How to start a board game collection

It’s a classic question: How to start a board game collection. I started my collecting phase around 2007. I started as a total newbie, with friends who were the same. So I rabidly consumed all the information I could. I read, I played and I purchased like my life depended on it – and made plenty of mistakes. So if you’re about to embark on the same journey, this guide is for you.

At it’s peak, my collection reached around 250 games (not including expansions, promos etc). My shelves were full. The top of the shelves were full. There was a bit of a pile on the floor. Before going to buy more shelves – the obvious answer – I had a good, hard look at mys(h)elf – ho ho. Enough was enough.

I’ve since cut back to around 150 games: a number I’m happy with (and, I expect, another blog post topic). But during this last decade-plus I’ve learned a thing or two about honing a collection into something you can be happy with. Of course, everyone’s taste is different – but hopefully this will set you off in the right direction.

Who are you going to play board games with?

As gaming groups form, you tend to find people fall naturally into categories. If you’re reading this you’re likely to be in the ‘buyer/teacher’ category – but with this comes great responsibility. You want to keep your group going, but you also want to buy and play the games you like. And so the tightrope walk between personal and group taste begins.

You should quickly start to ascertain which styles, lengths, themes and complexities of game suit your group. Do people like to play in a big group, or split into smaller ones? Do they like to play one game for the whole session, or a few each evening? If these are too varied, you can selfishly drop a few of the outliers you don’t care for as much. It’s your money after all and it’s not as if others won’t buy the occasional game. They key is to play to the majority, or the key regulars – whichever strike you as most important.

Here’s where Board Game Geek (BGG) becomes invaluable. It is a beast of a website, but it is in a field of one when it comes to researching board games. If a game goes down well, a look at its page on BGG will give up all kinds of useful info. The ‘fans also like’ section is great for new ideas, while it will also list the game’s ‘mechanisms’. You can click the words here (set collection, worker placement etc) to go to a list of games that use the same base idea. From there you can get a list of top games in that category. And that’s just the tip of the BBG iceberg. It can feel overwhelming at first, but trust me – it’s worth the time.

Second opinions

Using Board Game Geek to narrow down your choices is a great place to start. But the collective nature of its content can also be its greatest weakness. The ‘general public’ is a fickle thing, and averages can be deceiving. The majority of its users are American, for example, which sways opinions towards games more available there. I’ve also had a growing feeling users rate games very quickly, and rarely go back to amend those ratings. This has been particularly problematic with new games that look shiny but have little depth.

Look for regular users and reviewers you can trust, on BGG and elsewhere. Absorb a spread of videos, podcasts and written reviews (including, of course, mine!). Look at games you know first, to build a sense of which reviewers have tastes similar to your own. Build a pool of people to turn to for opinions. But consistency is as important as them being kindred spirits. I don’t share Tom Vasel’s overall opinion on games. But I trust his consistency, adapting my takeaways accordingly. So his opinion is still valuable to him.

As well as websites and reviewers, look out for ways to try before you buy. Online sites such as Yucata, Boit a Jeux and Board Game Arena are great. While most popular games now have apps, often at a fraction of the price of the physical equivalent. It’s not the same, of course. But will give you a good feel for how the game works. Also, look for other gaming groups in your area – as well as gaming stores that have game night,s or even better board game cafes. A good bit of research can really pay dividends.

How to start a board game collection: The classics versus…

Classics are classics for a reason. Some did something first, or did it the most smoothly or accessibly. Others nailed synergistic aspects of the hobby perfectly: such as time-to-fun ratio for a genre or mechanism. Others just sell by the shelf-load, so must be doing something right. For all these reasons, they’re a great place to start.

Even if they’re not always still the ‘best’, classic games are great introductions to what might be future favourite mechanisms or genres. Even if the classic doesn’t grab you, it may whet your appetite for more/similar of the same. Carcassonne – tile-laying. Catan – trade and negotiation. Stone Age – worker placement. Pandemic – co-operative games. Ticket to Ride – route building and set collection. These are must-tries, if not must-owns.

And don’t think ‘classic’ has to mean old. I’d argue Azul, released in 2017, can already be considered a classic abstract game. In its short time on the shelf it has sold thousands of copies and won copious awards. The same can be said for titles such as Terraforming Mars (2016 – sci-fi tableau building) and Gloomhaven (2017 – D&D style adventuring). Even after just a few years, they just feel like they’re here to stay.

…the new hotness

While trying/buying oldies but goodies is the soundest platform to build from, you also want to feel as if you’re part of your new hobby’s vanguard. It’s practically impossible to ignore new releases, especially if everyone is talking about them. But with literally thousands of new board games released each year, it’s incredibly hard to spot the outstanding ones.

A classic gamer pitfall is Kickstarter, which is fraught with investment danger. You’re backing a product upfront with no guarantee the game will ever release. And when you’re starting out, its harder to know the publishers/people you can trust. Remember: the skill set required to make a brilliantly convincing Kickstarter campaign is completely different than that of designing and developing a board game. Unless your research shows something of a sure thing – a re-release/follow up by a known publisher, for example – it’s best to avoid. The few great Kiskstarter games always become available later anyway.

On a positive note, if you’re following a group of reviewers/podcasters you trust you’ll see patterns. If half the people you listen to are raving about a game that’s on the way, the odds of it being a winner improve. Although they’re just as susceptible to hype as you are, if the hive mind starts to focus on one title there’s usually a better chance it’ll make the grade.

How to start a board game collection: Don’t panic

In conclusion, try to take plenty of time over your purchases and think about your groups first, researching as much as you can. Try to move through time lengths, complexity levels and genres to build a varied collection covering all your different scenarios. And be wary of short term hype versus the proven classics.

Yes, you’re going to make mistakes and pick up some stinkers – or great games your groups simply don’t get on with. Luckily, unlike many hobbies, there’s a great secondary market for board and card games. BGG has great trade and sales markets, while there are plenty of groups on Facebook and the like too. And that’s before looking into more advanced methods of swapping games, such as maths trades and selling at conventions.

If you’ve got any questions, especially if you think there’s things I can add to this guide, please let me know in the comments below.

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