Campfire returns with another visit to the fireside. As a child of the eighties the talk of Panini stickers in the playground tugs at my memories… anyway, over to the man of the hour.
It’s 1986 and you’re in a primary school playground. Children in parkas hurtle about playing tag. The girls near the toilets skip rope and sing rhymes. And you, me and our mate Dean, we’re hanging out in the farthest corner, where the shadows are long and things feel more dangerous. Sometimes a football bounces past, and when does, it scatters gravel across the backs of our shoes – but we ignore it because there are far more pressing matters at hand.
Dean’s opening packets of Panini stickers he half-inched from the newsagent. Short Circuit. Transformers. Mexico ‘86. He’s taking them out of their wrappers, examining them with reverence, then showing them to us as we chant a mantra heard in playgrounds across the land:
Got. Got. Need. Got. Need that one. Trade you for it? Swapsies?
The need to collect is a part of human nature. No doubt back at the dawn of time cavemen filled albums with lichen, and offered hairy women up in trade for interesting-looking bits of bark. By the twenty-first century we should have evolved beyond this ridiculous impetus to collect, but we haven’t, and nowhere is this made clearer than in the world of board games.
Hulking great board games in hulking great boxes. When you start collecting and only have a couple, it’s not so bad. “I’ll shove them under the bed,” you tell your wife. “Nobody’ll see them. It’ll be like they’re not even there.” But, like cardboard rats they multiply, and creep from their confines across the bedroom carpet. They appear on wardrobe tops and fill chests of drawers. You start wearing all your socks and underpants at once, and hope your wife doesn’t notice the pile of Arkham Horror expansions that’s taken their place in the underwear drawer. You offer to build an extension onto the house, but you make it out of copies of Thunderstone, and when it rains the card gets soggy and collapses, killing your visitlng mother. Your wife finds you sobbing in front of her corpse. “It’s a tragedy,” you cry. “That was the last Dragonspire they had! Now I’ll have to wait for a reprint.” And your tears fill your hands while the rain washes XP tokens in puddles all around you.
You’d think big games would be the worst, but they’re not. Sure, your Descent box is large enough to double as an ocean liner, and you’re fairly sure that War of the Ring Collector’s Edition all your mates covet has a lost continent hidden somewhere beneath the painted figurines. But it isn’t the big boxes that put the most strain on your marriage, oh no.
It’s the cards. The tradeable, collectible, astronomically priced cards you buy by the booster pack and buy by the box load.
A garbage truck pulls up at the kerb outside. “Oh good,” says your wife. “Have they come to take your Magic collection away?” But they haven’t – they’re bringing you fresh supplies. Pneumatic pistons tilt the truck’s bed up and dump Mirrodin Besieged sachets all over the road; your wife turns to say something harsh but you’re gone, laying amongst the cards, kicking your legs and leaving Magic: The Gathering angels in the drifts.
I’m being silly, you say. I’m being absurd. But I’m a newcomer at this, and already I have seven games all piled up.
There are more on the way.
The latest arrival in my burgeoning collection is Portobello Market, a game about the politics of market stalls in early twentieth century London. It’s not a theme that appeals to me, but it was priced at a very reasonable £4.99 so I picked it up anyway. Now I’m singing the Who Will Buy This Wonderful Morning song from Oliver in anticipation of playing it later tonight,
Such is the power of a good bargain. Junk we don’t want, when attractively priced, becomes junk that we need. Whenever a new bargain arrives in my gaming forum of choice, we leap upon it like a vicar leaping on a Women’s Institute scone. Whether it’s Alhambra on Amazon or D&D at the Book Depository, as soon as gamers get the scent, bargains don’t stand a chance.
And let’s not forget those first print runs that have us all selling organs in order to snap up Arctic Scavengers, Tammany Hall or Mansions of Madness. It’s got to the point where gamers groan when a new must-buy title is announced. We cross our fingers and hope it’ll be rubbish. Maybe the board will be misprinted. Maybe the miniatures will be poorly cast. If there’s something wrong with it, then I won’t need it. I can put the money towards that secret panel behind the fishtank where I keep the Games Workshop armies I told my wife I’d thrown away months ago.
“You’re being silly again!” you say, and you give me a slap. Well I put it to you, Mr. Slaps-Like-A-Girl, what’s the difference between that secret hidden fishtank panel and your gaming nook, where you store dice and games and old issues of White Dwarf? What about the bookshelves you have that are filled wall-to-wall with indexed card folders from defunct CCGs? What about your RPG library, with your GURPS sourcebooks and R.A. Salvatore first editions? And what about that little locked drawer where you keep old convention flyers and your most treasured posession of all: a custom-built Dice Tower signed by Tom Vassel himself?
Okay, maybe I am being silly. But we all have gaming purchases we feel a bit guilty about buying. Games we don’t use, but can’t yet let go. Card sleeves we bought just in case we get a deck-builder in the future. That swanky swish printer bought for print ‘n’ play games. “It’ll save money in the long run,” you said when it arrived, but now it sits gathering dust, and hasn’t saved you a cent.
And though your collection swells and you run out of room, there’s only one thing that’ll make you give up part of your treasured hoard.
Dean, the sticker thief, our friend from so long ago. You run into him years later, and talk about the good old days, and everything that’s happened to you both since. You tell him about your wife and he tells you about his kids, and when the subject moves onto hobbies and you tell him you like board games, he looks at you, confused.
“Like Monopoly?” he says. “Like Risk?”
You tell him to hold on for a second and run indoors, and when you return you pass him a simple cardboard box.
“You don’t play board games?” you say. “Here. Have this.”
The only thing gamers enjoy more than collecting – or indeed gaming – is sharing their hobby with other people. From promo cards to entire boxed games, you hand them to newbies and non-gamers alike. “Play this,” you say. “Have fun with it. And when you’re done playing, please, spread the word.”
So I’m doing it, I’m spreading the word. Those towering collections should be revered, not feared. Every box contains the memory of evenings spent with good friends – of triumphs and failures, wins, losses and laughter. When we pass those games on, the good times go with them, and a new generation of gamers discovers what we already know.
In a world filled with video games, iPads and high-def TVs, this hobby of ours is special. It mightn’t be flashy. It mightn’t be loud. But where else can four friends spend an evening battling monsters, building empires, fighting super-villains or trading wood for sheep – and all from their dining room table?
Nowhere else, that’s where.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Thunderstone fort to build.