Saturday, July 02, 2011

Games that are/were "Worth It" - the longest post in a while

In the last couple weeks, I've gotten in 3 games of Reiner Knizia's Money and one play of Blue Moon City after work, and one play of a thrift-store Monopoly Junior (with Alex).

Dave Lartigue had an interesting post here about his recent acquisition of Planet Steam.

It got me thinking about my game acquisitions.  As a die-hard gaming enthusiast (distinction: collectors buy games, enthusiasts buy, open, and play games), my collection grew haphazardly over the years.  Now that I purchase most of my own games, and have reached the limits of what I can fit in my house comfortably, new games that I have passing desires to buy need to be weighed against stiffer criteria.  Where to start?

Even at a very early age, going to garage sales and auctions out in the back roads of southern Iowa, I was always looking at interesting things, board games among them.  I remember picking up a copy of Parker Brothers' Shadowlords! at a Place's general store clearance for about $3.  It's not a great game, but definitely has a lot of bits, and I spent a ton of time on it.  My earliest game memory was a session where we discovered that at age 4, my sister Amy had absconded with a Roadrunner from an Old Maid variant during a game, and was sitting on it.  I also spent a ton of time playing Monopoly with imaginary opponents, playing all kinds of Solitaire variants, reading tons of fantasy and sci-fi books from the local libraries, and sketching out games on pieces of cardboard, mostly variants of arcade games (looking back, my Gauntlet knock-off looks a lot like HeroQuest, and a racing arcade game inspired me to create something that looked a lot like Car Wars.  I remember working with grids and trying to work out turn radius rules).

As a pre-teen, and later in my teen years, I was reading and writing Dungeons & Dragons material.  I think the largest group of role-players I ever played in was 4 - one of the hazards of living in the country and trying to find misfits (sorry, RPG players) in a county of 5,000 people.  I whiled away many hours out in fields, waiting on the next tractor, while idly flipping through a Wargames West catalog ("Dial 1-800-SAY-GAME").  I think that might have been the first toll-free number I ever dialed.  There were huge, nay, gigantic lists of games, books, and miniatures of every stripe.  It must have been at least a hundred and fifty pages, printed on the worst, cheapest, flimsiest paper available.  I remember the year they clearanced out their 1st Edition AD&D sourcebooks for $3 a pop (cover price was a whopping $15), and I got the Oriental Adventures and Dragonlance Adventures hardbacks.  I also had a subscription to both Dragon magazine and Dungeon magazine.

Eventually, I did submit an adventure article to Dungeon, who sent back a polite no-thanks.  I also got an small supplement article for Call of Cthulhu published in a tiny independent mag called Vortext, which I think lasted about 10 issues before folding.  I got two free extra copies of the magazine, I think I might have gotten a couple extra issues of extension to my subscription, and $9.50.  Plus, of course, eternal fame.

As I entered college, I fell in with a group of like-minded folks, and we played a lot of offbeat RPGs, good older American boardgames, and a lot of collectible card games.  We disdained Magic at the time, because I was poor.  Looking back, I think it's for the best.  I had a lot on my plate, and adding one more distraction to the variety might have knocked me even further off the path than the rest of them.

Of the RPGs I played in high school and college (as opposed to bought and hauled around endlessly from dorm room to dorm room), from worst to best experiences:

  • Mage: it's a game about magic, and the magic rules... sucked.  Generic "we crapped this out in an afternoon" campaign setting, too.
  • Shadowrun: listless elves&dwarves&cyberpunk bullshit that never seemed to gel properly.
  • Changeling: never clicked with our group.  Interesting setting, but more of a toolbox.
  • Tales From The Floating Vagabond: I think I ran one adventure of this.  It's okay, I guess.  Does what TFoS does, worse.
  • Vampire: did I ever play this, or just vaguely flip through it and make fun of it?  Still better than Shadowrun.  I'm too straightforward to care about 95% of the political aspects.
  • Werewolf: at least the setting was more coherent.
  • GURPS: endless variety, endless min-maxing.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Most of my experience with this was pre-college, so it's getting a big nostalgia bump.  As far as bang for my buck, definitely the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.
  • Call of Cthulhu: I ran a couple of games of this, poorly.  Hey, it got me my first published article, it should at least be in the top half.
  • Ars Magica:  I know, it's cheesy, you can roast a Thanksgiving turkey faster than make up a character for the first time, but dang, it oozes theme like a 99-cent burger oozes grease.
  • Teenagers From Outer Space: One book.  Ten bucks.  Fast, fun, ridiculous.  No violence, no sex, no brooding.  
All of this leads to my real point:  I was flat-out-terrible at making purchases to expand my collection.  I had absolutely no way of looking up reviews, and I also was fairly insolvent most of the time.  I had a vague list of things I'd like to acquire, thanks to endless perusal of Games Magazine and the aforementioned Wargames West catalogs. I typically made bulk purchases via mail-order or expeditions to civilization (i.e. malls).  I had virtually zero impulse control once I was in the store and if I saw something I wanted at the time and had cash in my pocket, I spent it.

However, I did get a lot of books and games that rewarded careful re-reading and thought (GURPS sourcebooks in particular), so I don't regret those purchases overall, with the exception of, uh, well, all my INWO purchases after meeting Mr. Suitcase, any D&D purchases after 1993, any CCG purchases other than INWO and Mythos, all my Mythos purchases past the $100 mark total, pretty much any book published by the Judges' Guild, GURPS Ice Age, Nephilim, anything related to the Elric RPG, and also the inexplicable AD&D Book Of Wondrous Inventions.  I never owned sourcebooks for most of the less stellar RPGs on my list, which may have explained why I didn't enjoy playing them as much.  Without carrying the books around endlessly, I never really fully absorbed the rules and setting, so I missed the nuances of, say, Shadowrun. Wait, what nuances?  The president is A DRAGON.  Madness!

My eventual point to this is that most board and card games don't offer a grand re-reading opportunity and once purchased, the time to boredom rate, unless they actually hit the table with other people around, is pretty low.  Collectible card games where you've got enough cards to actually tune decks are one exception, as are solitaire games, which I've never explored in depth.  Print and play games also increase the play-with-without-actually-playing time.  I've been gradually remaking 18AL and 18IA components over and over, experimenting with different materials and techniques.

By and large, the vast majority of enjoyment I get out of games I don't play is in reading the rules and handling the bits.  The rules are online, and the bits are 90% interchangeable.  Also, I have an entire collection worth of components to enjoy.

Of all the games on my shelves, should they be destroyed by force majeure, I could get the same actual play enjoyment by re-buying about 25 games [n.b. said before compiling list below].  The rest are just hanging around, either waiting for the right group to hit the table, the right life circumstance to have the time, as mementos that I've moved beyond, or as potential trade/sale fodder.

The winners: What's actually in category 1, and not in any particular order:
Roll Through The Ages, San Juan, Race For The Galaxy (plus expansion 1 to get the extra start worlds), Puerto Rico, Power Grid (yes, with extra maps), Ubongo, Wyatt Earp, 10 Days in Africa, 10 Days in Europe, Transamerica, Alhambra, Twitch, Travel Blokus, Falling!, Starbase Jeff, Fluxx, Aquarius, Dominion/Dominion Intrigue/Dominion Seaside (but not rebuying Alchemy), Loopin' Louie, Merchant Of Venus, Blue Moon City, Blue Moon with all the decks (but not rebuying Buka), Tsuro, Alien Frontiers, some Magic cards, Give Me The Brain Deluxe, Thunderstone (I would begrudgingly buy Wrath of the Elements, too), Glory To Rome, Light Speed, The Big Cheese, Light Speed, Jacob Marley Esq., Ra, Rack-O, and Attika.

The right group/right life circumstances (this includes games acquired but still in shrink, OOP games acquired but never played, and games that I played once or twice and then never got back to the table):
Velo City, 1861, 1870, 18AL, 18GA, 18IA (yeah, I count my own design here), Theophrastus, Agricola, Ubongo Extreme, Railroad Dice/Railroad Dice 2, Aladdin's Dragons, Homesteaders, Fische Fluppen Frikadellen, 1960, Power Grid: Factory Manager, Beowulf: The Legend, Phoenicia, Battlestar Galactica, Funkenshlag, Roma, Outpost, giant stack of Settlers stuff (totally would not re-buy Seafarers, by the way), Hacienda, Ursuppe/Primordial Soup with the expansion, Cults Across America, Tigris & Euphrates, Medici, Terra Prime, Pandemic, Burn Rate, Duck Duck Safari, various other thrifted kid stuff like Monopoly Junior, quite a few Cheapass Games.

Made obsolete by time*:
Ticket To Ride, Seafarers of Catan, RoboRally (wait, did I trade this off already?), all my RPG collection, most of the thrift store acquisitions.

Actively in my trunk, awaiting trade/sale:
Twilight Imperium 2nd ed, Order of the Stick, Castle of Magic, and a box full of others too lame to mention.  I just can't see it happening.**

There's a fifth category, of course.  I've got games I've ordered on the way, either in auctions on Boardgamegeek or through Kickstarter.  I keep swearing I'm not going to buy pre-orders, but then I do.  Part of the hazard of knowing designers like Kevin Nunn.

My future projected purchases over the next year or two:  Ascension (played, like it), Thunderstone: Dragonspire (played, like it), Glory To Rome 4th edition (played, different building powers from my set, higher quality cards, much better quality player aids), 10 Days in the Americas (played it, liked it), the rest of the Race For The Galaxy expansions (one of my favorites, wife also plays it)***, probably the occasional Magic deck or booster, NOT any more Dominion sets until I've played them, NOT any Agricola expansions, NOT any Catan reworkings, nothing cooperative, no new collectible games, and pretty much not the new hotness, whatever it is, especially if it costs more than $60.

---- footnotes
* Seriously, you're going to sit down and crack open vanilla Ticket To Ride?  It takes about 20 minutes longer than the fun in the box.  Likewise, if I'm going to make Catan longer and more complicated, then I choose Cities&Knights over Seafarers, hands down.

** Okay, I might read up on Order Of The Stick: The Shortening, but only because I know, and have packed games at the warehouse for, Kevin Brusky.  RoboRally's also a great game for my nephews.

*** If I can find or trade for a base game of Race For The Galaxy, I might trade for a second copy, just so I can have just the base game.  It definitely plays differently with the first expansion in it.  My wife and I play Race fairly regularly, and she's talked about re-sorting out the cards, which sounds like a lot of work.

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