New Review Guidelines

Hey folks! Just in time for our review of the GIGANTIC Age of Wonders: Planetfall tomorrow, we’ve updated our review guidelines. This is the initial “final draft”, but it’s absolutely subject to change. You can always check our REVIEW POLICY page to see how it may evolve.

eXplorminate Game Review Guidelines

Intent of Review Format

The desire is to provide a flexible review format that allows: 

  1. More appropriate order and sequencing of topics depending on the game being reviewed; 
  2. Allow topics that are most applicable to be emphasized without having to cover topics that aren’t applicable or are of low importance
  3. Make reviews (especially longer ones) easier to navigate and find your way around as  reader (or editor!)
  4. Provide a format that allows a greater range of “big” strategy games to reviewed on more equal / fair terms.


Introduction – Should strive to place the game within a broader context and/or share an interesting thesis or angle to explore.  What is this game? Why are we reviewing it or why should you care? What does the game aim to achieve? How does it intend to stand out?  The review will seek to address these key questions.

Review Body – Topic Based Sub-sections – The body of the review will be structured around a series of topics pertinent to 4X games specifically and other “big” strategy games more broadly (think Total War, Grand Strategy, Empire Builders, etc.).  The order of these topics are up to the reviewer, and should be structured in whatever way is most interesting, engaging, or illuminating for the game at hand. Potential topics include:

  • Lore and backstory
  • Faction selection/design options
  • World/Galaxy/Landscape geography, structure, random generation, etc.
  • Game setup options, AI difficulty, multiplayer, etc.
  • Campaign structure if applicable or present 
  • Exploration systems
  • Movement systems
  • Research and discovery systems
  • Expansion systems (colonization, settlements, etc)
  • Internal management / “Economy” – structure of settlements and “management units” basic resources, strategic resources, happiness, etc. (lots of stuff gets piled in here)
  • Politics and factions (internal, external, etc.)
  • Crafting, magic, survival, special actions, etc.
  • Leaders and heroes
  • Minor factions
  • Diplomacy system
  • Espionage system
  • Unit building / design / customization
  • Strategic warfare layer: army/fleet structure and actions, world/galaxy level tactics, detection, fog of war
  • Combat system / combat resolution system
  • Victory / scoring systems
  • Narrative / Gameplay arcs (early, mid-, late-game feeling)
  • Overall strategic/tactical depth
  • AI challenge (can also be woven into any of the above)
  • Aesthetics – graphics, sound, music
  • UI – functionality, appearance, ergonomics

We may not cover each topic via their own subheading.  Less important / applicable topics may be ignored completely and/or grouped with similar topics and discussed in a more cursory manner without diving too deep.  Likewise, two or more important but intertwined topics can be treated together if it makes sense.  

In this regard, we can use this list of topics as a checklist to determine what needs to be covered and in what level of detail. Of course, specific games might have other topics not listed here that are key to their design – and we’ll include those topics in the review as warranted.

Each topic covered will aim to address the following:

  1. What is the system/topic?  We’ll describe it succinctly without going into extraneous detail.
  2. Does the topic do anything interesting, original, or innovative?  
  3. Is this system designed and implemented well?  How does it strengthen or hinder the gameplay?
  4. Personal reaction- is this good, bad, somewhere in the middle? A short personal statement will be used as part of the topic header.
  5. ICONS – Each section can have an icon for strength/weakness/average inline with the title to help reinforce the overall appraisal.

This blue icon represents a STRENGTH, which means that this gameplay mechanic works well and makes the game better. The yellow icon represents AVERAGE, which is a gameplay mechanic that neither adds or detracts from the gameplay. However, that may vary between players and what’s AVERAGE for us, may be a STRENGTH or WEAKNESS to you. Finally, The red icon represents WEAKNESS, which is a mechanic that doesn’t work well or is simply detracts from the game being reviewed.

The Verdict – This section summarizes the covered topics and frames them into an overall verdict for the game.  Think of this as a slightly expanded TL;DR that hits on the key topics, their strengths/weaknesses and why. In conclusion, this supports the assigned rating.

RatingGive the game its assigned rating, alongside the “you might like / might-not-like” bullet points or other caveats or clarifications (SEE BELOW FOR A DESCRIPTION ON RATINGS)

For example, a game might earn the “Recommended” rating, with the note that if you’re looking for a game with 1000’s of star systems, and this one is designed for smaller games, that it might not be the game for you.  Or it’s a “Recommended” but you have to be willing to look past the weird graphics (or whatever). It’s all the contingencies.

Our color hex RATING system:

  • A blue (eXemplary) hex represents a game that has done almost everything well and in at least some ways, has done some things extremely well. It also offers some innovations that may lead to a new “gold standard” of certain mechanics. This score will no longer be awarded at release. It is reserved for reeXaminations and expansions.
  • A green (Recommended) hex represents a game that you can safely proceed to buy as a 4X-game lover. However, no game will suit everyone’s needs and while the game in question may be doing a lot right, it still may not be for you.
  • A yellow (Consider) hex is given to a game that have some strengths, but some significant weaknesses, too and may be a game you’d enjoy if you’re after a particular game style or the game’s weaknesses won’t affect your enjoyment too much.
  • An orange (Beware) hex is a game that has more weaknesses than strengths, but might be worth keeping an eye on as it has enough strengths that there’s a sliver of hope for its future.
  • A red (Avoid) hex is a game that should be easy to pass up or a game that is not worth anywhere close to full price.

Here’s a podcast further explaining how our review scores have changed.


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