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Are board games an expensive hobby?

No…but yes.

Buying the occasional board game is usually not considered an expensive thing for a family, as people think of the traditional $20 monopoly. But for us hobbyists, it’s a different thing. We buy way more of those, and the games we buy are more expensive. The recent FOMO induced by crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter is not helping: if a game you think you might like is on Kickstarter, there’s a chance it will never reach retail, and the crowdfunding campaign is your only chance to get it.

I can (and I will) describe to you how board gaming doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. But in practice, it’s likely many of us spend a lot more on this activity, than comparable entertainment.

Board gaming can be cheap, compared to other hobbies

In my recent article on buying board games in Japan, I explained how I try very hard to buy second hand, which helps me tremendously reduce my costs. For those of us who can be patient, a popular board game can be acquired for half its price (sometimes even better deals can be found!) a few years after it reaches peak popularity.

Compered to other hobbies such as video games or movies, board games remain expensive even if you buy them used. Shipping costs are involved at the very least, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to buy a board game at a 90% discount, unlike digital video games for example.

But as many folks have pointed out to me, it all really depends on how much time you spend playing the game. I’ve been recently tracking my board game usage, to see how much “bang for my buck” I actually get out of them. It’s a bit annoying to track how much time I’m playing games, and it requires some kind of commitment, as some of them will stay on my shelves for years. I’ve only started doing it recently, but I believe it will be worth it in the long run.

The good news: the longer you keep a game (and actually play it), the lower its “cost per hour of entertainment” goes. Additionally, when you see (from your numbers) that you haven’t put a given game on the table for 1 or 2 years in a row, maybe it’s time to consider selling it (and reduce its per-hour cost in the process).

If you’re going to go for a comparison with your other hobbies, it’s also important to figure out the total cost of all hobbies. It’s a bit of a fallacy to say “my video games only cost me $10 each because I buy them on sale”, if you forget to include the cost of the dedicated machine you use to run it (whether it’s your brand new PC or PS5).

I ran a back-of-the-envelope calculation of my board game costs (about $300 per year on average over the past 3 years) and my board game time (about 300h a year on average), which brings me to the easy result that board games cost me about $1 per hour of entertainment. That’s after all costs are taken into account, and reduced by the money I get back from selling some of my used games. Running similar calculation for my video game hobby tells me video games cost me about $1.5 for each hour of entertainment.

I invite everyone reading this to track their hobby expenses and uses for a few weeks, months, or ideally a year (I personally spend way more money and time on these hobbies around November-January than the rest of the year), and to include all costs. It’s really important to track these to get an accurate picture. Before tracking these, I thought my video game hobby was much cheaper that board games, simply because 1) I didn’t account for the cost of the hardware, and 2) I tended to only think about the games I liked the most (“I usually spend $20 on video games on sale, and then I play them 30h on average”), forgetting all those I paid for and barely played.

Board games also have the benefit that I can resell those that just didn’t work for me. something that can be done with physical video games, but not with digital games (which are becoming the norm), or your Netflix subscription.

And I’m not even talking about all the options we have to play for free: borrowing games from friends or a local game “library” (if you’re lucky enough to have one around), Print and Play games, etc… (note that equivalent options exist for other entertainment hobbies such as video games and movies, don’t get me wrong. There are options to reduce costs everywhere).

In other words, it is possible for board gaming to be reasonably cheap, in absolute and/or relatively to your other hobbies.

But I’d be lying if I was saying it is easy…

Board Gaming can be (and often is) super expensive

I mentioned above that I spend an average of $300 on board games each year. I have to admit I have no idea if this average, above, or below what other people in the hobby spend (this article indicates that the median -for people who are into board games – seems to be around $500 a year). What I can say however, is that I often wish I could spend more on it (in particular seeing so many attractive kickstarter projects), but I’m often restraining myself (the cost is one aspect of course, but this is in particular because I think it would lead to uncomfortable discussions with my significant other, if I can be honest).

Recent crowdfunding campaigns, and, in my case, shipping costs, are definitely to blame. Board games have become way more grandiose than they used to be, and an “all in” for a Kickstarter game with all its expansions can go into the $300-$400 territory (for just one game!) nowadays. Even in retail, what I used to think as a cheap board game was in the $15-$20 range, and I’ve adapted to think that $40-$50 is very reasonable. It might be me trying to convince myself it’s ok to spend more, but I also think prices have evolved significantly over the past 15 years in the hobby. Faster than inflation for sure, and mostly again because the games are bigger and have more components.

The FOMO aspect of Kickstarter campaigns can somehow be mitigated: If a game is really good, it will get a retail release, is what I’m telling myself regularly. Conversely, if it’s not that good, either I will not be thinking of it again, or it will be easy to grab a copy from a disgruntled backer. Still, it’s sometimes hard to resist, and I recently pledged for Final girl Season 2 after loving my experience with the game. But between shipping costs, and changing my mind by the time the campaign actually delivers, it’s still possible I’ll be regretting my purchase by then.

Game designers and producers have a perfect understanding of that, providing games that look really nice on a shelf, for the many of us who like shiny objects. People buying, then not playing sometimes very expensive games, has a name in the hobby: the shelf of shame. It’s probably something we have to fight individually, although some people decide to embrace it.

In absolute, it seems to me the hobby can become very expensive, if we become more involved in the collection aspect than the actual “playing the games” aspect of it. Which is why I think it’s essential to track how much time and money we spend playing board games, then adjust accordingly.

Games mentioned in this article

Final Girl
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