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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Gamers Need More Game Reviews!

by Ken Newquist / September 1, 2008

The RPG Bloggers Network has been a tremendous success, sparking plenty of cross-blog traffic and comments. I’ve read lots of great articles and discovered a bunch of new sites, but I think there’s one area where the community can improve: game reviews.

Simply put, there aren’t enough of them. There’s plenty of speculation, analysis and debate but there aren’t nearly enough reviews (or, if they are there, they are quickly lost among the flurry of other posts). The RPG Bloggers guys are working on improvements to bring order to the chaos by adding new categories, but even then I think there will be a need for bloggers to knuckle down and review games.

I have as much work to do as anyone else. It shocked me earlier this week when I looked at my own RPG reviews category and discovered that five months had passed between my Battlestar Galactica RPG review and my new one for Star Wars: Threats of the Galaxy. Now granted, my sense of what I’ve written is distorted by all the writing I do for SCIFI, and I’ve certainly posted a bunch of quasi-reviews in the form of playtest reports, but still … there need to be more.

To that end, I’m going to be striving to release one new RPG review a week for the next two months. I’m kicking things off on Wednesday with a review of D&D 4th Edition. It’ll be followed each Wednesday with reviews of other games, including Serenity RPG, Dogs in the Vineyard, Deadlands Reloaded, the Pulp Gear Toolkit for Savage Worlds, Freedom City Atlas for Mutants & Masterminds, and the Star Wars RPG. My goal is to make this the regular feature that I’ve always wanted to be, and hopefully inspire not only some good conversations, but some reviews by other bloggers as well.

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I have a few reviews lined up in the coming weeks... once my ideas start to be less explosive and my sponsor sets up his affiliate links as he wants them...

I don't do many reviews because they're a huge timesink. Sometimes a timesink is exactly what I'm in the mood for, or I'm so motivated by loving/hating (usually loving) a product that I want to share my excitement -- but not that often.

A lengthy review can take me as long as 6-8 hours to put together. Maybe I'm just a slow reviewer, but I don't usually feel like it's something I can rush while trying to be fair, thorough and informative.

Anyhoo, that's why I don't do more reviews myself. I admire your once-a-week commitment, Ken -- I'll definitely be back to read your upcoming reviews. :)

Woo! Another avenue for writing something.

I haven't written a review before for any of the new products because I don't know what are readers looking for in a review and I don't really like the idea of someone making a buying decision because I said 'Yay or nay.' (Well, I mean I like having the power to tell someone to do that but no in the ethical sense).

It's quite a challenge to write a review while trying to be objective and you don't know what standards are you measuring by.

If you're looking for something to review, why not start with the new Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide? I would like to hear more about it.

I suppose I could do a few. My problem is, a lot of the games I've got tucked away in my closet are out of print, or otherwise inaccessible. I'm not sure it does any good to review Nobilis when it's touch-and-go to track down a copy -- and this is a game that's only 6 years old, give or take. Tunnels and Trolls is still out there, but it's a newer edition than the one I've got. Marvel Super Heroes? Good luck finding that...

At the same time, I no longer buy as much new stuff as I used to. I'd love to take a look at, say, Thunderspire Labyrinth, but it's not something I'd use in my game (at least, not as-is), so it's on my wish list, but it's pretty low on my priority list. I'd love to take a look at it, and I'd review it if someone gave me a copy for whatever occasion, but I'm not likely to buy it myself.

That said, I do have a couple of reviews waiting. I picked up Pulp Hero at Gencon, and have been slowly digesting it...

I did a D&D 4E review as well as a Battlestar Galactica RPG review a while back. I can't wait to hear your Serenity RPG review.

Yep, I agree! Let's have more reviews. I'm a fan of reviewing old products that might have passed gamers by. Maybe I'll raid my bookshelf and post a few retro reviews to support this too.

Good idea, Ken :D

Personally, I'd love to do a ton of game reviews. Unfortunately, funds are limited at the moment so until my blog becomes self-sustaining in that regard as well, there just won't be a bunch of reviews. Hopefully, in time...

I think the thing to keep in mind (as Greywulf alluded to elsewhere in this thread) is that you don't need to do new stuff. Reviews of stuff lying around on your shelves are also good -- for example, why did you have that copy of GURPS lying around? Did you ever run it, will you ever run it, and if not ... why?

For my part, I'm looking at doing a review column on my five favorite 3E source books, partly because I want to give folks an idea of what I like, and partly because a lot of these books are still available. DMG II, for example, is one of my favorites, and it's packed with stuff that I think would still be helpful under 4E.

Yeah, the most expensive part of doing reviews can be the time. It usually takes me about an hour, maybe two, to knock out a review (depending on if I've sequestered myself away in my third-floor office or not).

My 4E review's the exception to that rule -- it's taken me weeks of fiddling and false starts and the damn thing still isn't done. That's one reason for this review project; it gives me a public deadline to shoot for. :)

My biggest challenge has been finding the time to playtest the games; I don't mind doing "first impressions" style reviews of games that are based entirely on a read-through, but to do a good review I feel I have to play the game at least once.

One of the things that's making this possible is that my gaming group's holding a home-grown convention later this month, during which I'll be playing a bunch of the games I mentioned.

Depending on the game, there may be easily buyable copies out there. So Marvel Superheroes is a pretty easy grab on eBay, but Nobilis and Tunnels and Trolls are likely harder to find.

Even if a game is out of print, I still think it's worth it because it helps illustrate to your readers where you're coming from, what you like in a game, etc. Some of that comes through in blog posts of course, but a review concentrates it.

Is Pulp Hero as heavy a tome as the regular Hero system?

Yeah, I'm looking forward to playing it. I think the little refinements they added to the system in Battlestar Galactica will be missed, but there's nothing too drastic, so I expect it'll play as well as BSG did.

Great idea -- I'd love to see more retro reviews. Some of the RPG podcasts out there do retro reviews, but I haven't seen that many on blogs -- I think remembering our gaming history (and exposing both new and old players to it) is a worthwhile endeavor.

In terms of what readers want, I think you can start with the assumption that they're looking for a lot of the same things you're looking for. How does it play? Are there a lot of mistakes? Will I go mad reading the errata? If it's a new edition, how does it compare to what came before?

In terms of the ethics of reviewing, well, I never really thought of it that way, probably because I'm always happy to give folks my opinion on stuff. :) For me, the hard part has always been writing the reviews of bad products. You know that this thing is someone's baby, and that they worked damn hard on it, but at the same time, I think constructive criticism is a very useful and powerful tool.

Such criticism can be along time coming in forums and even when it does show up, it tends to get lost in the background noise. I think bloggers have an opportunity to offer good, solid feedback on products, both to publishers and gamers.

In terms of writing an objective review, well, that's tough. It's a review, so naturally your own attitudes and biases creep into the game. I personally think the key is to acknowledge your personal biases, be up front about them if you need to be, and try and see how different folks might view the same game. Keep it away from personal attacks on the writers or designer, and you should be in good shape.

I think the hardest review I've had to write in a long time was my D&D 4E review for because it was hard to balance my personal feelings about the game, how it might meet the needs of my own campaign, and how it might work for everyone else.

I think it worked out in the end, but I struggled with it for a good long time.

Yep, that's one of the reasons I want to start a review-only podcast comprised of reviews dropped there by any of the RPG podcasters.