Paid reviews – true or false?

If you are a little bit more into board games, you have probably heard at least once that reviewers get paid for doing what they do, that the reviews are basically kind of paid advertisement, and that you can’t trust any reviewer, because, in principal, they’ll write or say anything they are told by the publishers. You might have also heard that reviewers feed on public trust and viewers’ ignorance of all the facts stated above.

Firstly, I wanted to write what I think about it myself – I’ve been on both sides – as a reviewer and now as a part of a publishing team. But what I think might actually work better is asking some questions to publishers and reviewers. What do they think of paid reviews? Have they ever ordered/did one? Do they think they actually exist? What is the benefit from them. Let’s hear what they have to say, and then I’ll try to sum it up with my own thoughts altogether.

Let’s start with something light. Tomasz Dobosz, the founder of a very successful Polish videoblog Gambit.tv says:

I don’t know if there are reviewers who do paid reviews. I know that there are some who have been taking money for Kickstater previews – but it has always been stated loud and clear. I  have this natural inclination to trust people, so I choose not to believe that somebody will actually take money for rating a game better and then pretend that it’s their own independent opinion. Fortunately, I have never been offered such a thing. In my opinion it would be shooting myself in the foot. Nobody would ever believe such a reviewer again. Well, unless such a reviewer’s audience doesn’t care for the opinion about the game, they just want to see how it looks.

Now, Tomasz might be just a naïve guy who has never encountered the problem. Let’s see what our first publisher has to say. This one actually prefers to stay anonymous.

We have never ordered such a review – and there are at least two good reasons for that. Firstly, a good parenting blog has a reach far wider that the whole board games blogosphere. Secondly, we couldn’t possibly afford a paid review on such a parenting blog 😀 Honestly, I can’t see anything wrong with reviewers asking for cash in exchange for a review – everybody has to eat. I know for a fact that there are reviewers who get paid, but in my opinion the ROI (return on investment) is not good enough to invest the money.

Okay, so now we now there actually are people who make paid reviews. Establishing that is definitely a first step, although it seems so far that the whole idea lives in some kind of a grey zone. Let’s ask somebody who speaks their mind – Jaro Andrus from Phalanx, the publisher of (recently) Race to the Rhine and Mare Nostrum.

Everyone is trying to make a living, right? I guess I am not the only one to get such offers in my mailbox. I don’t hold it against these reviewers, it simply shows game publishing has become a business. The question remains – is it still a review or some form of advertisement? And what if the latter? But it’s not only board games that stumble upon such a problem – you have it in every other branch – mobile phones, movies, books, diapers – you name it. At least the celebrities are not yet here. For now. Another form of manipulation are attempts to inflate the BGG ratings. I have seen at least one case, where a game landed in the Top 10 after a very well prepared ‘campaign’ involving false ratings.

Right, so it means, that the truth is out there! People not only get paid to do the reviews, they actually offer their services. What does Irek Huszcza from Board&Dice (Super Hot Card Game) thinks of that?

In Board&Dice we try to build our relations with bloggers, vloggers and any other reviewers whose opinions we value high and whose reach allows us to get to a wide audience. When it comes to paid reviews we don’t use such kinds of promotion. Yes, we do pay our partners for their work – like rules presentation (especially when we want high quality), proofreading the rules or translating them. But we don’t think paying for reviews is the right way to go. We’ve never used such a form of marketing as we don’t see the need to. A review should be free of any “burdens” regarding finances. We always count on honest and reasonable statements from people we work with. And if we disagree with them, we simply start a discussion. We prefer such an approach to paid reviews. We stand for honesty, open-mindedness, and freedom of speech. Of course, we will fight for our titles like madmen! But that’s simply because we believe in them.

Irek says one important thing here – even though there are people who will willingly sign under a paid review, publishers who have already achieved something don’t use them. Why? Let’s maybe hear what Bart Samel from Games Factory (Polish company who localized and succesfully published Dominion, Spartacus, Fields of Arle and Roll for the Galaxy) has to say.

We got such an offer once, but we didn’t take it. Its author was actually calling it “product presentation with an opinion” and not a review, but in the end we decided not to. If it ever came out, the potential PR losses would be much greater than any profit we could get from this bloger’s review.

Shame. The publisher is actually stating that they would feel ashamed of ordering a paid review and that they know that their customers would be very unhappy if they got to know the publisher did such a thing. Interesting. Let’s move on to Stefan Ruth from Boardgamer’s Ballroom – a German reviewing site.

I know that there are several reviewers doing paid reviews, and we’d never do that. The reason: If you’re being paid for a review, you’ll always be biased. People will start realizing that, and won’t trust those reviewers any more. I know several reviewers I don’t listen to any more because of exactly this reason.

What Stefan says actually means is that the reviewers know that the profit they could get out of such a job would not make up to the loss of credibility they would suffer. Barni Drukała from Black Monk Games (Polish Munchkin publisher) mentions also the ethical problem:

Paid editorials are in some way, unfortunately, an inseparable part of marketing activities, and I would not be surprised if they worked in our industry as well. Is it the right way? It actually contradicts my ethical beliefs about fair competition – a good game should stand on its own. We should respect our customers and not wrap lousy games into golden reviews.

One of the major publishers also adds:

Paid reviews can be found on blogs, vlogs and websites that get regular posts and have great reach. It usually means lifestyle blogs that are not limited to one topic, and that skilfully combine information regarding different fields. We have sponsored a few articles about board games, because we want to promote not only the games we publish but to help the whole industry develop and teach customers that board games mean something more than checkers and Parcheesi.

Ferdinand Andrew Capitulo, the host of The Cardboard Stacker is my first interviewee who actually says that yes, he does paid reviews sometimes – he even has a price list. But he also believes that it helps him to be a better reviewer:

Paid reviews definitely help, since I do put in the effort and time. It also helps me pay off expenses like software subscriptions and website cost. A lot of costs add up. Since I’m paid, I believe it is my duty, and other as well, to put in the necessary effort to produce high quality videos in production and content to give worth to the viewers.

Stuart Dunn from Stuart’s Study says on the other hand that:

Paid reviews are no myth and they are kind of a necessary evil, because this way the games get exposed to a much larger market. For me though the game itself is absolutely satisfactory.

 

I can actually vouch for this last sentence, as we at NSKN Games did a few reviews with Stuart and he has never asked us for money. And to be completely honest, as a company if we don’t have to – we won’t. We did two paid Kickstarter previews with Undead Viking (of Exodus: Edge of Extinction and Progress: Evolution of Technology), who charges for his time – but it’s also no secret that he does that. Again – if we didn’t have to – we wouldn’t have done them. In all our company history we got many great reviews (and, to be honest, a few awful ones 😀 ) and we never had to pay for them. Neither to the most known reviewers like the Dice Tower crew or Rahdo, nor to the beginning bloggers we are always happy to help in their first steps. We always try to “repay” every single person who sacrifies their time to talk about our games – we send them the games, we promote them in our media or simply share a cup of tea together if have a chance to meet in person. Because that’s what this industry is all about and that’s why we love it so much – mutual respect and this awesome feeling of doing something together – if it is at a gaming table or a convention or online.

On the other hand – many reviewers I’ve talked to said they will charge the publishers for Kickstarter rules explanations, components presentation and such. I personally believe that is only fair. As long as you don’t get paid to change your opinion – you’re good to go. To follow up with an example – in most of our latest Kickstarter campaigns you could have seen marvelous animated movies by Hexy – a video publishing house. Should we not have paid them for what they did? We should and we have. They don’t get paid for stating any opinions though, but to provide us with a very defined product.

Now – I hope I’ve answered the questions – yes, there are paid reviews. And yet, most people, both these who publish games and who review them – prefer when money doesn’t change hands. Is it good? Will it change? I don’t know. But I’m sure that as long as everything stays in the open – the board game family will stay safe.

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13 thoughts on “Paid reviews – true or false?

  1. I know for a fact that I avoid some KS like fire if I see a review of a certain reviewer.
    That reviewer does reviews for payment and not really disclosing this. To be fair the reviewer is not hiding this as well, if you check the website you can find the tiers of payments, but videos are not stating anything.

    The reviewer always claims that the “opinion is free”, but every game is always great, amazing and wonderful. As a result, I avoid the KS because I feel like the KS owner did not look enough into the reviewers s/he selected and clearly care more about funding over a quality game.

    1. That doesn’t necessarily make the reviewer dishonest. Some people will simply decline to post a video if they don’t like the game because they don’t want to crush the dreams of small designers. Also, the fact that the publisher sent this reviewer the game, whether the reviewer is honest or not, does not impact whether the game itself is good or not. Personally, I don’t get swayed much by reviews; I have certain designers or game companies I like and for new designers, I look at the theme, the rules, and perhaps a playthrough video to make up my own mind if I’ll like it.

  2. Kuba, I do not want to shame said person. I would highly suggest that you will research reviewers before you trust their word. That specific reviewer always had fake claims in many other occasions (such as total # of followers and so forth), all of which are easy to verify. People just don’t verify

    I do want to point out to The Cardboard Stacker that is in this article, and I did not hear about until now:
    This video for example is under a paid content example in his price list
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=721WwwxV_JU

    The video has an opinion at the end and is not saying anywhere that this is paid content. Can you trust that The Cardboard Stacker is not bias? Maybe yes, maybe no.

  3. Hi! I run EngagedFamilyGaming.com and we review board games. I actually saw your question and was going to respond, but you were super fast. Well done!

    We are regularly asked if we charge for our reviews. So I can say for certain that they do exist.

    We don’t accept monetary compensation for reviews, but we do accept compensation in the form of a copy of the game. I wonder if that muddies the waters a bit? Some of these games are extravagant.

    You’ve got me thinking today!

    1. I don’t think it does. You can’t very well review it if you don’t have a copy. Besides, for the work of reading the rules, sitting down to play it, making a video, editing it, and posting it, as well as the cost of maintaining a website and buying a decent camcorder, getting paid in a copy of the game is the minimum they owe you. Plus, with most games, it costs about as much to ship as it does to make, so them letting you borrow a copy and paying for you to ship it back doesn’t make too much sense financially.

  4. To me, the words “paid” and “review” don’t belong in the same sentence, as there’s a huge conflict of interest there.

    Now, “paid” and “rules explanation” or “overview”, and now we’re back to the realm of being ethical. But, a transfer of money for an opinion piece? I’ wouldn’t touch that with a 10 foot pole.

    1. I also for got to clarify, “paid by the publisher” is what I mean here. No problem at all if fans of the reviewer fund the reviewing, as then the loyalty is to the viewer, not the publisher, removing the conflict of interest.

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