to actually start talking about games, and not about purchasing decisions. I’m ready for video content that is prepared to do the same thing, rather than trying to simply post an opinion and get thumbs from BGG users. And I think that many gamers are ready for the same thing.

But like I said earlier, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have well-produced video content that furthers our hobby. The question is, how do we fix it? How do we make videos that will advance the conversation and really take advantage of the potential of video?

First of all, I think it’s vital to inject some visual inventiveness into how videos are shot. Do we need to see one more shot of someone standing in front of their game shelf? The straight-on poorly-lit shot is not one I need to see again. It’s here that some film-making chops would probably serve someone well. Robert Florence had a flare for changing it up when he produced Downtime Town videos. Those were videos that looked fun. And for crying out loud, does the rules explanation need to be a pair of hands hovering above a pile of components?

But it’s hard to think about film angles when you’re just plopping down in front of the camera and talking. That’s why I think even more important is actually scripting a video. Not that I expect someone to read it from a teleprompter, but when you’re on video you need to think of yourself as an actor, at least on some level. That means there will have to be some writing, and some memorization too. Scripting will also focus thoughts, prevent rabbit trails, and offer a chance to inject some humor. My favorite video reviewer is Paul Springer, known as UvulaBob on BGG. His video series, the Untitled Flash-Based Review…Thing, is snappy, entertaining, and covers lots of games that aren’t necessarily the new hotness. It’s lo-fi use of Flash is actually an asset, and he even figures out how to make a rules explanation interesting. That’s a focus that comes from lots of preparation.

But the biggest that will improve how videos express our hobby is simply an expansion on the topics that we discuss. It’s really remarkable how much territory can be covered on video. I’ve recently become addicted to the YouTube channel Crash Course, hosted by John and Hank Green. Regardless of whether you appreciate their take on various topics, it’s impossible to deny the entertainment quality that they bring to subjects that people skipped in high school. We can cover all sorts of ground in this hobby. We deny ourselves the richness of board gaming by sticking to reviews. That goes for both video and written content.

Like Florence and Springer, a lot of people have done good work. At his best, Scott Nicholson tried a lot of cool video content, and Quinns and Paul of Shut Up & Sit Down deserve all of the good things that they’ve gotten from their work. So we know that it’s possible to make good content on video, and to put in the time and energy to do good stuff. I know it takes a lot of effort, but if it means less output, I think that’s acceptable. I’d rather have good conversations than more terrible ones, and the same goes for videos.

6 thoughts on “Why Video Reviews Suck, and How To Fix Them

  1. The other problem with video reviews is that they take up a defined amount of time, unless you want to go searching through for the “good bit”. Personally I don’t have the patience, so I ignore them. With a text review I can look at it, assess with 5 seconds whether it’s a serious effort or not, skip the boring bit and find the actual opinion. That’s too hard with video reviews.

    BTW I agree with you on the shallowness of content of most reviews. When I write a review I try to keep it manageably small (I’m no Ender!), and I try to gloss over the rulesy bit, just including enough to show you how the gameplay evolves from the rules, and then you can decide whether that’s the sort of gameplay that interests you.

  2. Amen. There’s nothing that puts me off faster than a video that starts out with, “Here are the components, then you do this and this and this on your turn.” This doesn’t tell me what I really want to know about a game. Where does it lie in the family of game design? What is the 10,000-foot view? Are there new ideas at work or a clever resynthesis of extant ideas? So many reviewers are bad at giving the “elevator pitch” for a game that helps me contextualize what I’m about to watch. How do the mechanics create the crucial ebb and flow of game play? I want interpretation and analysis, not what a player does on his/her turn. They standard style of video review you cite is completely unengaging and certainly begs for creative and thoughtful new creators.

  3. My biggest issue is I can’t scan through a video review while I’m at work/busy doing anything else. With some being 15+ minutes it is also tough to stop and start and still keep an idea of what is going on. With a written review I can read a paragraph or two, jump away to do something else, and come back and feel like I still have an idea of what is going on.

  4. Like you, I have no interest in the rules explanation of video reviews. If I wanted that, I’d rather have a designated video for exactly that purpose. On a couple of occasions, I’ve even gone to those. But the rules explanations in most video reviews are neither accurate nor comprehensive enough to replace a read of the rulebook, which makes them a waste of time, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Wow. I am diametrically opposed to the opinion that rules explanations should not be in video reviews. For my part, the reviewer’s opinion is a marginal piece of my decision. I want to see how the game PLAYS so I can decide for myself like a big boy. As for the alternate topic discussion in video – I’d love to see it, but I don’t want to be lacking in the type of standard review format we see now because of it.

  5. No thoughts on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop? I know it’s geared toward the uninitiated masses, and of course it only focuses on games that Wheaton (enthusiastically) likes, but it lets you see well-edited gameplay and form your own opinion, and of course the production values are insanely good. I keep looking for this in other shows and feeling too spoiled to watch people mumble, Blair Witch the camera around, not bother to wait until the baby in the next room is done screaming, etc. And the number of people with “let me tell you about this game” clips who don’t even layout the game…. grrr….

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