When I shop for anything, I always watch reviews. And if the reviews seem too positive, I get a little annoyed. There is a place for uncritical praise, but it’s not in reviews. I want to know why the haters hate, and why the fanboys fanboy. And when it comes to board games, that feels doubly true.
Except, even though I’m always looking for negative reviews, I frequently can’t find any at all. Even Tom Vassel, who is well known for negative reviews, ultimately gives his seal of approval to about 80% of the games he reviews.
But I wonder, why is that? What about board gaming makes negative reviews so rare? Especially when you compare them to video game reviews, which are far more negative, far more often. I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, and I think I finally have an answer worth sharing.
Is it a conspiracy? Is it something else?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the ethics of gaming journalism.
Ethics in Board Game Reviews
Even though board games are ancient, board game reviews are younger than most people watching this video. And there is no major board game media that could rival the size of the big video game media giants. For example, the biggest board game reviewers, the Dice Tower, has less than 3% of the number of employees as IGN does. And while journalistic ethics has always been a huge point of concern in the video game world, especially in light of it ballooning into a 100 billion dollar market, those same concerns haven’t reached the world of board gaming. But before I get into too much detail, I have a story to share.
The first board game review video was posted in 2005 by Scott Nicholson, on his channel, Board Games with Scott. Scott pioneered the format that most modern game reviews tend to follow, and even if you aren’t familiar with his channel, you’d find his video style familiar.
Well, after doing it for years, he eventually chose to back out of game reviews altogether, because he was putting far more into it than he was getting out. Youtube didn’t pay for views back then, Patreon didn’t exist yet, and there weren’t many other ways to monetize.
So he had a choice: start asking for money from publishers, who were eager to get their games reviewed, or deny himself the easiest way to monetize his channel. He never took money for his reviews, and he eventually threw in the towel. Rest in peace, board games with scott. It really was a special channel.
A few years after Scott Nicholson started his channel, Lance Myxter of Undead Viking, started reviewing games on YouTube too. But while Scott Nicholson never took money from publishers, Lance Myxter did. As Kickstarter began to take off, publishers desperate for attention in an super crowded market offered him money for reviews, and he said yes. He even made it a policy to ask for money when publishers contacted him. It became well known in the industry that his channel accepted money for reviews.
Lance has gone on the record many times to say that the content of his reviews weren’t effected by money, but that he has accepted money for many of his reviews. Lance’s channel still exists, and its still doing well.
I think these two stories of these two YouTube channels illustrates one of the major problem in board game journalism. There is very little money in it, minus what publishers try to give you.
And this is a huge problem. When Undead Vikings started charging for his reviews, he tainted his reputation, because he didn’t understand journalistic ethics. Even if he didn’t review anything differently because he was taking money for it, journalistic ethics are about preventing any potential reasons to doubt what he’s saying. A conflict of interest doesn’t just mean someone is altering their reviews because they’re taking money, they are meant to prevent any situation where someone will look compromised by money, to avoid the situations where you look tainted in the first place.
But accepting money for reviews is not something that happens very often anymore, at least not publicly, since most reviewers are smart enough not to break the rules like that. But with an industry of publishers so willing to give out money for content, many reviews have taken to accepting money for PRE-views, which often use the same format as reviews and certainly doesn’t stop reviewers from including their opinion, but preview is a different word, right? We added a P. Well, at least they’re clear about when they are and aren’t accepting money, right?
While that may seem fine on the surface, it’s still not a good practice. See, the same companies whose products they review are giving them money for their previews. That is a conflict of interest, even if it’s not for the same video. The company whose products they review is still signing their checks. It’s doesn’t take much imagination to imagine how this might effect their reviews. Just because that particular video wasn’t bought, doesn’t mean the reviewer wasn’t. And I’m not going to say that any particular reviewer has been bought, but according to journalistic ethics, even looking bought is a problem.
Doing paid preview videos is an industry standard at this point, for those who want to dip into publisher money for some videos, while making review content in others. At the very least, game reviewers need to disclose every time they’re writing a review for a company they’ve taken money from. But ideally, anyone calling themself a reviewer or a critic would never take money from the companies whose products they review.
This includes previews, rule videos, and even accepting free copies of games.
At the end of thee day though, the other monetization options are so slim, and so much more difficult to get started with, I think it’s a case of publisher money being the path of least resistance for most board game reviewers. I certainly don’t think it’s an issue of conscious corruption.
But even subconsciously, a reviewer might not want to publish a review on a game that from a publisher they’ve got lot of preview money for. It’s easy to imagine how these factors link.
But while the ethics situation is atrocious, it’s far from the only factor leading to positive reviews on everything.
In the world of board gaming, reviewers are almost all independent, working by themselves or with a partner. Virtually none of them have editors who assign games for them to review. This is in stark contrast to how video game publications work, where their journalists must play any game assigned to them.
So, when the reviewer chooses a game to review, they choose based on what sounds appealing to them. And for someone who plays games as prolifically as a reviewer does, they learn to filter for their taste very quickly.
On top of that, reviewers put a lot of work and time into a review. If they don’t love the game, that work might not seem worthwhile. And that’s not conjecture, plenty of popular game reviewers have said as much publicly, from Rahdo, to Undead Viking, and more. That means, ultimately, the only people left reviewing games are the ones who loved them enough to put this work into them.
And it’s not a coincidence that the people who review games are often people who want to work in the board game industry. Some of them use it as a stop-gap measure to network with creators in the industry, so they can start making games themselves. If you’re reviewing games to network yourself into the industry, every negative review could potentially be burning a bridge.
Even if reviewers are not writing reviews just to network, the industry is small. Eventually, reviewers become friends with publishers, and designers. And once you do that, you’re going to be much more hesitant to write negative reviews for games that your friends have made. The industry is just too small for these things not to happen. And without any oversight, it can be a huge biasing factor that neither party is even fully aware of.
Board Game Publishing
Lastly, board game publishing is very different than in the world of video games because they are made differently.
Video games are big productions. Coding is hard, management is hard, working with dozens of artists is hard. When things go wrong, the steaks are high. An unfun mechanic might result in millions of dollars lost if you decide to remake it. As a result, lots of obviously bad mechanics are shipped in video games.
In that way, board games are much easier to produce. First, they are frequently made by the singular genius, who works alone, save for play testing. That means there is very little reason to pursue bad ideas, or bad mechanics, as they can get changed easily, cheaply, and frequently. The entire development cycle is done by independent designers, who work on speculation. That means the risk of experimenting with new mechanics is on a designer, and the consequence of bad mechanics is on them too. But those consequences might mean a few hours of design work was lost, while for video games, a change might mean a multi-million dollar loss.
Most board game designers don’t do it full time, so they tend to take their time, babying each game idea until all of it meets a high standard.
But just because board games are relatively easy to start designing, doesn’t make them easy to publish.
In video games, publishing a game is very easy. You submit some files to an app store, and you’re done. That’s not to say being a successful publisher is easy (you still have to market your game), but the floor is quite easy to reach, even for a single developer working in their spare time. Most completed video games get published because of this.
But when a board game is completed, they still face the daunting task of publishing the game, which requires lots of money upfront for printing, and shipping and warehousing costs. That means most indie board games need to go through kickstarter, which requires another set of expenses. Even modestly successful kickstarters have big ad spends, big art costs, big printing costs, big shipping costs, etc. Which is all to say, board games are very hard to publish.
Ultimately, all this means publishers have their pick of game designs to publish. And only the highest quality games ever get made. When a truly terrible indie board game is made, it defied the odds: the bad gameplay got through playtesting, hundreds of discerning kickstarter backers decided made a bad choice, the creator paid for for marketing, learned or paid someone for shipping logistics, art direction, graphic design.
If we ask why board games are rarely reviewed negatively, its in part because there are just far fewer bad board games are getting published. And honestly, truly terrible games are far and few between.
Unfortunately, all this means there is a complex web of factors effecting reviews, and it’s not easy to discern which biasing might be at play for any given review.
But knowledge is power, and even being aware of these biases let’s you parse reviews in a more useful way.
Is it a conspiracy? Well, kind of. You have creators working closely with their reviewers, passing money between each other. They’re friends and clients at the same time. And that dynamic is a dangerous one that mostly goes ignored.
At the end of the day though, even most badly reviewed games are decent. It’s always easy to imagine how someone could have a really great time playing it. Hell, people have a great time playing Monopoly, and it was literally designed to be painful to play.
So, really the best advice is to trust your judgement, because the board game media is not changing any time soon.
Oh, and maybe you could just try playing a game before you buy it. Which means no more kickstarters. Or not, you do you.