Anyone who has been involved in education for any length of time probably knows of Bloom’s Taxonomy, even if they’re not familiar with its origin or history. As a way of systemising learning it has burrowed its way into the root and trunk of educational systems around the world. Despite the lack of any real rigour in its development it has come to dominate discussion about pedagogical structuring. Even if the idea has become a little unfashionable, the impact it has still means it can’t be ignored. Many fight against it, few are victorious. The learning outcomes of modules and courses around the world draw from this semi-mystical set of verbs much in the manner of religious observance. It is important to say that words that are appropriate to the level of mystical enlightenment sought. At the lowest levels of what’s sometimes called the cognitive domain, we look for people do be able to ‘select’ or ‘identify’ things. At the highest levels we would expect people to ‘judge’, ‘critique’ or ‘evaluate’. In the middle are things like ‘apply’ and ‘compare’. It’s largely nonsense and full of inconsistencies. To express that viewpoint though is to strike at one of the holy pillars of pedagogic theory and you need to prepare yourself for the reverberations.
If it’s a nonsense system though, why is it so pervasive?
Well, that’s easy – because it’s helpful. There’s a common saying in science – all models are wrong but some models are useful. Bloom’s taxonomy is exactly that – a wrong system that manages to offer some degree of illumination as to the way educators can think about the skills they are attempting to impart to their students. It’s not accurate. It’s not particularly well supported by evidentiary literature. However, it gives us a frame upon which we can hang the learning outcomes of educational units by expressing the rough goals we are hoping to accomplish. It’s easier to ‘define’ than it is to ‘analyze’ and easier to ‘analyze’ than it is to ‘judge’. That is, except for all those times when that isn’t true. Bloom’s taxonomy gives us a starting point, and from there it’s fudging all the way down.
For all its flaws I also think this is a useful lens for contextualising some of the posts I’ve published topic of board game media. Previous editorials there include the myth of the objective review; a wish for a kind of New Board Game Journalism; and a buttload of stuff about ethics.. It’s in that capacity that I want to discuss it today – as a way of talking about what reviews are, what they can be, and why I think we do the hobby an injustice by focusing too much on description as opposed to critique.
Bloom’s taxonomy is sometimes referenced as a hierarchy, with successively higher levels of ‘thinking skills’ being better or more complicated than the ones below. It’s more accurate, if such a thing can even be said of Bloom’s model, to think of it as a ladder. Each level is necessary to reach the levels above – no level is inherently more important than others, and all levels will come into play at some point in the act of critical thinking, opinion forming, and expression. In order to produce a meaningful hypothesis, one must first move through the earlier levels of the model to have something about which one can hypothesize.
In any inherently academic exercise then, every level of this taxonomy will likely be employed. Consider a review. We might define by explaining how particular mechanisms of a game work. We might paraphrase certain sections of a rule-book to illuminate those definitions. We will likely organize or generalize based on the structure of the work we’re doing. We’ll almost certainly categorize and compare as soon as we talk about how a game fits into the wider ecosystem of the landscape, and so on.
What’s important for the act of reviewing though is the proportion of the activity that is to be found in each of the different levels, and what each level imparts upon the spirit of the review. It’s here I think we find the key divergence between what I think is needed and what’s actually done in a lot of cases. I think for a lot of board game reviews too much time is spent down in the lower levels of the model and comparatively little is spent on the more challenging and interesting parts. As always, I preface this with the acknowledgement that the reviewer landscape is pretty much the one people want, as evidenced by their money and eyeballs. This is only a contemplation on what I personally think makes for a good review. It’s not necessarily where the audience is to be found. Take this all with a pinch of salt.
There is no part of this model that is ‘better’ than any other, because better doesn’t make sense in the context of building understanding. The foundational elements are just as important as the critical elements. However, you can think of each level you ascend through Bloom’s taxonomy as representing a kind of ‘order of magnitude’ improvement in the quality of insight. The farther you climb here, the more genuinely personal and reflective a piece of critical work will be. It’s an act of refinement.
Down at the bottom (knowledge) we have the stuff that doesn’t really give anyone a chance to do much except shuffle words around. Lists of components. Definitions of terms. Recognition of gameplay elements. Identification of genres or mechanisms. Insofar as anything can be objective about a review, you’re going to find it in this layer because it’s primarily where you find the uncontroversial and factual. For example:
Villainous (2018) is a hand management game of variable player powers. It comes with six abstract but distinct tokens that represents some of Disney’s colourful villains. Each villain comes with a unique deck of thirty cards, and these represent the powers, resources and opportunities they have available to compete their unique strategic goal. To accompany these beautiful components we also get various tokens, reference cards, and a number of villain guides that aid players in learning the game’s systems.
Note here that lower levels of knowledge don’t imply juvenile expression. That paragraph above is about as pompous as anything I’d write on a day to day basis. However, you can write this without putting anything of yourself in the review. In fact, I’ve never played Villainous. It arrived today, so it was just the game that was closest to hand. There’s nothing at all of me in this paragraph except for word choice. I have given you nothing that the manual couldn’t. I don’t even know if any of that is right, because I haven’t actually read the manual. I merely skimmed it.
Next we move into the layer known as comprehension, and we get activities such as restatement, rewriting, examples and paraphrasing.
The game is played over a number of turns. Each villain has their own unique goal they’re trying to achieve which they do by moving around the location board and performing the actions associated with the location selected. These actions include growing more powerful, drawing cards, activating allies, and seeding disorder into an opponent’s life by drawing from their bespoke ‘fate’ deck. In that you’ll find all the complications that will mess up their day – you might throw Robin Hood at Prince John, or the Little Mermaid at Ursula. Your job here is to manage your allies, your items, and the bothersome heroes that will be constantly trying to undermine you as you work towards your win condition.
I still haven’t played Villainous. Here I’m just paraphrasing the manual. I might expand this by throwing in some examples of cards, interpretation of rules, and perhaps even a summary of how a turn might work. There’s still nothing of me in here. I’m restating the manual.
Into the next layer (application) we start to see some higher level organisation emerge as we relate elements of the game to the components, and components to the rules, and rules to the mechanisms. We might condense the text through generalisation or editorialise by choosing which elements are most important to our discussion.
It’s in the contention between our hero and allies that we find the game – this creates a thematic link between the characters of Villainous and the wider Disney canon. This is going to make the game a joy to play for anyone, much like myself, who has a deep emotional connection to the golden age of Disney animated movies. Your choice of character as a result is perhaps going to reflect your own affections rather than any deeply strategic consideration. However, this is a game with asymmetrical incentives. You need be aware of how the decks in which you are least interested work, because that’s going to have an impact on the way you employ your own.
I wouldn’t put this exemplar review anywhere on anyone’s list of ‘great reviews of Villainous’ but I’m hopefully illustrating something more important here – that you can write a very functional review without ever requiring anything as complex as analysis. All of this text is extrapolated form the manual, from the rules, and from how I know games like this to work in general. I could pad this out to 2000 words and call it a day and I suspect it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. Would people even know I hadn’t played the game, much less hadn’t come up with an opinion?
Hopefully as a reader of this blog you’ve already picked up on the key problem with this proto-review – it’s not remotely evaluative. It says nothing about whether Villainous is good, or whether it works to accomplish its goals. It doesn’t say if it’s fun, and it doesn’t give you any sense of what it actually means to play a game session. It looks like a review, but it misses out on the key elements needed – it has nothing of my opinion in there. There’s subjective stuff, sure – but none of it that came from my informed perspective of how Villainous plays. As I said, this is the example game I’m using purely because it was the one closest to hand.
There are lots of great reviewers out there, and lots of reviewers that I don’t necessarily rate but still put together very well structured and evaluative work. However, there are also an awful lot that I don’t think ever escape from the application layer of Bloom’s taxonomy. You can write something that looks a lot like a review and never need to move from that rung. When more evaluative content comes in, it’s often as a final summative paragraph or ‘last thoughts’ conclusion. It’s rarely embedded into the structure of the work itself. I think that’s a massive shame – not because it’s a bad review, but because it’s a review that stifles the author’s own creativity. If a review spends too much time in the levels of the taxonomy that we’ve just discussed, it’ll never draw my interest because it never says anything that makes me stop and consider.
I think this is what what people mean when they talk about reviews as being ‘90% rules explanation’ and then a ‘it was good, bye’ sign-off. It’s not that people aren’t moving beyond the application level of the framework so much as they aren’t balancing the prominence they give to the various different levels. You end up with something slanted too much towards the perfunctory and that’s not appropriate for producing genuinely meaningful works of review and criticism.
Let’s see what happens when we climb a l’il bit higher.
The next level is analysis and here we find inferences, comparisons, categorizations and differentiations. Think of Bloom’s rose, as shown at the top of this post, as two semi-circles. The first half is information you draw from elsewhere. The second half is insight that draws from you. Here’s where we start to enter the most personal and, to my mind, most effective parts of a review.
Do you know how I know these bits are the most important? It’s because I can’t write anything of value at this level about Villainous. I have exhausted my supply of trivially extrapolated details. I don’t have the experience of the game to draw from, and thus nothing more to contribute to a discussion. It’s not that there’s nothing I can say, but there’s nothing I can say about the game. I can tap-dance around it, but you’re just going to notice that my feet never go where they should.
Here you might draw in comparisons between Villainous and… see, I don’t even know what would be a good comparison. Codenames Disney? Blood Rage? Cosmic Encounter? I could probably infer from the rules some meaningful and appropriate games with which to contrast but I could never truly perform that comparison in a meaningful way without defaulting to platitudes and generalisations. From this point on, I’m bluffing. I can say things like ‘Villainous feels like a heavier game than you’d expect from its design’ and there I’m rolling the dice that the design feels light and that it feels lighter than what BGG has down for its weight. I’m basically performing a confidence trick here, and I can’t solidify anything I say until I sit down and actually play.
This act of analysis is a conscious performative task of understanding what the game in front of you is accomplishing. It’s not describing how things relate together but instead saying what it means when things relate together. How well does Ursula’s villain deck model her character? How varied are the different win conditions, and how satisfying are they in context? Do these win conditions work with the grain of the mechanisms, or against it? Whatever the answer is, was that intentional and was it successful?
I don’t know, and I can’t ever know until I educate myself.
Good reviews spend a lot more time at this level of the model than they do at the lower levels. Indeed, I think good reviews will almost always have their largest proportion of effort spent here.
As we move into the next level (synthesis) we start to find things like experimentation and formulation of hypotheses. Again, I can only guess here as to what might be meaningful discussion points. There’s no villain in here from a movie more recent than 1992 – is that a strange disconnect between the game’s presumed audience, or does Villainous seem to be intentionally mining the nostalgia centres of middle-aged board gamers? What does the design of the game tell us about that? What do you hypothesize to be the game’s goals from the way it all comes together as a playable experience?
There’s a lot of scope for experimentation here too, and while that’s rarely expressed in a review it’s almost always a part of what’s happening as a component element of understanding the game. How does Villainous change as you pick different character combinations? What happens if you try different styles? Are the problems you experience in the game a result of its design or how you’re playing? What happens at different player counts? What happens if you play against type? And more importantly, how does all of that emerge from the game systems as they are expressed in front of you?
It’s at this point here we start to move from reviews and into more rounded critiques, and we also run the risk of disappearing up our own backsides. It’s possible to do an intense, insightful deep dive into a game by exploring this level of the taxonomy but it has a real risk of becoming too insular and too quixotic. There’s a role for that kind of writing about board games, and there are some marvellous pieces out there that do exactly that. We should never lose sight though of what a review should be – meaningfully instructive for an audience considering whether a game is for them. Insofar as this layer can be useful, it’s exploring the meta-context in which a game should reside. For example, in our review of Clank I spent a bit of time talking about the kind of players you need to get the most out of the experience, and the kind of players that will make it falter. That’s a hypothesis derived from experimentation. It was included in the review not because of my own indulgent whims but rather because I thought it communicated an important point about the wisdom of a purchase.
The final layer of the taxonomy (evaluation) is also the most awkward, because it’s deceptive. Here we find things like ‘judge’ and ‘evaluate’ but the problem is you can do all of that without ever engaging in higher level consideration. ‘I liked it, it was good’ is an evaluation. ‘This game is bad and people are bad for liking it’ is a judgement. What Bloom doesn’t do here is properly ground these words in their context – it’s not the judgement or the evaluation that matters. It’s the reasons behind them. It’s how well you can pinpoint the component elements that went into the summation.
There’s often a formula people follow in the writing of a review across all kinds of disciplines, and it often mirrors the taxonomy. For tabletop games it often follows this recipe:
- Explain the game and the jargon.
- Overview of components. Show people what they get.
- Rules overview. Explain how the game plays and what you’ll be doing.
- (Optional) Analysis. If you’re lucky.
- Say whether it’s good or bad.
And that looks exactly what I’ve argued for here. The thing is that a conclusion fails its job if it’s merely tacked on at the end. A conclusion should summarize the critical evaluation that has been conducted all the way through the review. This is essentially the life-line of this kind of work – everything else that branches away should be constantly harkening back to that main, overriding obligation. Our job is to explain to people why we have evaluated something the way we have because then if they disagree they themselves can judge our evaluation. In the reviews I like best, you can’t go far through without finding something evaluative – something that appraises a subset of the game in its current context. Many of the best reviews are layered more like progressions through the Kabballah than they are marks on a checklist. Giving your opinion is important, but what’s more important still is that the reader knows the reasons behind that opinion. Was the game funny? What was it in the design that brought that out? Was it easy to learn? Why? Does it have a good, solid puzzle at the core? Then how does that puzzle come about and how do the tools you have for approaching it lead to your claim it’s ‘satisfying to solve’?
It’s interesting here too that this isn’t something that can only be applied to discursive reviews like we do here on Meeple Like Us. It’s also something that can work well within different kinds of structures. Check out What’s Eric Playing for an example of that – rules and setup neatly broken away and then useful, insightful discussions of player count differences (synthesis), suggested strategies (synthesis and analysis) and then pros, mehs, and cons (evaluation, synthesis and evaluation). You’re left in no doubt as to where the end judgement came from and you can assess whether the categorization is one that you yourself might have employed.
I think I have a bit of a reputation as a ‘reviewer gatekeeper’, writing as I do so many articles about this on how people ‘aren’t doing it right’. I can see how that impression can come across, but it’s not my intention to get anyone to stop. Good Lord no. Instead, I like to think of myself as a reviewer cheerleader. Sure, it’s probably one of those ultra-bitchy, catty cheerleaders that will end up eaten by zombies at the start of the second act of the movie. Still though, I am cheering for a more effective reviewer landscape. It probably doesn’t come across that way because I’m also a stuffy middle-aged University lecturer and nobody wants to picture me with a miniskirt and pom-poms.
What I want is to see more of the good stuff in the reviews I read. When I sit down to read a review I want to hear the reviewer talking to me. There’s nothing mystical or magical about the ‘higher levels’ of the Bloom taxonomy. It’s not especially complicated. It’s just that this framework, in the context of a review, is a way to get your voice out there. People want your authentic experience. We want to know what’s in your mind, not what’s in the rulebook.