How to review a game

Let's start with how not to review a game. This is quite possibly the worst review ever. I don't know if the Star-Telegram reviews games often, but this is a phenomenally lazy attempt. They couldn't figure out how to play two of the games, so they give up, play something else, and rate the games an "F".

So, that's the first thing: to review a game, you have to have actually played the game. Preferably more than once. Can you imagine a movie review that goes, "Well, we couldn't make it to the theatre, and missed the first half of the movie. The movie was confusing, so we give it an F."

Maybe it's acceptable to talk about a game you haven't actually played, but then you don't qualify for the "review" label. You could call it a "preview" or "overview" or "glimpse" or something. In fact, articles along the lines of "here's what you get in the box" or "set aside more time than I did for setup" can be very useful, they're just not a "review".

I've always felt that the key word in reviewing a game is "tension" or "balance". Good games will provide a series of choices to be made, and the tension between them is important to the way the game plays out. If the right decision is obvious, it's not much of a game. The rules included in most games talk about the actions and choices available during play, but when I present a new game I try to explain these choices in a context of tension.

Some examples:

  • In Ticket to Ride, you have two kinds of tension: you must balance between drawing enough of the right color train cards and claiming routes before your opponents take them from you. You also have the tension between longer, higher-risk and higher-reward destination tickets and the shorter, lower-risk and lower-reward tickets.
  • Incan Gold is a straight-forward "press your luck" game: the tension comes in deciding whether to press forward and gain more treasure (at the risk of losing it all), or leave with what you have, while you watch your opponents treasures increase.
  • In Dominion, there's tension among the different cards you can purchase, but mostly in choosing the right time to shift your deck-building from "build the engine" mode into "buy some points" mode.

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