A Review Manifesto: Stolen Thoughts For Future Use

Today I'm a thief. I steal words and thoughts. I have plans to publish comparative wargame rule reviews in the future, with a summary, topic list, and a rating, subjective but systematic at least. Being a professional journalist and lawyer (and hobby wargamer) I regard many reviews as substandard they're not informative in a well-written way, and not analytic enough about the rules. Maybe I'm too critical. Sorry. Still looking for the Philosopher's Stone.

I unearthed a leading article about game reviews hidden in the wayback internet archive machine, "A Review Manifesto", by Peter Sarrett,  He might state the obvious in some aspects, but anyway, useful stuff. I republish it, for easier reference. No copyright infringement meant. Website was shut down. I can also recommend the boardgame geek discussion about reviewing, here.

A Review Manifesto/ Peter Sarrett

I've been writing game reviews for over eight years. In that time my style has evolved as I've developed a better understanding of what makes an effective review. Recently I've been frustrated by the appearance on the web and in other publications of reviews that don’t satisfy me as a reader. Writing a good review is an art just like any other form of writing. The problem is that many reviewers have never been taught their craft, but are just picking it up as they go. That's certainly true in my case. It doesn't have to be that way. Herewith I offer a few guidelines I've adopted for writing a stronger, more valuable game review. I'm certainly not claiming that my way is the only way, or even the best way-- there are other writers who are better at this than I. But it's a place for a writer to begin, and perhaps some will find it helpful.

The most common mistake reviewers make is to spend most of their words explaining how to play the game. It's not a review's job to teach-- that's what the rules are for. Readers don't need to know how much money everyone starts with, how many points things are worth, or all of the special event cards that are in the game. Such information is vital when learning to play, but is extraneous and distracting in a review. My eyes glaze over when I read such reviews-- at that point, the author has lost me. A review should touch on only those rules most vital to creating a sensation of the game for the reader. It shouldn't concern itself with the minutiae of a game's rules so much as with an overview of the game's systems. Focus on what gives the game its distinctive character, generates tension, or produces interesting challenges.

Don't merely describe these systems, either-- analyze them. Talk about why they're important and how they influence strategy. Discuss their impact on the player and the game. The best movie reviews don't merely summarize the plot and give a thumbs-up or -down recommendation-- they discuss what works and what doesn't, analyzing the reasons why in multiple contexts. Most importantly, they offer an opinion and back it up with reasoning and examples in support of that opinion. Game reviews have a similar mandate. A review is an opinion piece and as such is subjective. Reviewers should revel in that subjectivity, because that's why readers come to them-- not for a sterile numeric evaluation or abstract letter grade, but for a critical evaluation of a game's merits from the author's personal viewpoint. Ideally the reviewer's opinion is threaded throughout the review, always raising questions and offering insights. When an author offers only a cursory opinion (as in a brief summary paragraph) he fails his reader, whose taste might differ from his own. Long-time readers of a particular reviewer will come to know how their tastes compare and extrapolate their own likely opinion based on that accumulated knowledge. New readers don't have that advantage. A reviewer should therefore be careful to explain his opinions, to provide the background a reader needs to decide whether he'd share the reviewer's problem or enthusiasm.

The primary audience for a game review is the set of people who have not yet played the game and who want to know if it would be of interest to them. But a good game review is of interest to all readers-- people who've played and perhaps already bought the game as well as those who've never heard of it before. It entertains as well as informs. It goes beyond the surface description of a game into analysis and insight that makes a reader already familiar with the game reevaluate his own experience with it. It suggests strategies a reader might not have encountered, draws comparisons he might not have considered, and challenges his preconceptions.

As he writes about an aspect of a game, a reviewer should constantly be asking himself, "What’s good or bad about this? What do I like and dislike about it, and why?" The answers to those questions should make it onto the page, because they're the heart of a good review. When I write, I constantly remind myself to inject more opinion and analysis into each paragraph. It's too easy to get lured into laziness, relying on description and sweeping generalizations to replace incisive thought. Sometimes, due to space limitations or the nature of the game itself, I find myself forced into the dreadfully boring introduction-description-summation format. But I try to break it whenever possible, because doing so invariably makes for a stronger review.

At the end of a review, a reader should have a sense of how the game plays-- the complexity level, the kinds of decisions involved, the level of player interaction, and so forth. He should know what the major game mechanisms are and how they impact the game. Most importantly, he should have a feel for the game, a vibe on whether it's the kind of game that interests him. He should also have data points from the reviewer on the game's strengths and weaknesses, with enough support behind those opinions to weigh them appropriately for his own taste. Above all, a reader who previously knew nothing about a game should not walk away from a review unmoved. If the reviewer has done his job, the reader will be pulled off the fence one way or the other (and not necessarily onto the same side as the reviewer). That's why the reader picked up the review in the first place, to get that little push.

Allow me to reiterate my most essential points. Don't regurgitate the rule book-- only summarize elements vital to a player's understanding of the game. Focus on a game's key systems, analyzing what does and doesn't work and why. Don't just sum up your recommendation in the final paragraph, weave your critique throughout the review. Support your thoughts with reasoning, anecdote, and examples. Remember that opinions, not facts, are the heart of a review.

Reviews following these guidelines are typically the most useful to me as a reader, and I strive to adhere to them as a writer. 

The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (editor@gamereport.com)

Update: I found the original author via Facebook. He gave his permission to republish it. Thank God! I'm not a criminal anymore.