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It doesn't just happen here...

Started by John Wick, December 12, 2001, 06:03:00 PM

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John Wick

A while back I said it was a crime for reviewers to review games they haven't actually played (only read).

Well, check this out (from

David Soul Wins Libel Suit
Starsky And Hutch star David Soul has won $70,000 in damages after a libellous review of a play he appeared in. The American actor - who played Ken 'Hutch' Hutchinson in the seventies TV cop show - succesfully sued British newspaper journalist and TV presenter Matthew Wright over a review of one of his plays. Wright slated the 1998 West End, London production of Dead Monkey, claiming in Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper it was the worst he had ever seen - even though he hadn't actually been to the play. The journalist also claimed audience members were laughing openly at Soul's performance, and ushers were begging audience members to stay to the end. It was further alleged that only 45 people attended one Monday night production, and that it would have made more sense if the theatre had housed homeless people instead. The London court found all these statements were false, and that Wright - who had never actually seen the production - had sent a freelance journalist to attend the play. Mr Wright's solicitor Mark Bateman offered his apologies for the inaccuracies, as his client was ordered to pay $70,000 damages and legal costs estimated at $350,000. Soul, 58, commented after the case, "I think it's a cornerstone of the theatre that you have to see the play, you have to be there, you have to have the facts. And if you are going to use something like that, make sure you get the facts right."

I'm not suggesting game designers sue reviewers who pan their games without playing them. All I'm suggesting is that a game reviewer who does so is like a movie reviewer who writes a review after seing the preview.

Getting back to work,
Carpe Deum,


Sorry John, I have to disagree.

The difference is a big one.  The gamer who reviews without playing typically says so in the review.  Certainly reviews are categorised by whether they are reviews based on reading only or reviews based on actual play.

That is a world away from pretending you've seen something and reviewing it without admitting that in fact you haven't.

If I review Orkworld without playing it, but say in my review that I have not played it, people can factor that information into the weight they place on my review.

The David Soul analogy would be more like if I were to review Orkworld claiming I had played it when in fact I had simply spoken to a friend who had.
AKA max

John Wick

(Contrary to popular belief [does that make it an urban myth? :wink:], I really don't mind if people disagree with me. Especially when they do it like Balbinus here: respectfully.)

Anyway, I agree about the analogy thing. The David Soul thing isn't a good analogy (and analogy being a poor argument technique to begin with).

My point is this: how can you review a game by just reading the rules?

You don't see the rules _in action_. This was a prime gripe of mine for 7th Sea. So much of that game was _seeing_ how the rules worked. So many people read the book and didn't _see_ how it worked. They really missed out. Visualizing a game isn't the same as being there, and in my opinion, doesn't qualify you for making a judgement about the game.

So, in effect, it may well be the same thing as reviewing a film you never saw. Or, like I said in my above post, reviewing a movie after only seeing the preview.

Take care,
Carpe Deum,

Clinton R. Nixon

On 2001-12-12 14:46, John Wick wrote:
My point is this: how can you review a game by just reading the rules?

You don't see the rules _in action_. This was a prime gripe of mine for 7th Sea. So much of that game was _seeing_ how the rules worked.

I'll have to agree with John - reviewing a game without playing it results in an incomplete and uneducated review - and also agree with his example.

I got caught (by John, through some other people) once cracking on 7th Sea pretty hard. I'd read the rules, and nothing about them grabbed me. It seemed pretty standard.

I finally played 7th Sea. I still had a gripe or two, but man, that resolution system - not boring. Not standard. Much, much better than it read.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


Well, sure, let's beat a dead horse a few more times.

There is certainly value in playing a game.  It does give you that "feel" of the game that is impossible to fully realize from just a read-through.  Unless you're an infallible mathematician (and nobody is), it also gives you a chance to notice a good feature of the rules that isn't obvious from a read-through.

Let's recognize that it's not all roses, either, particularly if you're doing one of those "play one or two sessions, then write a review" things.  And that's the most common way to review a game, because, seriously, who has the time, energy, and support from their group to just drop everything and play an extended campaign of a brand new game in time to write a timely review of that game?

  1. It's easy to confuse the scenario for the game.  It's axiomatic that a great GM can make any game fun, and a terrible GM can make the best game awful.  Expand that to other players.  If you've played a game, how much of your opinion of that game is based on the actual core game, and how much is on the group you played with?  Because we, the readers of your review, won't be buying your gaming group.

  2. Playing a game is a holistic experience.  It's like reading a novel or seeing a movie -- you get a whole bunch of stuff thrown at you simultaneously.  It takes a very skilled reviewer to dissect that melange of information into the good and the bad.  It makes it much easier to miss the isolated good or bad amongst a wash of other things, than, perhaps, an analytic read-through of the book.

  3. More than just missing details, overlapping areas of the game might actually subvert your opinion.  Let's take Seventh Sea as an example, since it's a game that I've neither read nor played, and, as such, it's clear I'm speaking hypothetically.  Suppose that, upon reading it, I find that the mechanics are, in my opinion, flawed.  Then I play the game, and, like Clinton, I'm overwhelmed by the fun visceral feeling of the mechanics.  Does this make them less flawed?  Probably not, but it may very well make me not report them as flawed.

I'm always glad to read reviews by people who've played the game.  I'm equally glad to read reviews by people who haven't.  They both create biases and blind-spots.  Actually, I think my ideal review strategy might be for someone to read the book analytically, review it, play it for a session or two, add that to the end of the review (deliberatly not editting anything they said above), then play it regularly for three months, and add the results of that to the review (again, not editting anything above).

Obviously, that's a bit much to ask.


I certainly don't think you need to play a game in order to review it so long as you say so in your review. Much of how a game plays will be up to the GM and players--games, by their nature, contain objective rules and such that can be analyzed.

Sure, reading The Window may not be the same as playing it--but valid commentary can still be made. And really, is one play session accurate? I didn't find 'problems' with Hero (one of my favorites) the first time I played it--I found stuff that I might remark on after years of play.  How much do you have to play to have valid commentary?

JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
a free, high-quality, universal system at:
Just Released: JAGS Wonderland


7th Sea is an interesting example, my impression of it is definitely a game which is better in play than a reading of its rules would suggest (which is interesting given how often JW is criticised for producing games which are great reading but not really that playable, can't win eh John?).

I would note in passing that the large numbers playing and enjoying 7th Sea and Legend of the 5 Rings make me suspicious anyway of any review which claims they are unplayable, clearly they are.

Leaving that aside, while I agree there are games where one has to accept that without play the review will be essentially meaningless, I would argue that this is not necessarily true of all games.

Concrete example time.  I have played a lot of BRP system games.  I have played and ran CoC, Runequest, Elric and even a little Worlds of Wonder way back when.  I have tried to play Ringworld (the game folded) and own a copy of Elfquest and Corum.

So, I know the system pretty well.  Let's now imagine that Chaosium bring out a new rpg, Nomad of the Timestreams, based on the Oswald Bastable stories by Michael Moorcock.  The game uses BRP, I haven't played it but I'm pretty confident that I could review it and that I would understand how the particular rules varied from the general rules and how any new rules would likely interact.

Concrete example 2.  I come across a game on the web which seems to me to be worth bringing to people's attention.  I read the game online, and while I will not be able to fit it into my own gaming schedule it seems to me reasonably well designed without obvious flaws.  I review it, mentioning that I have not played it but stating why I feel it merits attention.  This seems to me a good thing.  People know that I have not played it and that there may, therefore, be hidden problems that I have not noticed.  However, the game gets attention it otherwise wouldn't have.  I would place my review of the game Drones squarely into this category.

Concrete example 3.  Let's take the game Wyrd, as initially released on the internet.  I think this game has a great core concept, genuinely innovative.  I would see it as justified to review the game in order to bring attention to the new and exciting things it is doing, even if that meant reviewing and having to say in my review that I could not swear to how well it worked in practice.  Would a review after play be better?  Absolutely.  Would no review at all be better than one without play?  In my view, no.  Even without play it is obvious quite how original Wyrd is, a review can reflect that even if nothing more.

Where I would personally draw the line is the converse of the above.  Let's say I notice Clinton's rather fine d20 game about rats, mice etc in a fantasy setting.  I decide that I really dislike it and that it doesn't really work.  Without playing it I post a review slamming the game and stating that it has badly drafted rules.  This for me is too far for two reasons:  Firstly I'm slamming someone's work without giving it a fair chance; secondly I'm commenting on how it plays without having done so myself.

Finally, JW, need I remind you that you have a public persona to maintain?  I would ask that you slip a rant in somewhere on this thread if only not to disappoint those of us who miss seeing the occasional Wick Rant TM.  They usually make for good reading :smile:
AKA max

Ron Edwards


I know your final paragraph was a joke. It's still not cool.

No one's "public persona" is welcome at the Forge, to the best of our collective ability. Your post is close enough to a certain behavior - to instigate another's acting-out - that it bothers me a lot.

This has nothing to do with any one person, but with everyone. No rants here. No provoking here. No public-personae here.



It was a joke Ron, quite right.

Nonetheless, your correction is noted and accepted.  I apologise.

The rest of the post I would of course appreciate any comments on that anyone may have.
AKA max

Mike Holmes

I find nothing as valuable as the free excahange of ideas. To the extent that we can have an open useful debate we should allow as much discourse as possible.

The second most valuable thing that I can find is the ability to be discerning. Take the open discourse for what it is. Remember that people may be dishonest, and take caveats (like not having played a game) seriously.

Are some people undiscerning? Yes. Should we throw out free expression because of it? No.

Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.

James V. West

On 2001-12-12 15:09, Epoch wrote:

  • More than just missing details, overlapping areas of the game might actually subvert your opinion.  Let's take Seventh Sea as an example, since it's a game that I've neither read nor played, and, as such, it's clear I'm speaking hypothetically.  Suppose that, upon reading it, I find that the mechanics are, in my opinion, flawed.  Then I play the game, and, like Clinton, I'm overwhelmed by the fun visceral feeling of the mechanics.  Does this make them less flawed?  Probably not, but it may very well make me not report them as flawed.

    Just a quick side note: if you play it and are overwhelmed, then that would indicate that the rules you thought were flawed were in fact *not* flawed, right? All the more reason to play a game before reviewing it.

    However, I'm of the opinion that you can do something *like* a review without playing the game. Maybe it should be called something else. That way if you stumbled across some cool little game hidden in a corner of the net that you didn't have time to actually play, you could still write about it so others could try it out (something that's been already pointed out in this thread).


    James V. West

  • Marco

    Hi James,

    I think that a review of play of a game is subjective. Whether I like it or not (as a reviewer) doesn't tell the reader much unless they already know my preferences well.

    I used to reveiw computer games for an online web-zine ( -- closed now). We were small--but big enough to get all the new free games sent to us, to get into private shows at E3, etc. Here's the deal with reviews:

    A review is, by its nature, subjective--it's someone's opinion. The only objective elements of a review are a discussion of facts about the game. For example:an analysis of how effectiveness of a 6 Difficulty is handled by different "stats" of The Window--you can discuss that so long as you let people draw their on conclusions as to whether it's good or bad. You can discuss page count (say pages on outcome resolution vs. combat mechanics). You can discuss what a game claims to do ("Novas in Abbarant are world shattering Titans in terms of power level" vs. what the rules say it does: "You run out of juice real fast if you fight using your powers.")

    But whether a game (or much less, a gaming session) is good or not is *only* useful if:
    a) you know the reiviewer
    b) you've decided how to evaluate his remarks.

    Roger Ebert and I agree on a lot of things about movies. If he likes something, I'm inclined to check it out--but his *reasons* aren't what'll make me go see a movie he liked--it's the fact that I know how his tastes an mine align.

    So I'd go the other way: A game review should concentrate on facts and analysis. If you want to write up a description of a play session (and whether you liked it) that's something else--not a review (it might be a review of your GM's campaign ... or a review of your gaming group ... but the game is only part of that).

    JAGS (Just Another Gaming System)
    a free, high-quality, universal system at:
    Just Released: JAGS Wonderland

    James V. West

    I think john's point (correct me if I'm wrong) is that you can't do a proper analysis unless you've played the game. I agree with him on this. It wasn't until myself and others actually played The Pool that I started to see how it really works. Ron's review of it (based on a session of play) clued me in to certain effects I didn't really see as being that important because at that point I had never played it.

    However, I still believe a good reading coupled with some practical experience at playing various types of games is enough to do a "write-up" about that game. But making judgements about how well it works is not something I'd want someone to do if he hasn't played it.


    James V. West

    Gordon C. Landis

    OK, I'll chime in one this subject one more time.  I think what drives REALLY John (and many others) nuts is that there are people out there who "review" a game with no real interest in discussing it as a game or determining what its' virtues as a game might be.  Instead, they just want to prove themselves clever, or they have a pro/anti WotC/John Wick/Metaplot/White Wolf/whatever agenda that they are using the review as an excuse to pursue.

    Unfortunately, playing or not playing the game will have no effect on such people.

    I agree that it is very important to acknowldge if you've played the game or not in a review, and that very different issues/results can show up in those two arena's.  I can see value in both - but when push comes to shove, I think a review that includes play would be "better".

    On the other hand, the real value in (RPG, especially) reviews is to disregard the reviewers' judgements and use the info presented to reach your own judgement.  At least, that's how it seems to me.

    Gordon (under construction)


    In response to James, who asked whether, if I read a mechanic, decided it was flawed, then played it and really liked it, that meant it was actually not flawed:

    Nope.  I don't think it does.  And I'll give a concrete example:

    Metascape was a totally unsuccesful RPG in the early 90's that, I think, was actually quite good in a lot of ways, if grossly flawed in others.

    I played it at GenCon ('92ish) and then, after that, bought and read it.  I really enjoyed, both at GenCon, and in sessions thereafter, the mechanic, which involved an open-ended multiplier die, leading to occaisional wildly over-the-top results.  Now, reading the mechanic, I became aware that it was flawed in many ways.  But I, personally, found it immensely fun.

    I don't think that the immense fun of the mechanic made the flaws less important -- that was an example of two areas of the game that overlapped in play, but could be clearly segmented on reading it.

    [ Edited to remove flagrant abuse of the word "wildly" ]

    [ This Message was edited by: Epoch on 2001-12-17 13:02 ]