I love to fondle the big, heavy board game boxes at my local game shop, and to look over the shoulders of the gamers as they play on those tables in the back. I like miniatures and maps, rules and stats, and all the role-playing and board-gaming things… but I’m not a board gamer. It’s just a corner of nerddom that I had not yet ventured into… at least until the lockdown.
During our final week of freedom, I went out to two local game shops — Dragons’ Lair and Game Kastle Austin — and bought an embarrassingly large stash of games for the locked-down kids and adults in my house to play in the evenings.
This wasn’t a panic-driven buying spree where I just went with whatever had the coolest or heaviest box — I actually had created an account at BoardGameGeek.com, and as the coronavirus picture darkened over February I spent a little time looking at their forum reviews of these games and assembling a wishlist. So I wasn’t starting from scratch.
Having played some of my new games now, and having spent more time in the evenings getting more seriously into the hobby, I know a lot more than I did last month, but I still have a long way to go.
Nonetheless, I find myself fielding questions on this board-game topic from other parents and grown-up nerds who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and are looking for something fun to do. So I’m putting what I’ve learned so far about how to buy board games into a short blog post, not only so I can stop typing out the same advice in emails but so that more experienced gamers can drop into the comments with their own advice and tips.
Get a BoardGameGeek.com account and learn to use it
BoardGameGeek is an amazing resource for board gaming, and if you learn to use a few of the site’s features you’ll be way ahead of the curve. The site’s user interface has some quirks, though, so you have to commit to learning how to make the best of it.
Wishlist: I started curating a wishlist there early on, and I eventually moved all the games on my Amazon wishlist over to it. There are some wishlist statuses, e.g. “must have”, “like to have”, “thinking about it”, etc., and I use those heavily to sort my queue.
Geek Rating: One problem with relying on an average rating of a game is that some games have very few ratings, so a game with ten ratings averaging 7.2 is different than a game with 1,000 ratings averaging 7.2. The Geek Rating score tries to smooth out that difference with some math trickery that they keep secret in order to prevent it from being gamed by users.
I tend to rely on the Geek Rating over the Average Rating, but it can be difficult to find. For whatever insane reason, only the Average Rating is shown on the game’s profile page, so to find the Geek Rating you have to navigate to a big listing page like this one and look in the correct column.
Awards/Honors, Reviews: Each game’s profile page has a section listing any awards the game has gotten. I tend to use these as a first-level filter since there are so many awards in this space that if a game hasn’t scored at least one then it’s probably not worth my time.
I also like to look at the user reviews, paying special attention to the negative reviews. So many of these games attract enthusiast types who dropped a lot of money on a cool-looking property (and possibly waited months for a Kickstarter campaign to complete), that they tend to get praise whether they deserve it or not. The negative reviews can act as a check on that.
Watch the YouTube playthrough videos before buying
One of the things I very strongly recommend before shelling out for a board game is to watch one of the online tutorials or playthroughs that exist on YouTube. Some of these are professionally done, and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about what it’s like to actually play the game you’re considering.
This may seem like an obvious tip, but to me it was not. I bought my first batch of games based solely on text reviews, pictures, and BoardGameGeek ratings, with the thought that I’d look at the playthrough videos after I unboxed the games and was ready to play them. That was when I learned that I’d been doing things backwards and that I should be watching playthroughs before committing the money, not after.
For instance, here’s a playlist I’m using to learn to play Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition):
I’m lucky that this particular game tweaks all my geek knobs, because if it didn’t then I’d definitely know it after watching a few of those videos.
Beware of fakes and counterfeits
Everyone knows Amazon has a counterfeit problem, and this definitely extends to games. Because games are printed, with some including sculpted miniatures, it can be hard to tell if you got a legit copy or not.
Counterfeit tells include asymmetric cuts on punch-outs, thin cardstock, obvious spelling and other printing errors, and minis that are bad knockoffs of the originals.
For this reason, many hardcore gamers tend to pay full price at their local game stores — who got their stock directly from the publisher — than going online and scoring a discount. If they do order online, they’ll buy from sites like CoolStuffInc and Miniatures Marketplace, and will only buy from Amazon as a last resort.
Some large retailers like Target and Barnes & Noble have pretty good board game selections, so you can often find legit copies of popular titles like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Forbidden Island, and others. Barnes & Noble also has some of the more niche games, too.
What we’re playing
I have no idea what kinds of games other people like, so instead of making recommendations all I can do is offer up a list of games we now have on hand. Some of these we picked up recently, and some we already had:
Under normal circumstances, the above list is at least 20 years worth of gaming, but given that we’re able to play ~5 nights a week, we’ll get through these a lot faster. Also, I’m leaving the new ones in the plastic wrap until we play them so that if there’s one or two we don’t get to then I can return them.
Also, yes that’s a large list, but I am online with a screen full of dire COVID-19 news all day long for my day job, so I’m increasingly serious about getting offline and doing something distracting at the end of the day. I also deliberately planned on getting progressively more gangster about non-Internet mental health breaks as the lockdown wears on, hence the extreme stockpiling at the start of it all.
If you have your own list of favorite games and game recommendations for newcomers, please share them in the comments.
Next steps and further investigations
One big thing some of us here at The Prepared are trying to learn about, and we very much welcome readers to share their own experiences with us, is the feasibility of playing some of these games over video chat. So if you have insights on what types of games will work with Zoom and what types don’t, we’re all ears. Some of our staffers are also trying this out, and I’ll be giving it a go next week. (I’m personally bunkered down with adults and kids who I can game with here at the house, but at some point we’ll want to branch out and play with other people online, if we can.)
If there’s a big demand for thoughts on specific board games, I can post more detailed impressions of some of the games in the list above in the comments when I get a moment.
Finally, if you’ve found a board game or two and you’re ready to pull the trigger, consider isolating your packages and other mail in a separate room for a few days — we’re doing three days at my house out of an abundance of caution.