Using Reviews to Improve Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t like reviews. I’ve been a professional video game developer for 9 years now and I’ve released quite a few titles. Loading up or a review site is always nerve wracking, to the point where I have just stopped looking at them. BGG’s community is no different. If you’ve published a game, you know that scrolling past that first page is just asking for pain.

But, reviews are quite valuable. They provide a quick aggregate view of your customers’ feedback. Not only that, but reviews are often coming from your most vocal and enthusiastic (for better or worse) customers. You know, those who care enough to go onto a website to review your game. This sub-group is very important as they will be your evangelists and detractors.

For perspective, just a bit over 10% of the people who own Farmageddon have noted that they own it on BGG. A tiny fraction have commented.

Today, I want to discuss simple ways to take advantage of your reviews to make better games and have a better relationship with your customers. As Farmageddon is my only released title, I’ll use it as my primary example. It’s not quite appropriate for me to use The Sims from work for this forum.

The Extremes Serve Nobody: I believe fairly strongly, with no data to back this up, that the extreme reviews aren’t terribly useful. By this, I mean the 10s, 1s, 2s, and 3s.

A 10 should mean the game is perfect and could be played for years and is just outstanding. Also, it means you, the reviewer, just love it. A 10 holds great personal appeal. Some of us try to relegate our 10s sparingly, others do not. And while those games DO exist, it’s difficult to really take advantage of such feedback. A 10 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer loves. Understanding it requires you be them.

A 1-3 should mean the game is utterly broken, does not work, and is just a shameful creation. While these games exist, most of the time, a game isn’t that bad. I find 1-3s are often a backlash against a particular mechanic, play style, creator, or pet peeve.

For Farmageddon reviews below about 4, you’ll see the same complaints over and over: Purely random. Purely luck. No strategy. Take that. Waste of time. The 1-3s aren’t people who love take that filler card games. It’s not that Farmageddon is the worst of its kind (for them) and they love Gubs or other such games. They don’t like this type of game.

A 1-3 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer hates. Understanding it requires you be them.

You’ll notice I repeated myself. You cannot rely on those who just get it to represent most or even many of your customers. Nor should you try to chase people who just fundamentally don’t appreciate your offering. Farmageddon will never be the game that a reviewer who gave it a 2 will appreciate.

The extremes serve nobody.

Pluck Low Hanging Fruit: Ignore all numbers, not just the extremes, and instead catalog the qualitative complaints against your game. You cannot action against whether your game is a 5.7 or an 8. That’s just not quality input.

Instead, scroll through the comments for reviews between the 4 and 8 range. Create a spreadsheet and group the comments by type. You’ll often find a few consistent notes.

For Farmageddon, the game’s recurring thorns are:

  • Can Mirror Bean be destroyed with a Flame Fruit?
  • Can I steal a Crop using Genetic Super Worm?
  • Can I Foul Manure a Foul Manure?
  • And a few others…

These are clear and easy opportunities to improve your relationship with your customers in a few ways:

  • Create and update an FAQ.
  • Respond to forum threads with clarification.
  • Write blog posts and designer diaries explaining your decisions.
  • Create How to Play videos that maximize focus on these key areas.

All of these demonstrate your commitment to the product, are easy methods of customer support, and will increase the enjoyment of the play experience for your customers. After all, if someone is playing incorrectly, 9 times out of 10 that means the game is less fun. Unless, of course, you didn’t test your game sufficiently to determine that. But, we don’t do that, right?

Also, if you’re lucky, you can include these tweaks in future editions and printings. For Farmageddon’s second printing, we made 3 tiny rule tweaks, one of which was a change in one word. It makes a big difference. Being responsive to your consumers shows humility, dedication, and is such an easy win for all parties.

Find the Holes: In addition to the easy, low-hanging concerns for people learning the game, you’ll also find holes or criticisms of the design itself. You’ll find opportunities for expansions to address concerns, or you’ll learn for the sake of future games. For example, with Farmageddon, I found a few issues that I wanted to address with the expansion, Livestocked and Loaded:

  • People wanted a little more strategy amid the volatility. Farmageddon will never be Agricola, but adding in Livestock as a long-term strategy really broadens the game in a great way.
  • There needed to be more uses and decisions around low-level crops. Now, you can discard planted Sassy Wheats to Feed animals.
  • Some people felt frustrated by lack of control of Action cards. Some of that comes with the game, but the Farmer’s Market Action, as well as the Livestock Actions, give players more choice over their path.
  • With Livestock and Loaded, the 2 player experience is far richer and more compelling. It becomes less a slug fest and a little more cat and mouse.

I’ve been very fortunate that Farmageddon has sold well enough to allow me to improve the overall game and address the critiques of my fans. Now, let’s say it hadn’t sold well and therefore no expansion would be forthcoming. It’s still useful to know the critiques so I can address them with future games. Some ways to see this in my current designs include:

  • Putting more thought into iconography and graphic design sooner to facilitate learning.
  • Creating a glossary up front for a game so that cards use fewer words that are more consistent.
  • A better understanding of balance sooner.
  • A better understanding of broader strategies.
  • A better understanding of luck, interaction, and variance.

Your critiques are a gift, especially those in the middle range. I believe, again, without data, that those in the middle range have played your game, understand it, and are providing a more rational critique. Those at the extreme ends of the spectrum are on a tilt, either an extreme high or low, and are less likely to provide you actionable and honest input.

Thanks for the Review: This is a parting note, and a suggestion from years of observation and experience. If you receive a negative review, and you will, you’re allowed to do one thing: Post, “Thanks for the review.” You may also try, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the game. Thanks for the review.” Not everyone will like your game, especially when you make a game with certain highly contentious elements. You have to recognize that opinion. Note, I didn’t say you need to respect that opinion.

By appearing to say “Thanks for the review” you do a few things:

  • Demonstrate that you read all reviews, not just the good ones.
  • Demonstrate that you’re an adult and can take the criticism. This is a VERY important skill for designers.
  • Gives you an opening for dialog. When they see points 1 and 2, they might engage with you further. Making a friend now will pay off in the future.

As a personal example, I sent Josh Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh an EARLY prototype copy of Farmageddon. This is back when it was on The Game Crafter. He really didn’t like it and he gave me a lot of input. I responded to it and used it to develop the game further. A year or so later when he reviewed the final game, he did so far more favorably. Yes, I made a better game. But, I also did the work to be a reasonable person.

Finally, upon reading the review, you may find the reviewer made some mistakes in reading your rules. This is an opportunity!

“Thanks for the review. I’m sorry you didn’t like the game. One thing I wanted to note was that you made one slight error in regards to a rule. I’ll make sure I update the FAQ so others don’t miss it! Thanks for pointing that out. Instead of doing X, you want to do Y. Hope that helps.”

It is unlikely, honestly, that you’ll win that person over. But, others will see this dialog, will learn from it, and will appreciate you being a reasonable person.

I hope this was useful for you. What advice do YOU have for taking advantage of reviews?

Farmageddon Time Traveler

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Farmageddon isn’t my first design, but it’s my first published design and arguably my first good personal design. I designed it in 2011, back when my board game collection had fewer than 10 games and my knowledge of the hobby was quite shallow. Put as simply as I can do so, 2011 Grant is not nearly as good or experienced a designer as 2014 Grant.

Mostly, I’m very pleased with Farmageddon. It has sold well, been well received by those interested in such games, and I still enjoy playing it. When I go home, my brother and I play it constantly and his wife is a total shark. But, the years have given me time to really think about some of the issues that bother me about the game. Some are small nubs, some bigger issues.

Today, I wanted to write about how 2014 Grant would fix the game if he could go back in time to do so. Or, perhaps looking to the future, if the 2nd printing sells out with enough momentum to justify a third, perhaps what you might see in a proper 2nd edition.

Word(s), homes. 

An area of design in which I’ve improved massively is wording on cards. Looking at Hocus Poker or Sol Rising or York versus Farmageddon is night and day. I would probably re-write every card to use a small set of core terms, very similar syntax, and more future proofed terminology.

It’s difficult to provide examples, but things like Fertilize, Harvest, Destroy, Steal could be easily improved upon.

I would also want to include an example of every card in the rules. There would be a longer rules document, but fewer questions would be asked, guaranteed.

Graphic Design

One piece of feedback is that some people don’t immediately see the difference between Crops and Action cards. Fair enough! This can be done with a color scheme (for the color-seeing) and an icon on the card (for the color blind).

I would also incorporate some of the lessons from Sol Rising and Hocus Poker, both inspired by Dominion, to incorporate some limited iconography into the body text of the cards. Things that easily convey Fertilizer and such. This would require an overhaul of the iconography.

Inspired by Dave Chalker’s Heat, I would put Action summaries on the left side of Action cards. For example, Thresher and Dust Bowl would indicate “destruction.” Crop Rotation and Foreclosure would indicate “theft.” Bumper Crop and Pesticide already indicate a change in value, so this would be consistent overall.

Action Items

I have some Action cards that I’d like to smooth out. Some of them need just a tiny tweak to really notch them up.

Thresher: To simplify this card, I’d change it to: “Destroy a Crop.” Right now it has you destroy the Crop, but the owner also gets the Fertilizer back. I’d like to test this, but I think it’s simpler and won’t change things much.

Bumper Crop: Right now, technically, Bumper Crop can be played on any Crop and the OWNER of Bumper Crop gets it when the Crop is harvested. So, player A can put a Bumper Crop on player B’s Crop. Player A gets Bumper Crop when player B harvests his Crop. This requires you track who owns the card. Is it a problem? Honestly, not often. But, it’s just sloppy design.

I’d change this card to: “Play on Crop you own. Place Bumper Crop in Harvest Pile when Crop is Harvested.” This is a good card because it makes Sassy Wheat more valuable.

Crop Insurance: This card causes a slight confusion as people think they get it even if the Crop is Harvested. The reality is that it’s insurance — it only pays off if you lose the crop that’s covered. To clarify, I’d change it to: “Play on Crop you own. If you lose control of Crop, place Crop Insurance in harvest pile. Discard Crop Insurance if you harvest Crop.”

This is a great example of where using common terms and structure could simplify card text. Right now, I’m not doing that.

Genetic Superworm: Farmageddon’s most confused card! The intent of this card is that you play it on a Crop to halve its Fertilizer requirement. So, a 4 cost Wary Squash now costs 2. People have interpreted it to many things, including it means they can steal a crop, or instantly harvest a crop.

When properly understood, it’s confusing because its effectiveness scales with its target. It reduces the value by half, rounded down, and makes Sassy Wheat free.


This would require testing, but I think this card should change to: “Play on Crop you own. Crop requires 2 fewer Fertilizer before it can be Harvested.” This means the net effect is identical for Wheat, Squash, and Melon. It would only affect corn differently and would make Corn free to Harvest.

Foul Manure: I love this card and have spent years trying to make it better. It’s so flexible and acts as both a defensive and offensive card. It’s a real turd. Heyoo!

Right now, the crop this targets is immune to all actions and can’t be Fertilized or Harvested. The Manure is removed if a Dust Bowl is played or someone discards 2 Crop cards. Eesh.

Here’s how to fix it: “Play on any planted  Crop. Crop requires 2 more Fertilizer to be Harvested. Crop is immune to all Action cards. Remove Foul Manure if Dust Bowl is played.”

In the top left corner you’d see a +2 Fertilizer cost. The net functionality is identical, but with a cleaner setup. It would no longer prevent farmer actions like Harvest and Fertilize, but those would be baked into its new tuning.

Crop Rotation: This one slips up a few people. It lets you swap ownership of two crops. Some people see that as they get to take the crop outright. But, the intent is that the crops trade places. Here is how I would change it: “Choose 2 Planted Crops from two different owners. Swap ownership of the Crops.”

Foreclosure: This is another card with dynamic calculation for its cost. Basically, I was over thinking the need for balance here. The text should change to: “Steal a planted Crop from any player. Give that player 2 Crop cards from your hand.” This makes it more expensive to Steal a Wheat or Corn, but you’re unlikely to steal them. And, paired with a Genetic Superworm, it evens out.


The FrankenCrops were an idea that came about during the Kickstarter campaign to address the need for stretch goals. Neither Phil nor I thought the game would do so well and in early 2012 the notion of Stretch Goals wasn’t so firmly entrenched in the ecosystem yet. By and large the FrankenCrops work really well and we’re even adding 15 new ones with the soon to arrive FrankenCrop Kicker Pack. But, I have a few that I’d love to send to the compost heap for a scrub.

Helpful Tater: This card gives you $4 if used as a Fertilizer. In actuality, this just means whomever draws this card gets a free $4. It’s not a choice, then, and that means it’s not terribly compelling, at least not to me as a designer. Farmageddon’s a silly game with luck, though, so it isn’t a game killer.

I do like the idea of the Helpful Tater, though. I like trade-offs of helping others for a benefit. Something simple along the lines of: “Use Helpful Tater to Fertilize an opponent’s Crop. Draw 2 Crop cards.” Or: “Use Helpful Tater to Fertilize an opponent’s Crop. Draw 2 Crop cards or 1 Action card.”

Mirror Bean: This is the card that has led to the 2nd most questions in the game. Considering how many rules questions it leads to, it’s definitely not worth it. Mirror Bean is immune to Actions. You can’t use Bumper Crop to increase its value, Thresher to destroy it, or Flame Fruit (a FrankenCrop) to destroy it. The balance is that it costs 2 Fertilizer and only pays out $3.

The rule is crazy simple. Nothing can target it or affect it. But, people always seek exceptions. Well, I can put Foul Manure on it, right? No, nothing. I can put a Bumper Crop on it, right? No, nothing. Well, Dust Bowl kills it, right? No.

In fact, I just got a question writing this crop about Mirror Bean. And it was asked in a thread where I had previously answered the same question.

That’s not on my players, that’s on me.

The other problem is that people can plant it and then just sit on it. It’s not terribly worthwhile to harvest, but you can use it to eat a field. Because it’s immune, if you want, you can turn the game into a 2 field game.

I don’t think this core concept can, nor should be fixed. Can we take advantage of the art, though? In addition to reflecting (its current thematic tie), mirrors also duplicate or copy. This is dangerous — tracking information on the board is always hazardous. I think there’s a simple visual indicator, though. The Mirror Bean has a set value when harvested and fertilizer requirement. But, it can also mirror/copy the Cost and Fertilize requirement of another Crop you own. They must be Harvested at the same time. Set them together in your Harvest Pile.

That’s fiddly!

Perhaps the Mirror Bean has a standard Fertilizer Cost/Harvest Value. And the text says: Discard planted Mirror Bean you own to duplicate effects of Action card you played this turn. That’s fun and simple. One and done.

Stinky Truffle: Any time a game has you dig through the Discard pile, it really needs to matter. Stinky Truffle lets you add 1 card from the discard pile to your hand when planted. That slows down the game for a relatively minor decision, which means it can be improved.

Perhaps: “Add one Crop card from the discard pile at random to your hand when planted.” That just expedites things.

Zombo-Weed: This card is relatively simple and has a powerful effect, but it doesn’t really trigger. The card removes all Fertilizer in play when it is planted. That sounds strong, but players generally don’t sit with a ton of Fertilizer lying around.

I like the idea of Zombo-Weed being aggressive and Zombie-like. So, how about: Plant on any Field in play. Discard any Crop and all Fertilizer or Action cards on Field.

This means you can use it to kill a Grumpy Melon, but they’ll still get something out of the deal. It’s a kinder, sweeter, zombified Thresher.

A Better Tango (It takes 2. Get it? You will. I hope.)

Two player Farmageddon has had an interesting life. When I first released the game on The Game Crafter it was an afterthought and it just didn’t work. I spent a lot of time developing it and did so with the help of a few couples, one in particular that played it for months before we Kickstarted the game. Ultimately, I’ve heard very few complaints about our two player mode, but I’ve never been fully satisfied with it.

To support two player, the game is modified in the following ways:

  • Players draw more Crops at the beginning of their turns to expedite the game.
  • Players must Fertilize more to increase risk.
  • Players draw fewer Action cards to decrease aggression as in 2 player you’re only punching the person across from you. It can get a bit brutal.

My concerns are as follows:

  • I really dislike rule modifications, even tiny ones, as they make it difficult to remember the rules between variants.
  • As you have fewer cards, the fun of the game — combos — is essentially removed. You don’t have enough cards to combo them.
  • I don’t like that one person can draw better Action cards, and as there aren’t other players or additional draws to fix this, one player can just get hosed.
  • Mirror Bean, which I noted above has issues, is really a problem in 2 player. Helpful Tater can also give one player a very swingy 4 points for zero effort.

Two player games are either incredibly close — like, one point close — or an incredible blow out — like, 50 points blow out. In three and four player I think every game tends to play very evenly and well. Two player can be a real crap shoot.

I think part of the problem with 2 player when it was first created was that several Action cards didn’t work for 2 players. That’s just bad design and frankly, that’s not an issue now.

Here are the changes I’d like to test:

  • In a 2 player game, discard 15 Crop cards at random, then shuffle in 10 FrankenCrops. This means you’ll have 55 cards total, down from 60. And, the higher percentage of FrankenCrops will help upset jarring flows.
  • Add 1 Planting Field. That would bring it to 4 total. This makes it more difficult for a single player to dominate a field and makes the increase in aggression less problematic.

That’s it. Players will now draw the same number of action cards, the same number of crop cards, and there’s no change to Fertilizer. I actually tested these rules when testing 2 player Livestocked and Loaded and I enjoyed the game much more.


Thanks for reading! If you’re familiar with Farmageddon, what do you think? Anything stand out?