Category Archives: Reviews & First Looks

Is reading enough to review?

Michael recently republished his post on review writing. I have come to review writing rather recently, particularly compared to the experienced hands of Michael and Sunglar.

I thought I would share a few thoughts.

Stars Without Number is a game that I know has had very good reviews. I haven’t played it and I haven’t read it. I am not about to review it.

So traditional thinking falls into two camps. Either you read the rules and then try and convey the feel of those rules, probably by comparing it to other popular games and also comment on the quality of the material and art in the final package.

The other camp has you play the game and then describe how the game played.

Part of the problem with the former approach is that a game may look like an ugly duckling but turn out to be a swan or its production values may be terrible but at the table a great game comes out. I am part of an facebook group of RPG writers and many refuse to use page layout tools or art as these increase costs and slow down production times. There is little or no money in RPGs now for indie developers. If GMs expect games to me almost free then you will get what you pay for.

The later approach or actually playing a game is fraught with difficulty. My all time favourite game is Rolemaster and although it is a dangerous combat sort of game combat is the real problem with the system, in my opinion. The game system breaks down when PCs get to about 20th level. Many fantasy games have the stereotype of magic users are really weak at first level but become really powerful at high level. Rolemaster has this model but the ‘really powerful’ end turns out to be ‘really, really powerful so that the GM cannot easily challenge you any more.” So given that ‘design flaw’ can you ever expect a reviewer to  play a game so that his players reach 20th level before he has sufficient material to write an informed review? I think that is a little excessive?

Going back to Star Without Number there was an interesting solution to this balancing act on the TakeOnRules blog ( So rather than reading the rulebook and posting a 1000 word review Jeremy Friesen has done a chapter by chapter dissection of the rules. So far he has published eight posts, each dealing with a chapter of the rules. We are looking at something like 8000 words published so far with plenty of examples of how the mechanics work. If the game isn’t for you then you would realise that after a post or two. If it sounds fascinating then you can keep on reading if you haven’t grabbed your own copy already.

I think this works. The game lost me when it was described as build from a foundation of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. I have that up decades ago and do not feel the urge to go back there.

Since I have been looking at a wider range of games I have invested hundreds of hours just reading games. Most have never formed the basis of a review. I think it is a case of “If you cannot think of anything good to say then say nothing at all.” Many game have some really merit even if they are not for me. I suspect that SWN is one of those games.

Some games I have read cried out to be played but my players do not feel the same. These I tend to resort to solo rules for. This is a far from perfect solution from a reviewing perspective but at least I can honestly say I have played the game. Reading The Princess Bride left me feeling vaguely dirty and needing a shower. Playing it to test its mechanics revealed its implementation of FUDGE to be very well done. What turned me off was the setting not the game rules. Once I separated these the nature of the game was completely changed. If you like the background to The Princess Bride then the setting would not have turned you off.

So whereas I agree with Michael that there is no perfect way to review a game and reading the rules is not the same as playing and sometimes reading is the only option I would contest that actually there can be other, quite creative, solutions to the whole RPG game reviewing problem.

Judging a book by its content

I recently wrote a couple of reviews for this very blog without having playtested it. That kind of review is pretty much common for most RPG reviewers, but also criticized by some readers and sometimes even publishers. I actually wanted to write a post in which I share my thoughts on the matter, but then I realized I have already written that post back in 2010. What follows is a repost of that 2010 article called “It’s hard to be a reviewer”.

“It’s hard to be a reviewer” by Michael Wolf

(this post first appeared on Stargazer’s World on July 27th 2010)

Sometimes it’s not easy to be a reviewer of RPG products. If you’ve followed my blog for some time now, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve written quite a few of those in my time. The category “Reviews & First Looks” lists 94 posts. This is quite a lot and in most cases these have been based on a read through of the product in question and not a playtest. And especially this type of review has been criticized recently.

I think most of you remember when John Goodman of Goodman Games called a reviewer an idiot because he didn’t playtest one of Goodman’s adventures but pointed out issues within the module based on a read through. While it’s always a bad idea to react on criticism by calling the reviewer names, it’s also wrong to think only reviews based on a playtest are proper review.

Recently  fellow RPG blogger Dane of War wrote an article (Editor’s note: this article is not available any more) that took the same line. While I can understand that he’s annoyed by overly short reviews that appear only hours after a game has been released, I don’t think he’s right. Let me explain why.

>Roleplaying games are different from other media because they can be consumed in more than one way. You can’t possible judge on a movie without watching it, and it’s hard to judge an album without listening to it, but there are two ways to consume a roleplaying game: a) you can read it and b) you can play it.

In a way RPGs can be compared to movie scripts. You can of course read the script and write a review based on that or you can watch the movie and judge it by what you’ve seen on the silver screen. Since there’s usually only one movie made using one script, its a good idea to review the whole package.

But things are differently when you look at RPGs. When 100 GMs run a game, you’ll get 100 different experiences. So, if you really want to write a review about the game, do you think including the GM’s abilities into the equation does make the review better? Of course there are things that you might miss in a review based on a read through, but that might happen with the playtest report as well. And especially in the case of reviewers who have played RPGs for a long time, I trust that they can judge a game without having played it.

The second problem is that when you demand reviews based on a playtest only, you will get less reviews and you’ll have to wait much longer. So the new D&D 5th Edition is out, and you are eagerly awaiting the first reviews before you buy it. But alas all the reviewers are still trying to get their D&D 4th Edition campaign finished before they are asking their groups to give 5th Edition a try. If you as a customer (or as a publisher/author) expect reviews close to the release dates, you’re out of luck if you expect the reviewers to playtest all games. It’s just not working that way.

So when you try to please everyone out there you probably have to playtest the game on day one, but in all ways possible, write an in-depth review on the same day and even make sure you focus on the aspects of the game the publisher thinks is most important. That’s an impossible feat. Especially when indie games are concerned it’s often hard to get people to try the game out. Not everyone has a group of players interested in trying out a new game every week.

The title of this post is “It’s hard to be a reviewer”. And this is definitely true. Whatever you do, you will be given crap by people. You like a game, they don’t like, or you review the “wrong” way. I always try to write the best reviews as possible. I read the book thoroughly, take my time, write an in-depth review and try to be fair and objective. What I don’t like is reading on that ‘net the I am “doing it wrong” or that I am an “idiot”.

Editor’s note: The title of this post is a quote from a comment written by the user Jiggen under the original article in 2010.

Review: Tales From The Loop–Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries

Tales From The Loop has been one of my favorite roleplaying games of 2017. Funded in a highly successful Kickstarter campaign it quickly took gamers’ hearts by storm. Amazon even acquired the license to turn it into a TV series. What makes Tales From The Loop special is the artwork by Simon Stålenhag, which combines 1980’s nostalgia with science fiction elements. The protagonists in both his art and the game are kids, which also explains why so many people draw parallels to Netflix’ highly popular series Stranger Things. To learn more about the game, I recommend to check out my review.


Before going into any details I want to thank Free League Publishing for providing me with a complimentary copy for the purpose of this review.

Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries is the first supplement for Tales From The Loop. The 107-paged book contains three new mysteries (adventures) for the game, eight short mysteries inspired by popular songs from the 80s, machine blueprints and guidelines on how you can turn your hometown (or any town) into a setting for the game.

As with the core rules every adventure is written with both the Swedish and the US setting in mind. If something differs in the US setting from the default Swedish one, details are given in parenthesis. Usually it’s just the names which are different.

Continue reading Review: Tales From The Loop–Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries