Being criticised is never much fun. Many people tend to become defensive when criticised. You’ve worked hard on something and then someone comes along and tells you why they don’t like it. We feel threatened.

However, people also tend to become defensive when someone criticises something that they like, even if the criticism isn’t directed at them in any way. Imagine someone said that your favourite football team or music artist or boardgame was rubbish. How would you feel?

Most people feel equally threatened when something or someone they associate themselves with is criticised. This is sometimes known as tribalism and it’s as prevalent in boardgaming as anywhere else. Let me explain…

Many aeons ago, the human race existed in tribes. From an evolutionary point of view, tribes provided a huge advantage. The younger members could learn from the older members. Knowledge of animal movements, rainfall patterns and hunting skills could all be passed down from generation to generation.

If the tribe was threatened in some way, perhaps by a marauding pack of lions, then they could group together and protect what was theirs. They could become defensive. This kind of thinking allowed them to survive in situations where individuals would perish.


So when someone criticises a boardgame that you like, it’s human instinct to be defensive. It’s obviously possible to overcome this instinct, but that initial reaction of feeling threatened is hard to train yourself out of.

I’ve noticed that tribalism is particularly acute when it comes to Kickstarters. If you’ve backed a game and invested your hard-earned cash into it, you really want it to be good. Especially if you’ve invested a lot of money!

If reviewers start criticising the game, it’s very easy to feel threatened. You don’t want your money to have been wasted. You want the reviewer to be wrong. You will feel reassured by any reviewers that say that the game is good. They subconsciously become part of your tribe. It’s us against them.

Now I review boardgames. I only tend to review games that I would play anyway (I don’t make an effort to review games that I’m not interested in), so I review games that I think I’ll like. Overall then, I tend to be fairly positive.

However, every now and then I play a game that I was expecting to like, but didn’t. Or maybe it’s a game that a lot of people love and I was unimpressed. It’s not a bad game, I just don’t like it as much as others for one reason or another.

This leads to inevitable criticism, which can cause people to become defensive. Particularly if it’s a popular game. “Loads of people like this game, but Jonathan doesn’t. Clearly he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”

For example, we reviewed Onitama recently. It’s a well-respected abstract game with a high average review on BoardGameGeek. I didn’t like it very much. I could see why it would appeal to people, but for various reasons I didn’t enjoy it. I rated it 5 out of 10.

Here is how one of the YouTube viewers responded:

Onitama Comment

He clearly feels that the game deserves a higher rating than I gave. I suspect he thinks that I can’t appreciate how good it is because I’m only interested in zombies and fantasy-themed games. It would be very easy to become defensive myself in this situation: “I’m not a fan of zombies! He doesn’t even know me!” However, that clearly won’t lead to a productive conversation.

So how should you respond when someone becomes defensive? When tribalism takes over, what should you do? First of all, just realise that you don’t have to respond. When people are angry (a common reaction to feeling threatened), sometimes a productive conversation isn’t possible. You can usually just walk away.

Let’s say you want (or need) to respond for some reason though. I think it’s really tricky, but I find understanding their point of view really helpful. This is for two reasons. If you understand why they’re saying what they’re saying, you’re much less likely to become defensive yourself.

Secondly, if you can communicate the fact that you understand them, they’re more likely to see you as part of their tribe instead of some outside threat. We both like playing boardgames. That commonality can bridge a lot of differences.


How do you gain more understanding of their point of view? Ask them! “Lots of people do seem to like Onitama a lot. What is it about the game that you particularly like? Maybe I’m missing something!”

Humility helps a lot here as well. We’re not arguing politics or religion. At the end of the day, how good Onitama is doesn’t really matter. Maybe I am wrong about the game. If someone explains why they like it so much, I might change my opinion and learn to enjoy it. That would be a great outcome!

Have you noticed people acting with a tribal mentality when it comes to boardgames? Do you have any advice on how to respond?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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