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Guide to Gaming: Research Before You Buy

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Board gaming is a great hobby, accessible to a broad range of ages and demographics. As such, it is wonderful for both casual and structured social occasions, it can stimulate the mind, and it is ideal for family bonding. And it accomplishes all of that through fun. But like any hobby, it’s not cheap. Indeed, there are three major concerns that you, the average gamer, face when building your collection. One, you’re most likely on a tight budget. Therefore, you cannot take a “shotgun approach” to buying games, hoping to land a few diamonds amongst the rough. Two, your available free time is likewise probably constrained.

So you want to be reasonably sure that the games you do buy are able to actually see the table from time to time. Which leads to three, there are so many games out there that it can often be overwhelming. Few things are more frustrating in this hobby than spending your limited budget on games that gather dust on the shelves because it turned out they weren’t interesting, good, or relevant to your gaming. How do you know which titles best fit your family, group, and personal gaming habits so that your money and time are used to best advantage? The challenge is to build a collection that is strong, suits a variety of situations, and that you will actually play – all without breaking the bank. So where to start?

Your Friendly Local Game Store

The best place for the average person to discover new games is the FLGS, or Friendly Local Gaming Store.  An FLGS is a small shop dedicated to tabletop gaming.  You’ll find all the games there that you’ll never see in Target or at Barnes&Noble.  The difficulty is in finding them, but you might try a google map search for “Board Games” or ask around on social media.  Chances are, if there’s a store near you, someone will be able to help you find it.

The great thing about the FLGS is that you can test-drive games there.  At least, the good ones let you.  Many FLGS’s have regular open gaming nights, or simply keep a stock of open-box games for their customers to try out.  Store employees are generally pretty excited about board gaming, and so you can get great advice from them.  You can also just browse the shelves and see what looks cool!

Trying out games is the best way to determine if they are right for you, and FLGSs are great places to try out games you’ve heard of, or find similar games to your favorites.  Remember to support your FLGS if you take advantage of this, however.  Although games on FLGS shelves are rarely discounted, the services that FLGS stores provide are invaluable and if you take advantage of them by trying out games, getting recommendations, or attending open game nights, you should support the store with your money to keep them in business.

Board Game Geek

Not everyone has easy access to an FLGS though, so another great online resource is  Board Game Geek. Most likely, the majority of average hobby gamers and iSlaytheDragon followers already know of this resource. In fact, most above-average gamers are able to fondly recall that special moment when he/she discovered the “Geek” and how it opened their eyes to a new world. Its value to the gaming industry and community is immeasurable, however new users should be warned; the site layout and design is very overwhelming at first.  It can be very difficult to take in all the information BGG offers you, and sort through to find what you’re actually looking for.

BGG’s skeletal structure is a database of basically every game ever made, listing such vitals as publication date, designer, publisher, number of players, play time, genre, mechanics, and components. But the site’s heart is its collection of user contributions. You can find ratings, reviews, videos, topical “geek” listings, photographs, industry news, related external links, official and fan created errata and files, and an extensive and active forum to discuss individual games as well as the hobby in general. All this from community users ranging from industry insiders to the hobby’s newcomers and all experiences in-between.

If you’re interested in a particular game, simply navigate to its database page to read about the mechanics, all of its vital information, user reviews, and other miscellaneous discussions and files to get a better idea if it’ll fit your situation, or not. Some older titles have helpful recommendations of comparable games that you might like, as well. If you, your family, or your game group tend to play certain styles or mechanics, then you can browse for titles by those terms. If you particularly enjoy a certain designer, then look up his page to surf through all of his games. Same with any specific publisher. Furthermore, most BGG members have extensive profile pages and usually list their game collections – so if you find a member that seems to share similar gaming tastes as your own, take a gander through her collection. There’s a good chance she has other titles that will be a good match for you, too! All of these subtle ways to research games make the Geek a tremendous tool.

Of course, the surest way to determine whether or not you’ll like a game is to play it – and you can’t do that on Board Game Geek. So you’ll need to utilize other resources. Not all are necessarily convenient. But they can still be very much worth a bit of investment in time and effort in order to minimize the chances of buying a lame title or ones that fall flat in your gaming group.

On-Line Gaming

The resource most readily accessible would be online gaming. Sites such as Yucata and Board Game Arena are free and always available. If you speak German, you can take advantage of Brettspielwelt; same with Jeux sur un Plateau if you speak French. There are a couple of minor drawbacks. One, games can span several days (because of asynchronous play) or it can be difficult to arrange for all players to meet at a convenient, appointed time (or make sure your online opponents can complete the session). Second, selection is limited. However between various sites there is a growing list of available titles.

These sites offer a unique opportunity to try those titles on your wish list, giving you a fair to excellent idea of whether or not the game will appeal to your group or be a worthy addition to your collection. Even if the site does not offer a game that you’ve been thinking about buying, it may have a title similar in theme, genre, style, or mechanics which can give you a good idea. With a little patience, you just might be surprised with this resource, and have some fun at the same time.

Google searches inquiring into individual games may reap surprising results, as well. This may be a bit tedious and specific, but rewarding. But some games have Java or Windows implementations, or otherwise faithfully port the board version to software. Many are even official. Just a few examples include Dominion on isotropic, plus free downloads for titles such as Kingsburg, San Juan, and Yspahan. So know that the option is out there and you never know what else you may discover!

The On-Line Game Store

The on-line game store (OLGS) is another avenue to consider. A useful tool on game store web sites (and even mega shopping sites like Amazon) is the suggestion of other titles based on browsing or purchasing history. Typically this is couched in terms of either, “People who bought this title also bought X,” or “If you like this game, you might also like Y.” Even if you are not buying from the site, use that OLGS’s suggestions tool in your research to find titles that will fit your gaming needs. And buying online is always an option, indeed maybe the only one for those without an FLGS. It is certainly convenient, perhaps the greatest benefit to the OLGS, but don’t automatically assume it is significantly cheaper.

There are a handful of on-line stores which offer reduced prices on individual titles, but shipping costs added on to small orders can approach, equal, or even exceed the regular retail prices at local stores. Most sites offer free shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount, so it is generally more cost effective to wait and make a larger purchase to take advantage of free shipping. While patronizing your FLGS is important to the hobby in supporting a business that gives back to the local gaming community, price is often too important a consideration for many gamers. In that case, BoardGamePrices.com is a helpful source for research and price comparisons.

Game Conventions

Another gold mine in the research field is the convention. These are not always convenient. They cost money to attend, you generally will need to drive a distance to get there, and most run over multiple days often requiring hotel stays. So these will not be frequent resources. Indeed it might be a better option for those more experienced in, or at least committed to, the hobby. But if and when you can attend, you’ll find designer and publisher booths demonstrating games, open gaming areas, news, symposia, and more. You don’t need to attend the big ones like GenCon, Origins, or the internationally epic Spiel Essen (though a gamer’s Mecca). In fact, for purposes of this article, I would not recommend the big conventions. Instead, consider the many smaller scale, local and regional gatherings which can be very rewarding for a much smaller investment. Go to Board Game Geek or other sites like The Dice Tower to find ones near you that will keep registration fees, other expenses, and travel at a minimum. Then plan ahead with your registration material to maximize your time in wandering the exhibit floor, visiting booths, and testing out the open play.

iOS and Android Apps

Finally, a recent means of test driving games has developed over the last few years and grows larger each month: iOS and Android gaming. Personal digital devices like iPhones, iPads, iPods, and even Android phones and tablets are growing exponentially these days and board game publishers and designers are scrambling to take advantage of the new medium. While the number of available titles through iOS and Android platforms is still small, the major benefit is again its convenience, which indeed is boosted by the feature’s portability. Some are even multi-player. The major drawback is expense, but the price for one downloaded app is far less than the analog boxed game. And again, while perhaps your wish list title is not yet available, you may still find representative styles and genres that can help determine if the physical game is worth a purchase. Indeed, get the whole gang’s opinion by downloading the app, bringing the iPad to your next game night, and letting everyone give it a try!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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