(This first appeared in Ex Libris Nocturnis, February 1999.)
This is going to be a short article, isn’t it? After all, you just read the book and then type up what you think about it, right? Well, yes and no. A review’s purpose is to help other people decide whether or not they want to buy the product you’re reviewing. It can have many secondary purposes–making money, venting your opinion, knowing that lots of people are reading your writing–but those should never be the primary purpose of a review.
It always helps to structure your review a little. Unless it’s a very short and superficial review, it can get difficult to read and keep track of if you don’t bring some order into it. It’s often best to start out with a brief summary of what the book is about, for those who don’t know already. You don’t want to give away all of the book’s secrets, of course; that will make both the companies and the potential buyers angry.
After the introduction you can give the review whatever structure you want. Many people review books section-by-section in the order they appear. You can also structure it by issue; perhaps you found a number of points you specifically want to discuss that don’t separate easily by section. There are as many ways of structuring reviews as there are reviewers, and as long as the reader can tell what’s going on, they’re all perfectly valid.
Unless you’re reviewing the core rules for a gaming line, it’s usually important that you be familiar with that game already. How else are you going to pass judgment on whether the supplement you’re reviewing meshes with it?
Read the book you’re reviewing. (That sounds so obvious, doesn’t it?) You don’t have to read every last little rule, but get the gist of the book. If there’s a big section on combat then read enough to know how it works. If there’s an entire chapter of fiction, read enough to know whether it suits the game well. If you don’t review all parts of the book then you aren’t reviewing the book. If you’re so opposed to gaming fiction that you just won’t read it, then at least state that in your review. If one of your readers finds the fiction important then she has the right to know that you didn’t take it into account.
Take everything into consideration. Is the artwork good and appropriate? Does the cover rip the first time you pick your book up? Do you feel as though you were ripped off by the high price? Did you get your money’s worth? Ultimately, this is what your reader wants to know: is it worth my money to buy this book, and is it worth my time to read it?
If at all possible, use the material in the book in game-play (playtest!). There’s nothing like first-hand experience to point out the plot holes in what first appeared to be a seamless adventure. There have been several games I’ve playtested that worked out in unexpected ways. Things that seemed watertight had big problems when subjected to dice-rolling and players’ imaginations. Sets of encounters that seemed random and uninteresting actually worked out when seen from the point of view of the players.
I tend to think that an opinionated reviewer is a good thing; this makes for more entertaining reading! Secret biases, however, are not good things. Be aware of your biases and be up-front about them. If you think that vampires are inherently trite and you’re reviewing a supplement on vampires, then say this. Otherwise people who enjoy the concept of vampires might think that your negative opinion stems solely from the fact that the book is in other ways bad.
You can be as opinionated as you want as long as you realize that other people might not necessarily share your biases, and take this into account. This means that you inform readers of your prejudices, and try to take into consideration whether the book would be useful to people who don’t share your opinions.
Explanation & Examples
Explain! I cannot stress this one enough, and yet it’s what too many reviewers ignore. Don’t say "this book sucked." Or if you do, say why. Was the combat system too complex? Were there spelling errors on every other page? Was the information provided useless without some ten other books besides? Say so! A review that doesn’t go beyond "This is great! Wow! I loved it!" is no better than a review that says "Man, this sucks. I hated it."
After you’ve said so, try to give examples. If the combat system was too complex, then what made it so? If the fiction was trite, what made it that way? After all, no matter how good a reviewer you are, there are going to be people out there who won’t share your tastes. A review should be just as useful to the people who aren’t like you as it is to the people who are like you. And that means that you need to explain and provide examples. This allows people to make their own decisions based on your review.
The Purpose of the Book
Keep in mind that the book may not be aimed at you. Let’s say that you like open-ended systems and worlds that leave the GM a lot of room to play in, but the book is aimed at people who don’t have the time or the inclination to write their own material. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is bad (though in your view it may be); it just means the authors weren’t thinking of you when they wrote it. It’s fine to be irate at the narrow-mindedness of the authors, but remember eventually to point out that the book may be useful to someone without your particular style of play.
Try to keep in mind the purpose of the book, and take that into consideration when you review it. You may hate shoot-’em-up adventures, but if the book is a good shoot-’em-up adventure (or if you aren’t qualified to make that judgment) then you should say that. After all, there will be people reading your reviews who like things that you don’t.
The Purpose of the Review
The purpose of a review is not to convince someone to buy or not buy a book. (Unless you’re being paid by the company to make it look good, or you have some grudge against the company and want to screw it over). The purpose of a review is to help other people decide whether or not they want to buy the product. If you keep this in mind, your reviews will be useful and people will want to read them.
Try to be open-minded and fair. Many readers can spot a biased review a mile away, and they may dismiss your entire review as irrelevant if you try to cloak grudge as critique.
Here’s a quick summary of useful things to keep in mind when doing a review:
- Structure your review.
- Be familiar with the system.
- Read the entire book, not just one or two sections.
- Be aware of your biases.
- Be up-front with your biases.
- Explain your conclusions; back up sweeping statements with details.
- Give examples.
- Even if you don’t like the book, did it fulfill its purpose?
- Spell-check your review.
- If you aren’t any good with grammar, get someone who is to edit your review for you. A lot of people will assume that bad English skills indicate a bad review.