13 May 2014
Last month I wrote a blog entry about how Kickstarter creators are the new gatekeepers. Honestly, though, in the board game world, there’s a second gatekeeper, and it’s not publishing companies: board game reviewers.
You take the time to play games, dissect them, and express your thoughts about them to the general public so people can decide if the game is a good fit before buying it. This is great for the consumer.
You also serve as an amazing marketing platform for games. For the cost of making and sending you a copy of a game, a publishing company can reach hundreds or thousands of people. You might do this when the game is brand new, or you might do it months later, giving the game a nice boost after the hype has died down. This is great for the publisher.
Reviewers are integral to this industry, and I am so appreciative of what you do, both as a gamer and a small publisher.
However, after seeing a huge increase in requests for review copies this year, many of them from reviewers who have just started reviewing (or haven’t even started yet–if that’s the case, keep in mind these fundamentals of blogging), I’d like to open a dialogue about those requests, things you can do to establish credibility, and my responsibility as a publisher.
Requests for Free Games from Reviewers
When I got a request for a free game from a reviewer, I look at a few different things:
- How long have you been reviewing games? It’s really, really easy to start a blog these days. Anyone can become a game reviewer in about 3 minutes on WordPress or BGG. The hard part is sustaining the blog. Reviewing games takes time and effort. Can you sustain it over a significant period of time (4-5 months at least)? Have you already? If you’ve only been reviewing games for a few weeks–or your blog isn’t even live yet–I can’t justify the expense of sending you a free game.
- What kind of games have you reviewed? This is closely tied to my previous point, but it’s important for me to not just look at the number of games you’ve reviewed, but also the types of games. This is for your sake and for mine. If you primarily review miniatures war games, the people who read your blog are those who are interested in miniatures war games. It’s not an effective use of my money or your time for me to send you a copy of Viticulture.
- Do I like your content? This doesn’t play a huge role in my decision, but when I get a request from a reviewer, I often ask myself, “Would I read this blog?” The answer is almost always yes, as I subscribe to hundreds of game review blogs. But every now and then I’ll encounter a blog that just doesn’t do it for me. I think this most often occurs when a review is 95% game overview and 5% review. I prefer reviews that offer a good, meaty, well composed compilation of thoughts about the game–closer to 40 or 50% of the content.
- Did you review the previous free game I sent to you? This is more for established reviewers than new reviewers, but it’s definitely something I look at. If I sent you a $60 game 6 months ago and you haven’t reviewed it or even mentioned it, I’m not going to send you another free game. This applies even if you played the game and didn’t like it, in which case you probably don’t want to spend a few hours playing it again and reviewing it. I totally understand that. But you can still mention that you played it, or even reach out to me personally to let me know. I respect that.
- Did you feature my game at some point during the Kickstarter campaign? If you go out of your way to interview me on your blog or podcast or feature my game on your blog sometime during the project, that goes a long way. Sure, some of the metrics below still enter my consideration, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
- How big is your audience? This is a business. In fact, for me, this is my livelihood, my sole source of income. I can’t give things away for free with no projected return on investment, and the key factor in determining the ROI is: How many people pay attention to this reviewer’s content? If that number is really small (I’ll define that below), it’s probably better for me to focus my limited supply of review copies elsewhere. That isn’t indicative of your value to me as a content consumer, but as a publisher, numbers matter.
Let’s talk about exactly what I mean when I talk about audience size. Here are the metrics I use, with some examples in parentheses for context (these numbers were last updated in July 2016):
- Alexa ranking (GeekDad: 60,756; Board Game Quest: 335,171; The Cardboard Republic: 1,185,087): I look for websites in the top 2 million Alexa-ranked sites.
- YouTube subscribers (The Dice Tower: 125,937; Rahdo Runs Through: 47,234; Board Game Replay: 10,568): I look for YouTube channels that have at least 1,000 subscribers.
- Facebook Likes (Shut Up & Sit Down: 9,491; Blue Peg Pink Peg: 1,059; Dukes of Dice: 527): I look for Facebook pages with at least 500 Likes.
- BGG thumbs (Ender’s Reviews: averages over 200 thumbs/review): I look for reviewers that get at least 100 thumbs per review.
- Podcast: Honestly, I have no idea how to see the number of subscribers a podcast has. Does anyone know? [Update: Sometimes I look at Twitter followers and Facebook fans for podcasts, but as some podcasters pointed out, some podcasts have small but very loyal followers, so it’s tough to go by strict metrics. Which is fine–I consider the other points I discussed above in lieu of hard data.]
Every publisher will use different metrics, and you might see different responses based on the game. It’s a lot easier for a publisher to give away a $15 game that isn’t selling well versus a $70 game in high demand.
Things You Can Do to Establish Credibility
For a new reviewer reading the previous section, you may be wondering how you can build up an audience (and with it, your credibility). The answer is not “ask for free games from publishers.” There are some other methods to try first:
- Review games you already own: If you’re trying to build up content, there is no better way to do it than to review the games you already own. The best part about this is that you’ve probably already played the games you own, so other than player a refresher game, you don’t have to put in much time or effort before composing the review.
- If you really want a specific game, buy it and review it: I’ve gotten a few requests from new reviewers who really, really want one of my games. The thing is, it’s really not that hard to get our games (at least for Euphoria): If you want to play it that badly, buy it. If if you end up reviewing it, I’ll be much more likely to send you a free review copy of our next game.
- For games on Kickstarter, offer to make and review the PnP: With more and more board game projects on Kickstarter, it’s harder for creators to find reviewers to look at the pre-published version of their game. You can provide a HUGE service to those creators–and establish credibility/visibility–by printing out the game and reviewing it during the campaign. If you want to stay ahead of the pack, subscribe for notifications on this Google doc where creators post their projected Kickstarter launch dates. In lieu of making the PnP, you can also feature the game (usually via an interview) on your platform during the Kickstarter campaign–that can make a big impact in the way a publisher views you.
- Play and review “free” games at your FLGS or conventions: There are tons of opportunities to play games for free. Actively seek out those opportunities and take notes while you play.
- Ask for a damaged game: Most publishers have at least a few damaged games that they can’t sell or would need to sell at a big discount. Ask for one of these games. This shows that you’re interested in the gameplay itself, not just free stuff. (Pro tip: Offer to pay for shipping! Meet us halfway and we’ll respond well to it.)
Here are a few notes for ANY reviewer:
- Write positives and negatives in every review: To truly be credible as a game reviewer, you need to say good and bad things about games in constructive ways. If you only talk about what you like, people will wonder if you’re just providing lip service for the publisher. Usually a reviewer simply won’t post a review at all if they don’t like the game at all, but I think a more effective way of doing that is to do a short recap every now and then of games that just didn’t work out for you. Talk briefly about those games and then move on. Some reviewers that do this really well are Board Game Reviews by Josh, Drake’s Flames, and Joel Eddy’s Drive-Thru Review.
- If you get a free review copy, review it: I talked about this above, but it belongs in this list too. At least mention the game, or tell the publisher that you’re not going to review it for a specific reason.
- Take photos for written reviews: It’s fine if you use existing photos of a game, but I think audiences appreciate seeing your visual perspective on a game, not stock photos the publisher took.
- Tell the publisher when the review goes live: I don’t know about other publishers, but I read a lot of blogs, listen to a lot of podcasts, subscribe to a lot of YouTube channels, and keep a close eye on BGG. Odds are, if there’s a review about one of my games, I’m going to see it within 24 hours. But I always appreciate the gesture when a reviewer informs me of a new review, and I particularly appreciate it if they don’t tell me to share it. As I’ll discuss below, I think it’s my responsibility to share it (or at least link to it), but I don’t like being told by someone–particularly someone to whom I sent a free game–that I need to promote their work for them.
After you’ve established your credibility, consistency, and audience, then you can start to request review copies. I would suggest starting off by making general requests. That way a publisher can have complete freedom over the game they send you. After that, you can move on to requesting specific games. When you do that, include some links in your request to similar games you’ve reviewed so they have some context to work with.
My Responsibility as a Publisher
I’ve written a lot new and established reviewers, but a publisher is half of the reviewer-publisher relationship. Here’s what I expect of myself as a publisher:
- I will share, link to, Like, thumb, retweet, and/or comment on your review. If you took the time to play and review my game–which, as I discussed above, is a form of marketing–then it’s my responsibility to appreciate your efforts in some way. This is going to vary widely based on the review. I don’t like to share every review on Facebook because I don’t want to come across as self-congratulatory (that’s not the point of my Facebook page). And I don’t always want to comment, particularly on BGG, because sometimes that stifles an open, constructive discussion among the readers. But I’ll still find a way to acknowledge that I read the review, and I’ll almost always link to it on our website.
- I will respect your opinion: I will acknowledge that you are entitle to your opinion, and thus I won’t get defensive if you don’t like a game I publish. It helps if you play the game more than once, but I understand that if you really don’t like a game the first time, you probably won’t want to play it again.
- I will be open to negative reviews. I personally don’t think it’s ethical for me to only send games to reviewers who have said nice things about my games in the past. I want to give potential buyers a broad array of perspectives about my games, and that means that I will send games to reviewers who have the courage and credibility to have said good and bad things about my previous games.
I really love the open landscape of the board game publishing industry, and reviewers are a huge part of that. I hope any reviewer who reads this–particularly new reviewers–will see that the aim of this post is to help you understand my perspective as a small indie publisher who genuinely wants to see you get that critical mass of readers/listeners. You can do it! And for all of those established reviewers out there, thank you so much for taking the time to play and review tabletop games. You are the true gatekeepers of this industry.
This post is meant to be a part of a greater dialogue about game reviewers, so I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you’re a new reviewer, feel free to post a link to your website in your comment.