Top 20 Ways to Be a Better Reviewer (Guest Post)

21 March 2016 | 8 Comments

Last year I wrote a post called “An Open Letter to New Reviewers of Board Games from a Tiny Publishing Company.” The primary focus of it was to give reviewers a guidepost for when it’s appropriate to request free review copies and how to get to that point.

Recently, one of the head writers for GeekDad, Dave Banks, reread that post and had some thoughts to share about how to be a better reviewer. Given that I talk a lot about content creation on this blog–whether it’s in the category of board games or any otherwise–this seemed like a good place to share Dave’s perspective.

In no particular order, here are Dave’s top 20 ways to be a better reviewer, whether your platform is a blog, podcast, or video:

  1. Play lots of games.It’s important to have knowledge of different mechanics so you can compare other games with shared mechanics to the game you’re currently reviewing.
  2. Organize your reviews so they are easy to consume. At GeekDad, we have a number of people writing reviews, but we try to maintain the same format among writers. Readers value consistency and including elements like subheads that are easy to scan to find relevant information really help readability.
  3. Write for your readers, not for the game publisher. Know your audience and write for them. You might feel an obligation to the publisher because they sent you this neat, new, shiny thing for free, but if you’re not honest with your readers, you’re not doing anyone any favors. What do your readers really want to know? GeekDad’s readership includes a lot of serious gamers, but also new and family gamers. I try to anticipate the questions they’ll have about a game and address them.
  4. Find your voice. This takes time and practice. Write like you’re talking to a friend you want to entertain–tell stories and give specific examples and don’t be afraid to go into detail. Write the review, then let it sit for a while. Go back and read it again and then edit, edit, edit. It’s amazing how often you leave something out because you’re too close to the review.
  5. Read other people’s reviews. (But save reviews of the game you’re reviewing until after you’ve published yours.) Reading other reviews will help you look at games in different ways and help you become a better reviewer.
  6. Proofread, proofread, proofread. There is nothing that will make me stop reading a review faster than typos, bad grammar, and other preventable mistakes.
  7. It’s OK to turn down a request for review. If it’s not your thing, you don’t have to say yes. And just because someone is offering, doesn’t mean you have to take it.
  8. If you request or accept a review copy, you should review it. It costs publishers money to make and ship these games to you. If you take it and don’t write it up, that could hurt other people genuinely interested in reviewing that game, not to mention damaging your relationship with the publisher.
  9. Be aware that gaming is some people’s livelihood. I’ve played some pretty horrible games. But GeekDad has a pretty big audience; we reach a lot of people and there’s some responsibility that comes with that. So when a game (or other product) comes along that’s so bad that there is no way for me to honestly tell my readers they should possibly buy or play it, I contact the publisher tell them my thoughts. Sometimes they ask me to go ahead and run it with my honest thoughts. Other times, they thank me and ask me to just let it go. It’s a bit “inside baseball,” but I’d rather tell my readers about awesome, fun games they should play, rather than bad ones they should stay away from.
  10. Love reading rulebooks. This is a labor of love–if you don’t enjoy reading rules and teaching, don’t be a reviewer. Yes, many rulebooks are written (or translated) poorly, but you have to understand them to not only play the game, but explain it to your audience.
  11. Ask questions!If you don’t understand a rule, look it up or ask the designer/publisher. It’s OK to rip on the rulebook if it’s not clear, but don’t write off a game because you didn’t understand how to play it. Your questions may lead to an official errata (list of corrections) update and endear you with the publisher!
  12. Play a game a lot more than once before reviewing. Maybe you misunderstood a rule, had a bad (or good) night, or another player was having a really good (or bad) night that influenced the outcome. One playthrough is rarely ever enough to form a complete opinion. Also, I try to mix up the groups I play a game with. It’s good to hear many other people’s opinions.
  13. Network with designers and publishers online and at conventions. Most people are friendly and want to share. Plus, you likely have a common love: board games! Find common ground and find out what makes them tick. These bonds might even lead to early access and inside information!
  14. Share your review when it goes live. Promoting your review on social media helps your site’s stats. Make sure to tell the publisher that the review is live, but don’t be pushy about them sharing it. They should share it, but it’s not your place to tell them to.
  15. Don’t be afraid to dumb it down. Our hobby is in a great state of growth. However, not everyone knows what 4X (genre of game that includes elements of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating) or even a d6 (a six-sided die or dice) means. Spell it out the first time in every review, as each review might be the first review someone reads.
  16. Try to be timely. It’s tough because there’s a learning curve to a game and you want to play a few times before taking the time to write it up or create your review. Ask the publisher if there’s a deadline (Kickstarter launching or ending or a pending release date). You’re writing for your readers, but in the publisher’s eyes you are part of their marketing plan.
  17. Be quotable. If I really like a game, I try to include at least a sentence or phrase or two that could be used as a pull quote.
  18. If you reviewed a pre-production copy, don’t be afraid to ask publisher for a finished product. Your reputation is out there and it’s nice to do a follow up to make sure that what you preview turns out to be a good, real thing. You can also do a follow-up post, which the publisher will appreciate too!
  19. Don’t be snarky. Board gaming is a small industry. Being mean or snarky for the fun of it may very well make you enemies you don’t want to have in this small industry. Plus, is that the type of person you want to be?
  20. Stay positive! While I can usually find a thing or two about most games that I wish had been done differently (and I almost always point those out), I try to keep the overall tone positive. If a reviewer’s tone starts out negative, you can bet it’s not going to improve anytime soon and how boring is that? Games are awesome! Focus on the things that keep us coming back: what makes games fun and the joys they bring all of us!

***

Big thanks to Dave for taking the time to compile this list. Which points stand out the most to you?

8 Comments on “Top 20 Ways to Be a Better Reviewer (Guest Post)

  1. These points are all excellent, especially #12. It irks me to no end when someone reviews a game after having only played it once.

    We have a guideline that a game must be played ‘at least once without having to reference the rules’ before the review is written. If you don’t have a solid, familiar grasp of the game and how it plays, how could you possibly give an informed and objective opinion?

  2. #9 is bad. If a game is bad, you should post the review. Kudos to the publishers who can take criticism publicly.

  3. Nice post. I agree with everything except 9, because I don’t think it’s fair to hide negative reviews. Readers are looking for honest opinions, even about bad games. I know, that it might hurt the publisher, but it was his/her choice to sell a so-so or even a horrible game.

    In the other hand, crushing a product just because I didn’t like it isn’t ok. While writing a review I always try to stay neutral and I keep in mind that different people have different tastes. Stating, that “this game is very random and I didn’t like it” is much fairer than writing “OMG worst game ever, too random, never buy it!”, because there are people, who enjoy random games ;).

    Btw. 12 should be highlighted! There are so many “reviewers” who rate a game after playing it just once…

  4. Goodness I love this post. This should be a mandatory read for every reviewer in the industry. *Mandatory*. It’s going on my blog …RIGHT NOW! : D

  5. Great post…especially about remaining truthful and positive. These are not necessarily diametrically opposed ideas, but instead require the best of you to make them shine on a page or on screen.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  6. I really liked your list. I pretty much agreed with everything every #9. I think it is a good reviewers job to be upfront and honest about both the good and the bad games. Your viewers expect to hear if a game is bad regardless. Note that there is a big difference between a bad game and one that the reviewer just did not like. That distinction needs to be made clear as well, but a truly bad game deserves a bad review. It is important to state why it is bad though and do it tactfully. I usually try to point out any redeeming qualities that a game may have as well, but skipping a game just because I can’t give it a good review seems unethical to me.

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