Board Gaming on a Shoestring


We run a pretty tight ship in my household, with a budget being the mainstay of our operations. Everything we buy gets recorded on our budget ledger, and we carefully monitor our purchases to make sure that at the end of the month, we know where our money has gone. We do this to ensure that our money goes where we want it to go and that we spend less—preferably much less—than we make.

This may seem like a recipe for eliminating all hobbies of any kind, but early on, we recognized that hobbies are a necessary part of life. My favorite part of our budget is the personal spending cash column because it allows each of us to have a small amount of money to do whatever we want with. If I want to spend all my money on Bazooka bubble gum, so be it. If my wife wants to buy more yarn for her knitting projects, that’s okay too. (For the record, I don’t buy Bazooka gum: I usually buy board games.)

Gaming, however, is an expensive hobby to maintain, especially if you want to play the latest and greatest games (and the ones that aren’t sold at Target). So today, I’m offering my suggestions for participating in gaming without going, well, overboard.

  • Play others’ games. Thank goodness tabletop gaming is an analogue and social hobby! Every player does not have to own their own copy of something in order to play, and the “owner” of a game probably isn’t gaining much by keeping it to himself. Most games cannot be played without the company of others, so while it may seem like mooching to use your friends’ games, you’re really doing them a favor by playing with them. And you can usually benefit from the completionist in your group who feels shame if he or she doesn’t own every Dominion expansion or Reiner Knizia game. The downside here is that you are at the mercy of your gaming group: if they like and purchase war games but you like Euros, be prepared to play war games. The upshot is that this is a quite economical way to play.
  • Don’t buy duplicates. If someone in your gaming group buys a game, resist the urge to buy it yourself, no matter how good it is. (The one exception here might be gateway games that can be played in any group, especially if you entertain often.) While you may not own these other games, they are in some ways at your disposal, especially if you have a good relationship with the other members of your group, and most people I know like it when someone asks them to bring a game. (I know I do.)
  • Trade, trade, trade. BGG has an excellent trading system, and this is a great way to get fresh blood into your gaming stream without breaking the bank. Math trades, I’ve found, are especially effective, and even more “shoestring” if it’s a no-ship math trade. (If you don’t know what a math trade is, see here.) You can also try temporarily swapping games with a friend to get more variety at home without having to shell out any money.
  • Do your homework. Games are expensive, and like most purchases, you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence. BGG is a fantastic resource for this, but so are game review websites (like this one…?). It helps to compare multiple reviews and determine if the game is right for you. Just because I or @Futurewolfie or any other reviewer out there likes a game doesn’t mean you or your group will. This is where reading the rules in advance of purchase can be especially helpful. (Most hobby game publishers post their rules online, which is a huge boon to a strapped wallet.) Think reflectively about what you like about board games, then think about gaps in your (or your group’s) collection. This can help you to maximize any purchases.
  • Resist the “cult of the new.” Early adopters of technology pay a premium. I’d be lucky if that $250 MP3 player I bought seven years ago would sell for $25. And while board games usually don’t depreciate in value the same way, there is less demand as a game ages (unless it’s out of print and an awesome edition) and the market becomes more saturated with copies. Heaven  help you if you can’t find a used copy of Settlers of Catan priced to sell. Older games are available on eBay, Amazon, BGG, sometimes even at Goodwill or on Craigslist. If you can wait for a game, you can generally pay less and still get the enjoyment out of it. Of course, you can also lobby your completionist friend to pick up the newest title. In fact, that seems an effective strategy…
  • Save. I’m not very good at this one, but it’s key to acquiring good games. You may be able to get a new card game every month if you don’t save up, but in order to get the big-ticket, big-box games, you will likely have to delay gratification. This is also a helpful strategy to prepare for when tempting Kickstarter campaigns come around. Without proactive saving, you might have to pass up those delicious backer rewards (as I, unfortunately, almost always have to do).

I know about these methods because I use them myself (though I did buy a duplicate copy of Dominion—sorry, @Futurewolfie; I couldn’t resist). What budgeting strategies do you employ?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion10 Comments

  1. A variant of the “play others’ games” suggestion is to play at game stores. Many game stores have demo copies and/or scheduled game times during a week or month for open board gaming. Depending on which games you like, they may also schedule tournaments, (Dominion!) This is a great way to try out new games and meet other people who like to play games. Also, game store staff can be an excellent source of information regarding games and game suggestions!

    I highly recommend 2 game stores:
    Rainy Day Games in Beaverton, OR (near Portland)
    Card Kingdom in Seattle, WA

  2. I’m very big on the “Do Your Homework” point. You know what you like and you can tell by reading several reviews if you’ll like a game, or not. Yes, it does take SEVERAL reads. It may take more time, but is definitely worth it to avoid wasting $$ on clunkers! And really, I think it is fun to read about games! 🙂

    Another option for saving is Print-and-Play games. I’ve just begun looking into these – BGG again a good resource. There could be an initial investment for the supplies (depending on what you have at home, already) to cut and mount cards, maps, and counters, but the cost spreads over several games. Not as jazzy, but I’ve been reading there are some hidden gems out there free to download and print!

  3. Jason, that is a great point about PnPs. One of my favorite sources for these is James Ernest’s games, which are free (but donations are encouraged). Kill Doctor Lucky, Unexploded Cow, Deadwood, Witch Trial–all free? Yes, please!

  4. It can be really tricky to expand your game collection if you’ve got other hobbies, especially ones with regular expenses. Although it’s not a hobby in the same sense as board games, I’m very enthusiastic about music and spend money much more regularly on albums than games. I could see this also being the case for those who enjoy collecting movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc. Such things are coming out so regularly that you can easily budget monthly or weekly expenses on them.

    So where do board games fit in for me? Since I’m part of a group that is very interested in the latest and greatest new games I get the benefits of playing new games without having to buy them. I find that I tend to keep a list of games that I am enjoying (and that I know my family/friends will enjoy) and acquire them in clumps rather than making regular purchases. A big reason for this is I like to ask for games as gifts (birthday and Christmas). Luckily for me my birthday is in May so I’ll get some new games every 6 months. This also goes a long way for me to justify my game collection since I didn’t actually spend a lot of money on it. I will buy games that I’m really excited about (mostly expansions to games that I play regularly) a couple times a year but that’s an exception more than a habit. So that combines [Play others’ games], [Do your homework], and [Save].

    I haven’t traded many of my games yet as I try to only get games that are likely to get played. But interests change and my collection is getting big enough that one game can replace another so I may try trading out in the coming year. I made a point to start recording my plays so I can discover which games I’m actually playing and which are taking up space and can be traded away.

  5. If you don’t mind playing games that aren’t necessarily “good looking”, you can always go the route of home made, especially with card games. All you need is often a little patience to actually assemble it.

    Often times BoardGameGeek game pages will have a homemade version ready to download in the Files section. I printed out a custom copy of Battleline (a fantastic 2 player strategy card game btw) from BGG. I just bought a pack of penny sleeves for $1 and sleeved up the printed cards with some junk MTG common cards. I’ve done the same thing with a bunch of other games, San Juan, Coloretto (a set I actually made myself), and 7 Wonders. 7 Wonders I actually went to great lengths for as I played it online repeatedly, taking screen shots of all the cards…

    With certain board games it’s pretty easy too. Revolution! for example I printed off a copy of the original board that the designer made ( and I’m using pieces from a Risk game as the bidding cubes.

    Anyway, I’m rambling on and on. My main point is that with a little patience, most games can be built in your home for pretty cheap.

  6. The early adopters warning is spot on! I remember buying an Xbox when it was brand new (not xbox 360, original xbox) and I’m pretty sure it was cheaper a few months later with a new processor that was much faster.

    Not only that, they started DESIGNING games for this new processor’s capabilities, as if xbox had always been like this. So my poor old xbox couldn’t run certain games optimally, and would make clicking noises and load slowly at times. Very frustrating. That’s how I was rewarded for being an early adopter of Microsoft’s first gaming console. Oh well.

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