Rarity Is Key In Vintage Board Game Value

Board games were often created around the fads of the day.

Growing up in the 1950s, board games were a regular part of my family life. Back then we only had three TV stations and AM radio—that was the BC era: “Before Cable.”

Whenever the weather got stormy, TV reception would suffer. No matter how much Dad fiddled with the rabbit-ears antenna, we would get more snow than show. No TV; too rainy to go outside. A sibling would say to Mom “I’m bored”! She would reply, “So, play a bored game.”

At that point, some portion of the seven of us would gather around the dining-room table to play a board game. Every Christmas, one or more of my siblings received a board game as a gift. Over time, our family accumulated a cupboard full of them.

Given the abundance of board games found at estate sales, it seems that my family wasn’t the only one with a cupboard of games. Estate shoppers almost always find a tableful of board games at sales. Most of the games will sell for a dollar or two, but if the game is complete and in good condition, it may fetch $5 or $10.

Vintage board games sell regularly on eBay for $10 to $20. But, as with most collectibles, some rare games may fetch hundreds of dollars or more.

Which board games are collectible? Any game that is in excellent condition is collectible, but not necessarily valuable. Excellent condition means that the box is intact and has no split edges and the graphics are not faded. All the pieces must be in the box; no missing dice, tokens, spinner or any other item that is needed to play the game.

Also, the pieces must be in excellent condition; no writing, marking or creasing on the cards, no bent “arrow” on the spinner, no spills or frayed edges on the board and no mix-and-match tokens or dice. In other words, the game has to be intact, with its genuine parts.

Based on the popular 1960s TV show, this “Munsters” board game sold for $2,000 at auction.

How can you tell if a game is intact? All intact games will come with instructions, either on the box lid or as a separate booklet. The game’s instructions will usually tell you how many pieces there are supposed to be in the box.

Scrabble games, for example, have the quantities of each letter tile printed right on the board and the rules on the inside of the lid. If there are no instructions in the box, then the instructions and number of tokens can be found online.

But, if you have to look these up online then the game isn’t intact, is it? If you find a game that isn’t intact, don’t buy it unless you intend to play it because most collectors won’t be interested in it.

A game’s age isn’t necessarily an important value marker. Some games, like Monopoly, have been around for so long that even games from the 1930s aren’t worth very much, even if they are in excellent condition and intact. More important than age is rarity, and games that have been popular for decades are anything but rare.

Copies of Scrabble, Monopoly, Risk and Clue are everywhere and cheap as chips—the exception being limited-run, themed editions.

Like book publishers, game publishers produce an initial run of a game, and if the game catches on, they re-publish it. If a game doesn’t catch on, or if sales dwindle to the point where distributing a game becomes unprofitable, the game is discontinued.

Themed games that were part of a particular fad—like a TV show, musical group, sports team or movie—are potentially collectible. These games were often an instant hit when they were first published but faded away quickly when the fad ended or the show was cancelled. Sales dropped, and the publishers stopped producing them.

In subsequent decades, many of those games were thrown away, but some were stored in closets to reappear later as a once-popular-but-now-rare board game.

The 1964 Milton Bradley game “The Beatles Flip Your Wig Game” was targeted to ages 7-to-15, and at an original price of $2.98, it was a perfect Christmas gift for starry-eyed teenyboppers. But, by the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, most of those teenyboppers were college students and not interested in board games. Into the cupboard they went.

Surviving games now sell for up to $700.

Antique games by McLoughlin Bros., like this 1886 Game of Baseball, are sought-after collectibles.

Another flash-in-the-pan board game from the 60s is Hasbro’s 1965 “Munsters Drag Race Game.” Based on the popular TV show, the game featured cardboard cutouts of the Munster family racing around a track. Riveting. Am I shocked that this game didn’t stay popular for decades? Nope. Am I shocked that a mint condition “Munsters Drag Race” recently sold for $2,000?

Yep. Two thousand dollars!

Remember, collectors seek out games that are rare but not necessarily old. Not every collectible game has to be of the antique or Baby Boomer variety.

GenXers are avid collectors of the role-playing games that became popular in the 1980s, like “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Warhammer.”

Another factor in determining a game’s rarity is its publisher. Successful 20th-century publishers have included Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Hasbro and Ideal. But publishers come and go in the same way that games come and go. Like every other industry in America, games publishers merge and consolidate.

Just before the Great Depression, Milton Bradley bought out the 100-year-old games publisher McLoughlin Brothers. If you see a game published by McLoughlin, buy it. Even if it’s not intact or in great condition, McLoughlin games are highly sought-after, and incomplete games can be sold for the “parts value.” A rare 1886 edition of the McLoughlin Brother’s “Game of Baseball,” complete with painted wooden box and pewter players, recently brought $1,525 at auction.

To pin down the potential value of any particular game, start with an online search of eBay’s completed listings. Completed listings will tell you three things: how many games of a particular type are being offered, how many bidders are vying for those games and at what prices they were sold.

There’s also the Rarity Guide website, which lists the values of more than 500 popular games, and of course one shouldn’t forget the industry-standard Kovels website has an easy-to-use game lookup feature for registered users.

Role-playing games have been popular since the 1980s.

Would-be collectors are encouraged to buy a copy of Alex G. Molloy’s book “American Games: Comprehensive Collector’s Guide.” Those who are already collectors probably already have a copy of this invaluable reference book. With hundreds of color and black-and-white photos, Molloy’s book lists and values of more than 9,000 games from 1744 to the present. 

Referencing board games from 1940 through the 1980s is Desi Scarpone’s book, “Board Games: With Price Guide.” Scarpone details game-related memorabilia and photos and period advertising for the games.

For some, board games have always been a way to socialize. A new generation is discovering the joys of board gaming, and board-gaming clubs are cropping up all over America, playing both modern and vintage games. The BoardGameGeek website lists clubs in 45 states.

Keep an eye out for vintage games at estate sales—not just for collecting or resale but also to pull out of the cupboard whenever those in your home are bored. You’ll find that “bored games” are a good way to reconnect with family members and spend a nostalgic evening.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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