The board game review world faces an identity crisis

What would you think of an Amazon review where the customer was offered the product for free in exchange for an “honest” review? When it comes to reviewing board games, where does the “regular business practice” stop, and the “conflict of interest” start?

A few days ago, a thread popped on BoardGameGeek, where someone started wondering about a handful of youtube board game review channels becoming popular “out of the blue”. Although the initial post of that thread was apparently more concerned about how the youtube algorithm can seem a bit weird (to recommend “newer” channels over established one), the thread quickly evolved into a discussion about the potential conflicts of interests that board game reviewers can run into.

Put more boldly, should you trust those youtube reviews of the latest and greatest kickstarter campaign, or are those folks just ready to promote any game for money, independently of its quality?

I’m over simplifying the problem of course. There are many good points being made on all sides of the discussion. I have my own opinion on the topic, but the mods at BGG have decided that the discussion had run its course, and closed the thread. Yet another good example of why I own my content and post my reviews and opinions here rather than on a platform not owned by me (whether it’s Twitter, Youtube, or BGG).

The thread initially called out in particular popular reviewers Jesse of Quackalope, Alex of BoardGameGo, and Richard “Rahdo” Ham. And some people have used very harsh words to qualify the contents of these people’s Youtube channels, which I think were uncalled for. However, I feel it would be wrong to dismiss the valid arguments in that discussion just because a few people derailed it.

It’s of course easy for me to comment on this, being a nobody in the board gaming space. I’m basically taking no risk today by picking a side. If this blog ever gets successful, the opinions expressed in this article might come back to bite me in the future, but so be it.

Here’s what I’m getting out of the thread, as well as my opinion on it. Please understand that this whole article is only my opinion on the topic.

Review Copies – Standard business practice or a gift in disguise?

It’s standard business practice for companies to send a “review” copy of a board game for (popular) reviewers to test and showcase on their channel.

However this is not what happens 100% of the time: not all reviewers have the leverage to “demand” a review copy from producers, and many hobbyists review copies they have purchased themselves (this blog included). Others such as Alex Radcliffe of BoardGameCo could easily get review copies but as a matter of principle will only review board games they have bought themselves (something I personally think he should put forward more often, given that he’s an exception).

I think dismissing this as “standard business practice” is a huge mistake. Having worked on reviews for a completely different niche, in which products were sent to me, I can guarantee 100% that such “presents”, will influence the judgement of a given reviewer, if only because they want to keep a good business relationship with the board game distributors/designers for future content.

Board games are not cheap, especially kickstarter ones. When shipping is taken into account, we’re talking hundreds of dollars worth of content. This is not your “digital video” copy that a movie reviewer could easily get on their own for $5. So, unless these games need to be contractually returned to the designer after review, to me there is a massive conflict of interest here. Having looked a bit into the industry, people who start in the board game review business don’t make thousands of dollars a month. A $100 present in the form of a board game, that they can either keep or give away to grow their audience, would be a massive income boost for most of us (I of course can’t speak for larger channels such as Rahdo or BoardGameCo, but everybody has to start somewhere).

Nobody will deny that board games are an expensive hobby, and when a Youtube channel reviews 150 of them a year (in Rahdo’s own admission), that’s $10’000 to $20’000 worth of gifts every year. Gifts that can be tax deductible as a business investment, by the way.

The monetary value of a given game matters here, and clearly my opinion would differ on that topic if somebody is reviewing a $12 wallet game vs a $400 “all in” Marvel zombicide pledge.

Only reviewing stuff you like – healthier for everyone involved, or just suspicious?

People on the thread have complained that some channels always seem to seem super enthusiastic about all the games they review. Would you trust a movie review site that gives 8 or 9 stars out of 10 on every single movie they review? Or for a video game site that gives a 90% mark to any video game that goes through their hands?

You most certainly wouldn’t. So why do board game reviewers do that? According to Rahdo, reviewing board games takes a massive amount of time and dedication (I don’t disagree), so he is extremely picky about what games he reviews, and only picks ones he is pretty sure he’s going to enjoy.

I mean, fair enough, his Youtube channel, his decision. But to the audience, it does send a weird vibe of “this guy always likes what he plays, so why should I trust his reviews?”.

Both sides of the argument have compelling points here, although to go back to the video game comparison, I don’t see how reviewing board games would be any harder, or take that much longer, than reviewing video games. And video game testers review terrible games all the time.

Rahdo makes a good point that “big” names in the board game reviewing world can make or break a games popularity. He specifically mentioned Tom Vasel could basically decide whether a game gets a reprint or not at this point, and he doesn’t want to put himself in that kind of position.

With that in mind, if we consider that a lot of board game designers are “indie”, then my comparison with video games works in favor of Rahdo’s argument: a website like IGN could destroy an indie video game developer’s career with a single bad review. And as such, they only review AAA titles, or Indie games that are absolutely good. They don’t particularly help struggling game developers to get visibility, but at least they don’t crush their hopes.

Buuut… I’ll still argue that you are either a board game reviewer/critic, in which case you should be reviewing the good and the bad, for people to be able to get a more rounded idea of what your tastes look like, or you’re simply part of the promotion package for the stuff, at which point you should stop pretending you do reviews, and stick to “sponsored” content. User Toriko over at BoardGameGeek sums it up better than I could:

I wouldn’t presume to call the personal integrity of reviewers into question. However, it’s perfectly reasonable to have doubts about the credibility of sponsored analysis and opinion.

In one video, we tune into the unfiltered opinion of our favourite reviewer; in another, we’re expected to “take their words with a pinch of salt” because it’s sponsored content. I have trouble reconciling the two positions on the part of the audience: 1) hold the reviewer’s analysis in high regard and 2) have reservations about their analysis (even though it looks exactly the same as the unfiltered version + a quick disclaimer).

It might be easy for reviewers to switch between these two modes, but the same doesn’t necessarily hold true for the audience. Are viewers really supposed to decondition themselves to the influence the reviewer’s words have over them? And keep switching back and forth? I don’t know what the solution is, but the practice doesn’t sit well with me. It seems as though certain reviewers or influencers are trying to have their cake and eat it. Sometimes they speak candidly for themselves; sometimes they speak for commercial interests.

Once you accept rewards – money, freebies or access – to discuss a product with your audience, you are taking part in sponsored advertising (not simply ‘being positive and enjoying the hobby’ as some would have you believe). Typically, individuals aren’t going to speak freely about their sponsors, in which case, even if you only promote games you like, I’m not sure it’s entirely credible to present this type of content as ‘opinion’ or ‘analysis’ to a trusting and well-primed audience. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it feels to me.

@Toriko on BGG

As a Youtube Channel owner in the board game space, you’re either part of the distribution chain, or you’re a “counter power”, here to help people choose between potentially good games and cash grabs. You cannot be both.

Reviewing the latest and greatest, in a constant flow – Part of the reviewer’s job, or just fueling everyone’s FOMO?

This one is my pet peeve, and I think why a lot of people have issues with channels like Quackalope and BoardGameCo.

The FOMO effect of Kickstarter, combined with the fact that these guys review very expensive versions of games most of us cannot afford, gives a very distorted image of reality.

I mentioned it recently about Unsettled (for which I ultimately caved into the hype, and ended up backing, against every reasonable argument my wallet was making): a lot of the reviewers have dismissed the potential replayability problems this game might run into. Many of them cornered themselves either into saying they hadn’t even finished the content of the “core” box (two planets available out of 6 at the time), or to say there is so much content with 6 planets that they didn’t perceive replayability as an issue. In most cases, they basically said both.

You can’t on the one hand massively contribute to the FOMO marketing machine, and on the other hand say you’re not part of the “problem” being discussed here

What that means is that these professional reviewers admitted to basing their reviews on basically 25% of the content, only playing it a few hours before emitting an opinion on replayability, but also entirely dismissing that getting 6 planets involved a $150 purchase.

Yeah, I’m sure replayability is not an issue when you get $150 worth of content for free. Do I care if I’ll be done with this game after 10h if I got it for free? It will certainly bother these folks less than those of us who had to shell $150 plus international shipping, that’s for sure.

So, by reviewing very new stuff (sometimes something that hasn’t even been out yet), and at an incredible rate (remember that Rahdo admitted to reviewing 150 games a year, which basically means he forms his opinion on average with 1 day of play if we count 1 day of video production), board game reviewers give me the strong feeling that they are not really doing what we’d normally call a “review”, but rather what most people would reasonable call “first impressions”

It’s not to say that their experience and gut feeling are probably working well after reviewing so many games, but there is certainly a problem nowadays with how the industry is churning an incredible quantity of content, and reviewers are apparently going with that flow.

To rephrase: Youtube reviewers are not the main problem with this. The way crowdfunding works is the source of the problem. But reviewers trying to jump on the bandwagon here to try and make money on what’s “hot”, then saying they’re not part of the problem, feels dishonest to me.

How can Board game reviewers (and the audience) fix these issues?

I’m not going to be very original here and I’ll point you to the Dice Tower, at least the “main” crew that are physically working with Tom Vasel. Because I think their review system works well (most of the time, but there are exceptions. Mike Delisio’s over excitement is part of the reasons I gave in to the FOMO with Unsettled).

There are two things I think work well with Dice tower: First their kickstarter review content is minimal, and definitely not part of a paid promotion. Their “crowdfunding” weekly reviews are a balanced bag of good and bad. When they do review kickstarter content, in my experience, it’s for content that has already shipped to customers (Unsettled being a recent example). It’s way easier for me to trust e.g. Zee Garcia when he says 51st state, a game that was released more than a decade ago, is his favorite game of all time, than hearing another Youtube commenter telling me game X that isn’t even out yet is already in his/her top 10.

Also, even though they do accept review copies for the games they review, The Dice Tower have a clear policy on not necessarily being positive about the games, and sometimes not even reviewing the game at all even if they receive a copy. On that approach, they might be similar to Rahdo, in that they don’t want to destroy a game publicly if they didn’t like it.

However… The Dice tower do have negative reviews once in a while, in which Tom Vasel will bundle a handful of game together in a quick review. I realize this probably crushes the sale expectations of some of these games, and could be terrible for these companies given the reputation of the dice tower, but this is to me a huge part of what makes me trust the integrity of the Dice Tower over any other review outlet on Youtube.

And, possibly more importantly, what works so well in the Dice Tower is their varied cast with different taste and background. I’ll use Unsettled as an example again. Here, their review is exemplary, with Tom Vasel clearly explaining he’s the one who has played the game the most, and he didn’t like it. The other reviewers though are very positive about it. It brings a balanced review of the game, without completely destroying it: some people like it (here’s why), others don’t (here’s why). Make your choice based on that. Exactly what I’m expecting from a review.

Looking at the Dice Tower’s track record, I think the following is what I would expect from a board game review channel to trust them:

  • Have a clear policy on reviews that puts viewers first, designers/distributors second. “We might not review your stuff. The review might be negative. We do paid promotions but those are clearly labeled as such, not as reviews”
    • Explicitly mention the gifted copies and their retail value
  • Puts multiple reviewers with different opinions in the same room, in particular for “hot” games. The 4 Squares reviews on dice tower are exemplary on that front.
  • Everything always positive tells me you’re not a reviewer, but a marketing tool. Whether that’s true or not is almost not relevant, the audience’s perception is what matters here.
  • Commenting on a game you’ve played for 2 days is not a “review”. It’s a “first impressions” video. If you can’t see the difference between Zee Garcia’s love for 51st state, and your “review” of a kickstarter’s review copy you received last week, the problem is on your end, not on your audience.

I’ll close here by saying that Quackalope and BoardGameCo are far from being the worst offenders in the room, in my humble opinion, and I feel these two channels are actually legit. There is a growing number of mid-sized channels on youtube dedicated to “reviewing” board games, that are pretty much just a constant flow of “positivity” for every single game they showcase. What I expect we’ll see within a few years is that this whole system could eventually implode, with only a few major channels rising from the ashes.

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