One of the things that I regularly remark upon as if it were an uncontroversial truism is that we are all lucky enough to be able to participate in a ‘luxury hobby’. When giving seminars and presentations I often talk about a few representative games and give their price-tags. Pandemic? RRP of £30. Ticket to Ride? About £40. Five Tribes is about £45. Kingdom Death: Monster? Well, if you have to ask you can’t afford it.
There is a sticker shock that comes along with board games, and as is often the case we can trace some of that shock back to Monopoly, Scrabble and other mass-market titles. You can buy many of these for anything between £15 and £20 and that has a powerful anchoring effect. In other words, our expectation of cost is set by that which is familiar. People rarely take a dispassionately economical look at board games and consider the work that went into them. They take a broad comparator (mass market board games) and consider the price that is associated with those.
Whether board games are over or under priced is a discussion for another day, but it’s hard to deny that they look like a poor value proposition when pitched against more reliable and familiar staples. Anchoring is not our friend in this hobby.
The claim that we are engaging in a luxury hobby though is one that needs further investigation, because that ignores a huge swathe of the gaming landscape as a result of encapsulating the whole in a pithy descriptor. Life is rarely so neatly packaged up.
The thing is – luxury comes in a lot of different forms, and not all of them are financial. I think it’s here that we start to see some of the subtler expectations of luxury make their way in to the hobby, and these are the most significant barriers that people face. I think this is rich territory, even if not often discussed. So let’s talk about different vectors of luxury!
The Luxury of Money
Here on the site for we have a feature where we look at accessible games you can buy on a budget, and the average price of games on there (in 2018) is £18. Roughly the same price, on average, as you’d pay for a new copy of Monopoly. Some of the games are marvelous too – Splendor is there. King of Tokyo. Isle of Skye. Codenames. Bear in mind too these are accessible games – if that’s not a criteria you need to take into account your choice is even greater and the financial cost can be even less substantial. You can build a tremendous game library without spending a penny more on any one game than you would on a copy of Trivial Pursuit. If you’re happy enough with print and play, you can have an amazing game library for the cost of little more than time.
If you buy a game at these price points, and I re-iterate there are loads of them, you can have hours of entertainment for less than you’d pay for a night at the cinema. That’s often the canonical counter-example that’s given when people complain about the price you’d pay for a board game. This might seem like a strawman, but it’s something I’ve seen brought up in almost every discussion of the costs associated with being a board-gamer.
Cineworld in the UK charges between £10 and £15 for tickets, and once you’ve factored in drinks and popcorn you’re already saving on the evening if you buy a game instead. More than this, the density of the money you spend is greater because of the number of people you’re enabling. Codenames plays eight and more, and if you like it you’ll find its fun extends long beyond the excessive running time of even an average Avengers movie. When you look at this as ‘fun per penny’, boardgames are an extremely affordable hobby. Eight people going to see a movie at the cinema – £80 even if you go at an unpopular time and don’t eat or drink anything. Eight people playing Codenames for an evening – maybe £15 and you get to keep the game at the end.
And yet, almost everyone who is deep into board gaming nods when you say ‘luxury hobby’ because it feels true even when the arithmetic doesn’t seem to quite work out. Maybe a more accurate comparison would be to compare what it costs to buy a movie and see it at home, and then you’re looking at anything from £5 to £15 depending on quality, media and recency. You can be a proper film buff and spend £3 or £4 per DVD and never really miss out on anything except the newest hotness. I’m sure people will get more out of a copy of Codenames than they will a DVD of Casablanca. I’m not so sure they’d get more out of Codenames than they would a £15 bundle deal of cheap DVDs containing classic movies.
Anyway, however you slice it it’s clear that the cost argument isn’t quite as much of a slam dunk as we might think in terms of justifying this being a luxury hobby. That is unless you’re going to make an attempt to gatekeep the titles that permit entry to the club. Bro, do you even Gloomhaven? If that’s you, then have a word with yourself. You’re ridiculous. Sure, playing a lot of the most prominent games comes with a serious price tag, but the hobby of gaming itself is I think fairly affordable. Let’s agree that if someone wants to game on a budget, there are lots of ways to do it whether that’s focusing on cheaper games; buying second hand; or clubbing together with friends to share the cost. You might not get to play everything you want, but you’d get to play plenty of great games and that’s exactly what this is all about.
So, given that – why is there still a perception that this is a luxury hobby?
The Luxury of Space
I’ve often looked in longing upon the game rooms that are common in the US and Canada. I see them float up on Twitter or on Reddit and I’m just filled with a wistful desire for something that is outside my grasp. ‘Oh, I just converted my basement’, people say. Or, ‘We do all our gaming in our garage’. As someone with a basement that is only just large enough to hide a dead body, that’s a level of space I can only dream of having. We don’t have a garage – we barely have room for our cars on the street. Turns out, the amount of space you have available is hugely dependent on where you live. Who knew!
Our house is comparatively huge – we live somewhere pretty far away from both of our jobs, and it’s in a tiny town with few opportunities for commuting other than by car. The upside of that remoteness is that we could afford much more floor space than we could elsewhere. We’d have paid twice as much for a house two-thirds of the size were it in easy commuting distance. I paid for the house with an eighty mile round trip to work. Mrs Meeple paid for it with a forty or fifty mile trip depending to which campus she is going. Still, our house is a good deal smaller than even the average size of a house in the USA. The average house is 45m squared in Hong Kong, 76m squared in the UK, and 201m squared in the USA.
That’s relevant not in terms of ‘can I have a dedicated game room’, but ‘can I even participate in this hobby’?
Board games take up a lot of space – you don’t need to have a massive collection before they’re spilling out of cupboards and flowing over shelves. There’s so much air in the average board game box that it’s like trying to store angry pufferfish. That’s only part of the issue though – do you have room for a dining room table? I hope so, because playing hunched over a coffee table can inflict genuine pain on people. Do you have enough chairs for everyone? What about everyone and their drinks? What about everyone and their drinks and enough safe space around them that spilling won’t ruin a £70 game?
Even that is is coming from the perspective of the privileged who have whole houses or flats in which they live – whether renting or owning. Increasingly, as the housing crisis in metropolitan centres grows, people are making their peace with single rooms, or worse. How would you like to spend £225k on a flat that was converted from a cleaning cupboard? 14’ by 13’ for your first step on to the property ladder – good luck finding room for furniture, much less for board games.
Ian, 62, added: “It’s less than a third of the size of the national minimum new-build space standards but at some point someone had started living in it so when we bought it, its right to be used as a residence had already been established.
Let’s not underestimate the luxury of space, because you need plenty of that to comfortably play many of even the cheapest games, and the amount of sprawl is only partially predicted by the size of a box. If you can’t fit a table into your lodgings, you probably don’t have the opportunities to play much of anything. If space is lacking in your home, you might have to navigate public spaces which bring their own complexities and costs.
The Luxury of Time
It’s often said, again by over-privileged wankers like me, that people overvalue money and undervalue time. It’s true, up to a point, and that point is the pivot where you move from having enough money to not having enough. Let’s take it as read that the world is awful and many people can’t simply stop the grind to smell the roses. Let’s focus on those of us that actually do have enough stability in our lives to consider taking up board-gaming as a hobby. Taking up any hobby is not an insubstantial trade-off. As the Three Hunk Circus put it when talking about video games:
“It never gives you an option when you make your avatar to have a bald forty year old guy with weans and a mortgage. There should be a slider in games that you set based on how much your mortgage is”
“Every minute I spend tracking a monster is a minute I’m not spending clearing my enormous debts”
The problem is that obligations will expand to fill the time available to meet them. It’s sometimes said that the best way to get something done is to ask someone that’s already busy – they tend not to screw around. I often purposely leave myself less time than I’d like to accomplish tasks. I’ve found I spend less time messing around and the results are broadly approximate to what they’d be otherwise. The difference between 0% and 90% perfect might be two days. The difference between 90% and 100% might be two weeks. If you leave yourself only those two days for each task you’ll get a lot more done and most people won’t even notice the difference.
But we are all beset with calls on our time, and some of them aren’t negotiable. Work and orbiting responsibilities. Children and the legal obligation you have to keep them alive. Family crises. Personal crises. Watching the latest Game of Thrones episode before some bell-end spoils it on Facebook. Most of us have more to do than we have time to do it, and many of the things we have to do come with unshiftable timeframes.
Board games are a big draw on anyone’s day, and only part of that lies in the suggested play time. There’s a whole ecosystem of time-consuming tasks that are associated with getting a game on the table. Making arrangements with friends to come over. Learning rules of a new game, or working out how to teach it. Going to the shop to buy snacks and drinks. The social niceties before, after and during the game. Travel to and from wherever the games are being played. Not all of those are borne in the same way by everyone involved. You might only spend ten minutes nipping down to Tesco for a few bags of Doritos while someone else drives for 45 minutes to get to your house out in the darkness of the Scottish wilderness. All of that time needs to be carved out of your day and then defended lest other things start to fill the hole left behind. You might have many people all trying to defend the same time slot at the same time on the same day, and that’s intensely fragile.
We have a friend who comes over occasionally to play games, but she’s a proper grown up with a child and as such she can’t just decide to spend an evening or a day playing the things we think she’d love. We need to choose games around her availability – she can’t set her availability around the games. The more people you want to play with, and the older they are, the harder it gets to arrange anything. And the compounding problem is it only takes one person to drop out before the whole thing becomes perilously precarious. As the web of social obligations gets less interconnected, the ties that bind us become dangerously frayed. ‘Ah, let’s just reschedule’ is the dying cry of your game night.
As a famous philosopher once said, ‘you can spend all your time making money. You can spend all your love making time’. You do all that and it’s still hard to fit a damn game into a day.
The Luxury of Social Capital
The great thing about board gaming is that it’s a social hobby – it’s a wonderful way to spend genuine quality time with friends and family. The terrible thing about board gaming is that it’s a social hobby – it requires a healthy supply of social capital to create those quality experiences.
For those that haven’t encountered this term before, think of it as basically ‘capitalism for friendship’. The flow of social capital describes how we build interpersonal relationships, develop shared understanding, build trust, and manage reciprocity. We earn social capital in lots of different ways, and we spend it in lots more. This isn’t the right place for an essay on the topic, but in the context of this editorial think of it as a currency you build by doing things with people and spend by asking people to do things.
Let’s assume you’re in the lucky position of having a group of friends who have money, time and space to gather together regularly and play your favourite games as often as you’d like. Congratulations! I bet you have a pet unicorn too.
What happens if none of them are fans of board games?
Oof. Next time you make a wish, remember genies only fulfill the literal interpretation and not the spirit of your request.
Let’s say they like going to the pub, or rock climbing, or running an underground fight club. Doesn’t matter – they’re just not that into games.
So how do you get them to play?
Generally you do it by spending social capital, ideally in circumstances where the exchange rate is favourable. Sure, you go to the pub but you bring along a copy of Skull. You go rock climbing with them on the understanding that when it’s your turn to host a gathering they’re going to play Modern Art. You say you will best them all in hand to hand combat provided each round is interleaved with a brisk game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. If you’re a member in good standing, you’ll even get your way occasionally but it’ll never be as often as you like. Compromise ensures that under optimal circumstances everyone gets to do what they want some of the time, but no one person gets to do what they want to do all of the time. To spend your capital here is also to find yourself in deficit when it comes time for someone to help you bury a dead body in the woods.
You can be time rich. You can be money rich. You can be space rich. But if you don’t have the inclination, the opportunities, or the talent, to nurture and build reserves of social capital you’ll still find yourself unable to play. You may find you spend the time you’d like to spend gaming simply building up the favours you’ll cash in to make it happen.
And even if you’ve done all this and you’re not a member of the group in good standing? Well, expect people to find all sorts of excuses as to why they can’t do your thing but you should still do theirs.
It’s a common aphorism in board gaming that it’s easier to turn board gamers into friends than it is to turn friends into board gamers. That works on the assumption you have people around you that would qualify and you are the kind of person that can build and spend the social capital to seal the deal.
There are people who just effortlessly make friends and generate this kind of capital with all the flair of a born socialite. Some people though just aren’t great at making friends or influencing people and this is a hobby that benefits hugely from being able to do both. It’s often difficult to get people to take the hobby seriously – they still think it’s all Monopoly and Cluedo. Even if you find people who are as interested in gaming as you are, a shared enthusiasm isn’t necessarily enough to get you invited to game night.
Even if it is, you still need to find those gamers. You need to hunt them down. You need a very special set of skills. Skills you have acquired over a long hobby. Skills that make you a nightmare for people like them. You will game with them. If you can find the time.
So, is this a luxury hobby?
Yes, of course it is. It’s just that luxury is largely defined subjectively by where we have a deficit in life. Those with lots of money tend to see time as a luxury, largely because in most cases they’re spending it to make lots of money. Those with lots of time often see money as a luxury because for whatever reason they’re not converting time into disposable income. Geography defines how we experience a dearth or surplus of space as well opportunities to build social capital, and all of those are likewise intimately linked in to our perceptions of time and money. When we consider whether or not the cost of board gaming is too high, we need to be more precise about from what budget that cost is being spent. The chances are that we all think this is a luxury hobby, but for very different reasons.
It’s not that board gaming asks too much of people in any one of these different categories – there are worse hobbies for each that can readily be brought to mind. Board gaming is a good deal cheaper than collecting vintage cars. It requires less space than being a blacksmith. It asks less of your friends than social activism. It’s not even that it is unique in drawing heavily from every category of luxury. The existence though of more egregious offenders does not change the fact that this is a hobby that asks a lot of people. It drains many resources that are finite and it’s not unreasonable for people to question whether the return is appropriate. Few of us are rich in all these categories, and even fewer are rich in all these categories at the same time. Our hobbies tend to reflect this. Those with limited social capital might turn to video gaming. Those with less money might turn to reading or watching TV. Those with less space might focus on those hobbies that get them out of the house. Board gaming though needs all four, in varying degrees, and the compensations for any one channel of luxury often involves trade-offs in others.
Can We Change This?
I think we can, and there’s some marvelous work ongoing that is having a hugely positive impact here. Think about what we need to do to stop this being a luxury hobby. We need to turn it into something marked more by the games than the various costs.
- Games need to be cheaper at the point of use
- Games need to be more easily stored and take up a reasonable amount of available space when played
- Games nights need to require less logistical complexity to organize
- Game groups need to require less friction to bring together
To alleviate some of this expectation of luxury, we maybe need to think less about personal game collections and more about local game opportunities. We need gaming hubs that are already plugged into the community – places where you can insert the lever of your enthusiasm and crack open some doors that may have slammed down with people on the other side
You know what kinds of organisation are ideally placed to do all of this?
Libraries. Schools. Universities.
And the great news is, many of them already are!
The Wife just took this photo in our local library – awesome selection! pic.twitter.com/oj4dCAfNE8
— Jackson Pope (@jackson_pope) August 15, 2018
Having access to games doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be purchased by any individual. Libraries are wonderfully valuable repositories of more than books, and the explosion of popularity in board gaming has opened up potential here. Game clubs at schools, colleges and universities have the opportunity for building up communal collections over time. Budgets may be tight, but you know we’ve already talked about that a bit here on the blog. Space too might be a little restricted, but you know – libraries and the like are usually far more generously proportioned than even the most palatial home residence.
But the wonderful element is that this creates opportunities for almost frictionless gaming by removing the need for the ambiguity around spending social capital. These can be places to go to find games, but they’re also places to go to find gamers. A sign up sheet by a browsable board game library can save so much emotional energy in finding like-minded souls to game with. If there are facilities to sit down and play in the building (as opposed to simply permitting people to borrow games) then you might even find the time from ‘finding a fellow gamer’ to ‘playing your favourite game’ is close to zero. Gaming conventions are a marvelous way to do this, but they are intermittent, geographically locked, and often a luxury destination in and of themselves.
Does your local library run programmes like this? If they don’t, and you would like this hobby to be a little less exclusive then it would be a wonderful thing to volunteer to do. If they’re already running one, is there scope for you to get involved? Do they accept donations? Do you have games you never play but can’t bear to simply sell? Wouldn’t you prefer they were out there in the wild, converting people into gamers for your later benefit? Maybe you could write to some publishers on behalf of a public organisation, seeing if they offer library copies at discounted rates. Perhaps you could give a talk to get people interested The chances are very high you have something of real value you could contribute to a local organization. Today, they benefit – tomorrow, you do.
People visit libraries for all sorts of reasons, and only some of them are about books. Often it’s for the other vital community benefits they provide. I remember when I was at University how much I used to like heading into Dundee Central library, borrowing their chess sets, and just playing with whoever I knew that was around. I’m rubbish at chess so I always got beat, but it was never about the chess. Schools and other educational establishments are always holding open days and events, and you never know – they might well see the value in something like this. Community impact is Very Big these days. Community involvement is even more so.
It’s not necessarily a problem that this is a luxury hobby – people shouldn’t feel bad about what they do for fun even if it’s fun that not everyone can enjoy. I mean, I don’t begrudge Richard Gariott for sending himself hurtling into space even if it is something that I’d kill every single one of you to do myself. It’s not wrong for people to own things, and to like owning things, and to be in a position to be able to keep all the things they own. Advantage is always going to be asymmetrical in life – you can get upset about it but that’s never going to change.
The things that make board games a luxury though don’t necessarily have to be the case if we consider the hobby collectively rather than individually. I’d love to know what’s happening in your local community, and what this site could do to assist. If anyone has anything they’d especially like to spotlight, get in touch – I’d like to start showcasing some of the amazing work that’s being done by libraries, schools, universities and more to address the inaccessibility of luxury.