Fairway regularly hangs out in the chat on The Game Crafter. A very common question from new designers is how to get your new game reviewed. It’s a common question on game design groups on Facebook too. Those discussion often answer the “who” question, which quickly devolves to linking to this list of reviewers.
What doesn’t really get answered is: how to get the “best” review of your new game or your upcoming, crowd-funded game.
Every first time game designer’s been there: you have a game, you’ve tested it, you’re ready for outside validation. Nothing is more devastating than getting a needlessly bad review. And, as a reviewer and fellow game designer, nothing is worse than telling a designer that their game isn’t ready for prime time.
To be clear, though, there’s no way to fix a bad game. But good games deserves good reviews. And the following is my attempt to capture my advice to others seeking out reviewers to make the most of the review opportunity.
Find a reviewer who’s genuinely excited about your game
This might sound obvious, but it’s really not. Not every reviewer on James’ list is going to like the same games nor are they going to play games with the same type of groups. You can do a bit of homework: read the reviewer’s “Best of” lists or take a look at games they liked. That might work. But here’s what I suggest: pick a reviewer that has expressed an interest in your game.
A reviewer who reaches out to you is already more invested in your game than others. It probably means the game fits their particular tastes in both art and game play.
The trick is finding those reviewers. There’s a few “simple” ways to do this:
- Social Media. Start showcasing your game on social media. Take pictures of your play tests and start getting it out there. A good number of reviewers might actually come to you. If there are a few with good numbers of followers and who write well or do nicely produced videos, send them a game.
- Facebook. There’s a Boardgame Reviewers group. Post your game there. Send a message to anyone whose interested in the game that looks like they have an audience that would be good for you.
- Conventions. Reviewers attend major conventions, so you should too.
There’s no magic here. It is part of the hard work of getting your game out there. This is just one more piece of that puzzle.
High traffic sites & review types
None of the prior advice is meant to say you should send your review copies to everyone that asks. Traffic and influence matter too. One copy of a game sent to a high traffic site that didn’t like or feature your game very long may not have the return on investment you want. Similarly, someone who’s just going to take the game and retype your rules isn’t a great review either. You still have to do your research. You may need a combination of approaches to maximize your review opportunities.
Reviews aren’t blind play tests
Do not confuse a reviewer for a blind play tester. While both a play tester and reviewer engage in similar activities, they’re serving two different purposes and two different audiences. A play tester’s audience is you the game designer. A reviewer’s audience is his or her reader, usually a consumer.
Nevertheless, confusing the two is an all too common mistake. Seeking outside feedback is important. And some new designers rush to reviews as a substitute for play testing, in part, because it’s easy and relatively cheap. Most reviewers don’t charge for reviews. And most reviewers voluntarily play lots of games, even bad ones, without batting an eye. The “pay off” for the reviewer is content for a site. For a new designer, it’s often hard to find people (even regular gamers) to do the same thing. As a result, many designers jump the gun to the review stage. The result can be inglorious and often unnecessarily negative reviews that could avoided with proper play testing.
To that point, there’s clearly a proper order for things and blind play test occurs before reviews. Play testers are more forgiving of issues recognizing that their input will influence the final game. The feedback is often never shown publicly and give you an opportunity to correct if necessary. Indeed, that’s the whole point. The play testers are expecting to provide you feedback to work out the kinks and flaws, to highlight confusion or clarity issues in the rules, to get a fresh set of eyes on your game, and to ply new or different play styles to your game. In the end, you, as the audience, you shouldn’t be worried about blind play testers giving you unbiased, open, and unvarnished opinions.
You shouldn’t be expecting lots of feedback or critiques or “good catches” from reviewers. You want a solid quote.
Conversely, for you as a game designer, the purpose of a review is to get the best possible experience written up in a way that can be used in marketing. You shouldn’t be expecting lots of feedback or critiques or “good catches” from reviewers. Reviewers represent their audiences and the audience is the buying public. You want your game to make a positive impression with few quibbles. You want: a solid quote and a solid, outside endorsement of your game untarnished by fixable issues.
If you’re going to send your game to a reviewer, you have to recognize you’re being reviewed along side those games. If you’re treating reviews as a blind play test, you may get harsher comments than had you done blind play tests first.
Having a mostly complete game starts right with the rules you send. I get it: rules are hard. Even some very polished games have done production runs with lackluster rules or misses. And even the best written rules get updates and clarification after a game is in more people’s hands–I know this all too well. However, few things leave a worse impression than poorly written or incomprehensible rules. Having poorly written rules is a terribly needless reason to get a bad review. And, again, a few blind play tests can help avoid those issues.
A few points about rules and reviews. First, it isn’t necessary to have a professionally laid out and copy-edited set of rules. The rules themselves almost never get shown in a review (unless there’s something noteworthy about them). It is much more important to have clear, concise, understandable rules that help me play the game correctly. When in doubt, include pictures and diagrams to help me.
But wholesale changes and rewrites are time consuming, annoying and frustrating.
Second, once you send your game, do not send a flurry of rules changes. Many reviewers are accommodating of last minute changes and fixes, especially for previews. But wholesale changes and rewrites are time consuming, annoying and frustrating. Finding time to play a game a few times to write a review isn’t easy. The likelihood a reviewer’s play group will want to replay a game with new or fixed rules makes it just that much harder. And those first impressions are everything. If you’re worried you’re going to have to make rules changes, you’re probably not ready for a review. Just wait. Finish the rules.
Finally, if your rules are poorly written, there’s a chance your game is going to be “unfairly” reviewed because it was played wrong. It’s probably not the reviewers fault. That’s on you. Remember, the reviewer is essentially standing in the shoes of a consumer. That reviewer could be your buyer. So, again, to make the best of your review opportunity, give the reviewer your best possible set of rules.
Get real copies of your game made
You want your game presented in the best possible light. And how your game presents is going to be largely dependent on what you give the reviewers. Most reviewers look at production and components. And even if they don’t specifically care about that, first impressions are everything. Opening a delivery with a high-quality, pre-production versions of your game makes a good first impression. Nowadays, that is an incredibly inexpensive thing to do (relatively speaking) and extraordinarily easy especially in the United States.
If you’re bothering with reviews at all, you should just get a proper version printed. There are a few places to do it such as The Game Crafter and Ad Magic’s Print & Play Games. In either case, getting these copies is relatively cheap and can be done in low quantities. And no matter what you think of these Print on Demand services, their products are higher quality than any printed and cut version.
I’d argue that by the time you’re at the review stage, it makes little sense to skimp too much on these copies. Among other things, it’s easier to find reviewers when you’re sending real cards, real boards, and real game bits.
Beyond getting your foot in the door, you make the reviewer’s life easier. It’s much easier to create nice, unique content with a proper copy. Review and preview games with nice finishes and high print quality on good card stock will photograph nicer, will be easier to play, and offer more authentic game experience to the reviewer.
The likelihood a nice pre-production game gets played again after a review goes way up.
It also increases the chances of actually getting to the table increases too since the reviewer can find more players will to try out a shiny new, unpublished game. This phenomenon extends beyond plays for reviews too. The likelihood a nice pre-production game gets played again after a review goes way up. This fact alone can mean exposure on social media and other venues you hadn’t expected. I’m much more likely to drag along a pre-production copy of a game from The Game Crafter than a printed-out copy that a publisher sleeved for me.
Art and Graphic Design
It’s hard to overstate this: art and graphic design are important. Really important. As a reviewer, I can tell you there’s often a wide gulf between high-quality games pushed out by experienced publishers and those of smaller designer/publishers. It’s often apparent right out of the box (and sometimes still in the box).
With respect to art, how much art you need to make a good impression depends. For a pre-production version, if you don’t have it all complete, I’d argue that a game should have at least 80% of the art and design in a publish-ready state with the remainder of the art as decent stand-in art. Reaching this threshold means that nice staged and in-game pictures are possible. It means that no real additional caveats are necessary about how little of the finished art was available to the reviewer. Eighty percent means the art is likely representative.
But having good art is only the first battle. Lackluster card and board designs hurt reviews too. You can have great art and present it so poorly, with poor font choices and colors that it ruins the art. Simply slapping black or white icons over the card with an Arial font isn’t going to work. The game has to be the complete package. Look at other successful games and compare yours and remember that’s what reviewers are doing.
Timing is everything
Playing games, and playing new games, takes a lot of time. And depending on your game, whether you’re looking for a written or video review, those can take a long time too. Seeking out a reviewer in the middle of your campaign is too late. Frankly, it’s probably too late if you’re seeking reviewers only four weeks before your campaign. You need to have a plan, an understanding of the calendar, and an understanding of the reviewer’s schedule.
We here recommend getting the game to our reviewers and contributors at least four weeks prior to your launch to do the game.
If you’re looking to make the most of your reviews then give the reviewers enough time to do the review well. There’s a whole bunch of factors that go into “how much time” including how hard your game is, how long it is, how many players are required, whether there are any intervening holidays or vacations, what content is already scheduled content, etc. We here recommend getting the game to our reviewers and contributors at least four weeks prior to your launch to do the game. Other reviewers require longer. Some will charge for “rush” reviews. And we regularly decline games that are too close.
If you’re trying to maximize your reviews, you need to plan.
No set of steps will save a bad game from a bad review. Taking the time to do things well, can save a good game from a bad review, though.
Cover image courtesy of Naval Surface Warriors. Licensed CC-2.0-SA.