One Freaking Play Is Not Enough to Review a Game!

734826_79943595I’ve talked a lot recently about all the blogs and stuff I read, and in all of what I come across, very little makes me as mad as when I find out that someone has written a “review” of a game after playing it only one dern time.  I mean, seriously, that’s not a review; it’s a freaking session report!

I have a lot to say about this, but in order to set the stage a little for my coming stream of frustration and raving hatred, I think that I need to start by sort of defining what a review is and what it’s for.  As I see it, there are two main things required to qualify something as a review:

  • It has to contain some personal opinion about the game, and
  • It is published in some way for public consumption (at BGG, on a personal blog, youtube, print magazine, or whatever else)

Implicit in #2 is the fact that the author of the review feels that his or her opinion of the game is worthy of public view and therefore valuable in some way to the audience.  And in most all cases, that value would be as a tool to help the reader decide whether or not to invest (time, money, interest, effort) into the game.

Can you have an opinion of a game after just one play?  Of course.  And you can feel free to act on that opinion all you want in deciding whether or not you want to further invest in the game.  What I strongly believe, however, is that an opinion formed after just one play is not valuable to other people, and therefore shouldn’t be shared under the guise of a review.

In other words, while you have the right to your thoroughly ignorant opinion, please keep it to your freaking self!

Because, first of all, it’s really hard to get things right the first time you play a game.  Even with experienced gamers who are used to reading and teaching rules, it is still a pretty rare thing to get every rule straight and played correctly the first time through.  And even if the stars do manage to align and you get all the rules right, it’s even less likely that you will fully grasp them all and really “get” the game.  Because until this happens and you internalize the rules somwhere in your noggin, it will be impossible for you to have a truly informed opinion of the game.

But above and beyond actually understanding the game properly, there’s also the issue of whether your opinion is actually of the game itself, or if it’s more about the game experience from your particular play.  Because, while the actual gameplay contributes heavily to the experience you derive from playing it, there are still a lot of other factors involved.  There’s stuff like the mood you were in, where you played and the atmosphere of that space, the other people involved in the game, expectations about what you all thought the game was supposed to be, and butt-load of other things that I can’t even think of right now.

Some of you out there may then ask, “Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, how freaking many times do I need to play a game before I can review it and not piss you off?”  Heck if I know. “Enough,” I suppose, is the right answer.  You know, at the point where you can be at least relatively sure that your impression of the game isn’t marred by a lack of understanding it or the rest of the game experience.

And until that’s true, your thoughts just aren’t very valuable to me or anyone else.  So until you’re willing to invest the effort necessary to develop an informed opinion, please find another way to get your geekgold or whatever else you’re getting from writing the review, and leave the reviewing to people who are.


  1. Kearn

    I always avoid reviews based on one play. A rule might be missed or other players sucked all the fun out of the game. You never know and if any of that happens, it taints the game and the review.

    That is why I appreciate long standing reviewers, such as yourself. You are willing to wait and after multiple playings give us you honest thoughts.

  2. While I understand your sentiment, I’m not sure I agree. Yes, it’s true that many games require repeated plays for you to fully grasp the mechanics, understand the strategy and/or tactics, and really get what makes them tick. At the same time, why should I replay a game I didn’t enjoy the first time around? If you are a professional journalist it might be warranted, but I think that response after a single play is just as useful as reviews after hundreds of plays. First impressions are everything.

    Now, a good reviewer should be able to frame their review in the context of their experience combined with their preferences and be able to discern variables that may have influenced their feelings (mood, crowd you played with, etc.).

    I do think it’s very easy to miss rules on your first play – we do it all the time. At the same time I’m not sure any games come to mind where my overall impression greatly changed due to discovering we played rules incorrectly. More often my impressions come from the overall feel, not individual rules. Sure, it’s possible to make a glaring error, but those types of mistakes will likely show in the written review, allowing you to put it in context.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to context. If you’ve played once, just say you’ve played once. If you think someone’s opinion is invalid from a single play, don’t read it. Others – like myself – find plenty of value in those opinions.

  3. So, I must agree with Mike. I personally write reviews based off of games that I’ve played only once fairly regularly (not all of them, though). One of the main reasons is because I didn’t like the game. If I only reviewed games that I played repeatedly, then I would never have a bad review, because if I really don’t like a game, I’m not going to play it again. With your logic, you’re really only reading reviews from masochistic (spelling?) people if you ever read negative reviews.

    Secondly, I think that I can understand the game by the end of the first play. (No, not always, but most of the time). I find that my opinion will change from play 1 to play 2 sometimes, but I’ve also found that my opinion changes from play 50 to play 51 sometimes, so to me, an opinion on a board game is constantly in flux.

    Next, if you play the game too much, you may wind up with negative reviews because of people having “played a game out”. If I review a game that I’ve played 1-5 times, I’m still going to be excited about the game, and that’s going to show in my writing. If I’ve played the game 20-50 times, I may start being bored with the game, and that’s going to show in my writing.

    Ultimately, I think a lot of it comes down to the writer. I (arrogantly) think that I am able to separate my personal feelings, moods, etc, when writing a review, but obviously I can’t always. But with this, honestly, whatever my mood was on the LAST play will be affecting it, even if I’ve played it multiple times. I also (arrogantly) think that I am able to understand the pros and cons of most games after a single try (and that’s all I try to present anyway).

    Anyway, this is my rambling way of saying that I disagree. If you hate reviews that are written after only one play, though, don’t read them. Maybe I’ll start being considerate enough to mention how many times I’ve played the game when I write it : ) .

    Oh well… off to play more board games…

  4. More playings of a game will invariably lead to a more informed and better review. As such, I agree with you that it’s preferable to play a game “enough” times prior to reviewing it.

    However, I would not go so far as to suggest that someone does not have the right to express their opinion having played only once.

  5. Paul Lister

    . The review stands on its own regardless of how many times you have played a game, some people get a game after one play (not many and not me) some won’t get it after twenty (not many either). I have played the game in question nine times and thought the reviewer did a fair job – they would have done a better one if they’d tried it with different numbers of players (its a v different game with three rather than five).

  6. Haha. Woah! Okay, I tend to agree that it’s hard to do a good review after one play. That’s why I’ve been giving what I call ‘Early impressions’ after the first play or two and saving the full review for later, if I ever get to it. Oh, I suppose that IS a session report. Ah, well. I think people just need to be honest in their articles on BGG. Have you posted this there? Might start a flame war.

  7. Chris Norwood

    Okay, Josh, you and Mike just need to accept that you’re wrong and listen to reason. 

    Maybe I just take the idea of a “Review” a little too seriously, but even when a game isn’t so great, I still think that you need to perform your due diligence and at least play it a second time with different people or in a different situation to confirm your impressions.  If you dislike it so much that you don’t want to play it again, that’s cool, but I still don’t think that you should write a review about it.

    I mean, to me there is sort of a responsibility implied when you call something a review.  People are going to read it and at least partially base playing and buying decisions on what you say.  Perhaps more importantly, a game designer and/or publisher may have sales or the reputation of their game affected by it as well.  I’m not saying to feel bad or appologize about it when you dislike a game, but just give it a fair shake before publishing your negative views about it.

    I’ll grant you that by the end of the first play, you probably have a really good working knowledge of the rules and how to play.  The problem is, though, that you still haven’t actually played the whole game with the benefit of that knowledge.  Before you can say with any certainty what the game can do and what experience it may consistently give, you need to play it while actually knowing how to play it all the way through.  

    And sure, your opinion of a game may change between play # 50 and 51, just like it might between play # 1 and 2.  But the difference is that your opinion in the former case is extremely well-informed, and in a review you would be able to discuss not only your current opinion, but also what it was initially and at play #25 and finally what brought you to your final thoughts.  If you stop at play #1, you’ve barely scratched the surface of what the game can do, and have very little context about how it may develop, and certainly almost no chance to discover emergent characteristics of play that are not obvious from just a rules reading or casual play.    

  8. Chris Norwood

    Maybe, in my effort to intentionally be a bit inflammatory and opinionated (which has worked pretty well, based on the number of immediate responses I’ve had), I spoke a bit unclearly.

    As I said, people have every right to hold whatever opinion they want of a game (heck, sometimes I get a negative feel from a game just from looking at it or reading the rules, let alone from an actual bad play of it).  And I’m also not saying that they have no right to express that opinion publically.  

    When I said to “keep it to yourself”, I was really only meaning “in the context of an official ‘Review'”.  As I mentioned in a comment above, I probably take “reviews” too seriously, but something about calling it that implies a level of authority or expertise that you are assuming for the game.  And I just feel that you have to sort of earn the right to claim that role by making sure that your opinion is well-informed.

    In fact, if you’ve been reading my site for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I share my opinion about games all the time.  In my session report articles, I will talk about a game whether it was the 1st or the 101st time I played it.  But that is always done within the context of the report, where I’ve also gone over who I played the game with and how it played out and even who won.  And then I will reference back to any previous plays of that game and often discuss how my feelings may or may not have changed about it.  It’s sort of a work in progress, always open for new information or a new experience with a game that may further develop my understanding of it.  

    But when I make the effort of singling out a game and writing my official “Review” of it, something needs to be different.  And I am fully aware that this weight that I assign to review writing definitely limits how many games I have reviewed over the life of this blog.  I’m actually working on lightening up a little on what I expect of myself when I write, but I will never think that it’s okay for me to make any sort of definitive statement about a game after just one play.

  9. Chris Norwood

    Exactly!  A session report! 

    And no, I don’t know that posting this on BGG would actually do anyone much good…

  10. I’m willing to agree to disagree with you – especially because we all view reviews differently. I respect what you’re saying on it. That is also why I have a disclaimer about what my “score” is for a game on my site… my mind changes 10 times back and forth as I think about what to write in the review regardless of whether or not I play it more. I personally normally play games multiple times before I review them, but that’s simply because if I like a game, I want to immediately play it again (and therefore, lots of my negative reviews are based off of a single play – after all, if I didn’t have negative reviews, people would whine that I’m always too positive).

    Since I focus on aspects of the game that I like and aspects that I dislike, I am normally pretty decided on those after one play. If I’m unsure, I’ll try to play again with that concept in mind to see what I think of it the next time and to see if whatever happened in the first game was a fluke.

    I think the real key here is that nobody is going to be authoritative on whether you like a game besides you, yourself. I can tell you all day long that I hate a game (and some of my reviews are like that, but I try to be more tactful), but that doesn’t mean that you will. I recommend to anybody that reads reviews to read several of them – even if your style of games sync’s up with mine most of the time, there will be certain games that we disagree about (Power Grid), so it’s good to see what other people think too.

    Anyway… I’ve rambled too much again… so off to eat dinner (and then play board games?)

  11. Not much good? I think it could do a few people a lot of good. And think how much fun it would be… 😉

  12. I agree with you, for the most part. I try to get at least a few plays in with a couple of different groups before I review a game. Sometimes, when it’s a two-player game, I will review a game after only me and the wife has played but I try to reflect that in the review somehow. More often than not, though, I will play a game with her and then try to get another group into the mix, especially if it’s a game that scales up from two players to multiples. I feel, like you, that many games need to be experienced in different settings and player mixes in order to be fully understood. If I don’t do that before I submit a review, I often feel as though I have cheated the readers.

    That said, there are a few games that could be reviewed after one play experience, but these are few and far between. I do think that it is possible for an experienced gamer to come across a game that has many mechanics and/or themes that they are familiar with from previous gaming experiences, and that they can call upon that experience to provide a comprehensive review. I’m not a big fan of extrapolation, but it can be done, and done well – in the hands of a crafted reviewer, mind you.

  13. tomg

    I agree with you for the most part. I think Eric is right. I consider a post or podcast or whatever based on one play as a session report.
    A reviewer does have some responsibility as you stated. Whether he wants it or not people are going to make decisions based in part on reviews. So a reviewer needs to be considerate of this. If he wants to be taken seriously.
    One play reviews don’t hold a lot of value for me.
    I do like the mean eyed lemon.

  14. Keith Carter

    Interesting concept that a single play review is effectively a session report. I mostly agree. They both tell me more about someone else’s emotional experience than they deliver knowledge that I can use in my gaming decisions.

    I routinely skip reviews that are based on one play. I might consider a one play review if there were no other reviews based on greater experience, however, in these days of the internet in general and BGG in particular that situation rarely arises. Even then I still would not give a one game based review much weight because a response after a single play can not provide as much useful information as a review after extensive play experience. While a first play review can deliver to me what the reviewer’s impressions were, what the reviewer liked or disliked, it does not tell me nearly enough to make an informed decision about whether I want to invest my time and/or money into a game. For example, a single play Pandemic review is not going to tell me with any certainty the strengths of the various roles, how well various roles can work together, how much a difference open cards vs concealed cards makes, how much of a difference 2 vs 3 vs 4 players makes, how much of a difference 4 vs 5 vs 6 epidemics make, how well the components like the cards will hold up, or what emergent aspects I might look forward to experiencing (or not).

    A single play review has some value if it has not stumbled over some of the obstacles created by a lack of familiarity, but even if it is based on getting it on first try it can not have for me as much value as a review done after extensive experience with a game.

  15. If each game were a unique expression of creativity, you might be right. I’ve frequently required more than one play before reviewing a game.

    However some games are re-hashes of overused mechanics with nothing new to offer. Other games don’t have the complexity that warrant additional plays. Sadly some games are so broken you can tell in less than one play and feel the need to warn people.

    So yeah, in many cases once is not enough to learn enough about a games pitfalls or high points. However years of critical experience and of repetitive game design make it easy to judge some games without playing multiple times.

  16. JamesT

    I totally agree with the post — single-play reviews are a pet peeve of mine. Sure you can have an opinion of a game after one play — but put it in a session report. But the fact is that reviews get more attention than session reports, and people like attention.

    Speaking of geting attention, it seems to me that a big factor driving single-play reviews is the desire to get one’s review out while the game still has lots of buzz surrounding it. Put that single-play review out this week, and you’re weighing in on the new hotness; wait to play it 3 or 4 times, and you’re johnny-come-lately getting half the page views.

  17. Chris Norwood

    If I don’t do that before I submit a review, I often feel as though I have cheated the readers.”  – Yep, that’s it! 

    As for your second point (which Walsfeo mirrors below), I still don’t necessarily buy it.  Even if the mechanics are “reused” or similar to many other games you’ve played, the way that this particular game combines them may still be different.  Again, it’s about discovering the emergent characteristics of the game that develop from how the old mechanics form new synergies, and if you just fall back on preconceived judgments from other games, you still haven’t really played the new game. 

    If anything, you may actually need to play similar games a few extra times to better differentiate them in your mind from what you’ve done before.  If you can’t really identify the differences, then your review will be more about the older games that you played and how you think they relate to the new game rather than being about the new game itself. 

    An example that I’ve been working on for a while now is the “10 Days in…” series.  All of the games are virtually the same, and it would be very easy to do a blanket review that smeared them all together.  But what I’m challenging myself to do is to focus more on understanding what differences exist between the games, how the differences affect the play experience, and ultimately to be able to compare and contrast them to give readers a better idea of which ones they might want to pick up depending on what they’re looking for.

  18. I’m only going to counter your argument about playing similar games a few extra times with one single word: Fluxx.

  19. Chris Norwood

    You are so completely right!

    One of the biggest problems with reviews is that the real motivation for writing them is more about getting thumbs at BGG, page views, or to having the “honor” of reviewing it first, rather than providing something truly valuable to the readers.  I’m no saint or anything, of course, because I like to have lots of hits and get lots of discussion on my posts and reviews, but I’d still rather feel like I’m giving the best I can to the readers and have more the reputation of giving thorough and valuable reviews, rather than necessarily being the first person to write any old something about a game. 

  20. Chris Norwood

    I still don’t know, though.  If you’re going to bother reviewing Pirate Fluxx, for example (which I haven’t even played), why would you still not play it a couple of times.  From what I understand, a whole new type of card (interrupts) have been added, and in such a random and swingy game, I still wouldn’t think that I would have a great understanding of how it changed gameplay after just one game.

    On the other hand, if there are literally no new mechanics being added (which I understand is the case between Zombie Fluxx and Martian Fluxx), then I could probably see your point and hesitantly agree.  Munchkin is probably the same idea, where the differences are mostly all about theme/humor rather than being about changing gameplay.

  21. And that’s pretty much all I’m really talking about – games that have theme makeovers, but little else.

    For an example of a group of similar games (like your 10 Days in…) that I would never want to review without multiple plays is the Ticket to Ride series. The mechanics don’t change from game to game – for the most part – but the small tweaks and the board layout does make each game a very different experience. So I would think a one-time play on any of those, despite their base similarities, would be unacceptable.

  22. I agree with you for the vast majority of games. But I think it depends on the game’s complexity. A truly complex epic – like Die Macher or Twilight Imperium – should require several plays before I review it. I want to get a complete “feel” and understanding of the game otherwise I’m just cobbling some hackery together.

    I also think you need to keep playing them even if you don’t like them if you want to review them. I’ve played Twilight Imperium only once to date and I hated it. That hate may be based off of one poor game, or maybe someone misread some rules (it was someone else’s game who explained it to us). So, while my opinion is negative, I could never write a review about it based on one play.

    I have written a review about Killer Bunnies. A game I played about ten times and hated every play.

    On the other hand, though, I think less complicated games require fewer plays to adequately review. I think some COULD be reviewed after a single play. Yahtzee is a good example. Is there really much more you’d get from a second play?

    The important thing is that you’ve played it enough so that you’ve tried a number of strategies and seen all that the game really has to offer. That’ll be more plays for some than for others.

  23. ekted

    I guess it depends on what the review is about. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a meaningful opinion about a game’s components or rules without having played it once. And there are games that I will never play a second time ever, that I have very strong opinions about. Although I would be unlikely to write a formal review of them, unless there was a lot to say.

  24. I have to agree. I think Eric nailed it on the head when he said “early impression” is a better term for a one play review.

    And while not all games take ten plus plays to write a review about, some might.

    I also think you owe it to your readers and game publishers (if you are getting review copies) to put in some time and write a knowledgeable review.

    Being early to review a game might be cool but I think writing a well, thought-out review will bring more hits and discussion in the long run than a less informed review.

  25. Chris Norwood

    But I just don’t know that I would find a review of components or rules alone (without actual play) very valuable anyway.  And I wouldn’t really consider going over either of them a “review” of the game either.

  26. Chris Norwood

    Actually, I think that many of those longer games probably require less plays than shorter games. 

    In Twilight Imperium 3, for example, you spend around 8 hours playing one game.  There’s a lot going on, but really, the game isn’t significantly more complex than many games that run in the 90-120 minute category (it’s just the nature of the game and the social element of negotiation and all that make it so long).  So in effect, playing one game of TI3 is like playing those other games 4 times, as far as play experience goes.  I think you’d still need to play it at least twice in order to be able to intentionally plan and execute some level of straegy after your first “learning” game, but that’s probably all it would take to formulate a pretty informed opinion (with a 16 or so hour time investment in the game).     

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