The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - November, 2001

Eddie Campisano: Ray Smith's article in the October Games Journal was very good. [Transition Games] Unfortunately, many (most!) of the games he suggested as transition games have been out of print for many years; some for decades!

As Ray suggested his list was not exhaustive. There are many other games which I know he could have cited as good transition games. Too bad he didn't mention more games that are still in print and currently available. Such games as:

El Grande
El Caballero
Euphrat & Tigris
Carolus Magnus
Web of Power

And the list goes on! As an old grognard I feel these games (and several others not mentioned) are quality games that any wargamer would feel comfortable playing. Their great advantage, of course, is that they are still in print.

Brian Leet: Rest assured that many read and appreciate. Just often we don't have a lot to add. Keep up the good work.

GGA - Two thoughts—thanks and poppycock! (Meant in the flattering sense of course.) I think many people have something to add, it does not need to be a lot or even relevant to a published article. Just as you may find the articles interesting others are likely to find your opinions worth reading. Even a quick line or two are appreciated.

Keith Ammann: Without question, the number of players range listed on game boxes can be misleading—even if the game can be played with the full range, the experience isn't necessarily optimal across that full range. One of the things I really appreciated about Board Game Geek was that it had, in addition to a number of players data field, an optimal number of players data field as well. I was disappointed when Derk Solko and Scott Alden decided to remove that feature; to me it was the most valuable feature on the site.

Perhaps someone else could construct a similar reference source—or perhaps, going out on a limb, game manufacturers could be encouraged to add a "best with ... " line on their packaging. For instance, El Grande could read "3-5 (best with 5)," while Formula Dé might say "2-10 (best with 6-8)."

GGA - I believe the "optimal number of players" field was removed from the BoardGameGeek because it was a matter of opinion, not a fact as the other fields are. Note that an individual CAN enter personal choices for the optimal number of players by utilizing the "collections" aspect of the 'geek. (As well as a personal rating of the game overall.) I'm very confident that Scott & Derk will add in the ability to view an averaging of these ratings at some later date. (Perhaps after there has been enough data entered? If this is something that's useful to you I'd suggest heading over to and entering your information.)

I should also mention that White Wind included a "Best with X or X" line on all their games. Gee, it's like Alan Moon was actually thinking when he produced those games.

Chris Sjoholm: I'm with you, Greg. Supply and demand—if someone's willing to pay $75 for two copies of Pursue the Pennant, it doesn't matter that I paid $5. I made the offer (I'll sell these to you for $x), and they accepted it. If they don't like the offer, they shouldn't accept it.

I'm quite proud of myself. I started keeping careful track this year of how much I spend on games (thrift-stores, shipping, eBay fees, etc.), and how much I make from them. I've bought more new games than ever before, by a huge factor, and I've still got money to spend before I'm in the red. I'm very thrifty, so I never thought I'd be able in a single year to get new or near-new copies of [warning: long list coming] Manhattan, Mississippi Queen, Carcassonne, Web of Power, Chinatown, Rette sich wer kann, Hera & Zeus, Ra, Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, Schotten-Totten, 6 nimmt!, Dia de los Muertos, Pico 2, Bohnanza, Battle Cry, Lord of the Rings, Caesar & Cleopatra, Democrazy, Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, Neolithibum, Stephenson's Rocket, Diplomacy, Take It Easy, Ra, It's Mine!, Falling, Simply Cosmic, Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, Kill Doctor Lucky, Quo Vadis... wow, that's a long list.

And thanks for the Ricochet Robot contest—absolutely my favorite "show-off" game.

OK, you've gotten at least one comment about this month's issue. Keep the issues coming!

Paul Suderman: I've been cheesed when I buy a game for $18, only to see a Value Village tag of $2.99 on the box.

Why does this upset me? First would be the 500% markup. Why is a 500% markup acceptable on items that by their very nature (that is, used) are of lower quality (in appearance, certainly) than new, retail items? I understand charging a premium of this sort for items in top-notch condition, but the item I'm referring to was not top-notch, nor do I feel that the used product's shortcomings were accurately presented.

GGA - I don't see what the connection to a new retail item has to do with anything. If (in your example) the product was available new for $18 why on Earth would you buy a used one for the same cost? In general, items purchased at thrift stores and then resold are things that are no longer available new.

Further, and I hate to break this to you, but retail prices are not determined by percentage markup, they're determined by what people are willing to pay. Companies do not say "Product X costs $5 to manufacture, we'll sell it for $10 because a markup of 100% is fair." Rather, they ask "How much are consumers willing to pay for Product X?" If this happens to be $50 then that's what the price is going to be. There are plenty of examples in the marketplace of markups greater than the 500% you cite.

Another old saw that's played when discussing thrift-store finds and the resale value of them is the time involved. I don't really think this is a valid argument. People who comb thrift stores for games do so to find games they don't have. If they find a game they do have, they may buy it to sell, but they have not taken any separate time to do that. They were there anyway. Tell me if I'm wrong! Charging for "time" would be acceptable if this person was specifically contracted to find a specific game. Otherwise, what would one say? "I've been to this store 18 times, at a total travel time of approximately one hour roundtrip, without finding Monopoly (for example). On my 19th trip, I found Monopoly there. Therefore it took me 19 hours to find it, I should charge accordingly." If I recall my intro philosophy course correctly, this is specious reasoning.

GGA - You're wrong. People go to thrift stores for any number of reasons, some do it simply to purchase items for resale but this is beside the point. A person is allowed to charge whatever they feel like for an item in their possession. If the person in your example values his time at $10 an hour then why shouldn't he charge $190 for it? No one in their right mind would pay him that price but he's free to ask for it. He can jump up and down and insist that the game is worth $190 as that's what he's got invested in it but it's unlikely that anyone will care.

Simply asking for a certain amount can hardly be considered wrong. Wishful or naive, but certainly not wrong. If the person truly wishes to sell the item he'll be forced to lower the price until he reaches a point at which someone is willing to pay.

You seem to imply that a seller is only entitled to what you consider "fair markup". Why do you get to decide what's fair and what isn't?

Let me ask you this; You find a $20 bill on the street. I offer to buy the $20 bill for $10, stating that you'd still be making a profit of $10. Would you accept my offer? Why not?

A third issue that might be discussed is the old completeness clause. "I had to buy two of these games to make one complete one." In any thrift store/garage sale/whatever I've ever been to, you are allowed to open the games to check for completeness. Therefore, one would know whether one had a complete game when one left the store, unless instructions are missing, which is possible. In any case, if the buyer is paying for more than one incomplete game, why does the buyer not receive more than one incomplete game? At a 500% markup, the thrift-store seller is being (in my opinion) more than adequately compensated for his investment of capitol. In my specific example, if the seller was forced to purchase two copies of the game, for $2.99 each, the markup drops to a mere 200%, although this still represents a free and clear profit of $12 instead of $15.

GGA - You don't get to be the arbiter of what adequate compensation is. You only have the right to choose whether you wish to purchase an item at the price offered. I feel that this choice should be made based upon how much the item is worth to you.

I do think that people who sell used games should make a profit, although when I sell games, I have taken a loss in every (that is 4 of 4) times. My situation is a little different, because I generally buy new games, and must sell them at a used price. Add shipping to this and I usually lose about $10 or more. Call me an idiot if you wish, but I sell game because I don't want them to people who do want them and would prefer to pay less than full retail for them. I take great care of my games, and the only way one wouldn't know my games are new is that the games are punched, and don't come in shrinkwrap.

GGA - You're free to sell your games at whatever price you feel comfortable with. You can't really compare the used market with new items though. Almost all the games you find on eBay tend to sell for lower than what they were originally available for retail, even items that are considered "overpriced".

You don't mention how much you're spending on these games that you sell or how many times you're playing them. I'd suggest that if you're playing them 4 or 5 times and that they cost about $40 that you're getting incredible value out of them.

My challenge to thrift store game resellers is this: let the risk go both ways. Put the games you find on eBay. Maybe you'll make a killing. Share the risk with the purchaser. I would also challenge you to be honest about what you're selling. An example:

For sale, hard to find Sid Sackson classic, complete.


For sale, hard to find Sid Sackson classic, complete, box has considerable shelf wear, one split corner, top and bottom bowed, former price tag ($2.99) on cover.

These are both honest, I guess. I sure would have been a lot more hesitant to pay $18 for the second description, and I would hope to hell that the seller wouldn't have had the nerve to charge $18 for the second one either. This example is what happened to me, my major (but only) beef with buying thrift store games.

GGA - This is a different issue and one in which I strongly agree with you. Poorly described items are, in some sense, morally wrong. However the old rule of "buyer beware" applies here. Always ask for a description of the item and its condition. Request pictures if possible. Yes, it's still possible to get burned but it's less likely to happen if you enter a transaction with your eyes open.

I would have been happier if I never saw the $2.99 price tag. Why is this? It's because I don't like to feel like a sucker. Why do you think markups in the retail business are kept quiet? It's because customers don't enjoy feeling like they got taken.

GGA - Would you have been happier paying $30 for the item if the seller had purchased it himself for $25?

PS. And Greg, in your example, $13 profit is a looong way from "no profit whatsoever."

GGA - I'm not suggesting that $13 is no profit. Rather I'm asking why some feel that they have any right to question that a seller makes a profit at all. You seem to be suggesting that it's alright for me to advertise an item at $15 if I paid $13 or $15 or $18 but not if I paid $3?

Michael Becker: Lately, I have also become addicted to bargain stores in search of board games. I have picked up the following within the last few months: Squad Leader, Panzerblitz, 3M Acquire, 3M Stocks and Bonds, Loopin' Louie, Can't Stop, Stock Ticker, Conspiracy, Scotland Yard, Twixt, Amazing Labyrinth, just to name a few. Slightly less than half of the games I purchase are missing pieces or broken; definitely something you need to take into consideration when buying used items. I intend on selling some of these titles and I also expect to recoup my investment both in time and money when selling them. I don't, however, buy used board games with the hopes of making a fortune. I do it for the thrill of finding something neat or with the hopes of replacing a worn out box or parts.

Any commodity, new or used, is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. If people are willing to pay $300 for a used copy of an OOP board game great. When art collectors buy a painting for $50 and sell it for $500,000 in auction everyone leaves satisfied. The collector makes his/her fortune, the seller thinks he got a steal, the auction gets its cut; even the person the collector bought the painting from believes he made a fair profit ($50.00 for that piece of junk!). Whenever someone purchases something they want (not what they need) they have a choice. If a person feels the price is justified they will purchase the item. If the price is too high they must question its worth and enjoyment relative to the cost. As a buyer, you should always purchase "want items" with the mindset that you got a good deal, if you feel any other way you paid too much, or you probably didn't really "want" the item too badly.

When I purchased my home I asked the seller how much they paid. This re-inforced I was getting a good deal on the purchase, but to be honest, my decision was already made. I really wanted the house I purchased. If it makes you feel better, ask how much they seller paid before you buy it. If they paid two dollars for the item and are selling it for $100 you need to make a decision whether or not you are getting a good deal. If you don't think you are getting a good deal let the seller know. If the seller isn't getting any offers he may sell at half price. If the seller is getting offers at full asking price can you blame the seller for making a few extra dollars?

Another example is in order. Let's say you found the biggest, most rarest diamond in your backyard. Would you feel bad if you sold the diamond for 10 million? Probably not, even though you didn't pay a dime. As a seller, it is important for you to know the value of your possessions; if you don't know the value don't sell it. Like the saying goes, "One man's junk is another man's treasure."

With all this being said, I would probably feel guilty if I sold something for too much money. I guess I'll cross that path if the time comes. The same people which are disgruntled by this issue probably don't mind paying $10 to see a movie, or $25 to see a professional hockey game. Our society definitely has its priorities backwards. But, I guess, this is a different issue...

Randy Cox: We appear to have the same illness as far as thrift stores and garage sales go. I got hooked after my first visit scored very nice copes of Dungeon! (in the old purple box), The New Dungeon!, Dungeon Dice, and Stocks & Bonds (my first 3M bookshelf game).

Having discovered the 3M games in this way, I decided to check other stores in the area. In the first weekend of looking I found the aforementioned Stocks & Bonds as well as Quinto, and a near-mint Executive Decision. Now, eight months later, I have over half of the 3M bookshelf line, and all but a few were thrift store finds that I bought for an average of about $1.50 each.

People who complain about paying $15 for a game that someone found at a thrift store have little appreciation for how much time the seller has probably devoted. I come out of my local thrift stores empty handed 10 or 15 times for each time I actually find a game worth buying. If they don't want to pay what the game is worth to a collector, then perhaps they ought to start visiting their local thrift stores and used bookstores several times a week. Maybe in three or four months they'll find exactly the game they've been looking for and a few pleasant surprises that they weren't!

Ciro Pernice: I agree with you. If someone is willing to pay 15 buckaroo$$$ then that is how much the game is worth to him. It's the foundation of a market driven economy, buy cheap sell expensive. All I can say, know your prices well before you buy!

Harlan Rosenthal: Maybe you only got a single letter last month, but for what it's worth, I forwarded links to articles to five or six people.

And last month was a little... distracting.

Actually—along the lines of the one letter you did get—I had been tempted to write about SJG's Munchkin, which needs a die. As the original article pointed out, Cheapass clearly marks what "You also need" on the outside of the package, and charges less for their games on that basis. I had expected to open and use Munchkin while traveling, and there's nothing marked on the package; if I didn't always have a d12 and d20 in my travel bag, I would have been very disappointed.

I intend to write you another note about the number-of-players article. My problem is that I'm usually looking for a game for three.

Alfredo Lorente: A few thoughts on October's issue.

Regarding Ray Smith's Transition Games article, I think most reasonable people would transition out of wargames and into European/Designer games. But since there seems to be a few wandering souls left with the time and energy to spend with conflict simulations, I should mention Condottiere as another alternative. It fits as a stepping stone to Serenissima, playing in less time and having less fiddly bits than that excellent game.

As for your piece, Reviewing Games, as a fellow reviewer I empathize with you one hundred percent. I consider it very poor technique to repeat the rule book and attach a judgment—not only is the reviewer not providing any basis for the opinion, more importantly, the reviewer is giving away the intellectual property at the heart of the game. In some very sad cases, a reader can simply bash a kit together and play the game without compensating the designer.

Reviewing games is made even more difficult by the availability of information. As a writer, for your review to resonate it has to be more than a simple re-hash of all the information available on the web. You need to grab the attention of the readers, and tell them in a brief and concise manner, why they should or should not buy a product. For print magazines, the job becomes more difficult, as the word count limitations are very real. It seems to me writing reviews is an easy way to tell who is a good writer and who isn't—you have to tell a story to differentiate yourself from all the noise out there, and you have to communicate real information at the same time.

I don't think however, that writing a review of a game you dislike is necessarily harder, or that it requires more effort. As you mention later in your article, very often your gut reaction is right on the money. I make a point of explaining clearly why I dislike a game, since a negative opinion is of course harsher than a positive one. That might occasionally require a second game, but like with any other job, you take the good with the bad. And, you know if the game made it to the market, there must be a few individuals out there who are at least remotely attracted to the game. Case in point: monster wargames.

(As an aside, like the old joke goes, I think wargamers, like Catholics, only come in two varieties: practicing and recovering. I'm recovering from both.)

Ultimately, your contention that "this is a cross . . . that the reviewer simply has to bear. The time a reviewer spends playing a game is insignificant to the time a designer puts into his or her 'baby'", while technically accurate, is mistaken in practice. I doubt that a movie critic would go three or four times to watch a bad film. A restaurant reviewer might visit a bad restaurant at most twice before simply choosing to review a different place. We aren't paid to write glowing recommendations of everything we play—we are paid to give our opinions. The only way one can be fair to the public is by allowing the public to learn what one likes and dislikes. It is our duty to let consumers know not only what we like, and why, but also what we don't like, and why, so they can make up their mind as to paying attention to us in the future.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to "initial impressions". I don't believe there is such a thing. There are only reviews, some with the benefit of having played the game, some by people who feel the need to demonstrate to the world they can pound on a keyboard after seeing a box at a store. "Initial impressions" are usually a way to abdicate responsibility—after all, it was just "an initial impression". Also, there is such a thing as too much information. Given the choice between no information and some faceless internet author mentioning the game looks "cheap", I'd rather go to the store and find out myself.

An "initial impression" from an established, recognized reviewer with an understanding of the elements of design and what makes a game successful is very different from something from some internet yahoo. An "initial impression" from an established, recognized reviewer is the seed for a well thought-out piece that tells a consumer what they can expect when they spend their ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty or fifty dollars on the product. An "initial impression" from anyone else is not much more than your alarm going off at 6:45 am on Saturday morning—annoying and usually useless.

Finally, as for The Games Journal being worth it, I consider it one of the premier gaming resources out there. To me, it is very much worth it. I hope it is for you too.

David Bush: I enjoyed your article on The Games Journal website. As a bit of an elitist, I don't know very much about the vast majority of the gaming world. But I enjoy reading about it, especially articles like yours, which provide some clues to me as to why so many people prefer games I don't care for. It's not a specific genre or genres I don't fathom; rather, it's the mindset that continually seeks out new games before the old games have (in my opinion) been thoroughly experienced.

Well, maybe it's not so hard to understand after all, in this culture of the instant and shallow. And certainly most gamers do spend a lot of time playing a few favorites. But for me, there's a gut reaction that set in once my collection reached a couple dozen: No more! Maybe I'm just incurably cheap (read: poor), but even if I did have access to more opponents, I would probably prefer to stay with the few games I know will reward study for the rest of my life.

There's really nothing wrong with seeking out new experiences in gaming all the time; it's just so far from my point of view, that it makes for enjoyable reading. And your article helped me appreciate the difficulties involved in writing reviews. It must really soak up an amazing amount of your time, trying to give each game a fair test. I know I couldn't do that.

There is one point you make, however, which I would take issue with. I hope by now, you are inured to the fact that righteous indignation generates more email than gratitude. Here's the quote:

"Still, the possibility exists that a truly game ruining strategy might emerge. Such is often the case with two-player abstracts that are "solved". (That is, its been proven that one player can always win.)"

That's not really an accurate definition of "solved." For example, the game of Hex (without the swap rule) is proven to be a win for the first player. But this proof makes no mention of how to win. To solve a game, the winning procedure must be exactly defined. Hex is by no means ruined by the proof of a first player win. Strong players use the swap rule, also known as the pie rule, or one-move equalization. With this rule in place, theoretically the second player should win, but in practice, this win is very difficult to find. Even without swap, Hex is a deep and challenging game, and an experienced player would almost always win against a newcomer, even if the newcomer moves first.

GGA - The concept of "specialization vs. generalization" is a very interesting one to me. (Expect an article in the upcoming months.) While I'm firmly in the "many games" camp I do appreciate the value of, as you say, thoroughly experiencing a game. I have recently played Stephenson's Rocket quite often with exactly this intention. (Expect an article on this as well.) However, I'm not sure that this isn't a by-product of the types of games played. Most German-type games are multi-player and I don't believe that they reward deep study and repeated playings as well as the better two player abstracts.

Mike Fitzgerald: I'm trying to find out what Mitchell Thomashow means in his Ta Yu review when he says players typically hold one piece in hand (visible to both players). Is this in addition to the one you are drawing each turn? The rules say simply draw one and play and then wait till your next turn to draw another.

Reading Mitchell's review convinced me to buy the game and I think he is right on- it is great. I want to make sure I am getting the most out of it.

GGA - I believe that Mitchell is suggesting that you maintain a "hand" of one tile. On your turn draw a tile (adding it to your hand) and then play one of these two tiles.

Richard Glanzer: Read your review (Refugium). Where can I get this game please?

GGA - Refugium appears to be one of the many games that received very little fanfare and has subsequently disappeared  from the face of the Earth. I was unable to turn up a single copy anywhere that I searched on the net so it seems like you may be have a difficult task locating one. It certainly didn't sell in any great numbers so this may be harder than for many other games. Perhaps a reader has a copy they want to get rid of? If you're desperate to try the game you should note that it would be trivial to make a copy of the game and the components were very plain to begin with. Whether this is morally acceptable or not I'll leave up to you.

Greg Aleknevicus: James Ernest (Cheapass grand pooh-bah and designer of The Big Cheese) asked in the Cheapass forum ( why I thought the game was broken with 6 players ( That forum does not allow posts from non-members so I'm reprinting the response I sent here:

The problem I have with The Big Cheese when played with six is that it's almost always the best move to bid your maximum at every auction.

The problem seems to be that as you increase the number of players you also increase the average time between "winnings". (That is, the occurrences of you winning a card.) The longer you go without a card in front of you the higher your bid could have been in previous auctions. Bidding 10 for the first card is exactly equal to bidding 5 for the sixth. (The card won in the first auction and the card won in the sixth will both mature at the same time.) It's guaranteed that at least one player will not win an auction until at least the sixth turn.

The "real" cost of a card = the price you pay - the number of turns until your next purchase.

With six players you're likely only going to win an auction once every six turns which therefore increases the price you should be willing to bid. 

The above formula ignores an important aspect of the game—having chips in front of you are also useful for raising the bids of your opponents. However, in a six player game at least two players will have at least 5 chips in front of them therefore it's much less likely that a player can capitalize on the poverty of others. This has the effect that you need not concern yourself with "saving" chips as much as you would in a game with fewer players. These two factors are what "breaks" the game when played with six.

With four players the "minimum" bids are lower as you can expect to win auctions more often (due to having fewer competitors). Further, the need for you to retain chips in order to raise the price on other players' winnings is greater as there are less players to do your dirty work for you.

I really like the clever "maturing" mechanic but I think it throws people off. In most auction games a bid is more clearly defined. "I should only pay $500 for an item if it gains me more than $500." The Big Cheese is different in that you never "pay" for something, you only "loan" for it. Anyone without a "loan" is losing ground each turn.

Happily, I think there's an easy fix for this and that's simply to increase the number of chips each player has when playing with more than four. I guess 11 chips with five players and 12 with six would be worth a try?

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