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. Its 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 its 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 games merits. The trick is in not getting too carried away with this and knowing when enough is enough. (Aside: its 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 what the experience of playing the game was like. This is where the "art" of reviewing comes in and why its so hard to actually accomplish.
Of course all this isn't absolute and will vary for each person. Some are going to enjoy a review that tends more to a description of the rules than others. I personally find Mike Siggins' reviews to be just 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'll be published in an upcoming issue of The Game Report and I recommend it highly to any interested parties. Peter's stated far more clearly and persuasively the reasons behind this.)
An anecdote: I 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: "1 minute of deciding followed by 5 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 couldn't quite verbalize It wasn't that the other reviews were poor but just 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. Its not uncommon for a very slight rule change to have a profound effect on how a game plays. Its 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. Its 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 its 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 its been a while I'll often re-read them just to "freshen up". I suppose its 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 enough 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 by the front door 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. Its 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 rec.games.board 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 its the greatest challenge ever devised. Tastes vary in all things, games being 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 its equally likely that every review is a glowing endorsement. While certainly accurate for those select few I don't think this gives a truly "even" 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 its 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 its 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 real chance to really digest the game. This sense of urgency can mean that a careful review never gets written as by the time its possible the game is considered "yesterdays news". Hopefully this won't be the case. Some of you may be aware of a new website that I'm editing; The Games Journal. (http://www.thegamesjournal.com/) While it's primary focus is on gaming related articles we will be publishing the occasional review. It's my hope that we'll be able to focus our reviews on older, less played games. One of my reasons for doing this 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.) Its 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.) 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. For those of you that 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 revealed after several playings, a strategy that's clearly superior to others that renders the game less enjoyable. As an example, I've played a lot of Zirkus Flohcati recently, its a very light game with little strategy. Despite this I've managed to consistently do quite well in the game. My suspicion is that attempting a Gala is the best strategy and this is usually what I do. While this has lessened the game for me 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, its 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 its an enjoyable experience overall. I'm certainly grateful to those that write them and hope they'll continue.
This article originally appeared in Counter #10.