The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

When Good Reviews Go Bad

Greg J. Schloesser

December, 2002

Ever since I can remember, I've always enjoyed writing. When other students would moan and groan about a school assignment that involved creative writing, I would rejoice. I'm really not sure why. No one in my immediate family enjoyed writing and, as far as I can tell, there wasn't a history of authors in my family tree. For some reason, writing struck a chord inside me and, in one form or another, I've been writing articles, columns, speeches, commentaries, reviews, etc. for various clubs, organizations and publications since I was in grammar school. This has probably been to the delight of some, but also to the consternation of many!

Another thing I've been doing since as long as I can remember is playing games. Ever since a child, I was obsessed with board games. I grew-up in a small, New Orleans style "shotgun" house. That's a local term to describe a narrow house wherein the rooms are all aligned in a row. The joke is that if you open all the doors, you can shoot a shotgun into the front door and the bullets will spray out of the back door without hitting any walls! Although my house was small and my family's income on the lower end of the financial scale, we really never wanted for any of the necessities of life. Further, my father always seemed to find enough money to surprise me with a toy or, better yet, a board game. Indeed, the entire hallway of our small home was lined with bookshelves containing dozens and dozens of board games. Needless to say, my home was the "hot spot" for neighborhood children as we wiled away the hours playing games. No, I don't think I was a complete nerd, as I also partook in the other traditional pastimes of boyhood, including football, basketball and other more energy-burning activities. But playing board games was always my favorite thing to do.

So, I guess it was inevitable that my two obsessions of writing and playing games would eventually merge. When I formed the Westbank Gamers back in early 1995, I began writing a semi-monthly newsletter covering the activities of our group. Westbank Gamers website This was the beginning of my "session reports", but I would also include reviews of games, commentary, statistics and more. The newsletter was primarily sent to the members of our group, but eventually others heard of it and requested copies. When I finally made the plunge into cyberspace and joined the internet community, my life changed forever. I discovered various internet fora that concentrated on my obsession of board gaming and jumped in with a vengeance. I designed a website for our Westbank Gamers group and gradually this replaced our local newsletter as the source for my reports, reviews, commentary and other musings.

Eventually, I began writing reviews and material for other game-related publications and forums. Often, it seems I have more work to do for my hobby than I do for my occupation! Still, I never consider the writing I do "work", for it is truly a joy to do.

Although I enjoy writing so much, one of the toughest chores that I face as a reviewer of games is to deliver an unfavorable review. I know fully that the heart and soul of a designer has likely been poured into a project and it is, in a sense, his "baby". Certain feelings of fondness and perhaps even perfection develop for the game and he undoubtedly has high hopes that it will be met with an overwhelming positive response by the gaming public. Negative response or criticism of the game can sting. No one enjoys hearing criticism about his baby.

However, to me, truthfully reporting my opinion on a game is of utmost importance if my credibility is to be maintained. As mentioned, I write reviews primarily because I enjoy writing, but also because I do feel a sense of duty to truthfully report my perceptions of the games I play to other gamers and the general public. I am cognizant of the fact that I have developed somewhat of a reputation—be it good or bad—in various gaming circles and that my reviews are often read and given a certain degree of weight by some folks. I am truly flattered and honored by this, yet at the same time challenged by it. I feel that if I failed to report my opinions and viewpoints honestly, I would be performing a disservice to those who read my reviews and musings.

Some folks have suggested that only positive reviews should be published and if a game is not enjoyed, it is best that a review not be written. There's a line in the wonderful Disney movie Bambi wherein Thumper makes the assertion (and I'm paraphrasing here), "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all". This is a wonderful philosophy when speaking about another person and, to me, is the right and moral approach to take. However, when it comes to critiquing a product—in this case a game—I disagree with this approach and feel that everyone deserves to be informed of a game's merits, be they good or bad. To do less, in my opinion, would be a lapse of duty and an injustice.

The task of writing a less-than-favorable review is made even more difficult when the designer is personally known by the reviewer. I have been fortunate in that I've been able to travel to many game conventions and meet some incredible people, including many game designers. I've developed some warm, personal relationships with many of them and think very highly of them. Occasionally, however, I am faced with the task of writing a review on one of their games that, in my perception, has some problems. I'm often tempted to simply not write the review, leaving the task to someone else, for fear of bruising the designer and somehow affecting our friendship. That would certainly be the easy way out. However, that would also, in my opinion, be the wrong way out. Whatever reputation I have developed as a reviewer is likely based on several factors. I personally feel that of all the factors involved, honesty is the most important. If readers of a review cannot trust the honesty and integrity of the author of the review, then the review itself isn't worth a grain of salt. So, for me, no matter how difficult the task or personal considerations involved, writing a honest review, without brutality or malice, is of utmost importance.

That being said, I also suffer no illusions that my opinion is the only opinion. Indeed, I fully urge anyone who reads reviews or reports I may write to also read the reports and reviews of other trusted individuals. I wouldn't want anyone basing their game purchases on my opinions alone... or the opinions of any one reviewer. Ideally, a "try before you buy" approach is the best, but in the absence of that, I strongly urge folks to read the reviews and reports of a variety of individuals when making a purchase decision. There are a lot of talented and knowledgeable individuals writing reviews and you will eventually find a reviewer or two whose opinions and tastes in games tend to parallel your own. You can then rely a bit more heavily on their reports when making your game purchasing decisions.

- Greg J. Schloesser

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