Fairway Thoughts: How to get the best possible review

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

excite photoThis 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

blind photoDo 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 games that are already available in the market that, presumably, have been playtested. If you’re treating reviews as a blind play test, you may get harsher comments than had you done blind play tests first.

Good rules!

The all but unreadable rules of a game I kickstarted.

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.

Access to print on demand printing options let me personalize each reviewer’s box with their logo. Printed these with The Game Crafter and shipped them directly to reviewers.

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.

Check out this related TIGR story

Lesson #5 – Interview with Mike Wokasch about building his audience for his first KS campaign, Starving Artists!
In Lesson #5, Dan interviews Mike Wokasch (of Fairway 3 Games) and co-founder of The Indie A friend of mine, Mike Wokasch of Fairway Dan: First off, tell me about Starving Artists: the game, the campaign Mike: Starving Artists is a paint-by-cube, set collection and time and resource management game   One of the biggest draws to the game is that players collect transparent, acrylic The Kickstarter just ended and was successful beyond my wildest dreams.  We raised more than $50 [related-post id="9411"] Yeah, it overfunded   I’m still nervous—there’s a lot to do yet even though it   The whole experience was a bit surreal.   On the whole The campaign page can suck you in like a black hole, you I’d like to take credit for it, but that’s probably not fair. There was   Based on that aesthetic, I was able to get a lot of impressions and   I also had a lot of help from Ryan at ... read more...

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

art photo
Photo by Average Jane

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.

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Check out this related TIGR story

Lesson #18 – How much art is enough?
It's the perpetual creator question: how much of the art really has to be done before The really simple answer to this question is, "as much as possible Ok, so everybody knows that you need good art to sell lots What is the bare minimum amount of art you should have?... read more...

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

calendar photo
Photo by DafneCholet

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.

Check out this related TIGR story

Lesson #4 – My Morning of Campaign Launch To-Do List
Kickstarter campaigns are crazy. Launch day is probably the craziest of all. In Lesson #4, Dan takes Launching a Kickstarter campaign is a crazy busy time. Anyone who has done it knows that no For me, I typically print out this to-do list, take the day off of work(which So without further ado, here is a list of items I do upon immediately hitting the launch Add the campaign link to Kicktraq immediately and then link the Kicktraq Day1  image to Set up google analytics Post in Board Game Geek Press Release Forums  Games being shipped from within the EU forum Link the Kickstarter on (this can be set up ahead of time with a target start date to coincide Twitter Post on twitter and pin the tweet to my feed... read more...

If you’re trying to maximize your reviews, you need to plan.

Conclusion

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.

2 thoughts on “Fairway Thoughts: How to get the best possible review”

  1. A really interesting piece, with some excellent points, thank you.
    I think a distinction needs to be made though for reviews and previews and especially which format they will be published on. In my (thus far limited experience) a physical copy of a game doesn’t need to sparkle out of the box – yes it helps, but I’ve reviewed Kickstarter games that I’ve printed, sleeved and played as well as had physical copies sent to me. from my point of view, I CAN see past the production quality and stand in art.
    There is also the consideration of platforms like Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia, both of which I have used to review/preview games on – and this is probably worth of its own discussion. But these tools do make it far easier for a reviewer to play/experience a game without the cash expense of producing a near-finished article. It also helps significantly when reviewers/designs are on the opposite sides of that pesky Atlantic Ocean. ,

    1. On both points, I agree. I’ve reviewed sleeved games before. For example, that’s how my review for Go Nuts for Donuts! was done. Likewise, I’ve also played games using Tabletopia and TTS although I don’t think I’ve done a written review for one like that.

      However, the point isn’t about what’s possible or what makes it easier or cheaper or more accessible. It’s mostly how you can make the most of your review opportunities (in general). And in most cases, that’s avoiding gigantic caveats or poor experiences for the reviewer.

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