Watching People Play: An Introduction to Board Game Videography

Enjoy this overview of the best board game reviewers along with a few videos from each on games commonly played in cardboard cafes and gaming clubs.

Now that board gaming has become more and more popular throughout the Western world, a wide number of videographers of the hobby have sprung up with their own websites or on YouTube. Many are amateurish, working without scripts and failing to give their viewers a clear view of the game being reviewed (either in terms of rules or camera focus).

Yet there are at least half a dozen stables of game reviewers whose producers know what they’re doing, their video reviews emerging like prancing ponies from their virtual paddocks with clever scripts, lively graphics, and solid explanations of the core mechanics of the games being reviewed. Here’s a quick overview of the best board game reviewers along with a few videos from each on games commonly played in cardboard cafes and gaming clubs or that should be played in them because they are just that good.

The Dice Tower

This is really about a dozen different reviewers who are sponsored by games stores like Cool Stuff Inc. The core group, out of Miami Florida, is made up of Tom Vasel and his sidekicks Sam Healey and Zee Garcia, who have done dozens of “Top Ten” lists of specific genres of games that are quite fun if you know anything about the games that they’re reviewing. They don’t explain the rules of the games that they review in these lists but engage in lots of witty banter and storytelling.

Tom also presents his own solo game reviews with Sam under the moniker “Miami Dice”. In addition to this core, solo reviews are available from Ryan Metzler and the Game Boy Geek and reviews of war games by the much more laid back “HAMTAG” trio, who aren’t as slick as Tom’s crew.

The Dice Tower’s reviews are good at giving an overview of a game or game genre, though in most cases of no use in learning a new game. Their reviews tend to be a bit soft, though usually fair, approving most of what comes to their table (though they are willing to slag off games that they don’t like, including their Eurogame nemesis Agricola).

So for the critical theory of gaming, they get three dice out of five. For rules explanations, only two dice. For humor, they get four chuckles out of five, especially for their Top Ten videos. No one matches the Dice Tower for raw numbers of videos or breadth of coverage. They’re the big box store of board game reviewers, closer to Zellers than Wal-Mart.

Here are their Top Ten lists for Exploration games, games with Great Theming, and Games Every Gamer Should Own, along with the Miami Dice review of Blood Rage. Though I usually agree with Sam’s picks for Top Ten lists, the Exploration list is one of the few in which I enthusiastically agree with Zee. He champions the three titanic “T”s of archaeological games Tikal, Thebes, and Tobago.

Starlit Citadel

Starlit Citadel is a games store, both real and online, in Vancouver. Most of their videos consist of short reviews of specific games, rarely topping ten minutes in length, and shot at a table in the back of their games store (as opposed to Tom’s basement in many of the Dice Tower videos). They’re hosted by the store manager Kaja Sadowski, who is a bit stiff by comparison to other games critics, and the livelier Joanna Gaskell, a local actress and games enthusiast.

Kaja and Joanna’s videos are more tightly scripted than those made by the Dice Tower and contain little fluff. They do two things very well. First, they show you all the components of the game laid out on a table (instead of just dropping the components on a table in slow motion like Tom Vasel’s Dice Tower does), while explaining the basics of the game, like the publisher, genre, length, number of players, and likely its target demographic.

Second, and this is where they really excel, they take about five minutes explaining the rules of the game in detail. The problem is that they do this so quickly that you have to hit the pause button several times to take it all in. Although if you’ve already played the game in question, their rule overviews are excellent ways of jogging your memory.

One problem with their reviews is that they love almost everything they review, though Kaja will often explain how the game is only good for a certain type of group and Joanna will explain some rules flaws. The camera work becomes considerably better in their season three and four reviews, with sharper images and fewer static two-shots.

So three dice for their critical theory, four for their rules explanations, and only one very restrained chuckle for their humor. Here are reviews from their first, second, and fourth seasons on The Resistance, Smash Up, and Evolution.

Watch It Played

This video series is hosted by Rodney Smith on YouTube, who I was surprised to find out recently is a fellow Canadian, hailing from the opposite side of the country from the Starlit Citadel ladies, Prince Edward Island. Though he may come across as a bit Mr. Rogers-ish at first, Rodney does an excellent job of explaining rules for games, taking around a half hour to go over rules set in detail. You can play most games after watching one of his videos. His camera work is impeccable, offering lots of clear close-ups of a game’s components as he explains gameplay.

Rodney has done over a hundred “how to play” videos since starting in 2011. As this series isn’t about reviewing games, he doesn’t say much about a game’s flaws. So Rodney gets only one die for critical theory, but five out of five for rules explanations, and two chuckles for his affable manner.

Here are his overviews of three excellent games: the richly themed, hybrid miniatures games Kemet and Blood Rage and what is arguably the new king of the hill in fantasy card games, Ashes. Contrast his bubbly factual style in these videos with the very different styles of the Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down videos on the same games.

Board to Death

This is really a collection of reviewers in different locations, though the best are done by the Italian gamer couple, Giancarlo and Felicia. In their reviews, they do a very good job of explaining rules and of offering a critical overview of the game, though not in as much detail as Rodney, with some corny jokes thrown in.

For the handful of reviews done by Giancarlo and Felicia, four dice for critical theory, four for rules explanations, and two embarrassed chuckles for their sense of humor. Here are their reviews of Tobago and Star Realms. You can learn to play the game in the first, while in the second Giancarlo has the cojones to criticize a fan favorite as “not all that original.”

Fantasy Flight

These promotional videos for their own games have the professional polish of big studio movie trailers with dramatic music and voiceovers by deep-voiced British actors positively oozing gravitas.

Some are short overviews, some are more detailed rules explanations, and some are “behind the scenes” videos about how the game in question was made.

Fantasy Flight gets only one die for critical theory and one chuckle for humor, but four dice for their longer rules explanations. Oh, and one Oscar for Best Special Effects in a Board Game Video.

Here are examples of their three basic types of videos: a short unvoiced ad for Descent 2.0 (which always makes me want to get the trolls and ogres out), a much longer tutorial for A Game of Thrones, and a “behind the curtains” look at The Fury of Dracula.

Shut Up & Sit Down

Last but not least is the top-notch game journalism offered by the British website Shut Up & Sit Down, run by Quintin “Quinns” Smith and Paul “Paul” Dean with assists from time-warped eighties hipster Matt Lees, Irish immigrant Brendan Caldwell, and a few of their other friends and lovers. The SU&SD crew have been mashing up board game reviews with the dry surreal British sketch comedy of Monty Python, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh since 2011, shooting their videos in the kitchens, dining, and laundry rooms of their squalid flats and in the historic streets of old London.

They also do blog-style reviews and podcasts, both with a free-flowing sense of humour. Though British, they tend to be somewhat sceptical of Eurogames, usually reserving their enthusiasm for the most solid Ameritrash.

The video reviews by the frenetic Quinns involve such hijinks as dressing as an explorer in Escape: The Curse of the Temple, roaming about a park looking for lost gems as one might in Splendor, or wandering through crowds on the Tube (with Paul at his side) explaining the pros and cons of Fantasy Flight’s re-theming of Dune in Rex. Paul’s reviews are somewhat dryer, but also use some theme-connected sketch comedy and are more thoughtful in tone than Quinns’ mad rushing-abouts.

SU&SD’s reviews are funnier than most big-budget American sitcoms (yes, I’m thinking of you, Charlie Sheen). Their cinematography is low-budget cinema verité, though they get the most out of their micro-budget, using quick cuts and odd camera angles to add some Adam-West-era-Batman-style entertainment value to the comic core of their reviews. SU&SD do not take a lot of time explaining rules, so marks off here, but they are willing to trash sacred cows like Arkham Horror if they see fit (I won’t be throwing out my copy quite yet).

My only substantial critique of the site is the occasional skewering of a popular game not because of its mechanics or playability, but for its use of politically incorrect imagery, such as Quinns’ recent thumbs-down review for the critically lauded Blood Rage. Ars gratia artis, I say: there’s far too many asexual, non-racially-specific theme-light abstracts and Eurogames out there to quibble seriously about such imagery.

So, for a completely different approach from old Blightly: two dice for rules explanations, four for the critical theory of gaming, and five big chuckles for their wacky sense of humor. Here are Quinns’ review of Kemet, Paul’s of Ashes, and Matt’s opening combo of Coup and a recipe for sweet potato fries (both equally tasty):

For its combination of critical theory and board gaming sitcomedy, here’s Paul’s overview of Specter Ops, which ends with him getting drunk and agonizing over a lost love of games with hidden movement mechanics, like the then-out-of-print Fury of Dracula:

Consolation Prizes

I’d like to mention a couple of runners-up, both of whom post on YouTube: the Rahdo Runs Through It series of reviews/game plays by Richard Ham and the Drive Thru series of reviews hosted by Joel Eddy.

I prefer the Drive Thru series as a more reliable match for my own taste for rambunctious games married to strong themes. For example, he gushes over Ashes and Blood Rage. However, both Ham and Eddy are both quite thorough in dissecting the games that they review. Ham has the annoying habit of constantly referring to aspects of games that his wife “Jen” either likes or dislikes without her actually being present (at least in the episodes that I’ve watched), and he rejects the brilliant design of Kemet, so points off from me for his otherwise strong series of reviews. Both Rahdo and Drive Thru do straight-up game reviews without any comic banter or sketch comedy.

Also worth mentioning is the series with the slickest production values on the Web, Table Top, which features Hollywood types playing full games with some rules explanations and the occasional direct-to-camera musings over strategy by the individual players. It’s hosted by former Star Fleet junior officer Wil Wheaton and co-produced by Wil and Felicia Day, who also appears in a few episodes.

These can be quite entertaining, though not as much as Shut Up & Sit Down, and aren’t useful for either rules explanations or game reviews. For those who fondly remember The Next Generation, you get to hear Ensign Crusher whining yet again, this time about losing yet another board game. Also annoying is the fact that there is usually one celebrity who has no idea how to play the game (examples include the otherwise admirable Alan Tudyk and Karen Gillan) — if they can learn lines, they can learn a few game rules! I especially recommend their playthroughs of Cards Against Humanity (not for the kiddies!) and Sheriff of Nottingham.

The Judgment

In summary, if you want a short overview before buying a game or a rules refresher, visit the Starlit Citadel. If you want to learn how to play a new game, go to Rodney Smith. If you want an amusing and mildly critical overview of a specific game or game genre, the Dice Tower is your wisest destination.

But if you want a little of everything and some belly laughs, then your top pick is Shut Up & Sit Down, which is in my view home to the best board game videographers on the World Wide Web.

Freeze frame on Kemet’s scorpion staring down the Duke from Coup, then fade to black to the sound of slowly intensifying kettle drumming. FIN.