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Watching People Play: An Introduction to Board Game Videography

A brief introduction to the best video reviews and playthroughs of board games available on YouTube and Vimeo.

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 web sites 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

A monster mash in Blood Rage

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

Kaja and Joanna review Smash Up

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.

Kaja embraces her inner Lovecraft by reviewing Smash Up Expansions

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.

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