On Building a Board Game Collection

This week, OCH fellow David Chandler returns with a post on starting a board game collection. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the tabletop as a medium for expression, and I made a video that explained, in brief, some of the more interesting ideas that creators channel in the games they make. This week, I wanted to do something a bit more specific and talk about how to choose a board game to play and start a collection.

Like any academic who finds a hobby and tries to incorporate it into his range of interests, I started my collection with a bit of research. There is a borderline unsustainable amount of board games on the market, and with the advent of services like Kickstarter and the ease of 3D printing, creators churn out new games every month. And given that games can cost anywhere from $10 to well over $100, not to mention they take up a fair amount of domestic real estate, it’s rather easy to get overwhelmed by the mixture of game option and financial/spatial limitations. 

It’s this selection process that I want to talk about in this post, and, in a way, building a collection is like playing a game in itself. In the video above, I talk about a few different games I like that provide solid introductions to the hobby, but here I want to talk more generally about what goes into cultivating a collection and why collecting games can be its own rewarding endeavor.

What’s in a theme?

Excepting the most abstract types, most board games have a theme, an organizing aesthetic that provides a narrative justification for the action of the game. Whenever someone asks which game they should play, I tend to respond with another question: “What interests you?” In my earlier post, I showed off a group of games that had players engage in giant monster punch-ups, turn of the century bike races, galactic conquests, and palace subterfuge. If there is any type of fiction you enjoy, you can find a game to fit that theme.

While I plan to write a post about how a game’s mechanics and art can help communicate its themes, I find that theme is more than just a bit of set dressing over a process. There’s a concept in virtual gaming called “game feel” that refers to a subtle, almost intangible feeling that virtual games can provide when your inputs translate to actions on the screen. Board games do something similar by translating tactility directly into action, and much of the drama on the table comes from a game’s theme. When rolling dice determines a battle outcome or your decision to draw a card can lead to a chain of disasters, a strong theme can make all the difference. Actions can matter to us more when they’re tied to a story that we collectively create.

What do you like about play?

One of the often overlooked benefits of curating a collection is finding out what types of gameplay you enjoy. Randomness, strategy, social deduction, engine-building, and numerous other aspects of play form the mechanical cores of tabletop games. Most combine several of these elements to create more complex systems, but complex doesn’t always mean complicated. 

So, ask yourself what you like about play in general? If you enjoy chance and pushing your luck, then games that rely on dice would suit your interests. King of Tokyo and Bang! The Dice Game offer a mix of luck and strategic gambling that can lead to fun, dynamic board states. If, however, you want more control over the outcome of our game decisions, a game like Onitama or Coup can take chance almost entirely out of the equation. For more patient gamers, worker-placement or deck-building mechanics afford the opportunity to assemble complicated engines to help you earn points or deny your opponents a victory through decisive planning. 

Cultivating a collection of games introduces you to a variety of styles and experiments in a dynamic hobby, but that shouldn’t be cause for intimidation. The range of experiences tabletop games offer is constantly expanding, and starting your collection can be as simple as asking yourself what you value about play. 

The collection meta

Lastly, there’s a bit of a metagame that goes into collecting, I think. There are games I generally use as openers–small, light games to kick off or wind down an evening with friends. I also have my event games that last all day and the faithful standbys for my regular game groups. I also have games that are more aspirational than practical, those hours-long war games or narrative experiences that I only play a few times a year, if at all. 

The simple pleasures of collecting games, then, is not all that different than that of playing the games themselves. There’s a tactility to it, a balancing act of spatial economy and breadth of gameplay variety. I add and subtract games from my collection with the careful consideration I exercise when playing a game. I look for gaps in the experiences my collection offers. I research new games as they hit the market, reading reviews from critics who share my interests, and I make the decision based on how the game will fit in with my regular group. It’s a tightrope walk of weighing my options, predicting the outcomes, and making the call to add a game to my carefully cultivated menagerie.

That, or I see a shiny box that looks neat and snatch it up. Sometimes that works, too.