My Current Approach to Board Game Reviewers and Content Creators (2020)

2 January 2020 | 20 Comments

UPDATE: We’re in the process of reviewing these policies (which were originally posted in January 2020), particularly the previous policy about asking reviewers not to accept review copies unless they could commit to posting a review (good or bad) within 2 months of receiving the product.

Sending games to reviewers and content creators continues to be a key part of the Stonemaier Games marketing plan. It’s far from the only part, but it remains an important marketing expense.

Since my original post on this topic 18 months ago (and this older–but still important–post), I’ve refined my methods for selecting reviewers, so today I thought I would share my current process with you in sequential order:

  1. Advance Review Copies: I typically receive 8-12 copies of new products via airmail from my manufacturer, Panda, a few months before we open preorders. I select reviewers for each of them–reviewers who are willing to share their perspectives on the game within a certain period of time (ideally the week before preorders go live), as I want our potential preorder customers to be equipped with an array of unrushed, unbiased opinions. These reviewers have the opportunity to tell me before we ship anything to them if they’re not available to review the product in a timely manner–I always appreciate when they’re transparent about that, as it means they’re not taking away a limited review copy that could go to another reviewer who is available. While I choose a few well-established reviewers for advance review copies, I also try to select some with much smaller audiences to provide them the exponentially higher exposure they receive for these copies.
  2. First-Run Review Copies: When my fulfillment centers receive the full ocean-freight shipments, I look at the list of 200+ reviewers and content creators who have entered their information on this form and I select a few dozen of them to receive a free review copy at the same time as preorder customers. At this time I also contact other reviewers who requested that specific game to gently let them know that they won’t be receiving a first-run review copy from us (but they might get one in the future). That way they’re not left waiting in the dark and they can simply preorder the product if they want to post their thoughts during the initial media rush.
  3. Damaged Games: Sometimes our customers report that they receive a damaged copy of one of our games (purchased from our webstore). In those cases, I often send them a mailing label to send the ding-and-dent game to a reviewer, and we send the customer a new game. The reviewers don’t need a perfect box, just a playable game.
  4. Reprints: I don’t want all of the buzz and visibility of our products to happen at the beginning of their lifespans, so I regularly dispatch review copies of reprints. My new method for doing so is that instead of handpicking reviewers from my list, I simply contact all reviewers who requested the product (info that I track on the list) and offer them a promo code to get the product for free or almost free. That saves me a significant amount of time, and it opens the door for smaller reviewers to get a copy.

A few other quick notes about my methods:

  • I Don’t Read/Watch/Listen to Reviews of Stonemaier Products: I highly value constructive criticism, of which I get plenty from playtesters and gamers. But for reviewers, I want to remain entirely unbiased and impartial to their tastes so consumers can get honest opinions from a wide variety of reviewers. I’m human, and I know that if I would hear a reviewer blasting one of our games, as much as I respect their openness, it impacts my willingness to send them review copies in the future. So rather than risking that impartiality, I simply don’t read, watch, or listen to reviews of our products. For that reason, I’ve started to ask advance-copy reviewers to (optionally) send us a one-sentence quote from their review that features a key takeaway for us to use when linking to the review.
  • A Distaste for References to “Hype”: Despite what I just said, I do see headlines of reviews when they’re posted on Twitter. I don’t know anything about the content of the review, but I still typically retweet them (it’s very helpful when a reviewer tags @stonemaiergames on Twitter, as it makes sharing the review very easy for me). However, every now and then a reviewer will reference “the hype,” as in “Does it live up to the hype?” I have a huge distaste for references to the nebulous concept of external hype, especially when a reviewer decides to use that word–how are other peoples’ perceptions and expectations at all relevant to what you like or dislike about a product? If you want to say, “I was really excited about this game, but it wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be,” that’s different–that’s internal hype. I really appreciate the perspective on this topic shared by Rodney Smith of Watch It Played on this video.

Overall, I’m really grateful for the wide variety of content creators who take the time to share their perspectives with the gaming community. If you’re curious about my favorite content creators, I’ve most likely featured them on one of our annual charity auctions (like this one in 2019this one in 2018this one in 2017this one in 2016this one in 2015this one in 2014, or this one in 2013).

Below is a list of all reviewers who have given me permission on the form to share their information with you.  If you don’t see your favorite reviewer on this list, it’s likely that they simply didn’t fill out the form. In case scrolling within the list below is annoying, a full-page version is here.

If you’re a publisher, what’s your approach to reviewers and other content creators? If you’re a gamer, how do reviewers impact your decision to buy games, expansions, and other products?

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20 Comments on “My Current Approach to Board Game Reviewers and Content Creators (2020)

  1. Jamey, as a member of the “quiet 80%” this tempest in a teapot doesn’t affect my purchases directly. I suppose there’s a taste-defining factor that does have strong influence.

    I enjoy your public posts and look behind the curtain. Don’t sweat the backlash. There are 100 taste-makers that’d line up for a preview copy. The potential market is much larger than the small segment that most reviewers cater to.

    Good luck to you. Thanks for the games.

  2. Fascinating post. Your stance on avoiding reviews is one of those things that in hindsight makes perfect sense, but never occurred to me. And what a fantastic use for the ding-n-dent product. Eliminates several birds with one stone.

    I am curious if you have ever been approached or would consider appearing on one of these review videos. I would love to see you do a breakdown with the guys at Shut Up or some of the other engaging reviewers.

    1. Adrian: While I don’t think it would work for a designer to appear on a review of one of their games, I have answered questions in non-review content by content creators who sometimes also review games.

  3. A different sort of marketing question: Do you send games off to competitions?
    I have judged for MENSA Select (MindGames) a few times, and think that Wingspan really hits that ‘simple but complex’ sweet spot that the winners have. I was wondering what you, as a publisher, think of that particular award. I know that in the short term it might not mean much as the game is already a hit, but for the long term is it a worthy benefit to have that logo on the box?
    I spoke to another publisher who said “I’ll send copies of the game, but ain’t no way I’m paying a g-damn submission fee!”.

    1. Peter: It’s definitely not a part of our marketing strategy to pursue awards. If someone plays our game on their own and wants to give it an award, that’s fine, but we don’t submit our games to any organizations for consideration. That hasn’t always been the case, but after I tried the Mensa thing with Euphoria in 2013, I decided that type of contest just wasn’t a good fit for us.

      1. I purchased Euphoria the day it won the award because I saw it was on the list (I was not a judge), but since my wife loves dystopia and it was her birthday, I bought it immediately. Of course, i might have purchased it eventually anyway.
        We’ll probably play Wingspan a few hundred more times, and recommend it to people who ask, without any more awards.

  4. As both an individual content creator, and the editor of a content platform, I’d be interested in consistency in calculating “audience size”. There’s a few sites on your reviewer list that I’m skeptical about their numbers. I don’t think they’re intentionally misrepresenting, but instead are most likely using a different method to determine their audience size.

    For example, Meeple Mountain had 243k page views (and over 70k distinct users) in December, but our audience size is listed as “2000-4999”. I know that’s the number I myself put in, but I most likely assumed you were talking about social media numbers.

    Can you offer guidance on the best way for us to determine our overall audience size?

    1. An, update. I just looked at the signup form which now indicates:

      > These numbers represent YouTube subscribers, daily website views, podcast downloads per episode, OR Instagram followers (choose one, not the sum of several).

      The problem here is that whichever number you select, you’re not also giving the medium that number represents. I could use 20,000+ but that would require you to research if I was talking about twitter followers (20k is a lot), or web traffic (20k is average). And if it’s web traffic, is that monthly, yearly, or some other metric.

      Sorry about the questions. I’m a software engineer who does SEO for a living, so my mind automatically goes there.

  5. As a player, I really appreciate good board game reviewers. I have found it harder in the past few years to find the critical content I crave. Some of this is my fault, as I have no interest in video reviews (and that’s where the majority of content is trending). Text reviews are just so much more accessible for my situation. The other issue is finding reviewers that dislike a product. (I don’t trust reviewers with no negative content) There seem to be fewer around, or else I don’t know how to find them. I look forward to researching the list of reviewers that you provided. Hopefully I’ll find some new reviewers to follow!

    1. Seconded on the written vs. video review. I prefer a written review because I can absorb it faster and better and it does not time out or require me to reload to where I left off. Video reviews are at least helpful in providing a visual on the product that can be better than still photos so these days I like to watch at least one. I think a 3:1 written to video ratio generally tells me everything I need to know to look for a product.

  6. Interesting perspective as always Jamey, its funny that for so many small independents the process of getting reviewers is one of writing letters begging for them to give their time while at the Stonemaier level its selecting some of the lucky few to get copies.

    The issue with Hype is, I think, a tricky one. I think its possible to review a game with reference to external forces. For example I have a pet project of going through all the old Spiel Des Jahres winners and trying to give my thoughts on what makes them work or not, and partly why they won the SDJ. Did it deserve to win the SDJ is, I think, a legitimate and interesting question to ask of a game. For some games that are twenty years or so old and would have faded into obscurity now its almost the only interesting question to ask about them, but it is a question based on some sort of outside opinion, just like hype.

    For me personally the issue is that there are several things a review will respond to that have to do with something forming an inaccurate opinion in the public. So a review might say that the box art, or game description doesn’t match the game itself, something like, ‘if you come to this game expecting the furious battle on the box you’ll be disappointed’. One of those things is the critical mass of public opinion, it might be wrong to call that hype, but people do.

    Is your issue with hype primarily a sense that you feel people are in some way blaming you for it happening? I can totally understand that, it does seem largely out of your hands. But addressing it does seem like noticing the elephant in the room sometimes. Would you be okay with a review that asked, for example, if Wingspan deserved to win the KDJ? Because I think that would be a legitimate question and review, but it would be framed by outside factors.

  7. Thanks for sharing this extremely helpful updated information Jamey (even though i liked the previous approach too).

    As a gamer i often go and check a review for a game to help me decide purchasing the game.

    From a publisher’s perspective i guess i would also consider the target audience of the reviewer, also the way he/she is making the reviews (how entertaining) and maybe somehow determent the influence on the public.

  8. I would never tell a developer to emulate another’s style or philosophy. Diversity in that regard only strengthens the hobby. But if I could tell every developer and/or publisher one thing it would be to pay attention to how you run the business side of things. Thank you for your transparency, honesty, fairness, attention to detail, and your efforts to make the hobby great for everyone.

  9. Hey Jamie – looks like you have a few repeats in your Creator list. I didn’t exhaustively examine but noticed Gaymer James is listed on 3 separate rows

  10. Thanks for sharing Jamey. Really interesting post.
    I think that reading other people thoughts about your game may be useful. I personally feel that way. Alhough sometimes people can be really harsh.

    1. Absolutely! I read plenty of peoples’ thoughts about our games on BGG and our Facebook groups. It’s just the perspectives of reviewers that I avoid so I don’t let negative responses impact my impartiality.

  11. The point about not reading reviews is extremely important. We are all humans and biased wether we like/acknowledge it or not.

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