In January of 2022, I started writing first impressions/reviews on Boardgamegeek and then later adding them to my own site as well. While it’s technically not a full year yet, it seemed like a good opportunity to stop for a moment and look back on the experience so far. Have you ever thought about writing about games? It has been an interesting experience and a number of things were different than I expected.
Funny enough, I’ve actually stumbled into writing by accident. I was disappointed by the YouTube hype-train with more and more channels going over to Kickstarter Previews and reviews that focused basically on rules explanations. I cannot count the number of games where one or multiple videos got me excited, only to find out that the game was pretty mediocre or not working at all when I got my hands on a copy. My assumption is that this is most likely due to creators only having a few plays in before shooting a video. I guess it’s part of the system: gamers are interested in learning about new games multiple times a week, so creators have to churn out at least one video a week if they want to keep their audience interested. I don’t know about you, but for me this led to a lot of disappointment.
At the same time, I noticed how much I enjoyed watching reviews of games I already knew. There is something strangely comforting about it, like discussing a book you’ve already read with a friend. I started watching more No Pun Included, Heavy Cardboard, and Dice Tower Four Squares videos and less videos that were “here are the rules and this is what I think of it”-reviews. But I still had questions that went deeper…
My original idea for Talking Shelf Space was to do a video format with a mixture between documentary and review, answering the questions people that love a game would have. So I wrote a rough concept, created search jobs for second hand video equipment, and slowly but steadily did some test shoots. When I created my very first long form text on BGG (First Impressions on Messina 1347), it was actually just a test to see if I can do storytelling in a way that would interested anyone at all. I had never really written before, so if that one would have bombed, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble buying video gear! 🙂
Contrary to my expectations, it turned out quite well. With hindsight, I think it helped that Messina 1347 hit retail in Germany way earlier than in the US and so I had a number of plays already in and could write about it before the majority of reviews came out. Unfortunately, 2022 turned out to become a rather stressful year for me and as I had less time to test video stuff, I continued writing. While writing long form also takes a substantial amount of time, it’s nowhere near what a proper video would require.
What’s It Like?
So far, pretty great! Writing a single text takes me roughly 4-6 hours plus time to shot pictures, fix typos, integrate feedback once the post is up and add updates after further plays (which is also can take up a considerable amount of time). So it’s a great activity for a rainy Sunday and I really enjoy the process of the writing itself once I’ve collected enough material.
Speaking of which, I’ve found that it takes me roughly 8-10 plays of a single game to feel comfortable writing about it. A few require less, some way more, but it’s definitely the biggest amount of time investment. My benchmark is always whether or not I have found the essence of a game and can accurately predict how the game will feel in future plays. There have been a surprising amount of games that change character after the third or fourth play as one looks beyond the new and shiny and comes to the meta game.
Another important criteria is whether or not a game is worth writing about. It’s really easy to get into a situation where one feels the need to post something, anything. It’s not even the need to grow an audience, but more the desire to have a conversation with the audience. While the writing part itself is highly enjoyable, the best part of the whole process is when someone writes a nice comment or starts a conversation. And that typically only happens when you push out new content.
Luckily, I early on set up a few rules for myself on when and when not to write about a game. At one point, I actually noticed that I was browsing the BGG hotness looking for a game that would be “valuable” to write about or thinking of buying games just to write about them. So it’s good to have a constant reminder that I want to play and enjoy games first and foremost and write about them secondarily. It’s surprisingly hard to stick to that and I have more and more sympathy for YouTubers that stress out over having to produce new content. So if anyone reading this is thinking of starting to produce content, I can only recommend to write down why you are doing it and what your primary goal is: have fun, earn money, get preview copies, become famous…?
I had two primary goals for writing: 1) see how big the interest in my style of story telling is and 2) get into contact with authors so I can ask them the questions I had and write even better stories. On both parts, it’s surprisingly difficult to measure whether it has been successful or not. Is 10 thumbs up on a BGG post good? 50? 100?
The main rule seems to be that the less interest in a game exists, the less people will see your review. The way BGG works, there are four main ways people will end up even seeing it:
- They are interested in the game and look through the forum
- They see it in the “Hot In-Depth Reviews” section on the main page
- They see it in the list of recently published new reviews
- The review is featured in the “The Geek Weekly” section on the main page
I don’t have precise data on where readers come from, but in my case the majority of thumbs up are created in the first 2 weeks of a post. There is also a quite noticeable difference when a game is new and/or popular as opposed to an older game. While I try to improve my writing with every text, I would say the format and style is consistent enough to warrant a comparison between different games. In case of older/less popular games, my texts typically have between 10-30 thumbs up, new/more popular games end up in the 80-150 range. First Impressions of Heat: Pedal to the Metal – Zero to Fun in Sixty Seconds has recently crossed the 250+ mark which is incredible. But with the info mentioned before, I rather attribute that to a great game and good timing than my writing skills.
And of course positive reviews result in more thumbs up then neutral or negative ones. Since I want to write about games I find interesting and not necessarily follow the hotness, I’ve started to look more for relative thumbs up compared to other reviews and the kind of comments readers have posted.
Another interesting thing is that there are few returning readers from one post to the next. With BGG, most readers are interested in the game, not you, and the site isn’t really build for following someone. Personally, I’ve started recognising certain names on BGG but it’s only after I narrowed my interest down to a particular game that I might chose to read one review over the other by author.
One lesson I learned is that I should provide more positive feedback to texts I enjoy reading. Before I started writing myself, I hardly ever added a comment to a review. But from personal experience I can only say it’s the one thing that puts the biggest smile on my face. It’s especially helpful if someone quotes a favourite sentence or aspect as that allows me to improve my writing. The biggest compliment is of course when someone writes they have decided to give the game a shot because of my writing or have figured out it’s not for them due to it.
The comments also helped me to validate one of my incoming premises: there is a surprising amount of people that already know a game and still read a review about it, up to the point where they can correct subtle mistakes in rules explanations I made.
In a few cases, my writing allowed me to get into contact with the authors themselves, for which I’m really grateful. I’d love to do that more but have been pretty bad in reaching out. One of my hopes for 2023 is to add an in-depth interview format to the usual first impressions/reviews I do. Should be fun!
With all the feedback I got, being positive or negative, there wasn’t a single case where someone was impolite or abusive. One commenter used what to me seemed slightly offensive language, but he assured me it’s normal to swear that much in Australia ? So a heartfelt thank you to everyone who gave feedback!