Updated on 11.25.15

How to Save Money on a Board Gaming Hobby

Trent Hamm

It’s no secret to longtime readers that one of my primary hobbies is board and card games. I play simpler games with my kids after school many days. I play two player games with my wife fairly regularly. Once or twice a month, Sarah and I also host game nights for our friends. I also participate in two different community game groups, and I go to one or two tabletop gaming conventions each year.

Needless to say, I know my board and card games.

There are several reasons why I like the hobby. First, there is such incredible variety in board and card games these days that there’s something for almost every imaginable theme and almost every imaginable level of complexity. There are games with simple rules that appeal strongly to creativity (like Codenames and Dixit) and games with complex rules that appeal strongly to strategic thought (like Terra Mystica and Nippon). There are games about almost any topic, from marrying off your children and grandchildren to move up in society (Legacy: the Testament of Duke de Crecy) to building a thriving medieval farm and family starting with just two people in a wooden hovel (Agricola) – and almost everything imaginable in between.

Second, board and card games are inherently social. They’re all about sitting around a table communicating with others without using electronic devices. I have forged many deep friendships thanks to board and card games and they serve as amazing opportunities to get to know people better.

Third, if you so desire, board games and card games can be brilliant mental exercises. Some of the heavier games (think chess, for an example) can encourage you to take on incredible mental gymnastics – but they’re not all like that, not at all. Some are very light, serving mostly as a conduit for conversation. I just tend to enjoy the heavier ones.

It’s simply a social hobby that I deeply enjoy.

Over the years, many, many readers have wrote in to tap that knowledge. They’ve asked for game recommendations. They’ve asked for suggestions on how to get a game night started, whether it’s just one hosted at their house or the start of a community game night.

A lot of readers have written in with a different question, though. They want to know how to save money with what can be a fairly expensive hobby. How do you find good prices on board and card games? How do you overcome the temptation to buy more games?

I’ve dropped a number of specific tips on this topic in reader mailbags over the years, but I’ve never collected all of my money-saving strategies for my main hobby in one place together. Until now.

Here are the exact things that I do to reduce the expense of my board and card gaming hobby.

Participate in Community Game Groups and Game Nights

This is the first and most important strategy. Community game groups and game nights are the easiest way to gain exposure to new games and, most importantly, play them before you invest money in buying them.

Most community game groups and game nights are free to participate in. They’re usually open to people of all ages and the members often bring games from their own collections to play with others, giving members the opportunity to try a lot of different games without paying for them.

It’s a pretty enjoyable way to spend an evening, at least from my perspective.

The question is how do you find these groups? Here are some of the best methods.

Check your local library In many communities, game nights are hosted by the local library. Stop in and ask the librarian if they have such events on their schedule or check your local library’s website.

Check local churches Many game groups start in churches because, frankly, church meeting places and reception rooms are just about perfect for game nights as they have lots of chairs and tables easily available. Again, just call around to various local churches and check their websites to see what they have available.

Check local stores that sell board games Many game stores have a night or two each week where they stay open late and one of the employees (or a community volunteer) hosts a game night in the store or at a nearby location. Finding out about these game nights is as easy as sticking your head in the door and asking the person behind the counter.

Check meetup.com Many game groups advertise using meetup.com, particularly those who use meeting locations besides libraries and churches. Just log on and see what’s available in your area.

In terms of the etiquette of such groups, everyone is welcome t show up and play games but once you become a regular attendee, it begins to be encouraged that you simply bring a few games from your own collection to play. It’s also assumed that if you bring a game, you’ll be able to teach it to others; usually, people will teach a game every week or two but mostly participate in games others are teaching or games that are familiar to all players.

If at All Possible, Try Before You Buy

As with any industry, the board gaming world is filled with people who are pretty good at marketing. They can make even the most boring game sound like an exciting and engaging experience, building the hype train and convincing people to buy.

The best way to burn through that hype is to actually play the game in question and, over time, gain enough experience in playing games so that you can cut through the hype.

This is really one of the big advantages of going to a community game night, as it offers a great opportunity to play games. Game conventions can be advantageous in this way, but games are often set up by marketers at conventions to make them seem as good as possible.

Here are a bunch of different tools I use to figure out if I actually want to own a game or not.

Play a wide variety of games at game nights. Play short games and long games. Play games with simple rules and with complex rules. Play games that use a wide variety of mechanics. What you’ll find over time is that you naturally gravitate toward certain types of games, and the type of game that clicks with you might not even be the type you once thought it was. Take me, for example – I used to think that collectible/customizable card games were my favorite style of games, but these days I prefer heavier strategic board games. I still play customizable card games sometimes, but I am much more interested in playing heavy strategic and economic games instead. I have a strong sense as to what to look for in determining whether I will like a game or not and that makes it easy to cut right through the marketing.

Ask yourself who you would play this game with outside of the current situation. Would you really play this game outside of this game night? If not, then there’s no reason for you to buy it – you can just play it again on another game night with the person that brought the game. A game can be quite good, but if it falls into this category, there’s no reason for you to purchase it. You can just rely on the community game night to play it again.

See if the game leaves you thinking or reflecting in a positive way a few days later. Many games aren’t memorable at all. They can seem fairly fun when you’re playing them, but you’ve practically forgotten about them in an hour or two and can barely even remember playing them the next day. The good games – the ones you might want to consider owning – are the ones that you do remember the next day or a few days later. You’ll reflect on how fun the game was or wonder if there wasn’t a better strategic approach and you’ll probably find yourself wanting to play it again. That’s the sign of a game that clicks with you, one that you’ll want to bring out with many different people.

Conventions are a great time to do this,

Shop Around for Competitive Prices

There are a ton of hobby-specific tactics for finding great prices on board games. Not only are there several online retailers that offer great prices, there are several tricks that can help you shave even more off of what you spend.

Get to know the discount online game sellers. In the United States, the top two online discount game stores are Coolstuffinc and Miniature Market. Other retailers, such as Funagain Games, are good for specific purposes, like finding harder-to-get games and imported games.

Whenever I’m interested in buying a new game, I always check Coolstuffinc and Miniature Market first. Their prices tend to be very competitive with each other and usually substantially below MSRP on most items. They both regularly have sales, too, with items on deep discount.

Coolstuffinc offers a customer rewards program that’s pretty good if you’re a regular buyer from them as it provides a flat discount on all of your purchases forever. Miniature Market also offers a rewards program based on a point system. Miniature Market’s program is better for very infrequent purchases (though it improves a lot when they have “double points” or “triple points” days); Coolstuffinc tends to reward more regular purchasers. Both stores offer free shipping above the $100 threshold.

My usual strategy is to save up my hobby spending for a few months and then place one big order at either Coolstuffinc or Miniature Market so that I can take advantage of free shipping.

Amazon is always worth comparing prices. Amazon is usually not the lowest option in terms of game prices. However, when you’re buying a single game, you are often eligible for free shipping – and you’re always getting two day shipping if you’re a Prime member.

The best reason to check Amazon is that they often have sales on their board game inventory which brings the prices on individual games below what the other retailers offer.

Use a “wantlist” strategy. I personally use a “wantlist” at each of those three sites. I simply maintain a list at each of the sites of the games I’m currently considering purchasing (or trading for, but we’ll get to that in a bit) using their wishlist feature. That way, when I make the decision to actually place a game order, I can very quickly check the prices on all of the games I’m considering.

Check out thrift stores, estate sales, and yard/garage sales. When I go to these things, I’m not looking for the normal games you might find at WalMart. I avoid games like Monopoly and Scrabble and Scene It!

Instead, what I’m looking for are rarer titles, usually ones that I might not want but that I know will have trade value. I look for older war games, especially ones published by Avalon Hill. I look for games published by less mainstream publishers, like Rio Grande Games or Z-Man Games or Fantasy Flight Games. These games are harder to find and you can usually find people who want them in trade or will even buy them from you.

Don’t forget your friendly local game store. As I mentioned earlier on, many game stores are very supportive of local game nights, providing a free space to play and sometimes a library of games for everyone to enjoy. A local store also provides a place to browse through titles and helpful staff, too.

If your local store provides these kinds of services, repay them by taking at least some of your gaming dollars there. I try to spend about a third of my hobby spending at such friendly local stores – stores that don’t provide those kinds of services don’t receive my gaming dollars.

Set Some Limits on Your Collection

If you stick with board gaming as a significant hobby, you’ll eventually start to build a collection of games of your own. That’s fine in and of itself, but it does create a few problems.

First, a sizable board game collection does take up space. You may find yourself filling up a bookshelf or a closet with games over time, which has a cost for storage. Sure, it might only be a few square feet, but you’re paying for those square feet in the form of rent and utilities.

Second, each game that you have means that you have less time to play individual games. Let’s say you own five games and have a game night once a week where you have time to play two games. That means that every two and a half weeks on average, each of your games makes it to the table. Now, let’s say you have 200 games. That means each game can make it to the table only once every two years on average.

The bigger your collection, the more space it takes up and the less time you have for each title in your collection.

The solution to this is to put a cap on your collection size. You can either set a number or, as I do it, set aside a specific physical spot for your collection that your collection cannot exceed. We have two bookshelves in my office that contains our game collection and whenever I’m tempted to exceed it, I have to pull games off of the shelf with the intent of flipping those games. (I’ll explain “flipping” them in a minute.) I set those aside in a stack and either sell or trade them off in the next month or two.

This really helps me keep impulsive game buying in line.

First of all, it means that the average quality of my collection goes up over time. If a game has to go out before a new one can go in, that means that I have to like the new one better than the old one. That also means that I’m happier and happier with my current game collection, and it’s really true. I pretty much always want to play everything on my shelves.

That, then, makes me much more careful with each new game that I purchase. A new game that I acquire has to be better than the “worst” game in my collection and, over time, that “worst” game ends up being pretty good. It forces me to be really selective.

Engage in Board Game Trading and Selling

Over time, I do discover new games that I’m interested in and I want to add some of them to my collection. With a strict size limit on the collection, however, it can get kind of tricky.

As I mentioned, whenever I get a new game, it has to replace a game already in my collection. I sit that replaced item off to the side and every few months I’ll sell off all of those replaced games.

However, I’ll sometimes sell off the “bottom 20%” of my game collection, too, leaving me some space on my shelves to fill up later on. This provides some additional hobby money, which I can then use to buy a few games which I now have space for in my collection.

I usually sell games within my local game group by listing games for sale on the group’s Facebook page or Meetup.com page. I’ll research prices by using the used prices listed on sites like Boardgamegeek and then mark them with a price a bit higher than the typical used price on there while adding a “or best offer” tag on the end so there can be a bit of negotiation.

Another strategy I like to use is board game trading. I often find such trades online by digging through the forums on BoardGameGeek.com or by negotiating them locally with the people in my game group. We’ve also had swap meets in the past where people bring in games that they’d be willing to trade and work out trades for them.

I do some trading and selling by mail but I often don’t find it particularly profitable in terms of the time spent making it happen unless I’m selling something that I’ve found that’s out of print or particularly rare.

Spend More Time Playing and Less Time Obsessing

It can be easy to get yourself very hyped and eager to buy things with any hobby if you spend a lot of time online reading about the hobby instead of actually participating in the hobby. The most effective way to avoid that trap is to spend less time reading and fetishizing and spend more time participating in the hobby.

Whenever you’re tempted to sit around and read about the latest game releases, step away from the computer and work on some chores around the house so that this weekend you’ll have some free time with which to host a game night.

Whenever you’re reading a pile of gaming related Twitter updates and getting all excited about some new release, instead spend some time organizing a game night so that you can actually play games instead of just getting all hyped about them.

Don’t hype yourself about buying. Hype yourself about playing and do all that you can to give yourself the free time to do so.

Final Thoughts

Board games and card games make for an incredibly engaging social hobby that, although it does encourage some purchasing, doesn’t have to break the bank. Over the years, it has helped me to forge countless friendships and acquaintances and engage in some of the most enjoyable experiences around a table that I’ve ever had. Hopefully, these strategies will help you to dive into that pool without putting a crunch on your wallet.

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