There are quite a few problems with boardgame reviews. Not that they are badly written, just that in general they probably don't quite work as reviews.
- It's a relatively small industry. Boardgames is a niche market. Not many people write about them. There are few (maybe none?) professional boardgame reviewers. Boardgame reviews is mostly still a cottage industry. That's not all bad, but that's what it is.
- Most reviews are positive reviews. People write about a game usually because they are enthusiastic about it. If they play a game that they don't like, they probably won't bother writing about it. From reading boardgame reviews, you may get an impression that every game is good.
- Reviews may be biased by preconceived notions. I'm already inclined to like the games I play. I come across this phrase quite often: "I wanted to like this game". The bias can be even bigger if it is a game I have bought myself. I have invested money in it, and I do want to like it. I'm not sure I can be fully impartial. In a way, this may be even harder than when reviewing a free copy given by the publisher.
- Cliches. I try to avoid using these but I'm not always successful. "Multiple paths to victory", "interesting", "elegant", "strategic", "streamlined", "meaningful decisions", "fun". Sometimes I wonder whether it is a problem of reviewers running out of words and phrases to describe games, or a problem of there being so many games and thus it is hard for a game to differentiate itself.
Some of the things that may be useful to keep in mind when reading reviews:
- Look for negative reviews. They can be much more entertaining to read, and also more informative. Sometimes what someone doesn't like may be exactly what you like. If you read many weaknesses of a game, and still feel keen to play it, then perhaps it is meant for you.
- "Good" does not equal "I will like". Just imagine people who do not like Puerto Rico, or Agricola, or Twilight Struggle. It's actually not that hard to imagine. People can acknowledge how well designed a game is, even though they do not like it. So reading reviews should not be about ticking off all the good qualities of a game. It should be about asking yourself - will I like this game?
- What game does it feel like? If it has a similar feel to another game that you've played before, that can be a good reference.
- What the game is vs what the reviewer feels. You should try to be objective and keep these two apart. You may not react to the game in the same way as the reviewer. Your group may be quite different from the reviewer's. A game that is too rowdy and chaotic for the reviewer may be exactly what your group enjoys. Tense auctions and tight money to one person, may be just boring maths to another.
I find that reviews where the game has surprised the reviewer, whether by being better than expected or otherwise, are more valuable. The reviewer will be able to articulate a specific point (or a few such points), and this often captures the gist of a game and why the reviewer loves or hates it.
I always hesitate to call what I write reviews. Most of them are first impressions and not proper detailed reviews. That is why I always state how many games I have played, and with how many players, to give extra context.
I don't want to be a reviewer. I almost always decline when anyone offers to send me a review copy. I'm just a boardgamer who happens to enjoy writing about his personal boardgaming experience. Being a reviewer is too much like work. Sharing my personal experience is something I enjoy, whether the game is one I like or dislike.