Punchboard Media: Conversations Between Turns - Reviewing Board Games
Every month or two, a conversation pops up on social media about reviewing board games. That conversation can start about whether a reviewer is biased, or about a reviewer getting paid, or the difference between previews and reviews, or about the ethics of receiving review copies, but it usually spreads to each of these topics at some length before fading away, only to pop back up again soon after.
As many of us at Punchboard Media spend time reviewing games, we had a spirited conversation on this very topic, which has been editing down and formatted for this post in an effort to give some thoughts on why each of us chooses to review games, and discloses each of our ethical views on taking payment and review copies.
First, let's introduce everyone and see why exactly it is they review games.
Eric Yurko, What’s Eric Playing?: Honestly, most of my reviews are just the way I explain a game to another person. Writing the reviews up helps me better remember the rules or gives me a quick, in-my-own-voice piece of reference material (with photos so I know what I'm looking at). I really enjoy board games, and it makes it much easier to say "oh just read this" or to spout some of the things I said in my review when someone asks me about a game than it would be to try and synthesize all my thoughts about a game on the spot. It's also a fun way to interact with and be a member of the community.
Brian Everett, Cloak and Meeple: I love games. I grew up loving games, but I was an only child and rarely had opportunities to play games. As an adult I've discovered this whole new world of games. I started reviewing them for something to do in my off time and it has grown since.
Ken Grazier, Geek-Craft: I review games to help share the good and the bad about games. I like talking about games and helping people find games that will make them happy. There are a lot of options out there, so helping someone figure out if a certain title is for them or not is a way that I can give back.
Oscar Logan Gonzalez, El Doc Logan: I review games so I can help all those people looking the right game and to have an easy access to boardgame related information. Basically, I try to be that bridge putting the games closer to the tables of everyone, everywhere.
Donny Behne, Geaux Gaming: I review games because I like talking about games, even if it’s to myself. If I can provide someone with information on a game that helps them make an informed decision, that’s all the better.
Brandon Kempf, WDYPTW: I'm a lot like Donny, I started our podcast because I wanted to talk about games, and it seems the natural progression was for me to start reviewing games as we play them. It also helps me think about games more critically than if I were just playing them, you notice things a bit more as you play when you are thinking about what you are going to say about a game.
Eric Buscemi, The Cardboard Hoard: I figure I can give back to the community by reviewing lesser covered games that I liked and hopefully introducing them to others. For example, there are already more than 50 reviews on Summoner Wars on BoardGameGeek, so I don't feel the need to weigh in on that, but there are only three other reviews of Brewin' USA in addition to mine, so I feel my review has value there.
Charles Hasegawa, Things of No Interest: The point of a review is to offer my opinion on a game. People who read what I write probably have some idea about games I like and dislike and why, so a review expresses that opinion with a known bias that helps the reader understand whether or not that will also like/dislike a game.
Aaron Cassidy, Boards Alive: Besides all the wonderful reasons mentioned already I wanted to be a contributor to the hobby instead of just a consumer. I like the idea of a creative outlet where I am (hopefully) helping the community.
So what exactly makes a good review?
Charles: It depends on the game. I'm not sure you can give a template that works for everything. Some games are so complex, that you can't really give a description of the rules well, some games you can't really review without explaining the rules. Some games are outstanding but have next to nothing for components, others you need to talk about the components a lot. I guess a good review should cover how everything comes together. Rules, components, experiences at different player counts, ideal player counts, length, pacing, and comparisons to other games. That last bit I think is important to me. I want to know why I need a game in my collection. If it is basically a poor-man’s version of game X, that's good to know. If it has new mechanics or a better mix than similar games, that's important.
Ken: I feel a good review should cover a few things. The rules, the components, the gameplay, and what you feel about the game. The rules should cover how the game works in broad strokes. For example, it would be fair to cover the basics of the rules without getting into the minutiae. This is important for the review to cover things to inform, but not be too long. The components should be covered (assuming final production copy) for two reasons. One is to convey what comes in the box (or doesn't, in some cases). Two is to note any issues with the components: thin cards, colorblind unfriendliness, typos, etc. This helps people see what they are considering buying. The gameplay should be covered as the reason we play games is for the game play. Talk about rules issues, minor strategies, and issues with how the game flows. Being honest here is critical.
Eric Y: I've seen some conversation lately discussing how reviews don't need to have the rules anymore, but I think that a good review having the rules provides context to some opinions (as well as confirms you played with all of the correct rules before forming an opinion, which ... isn't always true for everyone). At the bare minimum I'd like to see a rules overview, some discussion of pros / cons about the game, and an ultimate decision about the game with some explanation. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd like to see some pictures as well, though. I'd also like to see some way in which the reviewer makes the review their own. What sets this review apart from the other reviews of this game? Seems like a useful thing to keep in mind.
Oscar: A good review? An opinion and why you reached that opinion. I like to include "how to" everything and components because I'm trying to approach people and tell them, this is in the game, be sure you want to handle all those bits, and this is how it is played because the rules will not always be in Spanish. Also, I'm saying this is my opinion on the game based on this and that.
Brandon: A solid review should give the reader/listener/viewer enough info that they can understand what is going on in the game from a mechanical viewpoint, along with enough personal insight to give them an idea of how you feel about how those mechanisms work together. A good review also needs to give credit where credit is due, if the graphic design is excellent, find out the person who did the design and credit them. It's not just the publisher here you should be heaping praise on. But, every person is different and every reader/listener/viewer takes in information differently, so what's good for one, may not be for another.
Eric B: I agree with everything above, but I'll add that brevity is important to me, which is why my reviews are as short as they are. Also, I think that balancing rules and gameplay with opinion is critical. I don’t want a rehash of a rulebook, but I also don’t want a lengthy opinion if I don’t have a feel for the game being reviewed.
Do you publish negative reviews?
Brandon: I have never written an entirely negative review, but I have written reviews that can be seen as negative, like my thoughts on Ethnos or Unlock!. I think you have to be fair to people and give the good with the bad, but I also know that I'm not going to sink the time into something that is absolutely garbage, it'll just sit off to the side and rot before I give it enough plays to review.
Ken: I've done a few negative reviews. Sometimes I feel very strongly that a given product is just not good. But overall, I try to keep my reviews honest -- A game isn't bad just because I don't like it, but if I explain why I don't like it, someone else who has similar tastes can likely see that they won't like it for the same reason. If someone is very opposite to my preferences, they can still take things from the negative aspects of my review and maybe see that the game is for them.
Eric B: I don't, simply because I don't want to spend my free time writing about something I don't like. My reviews are critical, though. They always have pros and cons, where I try to note what kind of gamers would enjoy the game and which woouldn’t. But if I feel a game is simply bad or just forgettable, I'll just skip reviewing it in favor of reviewing something else, as my writing time is very limited.
Charles: A review should be based on the reviewer's opinion. If I don't care for some part of a game, I'm going to say so. That doesn't make a game bad per se, it means I didn't care for something. I don't care for pure negotiation games and will happily report that I don't like them, but I can at least say why. I don't like Race for the Galaxy, but I'm not going to sugar coat that just because everyone else does.
Donny: Nope. If I don’t like a game, I won’t review it. It’s not about anti-negativity, it has it’s place, but if I’m going to take time out of my schedule to write a well-constructed piece, it’s going to be for a game I like, not one I didn’t.
Aaron: Of course! If we don't like a game, we will tell you that. We always try to provide a balanced view of a game, especially in a feature review, but we will call out a bad game, even if it was sent to us for free. It's more important to be honest with our listeners than pay some sort of sad service to the publisher who sent us the game.
Eric Y: Rarely. I spend a lot of time writing (generally my reviews are 2000+ words) and doing/editing photography for games, and that's a lot of energy to expend doing something I don't particularly care for. This leads to an easy way to see what games I don't like because there are noticeable "gaps" in my reviews -- games I've played a fair number of times and not reviewed or things like that. That said, some get reviews written and then sit in my backlog, so that's not a precise measurement. If I agree to do a review for someone and I don't particularly like their game, I'll be honest about it, unless it's so reviled by my game group(s) that I can't get enough plays in for a review. And that's only happened once.
Brian: I have not yet, but I will. I have some games that I played and just didn't click with. As an aside, I would never do a negative preview. If I didn't like a game I was to preview, I would not do the video.
Brian, you just brought up previews, what makes a preview different from a review?
Brian: Previews are a sneak peak of a game. With them I generally don't expect to hear a full breakdown analysis of the game. They don't always have full art or finished components. They are made to produce an overview for you to form your opinion on.
Charles: I agree with Brian, a preview can be seen as way to grab interest on a game so that if you have interest, you come back for a full on analysis of the game.
Eric Y: I consider my previews as close to a review as I can do under the circumstances. I indicate that rules, art, and other aspects of the game may change, but I don't necessarily always have time to update my preview to a review (especially if I don't end up with a finished copy of a game). Therefore, I'll often leave it with a "Preview" tag. If I were to update it with both the finished art and the new rules, I'd drop the preview tag and just leave it as a standard review. For me, preview just means "this is a review, but this information may be out of date by the time you get your KS copy -- rather, use this to determine if you want to back this on Kickstarter or not."
Aaron: Previews are like the trailer for a board game. They are supposed to get you excited to try it out by getting to see how the game works. A review is like the critic who saw the movie and said whether they liked it or not based on their own taste and criteria.
Ken: Previews are a form of review, but are not the same. Previews are usually done for Kickstarters or before a game is fully published. This can mean that the finished product has different art/rules/gameplay, and the person doing the (p)review may not be aware.
Donny: A review is a preview with an opinion piece tacked on the end. I think every good review should have enough content to let the person reading have some grasp of how the game is played, no matter how loosely. This way, they can fully understand the opinion at the end.
Now for the most controversial question, do you charge for reviews or previews, or get any non-monetary compensation from publishers?
Brandon: Nope, but I generally only preview games for friends or if I specifically search something out that I want to preview. I do it for my own exposure and fun.
Aaron: No, but we receive a fair amount of free review copies of games. We also have had publisher sponsors for our episodes in the past. It does not impact our view of the games those publishers produce, though. If a game is good or bad in our opinion, we'll let you know honestly.
Eric Y: Nope. I just ask for a production copy of the game if I'm doing a preview, and that's mostly so I can update my photography with the newer version. I would consider charging for a preview if they wanted me to rush it, but honestly, I try to do previews as quickly as possible anyways, so even if I got paid I often couldn't produce a preview much faster than I currently do. As for reviews, I do receive review copies, but I disclose at the beginning of my review if I got one that way.
Donny: Nope. I’m also new to the process and no one is hot on my heels asking me to review stuff. If someone approached me wanting a formal review/preview, I may ask for compensation, but that is a long ways off.
Ken: I don't tend to charge money. I usually ask for a final copy of the game if I'm doing a Kickstarter preview, or a copy of the game if I'm doing a review.
Charles: Nope, but I'm not going out of the way to buy a game for review either.
Brian: I do not charge for reviews. However I just started charging for previews. I feel I am established enough and have a style I can call my own. I am on the low end of what some charge so I am still affordable to new game designers.
Eric B: No. Publishers do occasionally send me review copies, which I always note in my reviews. I almost never keep them, as I like to pass them along to other board game media people, so the game can get more exposure.
Oscar: I don't charge, but that might change depending on urgency or what else might be needed. I have also done free translations of rules to Spanish.
We hope you've enjoyed reading this round table discussion. Have any thoughts on what anyone said? Comment below and let us know!