The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Reviewing Games

Greg Aleknevicus

October, 2001

Reviewing games (or anything for that matter) can be a very tricky business. It isn't really easy to understand why until you've actually tried it a couple of times. The chief point of contention is how much should be devoted to explaining the games rules. It's a poor review that simply rewords the instruction manual and then adds: "Overall, the game is good/bad." I can understand why this type of review is written, the primary reason is that it's fairly easy. Second of all, it seems clear that you need to describe the mechanics at least a little in order to have a framework to discuss the game's merits. The trick is in not getting carried away with this and knowing when enough is enough. (Aside: it's a personal pet peeve of mine when reviewers simply restate their opinion as a reason for that opinion:

Dylan: "This game totally rox, dude!"
Tommy: "Why's that?"
Dylan: "Cause it totally rox, man!"

Fortunately this type of reasoning seems to be more specific to electronic gaming as does the "rox"/"sux" dichotomy of opinion.)

More important is a description of how the game "feels". As an example there are plenty of negotiating games and a simple reading of the rules will often fail to convey the relative viciousness of the game. Will it be the innocuous deal-making of Quo Vadis or the brutal back-stabbing of Intrige? This is an easy example but it illustrates my point which is that a good review informs the reader of the experience of playing the game. This is where the "art" of reviewing comes in and why it's so hard to actually accomplish.

Of course all this isn't absolute and will vary for each person. Some people enjoy a review that tends more to a description of the rules than others. Personally, I find Mike Siggins' reviews to be excellent and I always enjoy reading them. He tends not to dwell on the mechanics so much and for me, that works. There are others that have complained about this and suggest that they're not clear on how the game plays.

(Peter Sarrett has written a "Review Manifesto" that outlines his views on this subject. His main point also seems to be that too much fixation on the rules is a bad thing. It was published in The Game Report #24 and I recommend it highly to any interested parties. Peter has stated far more clearly and persuasively the reasons behind this.)

An anecdote: I had read several reviews for Schrille Stille and most were ultimately negative about it. Still, the game intrigued me and it remained on my "maybe" list. I could fully understand everything that the reviewers were saying but I still thought that I might enjoy it; I couldn't quite put my finger on why this was so. Frank Branham made the following comment: "One minute of deciding followed by five minutes of really tedious moving bits around to determine the outcome." That single phrase crystallized what I suspected was the problem with the game (from the reviews I read) but didn't perfectly verbalize. It wasn't that the other reviews were poor but rather that they didn't align with my thinking the same way that Frank's did.

One of the biggest (and most obvious) mistakes a reviewer can make is playing the game incorrectly. This is particularly dangerous when playing translated games but even official rules can be misinterpreted. It's not uncommon for a very slight rule change to have a profound effect on how a game plays. It's really unfair to the designer and publisher when this sort of thing happens. Even worse when the error isn't obvious from the review and so a correction can't be made. (As an aside I find it interesting to note how often people tend to prefer their incorrect rules to the original. For my part I play Bohnanza such that you may plough any field when planting. The official rule is that you cannot plough under a single-bean beanfield unless that's all you've got. More often than not players are reluctant to change a game they enjoy and I suppose that's understandable.) My biggest gaffe was in Formula De: We played the game in strict player order (around the table as in most games) rather than in order of your current standing in the race. It's amazing that we played as often as we did because there are major problems with the game when played this way. I'm sure that I expressed my opinion about it at some point and this clearly was a case of doing the game an injustice. (I've since played the game many times the proper way and while I still don't think it's all that great, my point still holds.) I think the best thing a potential reviewer can do is to re-read the rules as many times as possible. I suppose that I'm fortunate in that I really enjoy reading rules and will do so as a matter of course. Often I'll read them twice before and again after my first playing of the game. If it's been a while I'll often re-read them just to "freshen up". I suppose it's a sickness but I do enjoy it. Despite this, I still get things wrong as the above examples demonstrate. As a reviewer though, there's a far greater obligation to strive for correctness.

Another of the problems I've faced is knowing when you've played a game a sufficient number of times in order to be able to fairly judge it. In the case of game that you like this is usually not too much of problem as you're likely to play it repeatedly anyway. What about the times that you dislike a game after a single playing? I've been lucky in that I've received games specifically to review them. (That should be enough to convince some of you to start writing—occasionally you get free stuff!) I love games and so I'm always excited about some new diversion and I must admit that one of my greatest pleasures is coming home and seeing a package that the mailman has left. There is one problem though and that's that the game is an unknown quantity. While there are plenty of interesting and fun games, I'd hazard that there are a greater number of stinkers. The bad part is that since you've agreed to review it, you've got an obligation to play the game more times than you might otherwise. This has often been the case with the games I've received from Games, Games, Games magazine. They're usually lesser known items and so I've no idea whether they'll appeal at all when I volunteer to review them. It's especially disheartening then to play the game for the first time and realize that you just don't like it. Not so much in that the game wasn't any good but in the knowledge that you'll be forced to play it again and again. Unlike others I don't get to actually play games all that much and so I treasure the few hours a week that I do. There's a real opportunity cost of playing a stinker over and over again; I don't regret playing Stadens Nyckel for example but I do feel bad that I didn't play El Grande in that time instead. Again, this is a cross (albeit a light one in the grand scheme of things) that the reviewer simply has to bear. The time a reviewer spends playing a game is insignificant to the time a designer puts into his or her "baby".

A debate sprang up on recently about the concept of "initial impressions" of a game versus a full review. Initial impressions being the expression of opinions about a game before one has played the game many times (or even at all). It's my opinion that this is a direct result of the internet and the speed of communication that it allows. As soon as a game is released (and sometimes before) rumors and queries are bouncing back and forth about it. Naturally the first question that comes up is "Is it any good?" Perfectly understandable but sometimes misleading for the obvious reasons. However, it explains the desire of people to "review" the game before they're ready.

So are initial impressions a bad thing? In my opinion, no, for several reasons. First off information is always useful, if the choice is between an initial impression or nothing at all, it should be pretty clear which is better. Like it or not this is often the choice we're presented with. Of course the choice between a carefully considered review and a first impression is equally obvious but we're not always given this choice.

Furthermore, I believe that any game, no matter how bad you find it, will have somebody, somewhere who feels that it's the greatest challenge ever devised. Tastes vary in all things, games are no exception. So imagine a game that is instantly reviled by almost everyone and yet enjoyed by a very few. These few are then likely to be the only ones willing to play the game enough times in order to give the game a full and carefully considered review. Therefore, it's equally likely that every review is a glowing endorsement. While certainly accurate for those select few I don't think this gives a truly accurate view of the game. Quick comments from some of the great majority would be helpful I think. The real trick in this is that both the writer and reader must be clear about the opinion expressed. Stating that you've only played the game a couple of times would be absolutely essential. Equally so, the reader must temper everything read with this in mind. As long as the "reviewer" has stated the conditions under which he's formed an opinion I believe it's valid to express it.

The biggest problem I can see is if these so-called "initial impressions" end up drowning out the standard review. As I stated above both have their uses but it's clearly the considered review that's of greater value. Once again I think this may be due to the internet and the speed with which it allows communication. Everyone quickly chats about the latest and greatest, expressing first opinions and such and then just as quickly moving on before anyone has had a chance to really digest the game. This sense of urgency can mean that a careful review never gets written; by the time it's possible, the game is considered "yesterdays news". Hopefully this won't be the case. I've purposely avoided concentrating on publishing reviews in The Games Journal. One reason is that so we can focus on more general purpose articles and the other is so that we can avoid the "latest and greatest" syndrome that could lead away from the more considered review.

Another interesting anomaly concerning first impressions is how often they're wrong. (More correctly how infrequently they're wrong.) It's been extremely rare for me to change my mind about a game after playing it many times. In the vast number of cases my opinion of a game remains very similar to my initial opinion. (By this I mean whether I think the game is good or bad. I often change the degree to which I like/dislike a game but almost never will I switch from disliking it to liking it or vice-versa.) In fact, I have a hard time thinking of any game that I've changed my mind about. The closest recent game I can come up with is Aladdin's Dragons. Those of you who read my Gathering report in Counter #9 may remember that I had an absolutely disastrous first playing of the game. I can report that I've since played it several more times and rather enjoyed the experience. I consider it to be a good game and a definite keeper. However, this isn't exactly a reversal of my opinion as I did say in my report that I thought the game was good and these subsequent plays have confirmed this. So from a personal standpoint I find that initial impressions are often quite valid. I suppose it may be that I'm simply stubborn and resistant to change my mind but I guess it's hard to objectively comment on this. Certainly there have been situations where others have noted that their opinion altered drastically after several more plays of a game.

There are a few games which have flaws that are only revealed after several playings. e.g. A strategy that's clearly superior to others.

Zirkus Flohcati cards

As an example, I've played a lot of Zirkus Flohcati recently—it's a light game with very little strategy. Despite this I've consistently managed to do quite well -- my suspicion is that attempting a Gala is the best approach. Discovering this has lessened the game for me, but I still feel positive about it. Still, the possibility exists that a truly game-ruining strategy might emerge. Such is often the case with two-player abstracts that are "solved". (That is, it's been proven that one player can always win.) Much more often than not this is only going to be discovered after several plays of the game.

In summary, I find that despite all the inherent problems with reviewing games that it's an enjoyable experience overall. I'm certainly grateful to those who write them and hope they'll continue.

- Greg Aleknevicus

(This article originally appeared in issue #10 of Counter magazine with slightly altered text.)

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