The first thing I look for when I stroll up someone’s driveway to a yard sale or as I’m rummaging through the detritus of material culture at an antique retailer or thrift store is board games.
Usually, my treasure hunt ends in disappointment as I excavate a ratty, worn-out copy of Trivial Pursuit or an antediluvian edition of Clue with the lead pipe missing. I’m not looking for a board game based on the “Mork & Mindy” TV show, and I’m not in the market for novelty games themed after the fads and trends of decades past—I think I’ll pass on that copy of MC Hammer’s Rap-a-Round, thank you. And no, I don’t particularly care how old that copy of Scrabble is, either.
I am a hobby gamer. I play and write about games, both as a hobby and professionally, and many in the antiques-and-collectibles business might be shocked to hear me say that a lot of the board games I find in their shops are practically worthless to anyone with a serious interest in board games.
3M edition of Acquire
Sure, character-themed games may carry value to certain collectors. Examples of particular rarity or significance might tickle the fancy of someone interested in purchasing a game to stow away in a display case. But the kinds of games other hobby gamers and I are casting the dragnet for are those that we’re actually interested in playing—chiefly nonmainstream strategy games and war games from the 1970s and 1980s. Most of them you’ve probably never heard of, but in the board-gaming community, the arcane might turn out to be the mundane.
There’s no telling how many hobby games have been sold at antiques dealers and secondhand shops for well under their actual value. It was just recently I bought a copy of Dungeon, a 1980 Dungeons and Dragons-style board game, for five bucks at a local antiques shop. The game regularly sells for $50 to $75 in hobby circles and in online auctions.
A friend answered an online classified ad posted by an antiques collector who had gotten his hands on a lot that included several boxes of board games. He was giving them away. My friend picked them up and aside from the almost-condition copy of Dark Tower, an electronic board game from the early 1980s that regularly fetches upward of $200 from hobbyists, the lot included at least $1,000 worth of exceptionally rare war games from classic publishers such as Avalon Hill and SPI. The guy simply thought they were worthless.
Dark Tower laid out
I have also seen the flip side of the coin where sellers will price older games at outrageous prices seemingly founded solely on the vintage of the item. Last week, I was in a local antiques mall where a dealer had a copy of the 3M-edition of Acquire—a common (but great) game that can be found for around $10 easily. The dealer had it stickered at $60.
Just because a game is old doesn’t mean it is in demand, rare or worth anything to a hobby gamer. Good games do tend to be worth more to players, and that is often reflected in market prices. Of course, finding out what those good games are can be an odyssey into esotericism just as in any other collectibles market.
There is definitely a market for collectible, out-of-print hobby games—I know because I’m part of it. But in order for the uninitiated to assess value properly and to identify trash from treasure, it does require a little research work. A simple survey of online board-games sources and public auction sites might reveal some shockers in terms of value. You may be surprised when that box of games that your nerdy brother used to keep in the closet turns out to be a treasure chest.
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