There’s a bit of a controversy within the tabletop gaming world about whether “paid reviews” are ethical or not. This leads to a lot of consideration about the place of reviewers in society, and how to ensure they are as unbiased as possible.
In the traditional entertainment reviewing world, or even food reviews, there is a publication that hires someone to review things. This reviewer has a financial interest in being respected by the audience, and the audience is the greater community of consumers who are interested in whatever is being reviewed. Think of how much effort the most prominent restaurant critics would go through to avoid being recognized, so that the staff wouldn’t produce a better meal with better service than the hoi polloi could expect. Obviously, there’s less need for secrecy about one’s identity when reviewing non-service items.
Reviewing a movie requires going to see the movie. There’s no plausible way for the studio or director to make the experience better for the reviewer, except perhaps by producing a special screening with luxury settings. The movie remains the same movie, and even private screenings don’t raise a red flag from most readers. After all, we want the review to be out before the movie is released, so how else could they see it before it’s in the theaters?
Video game reviewers generally get free copies of a game before it’s released. That’s not likely to cause them to change their views, since you can’t pay your rent with Steam codes. The benefits the reviewer gains are mainly the salary they get from their outlet. That outlet might be a magazine or a self-published video channel, so it’s all about getting advertising hits. Those hits only get to be profitable if the reviewer gets a lot of viewers, and the best way to get a lot of viewers is to gain a reputation as an honest broker.
Personal electronics used to be mostly reviewed in magazines like Popular Science or PC World, but this has mostly moved to internet blog sites in the past decade or so. Magazines have a long lead time between writing and publication, while a website can review a product and push it to their audience before it’s even reached the stores. Most reviewers get their financial support from advertising, while also receiving free products to review. Those products often are passed from reviewer to reviewer, before being sent back to the manufacturer, but smaller-ticket items may just be freely given to reviewers. Ethical reviewers make a point that they may get free stuff, but their review is honest regardless. This seems plausible, since the second-hand market for lightly-used headphones is unlikely to sustain a life of leisure.
Board games are an interesting trend. When I was a kid, there was one magazine devoted to games that got any distribution — Games magazine. That magazine included reviews of upcoming and new retail games, and a small section of playable games or puzzles. My mother subscribed, and it was an interesting look into the tabletop gaming world, before anyone coined the term. She mostly just played the puzzles. In 2014, Games magazine merged with World of Puzzles magazine. The new publication, Games World of Puzzles, is mostly puzzles now, with a small section for reviews at the very end. While tabletop gaming is experiencing quite a renaissance in recent years — over 3000 new games each year for the past three years — there hasn’t been a rise in a traditionally-published outlet for reviews. The internet has stepped in to fill the void left by the changing media world.
With all that background, it’s clear that the old ways of reviewers being employed by newspapers or magazines isn’t viable for tabletop gaming, but what is? There are a few big networks of blogs and video channels and websites (Dice Tower being the biggest), and a mixture of independent reviewers that either use YouTube or BoardGameGeek as their nexus. The Dice Tower is big enough that they actually pay people to review games. Just as with movies or video games, they generally get free products as part of the review process, although because of the modern manufacturing process, these free products may be pre-release copies or prototypes.
Independent reviewers, if they’re prominent enough, may get offers to review a game for a set fee, from the publisher. This is a relatively new model, and it’s where people are starting to feel a little uneasy. If the reviewer does this as their general business model, it raises the question of whether they’re being honest in order to maintain their audience’s trust, or whether they’re maybe shading the truth a little in order to ensure future business from the publisher. No matter how ethical someone is, there’s an undeniable pressure to please the person giving you your salary. There is also the potential to see what scientists call “publication bias” — only the positive reviews see the light of day. In order to maintain a future business relationship, the reviewer may choose to kill a review that makes the publisher’s game look bad. If this happens (and there are no credible allegations of specific cases), it would be nearly impossible to be sure. Contracts and non-disclosure agreements would likely keep any such chicanery hidden from public view.
There may be a business model for people using Patreon or other crowd-funding sites to get money directly from their viewers. This seems like a wildly uneven and unpredictable path toward success, though.
Of course, it’s possible that every great review is honest, and that this current golden age of tabletop gaming is truly bringing out an unprecedented array of good-to-great games, with the sub-par products foundering in the worlds of failed Kickstarters or barely-known print-and-play. We may never know, but it seems reasonable to start from a position of skepticism when you see that “paid review” banner.