My recent post on the standard of board game journalism led me to a number of interesting conversations on related topics. One that came up a lot was negative reviews, so I thought I’d put down some thoughts and invite opinions.
I’m not against negative reviews and find them useful when researching possible purchases. I’ve written plenty in my time too, mostly on music, but I’m writing my 25th board game review now and am yet to pen a negative one.
I have a five-play rule for reviewing – if I haven’t played that many times (including online plays) I rarely feel I have the right to give a game a review. The exception would be if a game was clearly broken, and others generally agreed. Obviously if I don’t like a game, I won’t play it five times – hence no review.
There are exceptions. Short games, ones friends are keen on, or that start out seeming solid but huge holes then appear in; all solid candidates and I may dip my toe into those water soon. At ‘Memory Lapse‘ I record every game I play and if I don’t like one, it’ll get both barrels – but in a pithy, 50-word way. But it’s not always enough.
Negative reviews: The pros
- They can be fun to read, and write. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good vent. Both reading and writing a livid steam of consciousness can be a real joy. Often the more outrageous the content the better, as you posit yourself out on the extremes while entertaining the reader.
- People need to know. Most of us don’t have an endless stream of disposable income and a board game can set you back £50 or more; it’s a reviewer’s duty to warn people about poor products. There are thousands of games to be narrowed down – knowing what not to buy is as important as what to buy.
- It shows you’re not just a ‘pro’ reviewer. If all you write is positive reviews, people who read a lot of board game press may mark you as uncritical. Are you just saying nice things to get free games, or make industry friends? How can someone judge one of your reviews against the others when they’re all shiny, happy meeples?
- It’s an insight into what you don’t like. Following on from the above two points, it is equally important for your readers to be able to position your tastes at both ends of the gaming scale. You the guy who likes this, but hates that; or he likes this deck-builder, but hated these two – what does that say about this one?
Negative reviews: The cons
- It’s easy to appear smug. Slapping easy targets isn’t big or clever and if you do it too often you end up looking a bit desperate. Crass can be fine in moderation, but can get old and boring fast. You end up looking like a one-trick pony and, again, people have no positives in which to position your views, essentially making you critically irrelevant (although you may not mind this!).
- It’s hard to be balanced. It’s rubbish. You hate it. Why bother with objectivity? All you want to do is give this box of crap a good kicking, but then you’ll look as crap as the game – your heated diatribe will look less like a review and more like a child throwing its toys out of the pram.
- Wasting time you could spend being positive. How many reviews are you going to be producing? If it’s only a few, it is legitimate to just try and help promote the titles you like. But if you start going weekly or daily then you may need to get down on some games too.
- All publicity is good publicity. While you may think you’re doing the world a favour railing against a game, you can also see your negative review as giving air to a beast that should instead be suffocated. It’s generally accepted that while reviewers may have an effect on a small number of consumers, many will read the box or look at the theme/cover/bits and make their own decision. But if no one mentions it…
Writing them: Three golden rules
- Get it right. It’s easy to worry about upsetting publishers or designers, but don’t. Your review may slightly upset some people, but if you’re right then the people that matter will respect you. Companies know. They soon find out when they’ve got a dud and it happens to them all – no one has a 100 per cent success rate. You can be hurt more by being positive about crap games, as your reputation can take a real hit.
- Be balanced… When going negative, it’s even more important to address why people do like a game than when addressing complaints on your positive reviews. You don’t need to tread lightly, just professionally; simply back up all your arguments. People are much more likely to rail against a reviewer that’s kicking their baby rather than one saying something nice things about a game they don’t care about.
- … or be bonkers. If you simply don’t want to give a balanced argument, don’t go into this half-heartedly – give the thing both barrels and then wade in with your fists and feet. Leave your reader with no doubt about your worthiness, your ability to be rational or your sanity; you can’t troll a troll, so go big, hairy and green or go home. Make people look stupid for thinking you’d even read any kind of opposite opinion.
So what do you think? Let me know. And while you’re pondering, sit back and enjoy this gem from the mighty Half Man Half Biscuit.