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Remember the old board games you had as a kid? Maybe your family had a game night featuring classic board games like Trivial Pursuit, Clue, Risk, or The Game of Life. While some of these classic games are still available, many being printed in updated versions or new editions, there is a large number of out of print board games that spark up memories of childhood and times gone by. In fact, there is a growing interest in so-called vintage games, providing a new market to shop for and locate those hard to find board games.
Board games in America first appeared early in the 19th century – the first, as recognized by board game collectors and enthusiasts, was called Traveller's Tour Through the United States, and was released in 1822. Board games this early in American history were mostly primers or religious instruction games, such as The Mansion of Happiness, which refers not to a secular mansion but the Mansion, with a capital M, that one should aspire to enter in heaven. Heavily Christian-themed, these types of games mostly disappeared by the 20th century, the middle of which was truly the Golden Age of board games.
There is an important distinction that can be made between "collectible board games" and simply old games. Much like a piece of old furniture can be junk or treasure, old board games are held up to a rating system before being identified as "antique board games". Often they are rated in terms of game condition, completeness of game (does it have all the pieces / are they in working order?), playability (is it fun?), and age. On a quick search of Games Gone By (a website run by a vintage board game collector) I noticed some big differences between the copy of Trivial Pursuit sitting in my closet and the multiple copies available for purchase – the main one being that my copy was manufactured in 2002 and the "newest" copy for sale (at $25.00) was from 1970. Clearly, there is a flavor of nostalgia about the board game market. I can't imagine my version being all that different from the 70s version, for instance, except that mine doesn't have a story to tell, a scuffed face, an older design on the box, faded ink . . . whatever it is that makes a game "antique", my copy of the Milton Bradley classic did not have it. However – other valuable features of games are more tangible. A copy of the 1950s classic Easy Money is listed as being " . . . not that hard of a game to find" but special because the box had never been opened. It was still in its period cellophane, never once having been played or even opened. This is one relatively cheap piece of nostalgia, going for about forty bucks.
Some game manufacturers are particularly sought after. For starters, any game without a listed manufacturer seems to be more valuable than those Milton Bradley mass-produced monsters of the board game world. I found one game, a production of the Girl Scouts of America called Trefoil, that sold for double the price of similar games simply because the manufacturer didn't mark the board or the box. However, there is one name that rises above the rest: Avalon Hill. Vintage Avalon Hill board games don't sell for more money than other games, and in that respect this is a very customer-friendly market. The games are described by collectors as "exquisite" or "complex", and have a common theme: war and combat. From games like "Richtofen's War", "Luftwaffe", "Origins of World War II" to less historically-accurate but still thrilling titles "UFO SciFi" and "Image", these are games aimed at young adult males with an emphasis on military actions of the past. Broad-market games like Risk or Stratego tried to fit this niche by providing in-depth war games to consumers, but where Milton Bradley and company had to water these games down to appeal to a broad audience, Avalon Hill seems to take pride in being as specific and unique as possible. A quick example: in Risk I often battled my brothers for possession of countries like Kamchatka and Madagascar – in Avalon Hill's Luftwaffe you may choose between dive-bombing Berlin or destroying half of London. These are games with familiar stories delivered in immaculate packaging. One disctint feature of Avalon Hill games is their tri-fold appearance. Most of their games were repackaged to travel size while still maintaining the integrity of the complete game. How'd they do it? The boards were tri-fold, and could be easily stuffed into a bag or suitcase, tucked between car seats, what have you. This sounds like a small thing – but something about holding that tri-fold cardboard game heavy in your hand just feels right.
This market is not just full of board games. There are card games, like the simple 1950s title Let's Play A Game featuring a deck of cards and a Hoyle book of instruction – or Avalon Hill's own Midway, the 1980s versions of which were basically card games on a piece of cardboard. The card games market has its super-fans, just as the board games market does, and these games are usually even more affordable than their board game cousins. The artwork on the cards holds enough interest for many collectors, for whom style is more important than substance, and these cards have a ton of style. From the strangely art-deco design on 1950's Top Bid cards (described by one owner as "cute and anachronistic") to the strange and evil Tarot card feel of a particular 1960s-era Old Maid card set, it is easy to see why these items appeal to art and design lovers as much as to lovers of games.
Besides board games and card games, there are game accessories and toys that easily fit into an antique games collection. One collector sells replacement parts for games – I remember a Jeopardy home game that required the use of cricket-style clickers to "buzz in" to give the answer. Usually, items like this are the first things to look for when investing in a collectible board game – it stands to reason that the most-handled pieces are the most likely to have been lost, ingested, or destroyed. In the case of the Jeopardy clickers, you'd be in luck, and you'd have a true vintage option available to you. At Games Gone By, I found sets of "60s-era" cricket-style clickers specifically aimed at the Jeopardy game, and the price was right at $2 per set. Other items available with some games are vintage replacement sheets (for games like Clue or Stock Market where lots of writing is available) or even replacement originals of pencils and markers necessary to some board games.
The market has changed considerably in recent years. Collecting board games used to be a matter of digging through garage sales, antique stores, junk stores, and more than a few family members' attics. These are still great locations to find antique board games, but there are roadblocks to finding the really good stuff this way. For starters, some games were more or less available by region, so that when you search stores and garage sales where you live, you'll be shopping among a similar pool of games. Not to mention the time and effort it will take to sift through thirty contemporary copies of Monopoly looking for something rare, only to find the case is destroyed and all the pieces are missing. The best way to find unique and engaging titles in at worst fair condition is to shop online. The convenience and selection afforded you by the internet simply can't be beat. Rare board games are popping up all over the web, and eBay is a source to start with.
A search of eBay, which took all of about three seconds to complete, revealed more than 2,000 hits on "vintage board game", with auctions averaging twelve dollars per game. These are valuable and interesting titles, according to the websites of two antique board game collectors. One title listed at Board Games Are Us for $295 (a particularly rare and valuable antique board game) was quickly located for auction on eBay with a Buy Now option of just $195. I could have made a quick and valuable investment with a single mouse click. Other collectible markets are not as easy to join, and most of these games are meant to be played. I wouldn't go taking out my 1964 Flip Your Wig game (valued around $300) and playing it with my nephew or anything – but many of the big titles in the game collectible market can be found in "playable" condition (meaning condition that you can't really hurt more than it already is) for between 10 and 40 bucks.
Some of these classic games are worthy of their cult status – the incredibly popular Cosmic Encounter was created in 1972 as an antidote to one board game fanatic's Risk boredom. He sought to create a faster less predictable game than Risk, the well-known epic world war game. In Cosmic Encounter, the war is Universal – players take on the characteristics of specific races attempting to absorb neighbor planets by means of shrewd card play and dice-game strategy. The game is never the same twice, as there are 35 races of aliens with which to play. The game is now available online in a Flash version (which actually pays its players for winning, by the way) proving that a well-designed game overcomes all boundaries. Besides being hugely popular, the game has recently been honored in the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame.
As for quality of game play, it is difficult to beat the old board games. While games that are hugely popular now, like Cranium or one of its many clones, seek to involve large groups of social teams, vintage board games were more strategy-driven and realistic. Take Richtofen's War, that Avalon Hills classic of the 1970s. The game prides itself on its realism – boasting on the cover of "an exact replica of an aerial photograph of the front lines" during the first World War. The game is played on an historically-accurate board with almost 200 pieces representing different units of battle. It is easy to imagine a couple of friends losing themselves in this game for hours, while games like Trivial Pursuit are notoriously sleep-inducing. This isn't to say that all old board games are masterpieces – take a look at titles like Columbo, Your America, or Hi Q for examples of some vintage stinkers – but this was the era of Monopoloy, Ouija, and the entire line of Avalon Hills games. There's a great investment opportunity for collectors in vintage board games, and some great gaming to be had along the way.
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