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The Cost of Gaming: Boards, Screens, Cards, and Tables

We all understand that being a nerd is expensive. Fancy computers and fancy degrees don’t come cheap, but we even get screwed when it comes to relaxing!

I’m here to point just HOW expensive it is to play the games that we love so much (and maybe help you choose which one becomes your next hobby). I have dabbled in Axis and Allies, Starcraft II, Magic: the Gathering, and Warhammer 40k, each one for at least a year. Individually, they serve as representatives of each of the four elements of nerd gaming; board games, video games, card games, and tabletop games respectively. They will be graded three components: Start-up cost, maintenance cost, and usage value (cost per hour of enjoyment + replay value).

DISCLAIMER: Seeing as ‘fun’ is highly subjective, I try to avoid addressing how MUCH ‘fun’ a game is. Rather, I look to how long will this game hold my attention for its cost.

Axis & Allies logo

Axis and Allies is a WWII themed war board game released by Wizards of the Coast. It’s basically is a roided-out version of Risk (weren’t you tired of the horse and cannon not being special?). Battles are interesting, with over 10 unique models and special rules aplenty. Each player must carefully weight their unit production, logistics, and army strength to achieve global domination.

Start-up Cost

There are many versions of this game, but for the standard world edition you’re looking at spending about $65. The game can play up to 5 people, but more often than not, you’ll be playing in groups of 2 or 3. Because so many can enjoy the game at the purchase of one board, the value per person is one of the best for the depth and complexity of the game. However laying down so much up front can be daunting if you are trying to get others to start and thus must buy the game by yourself.
Rating: B-

Maintenance Cost

The cost of upgrading the Axis and Allies hobby can be a chore. The initial board game can be played many, many times over (I’ve been playing the same set up for 5 years now). However, each new edition of the region specific boards, such as Axis and Allies: Pacific or Axis and Allies: D-Day, can cost you another 60 bucks. A step up to the anniversary or collector’s editions can be $120, and the limited releases get up to a whopping $800! The insanely high replay value of the bare minimum game, however, makes these upgrades strictly voluntary. You can easily have fun without them, but it’s a slippery slope.
Rating: B-

Usage Value

When it comes to usage value, Axis and Allies shines. A game of Axis and Allies played with full comprehension of the rules can easily be 4+ hours. A full board of 5 people enjoying the game all at once means that in one game 20+ enjoyment hours are realized. Likewise, should each player split the cost of the board, it’s only $12 expense, or about the price of a movie ticket. Multiple playing sessions can compound the overall cost/benefit ratio. However, the immediate replay value of the game is the lowest of all games listed here; no one wants to play back to back games if each one is THAT long. That said, I found that the game can be safely played once a week without too much tiring or lost of interest.

Rating: A-

Starcraft 2 logo

Starcraft II is the second installment in the Starcraft series from Blizzard Entertainment. With a solid single player and the best RTS multiplayer around, Starcraft II is nearly a must-buy for computer gamers (and IS a must-buy for RTS fans). The games requires split-second decision making, intense multitasking, as well as foresight and long term objectives.

Start-up Cost

Ahh video games, one of last bastions of decent up-front costs when it comes to nerdy hobbies. While the game may cost up to a pretty hefty $60, that’s all you’ll need (initially). No dice, card covers, or boxes required. The one thing that is holding back a high rating in this regard is, of course, hardware. A fairly decent computer is required to enjoy the game without frustrating crashes or hacky gameplay. Blizzard, however, tends to go out of their way to establish graphical settings that lower-end users can take advantage of. Seeing as most nerds keep their computers in decent shape, the game should be widely accessible without mandating an upgrade.
Rating: B+

Maintenance Cost

Starcraft II is a great game right out of the box (or direct download). Patches are free, as is the full multiplayer experience. Only more competitive players see the need to buy a better mouse or to get a gaming keyboard and any of the other extras that MMO players may invest in. Such players may also opt for professional coaching, but the majority of the players are content without such bonuses. The only time in which you may feel cheated is when the expansions come out (or next episodes or whatever) and costs you JUST AS MUCH (or close to it) as the first full game. The expansions will be pretty much mandatory, seeing as all of your friends will buy them and want to play with you online. An additional campaign and a few new units for each race may be a good deal for the SCII fans who’ve bought the games as they’ve come out, but a newbie just starting may not want to shell out $40-60 per installment. This, coupled with the potential for higher end spending if you become more competitive, knocked down the maintenance cost rating a few pegs. There are also spectating fees for popular eSports events like the GSL on GOMtv, but these tend to not be too overwhelming.
Rating: B

Usage Value

A typical online Starcraft game goes on for somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes. The campaign is also relatively short and sometimes feels a bit like a prolonged tutorial to get the player used the units and their uses. In a vacuum, each game isn’t particularly valuable. However, Starcraft II is insanely re-playable. A player could play 5 games everyday and feel no drag or loss of interest (in fact, many play far more than 5 a day and love each game like it was their first). Brood War came out over a decade ago and STILL has a following. Spectating professional SC2 can be a source of great enjoyment as well. After all, it’s practically the national sport of South Korea. Not many video games can say that.

Rating: A+

Magic: The Gathering logo

Magic the Gathering is a card game first introduced in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast in which two or more players face off against each other with self-constructed decks. Unlike Starcraft II or Axis and Allies, much of the strategy takes place before the game. Once a match begins, seeing the hours of strategizing and planning during desk construction pay off can be great fun.

Start-Up Cost

Each cycle (see:edition) of Magic the Gathering comes with a set of mildly competitive decks that put the player on the right track to playing with purpose and good strategy. The best part is that you can just drive down to your local dork store and get one for $12-15, and that’s all you need to start playing. The rules are simple enough (by comparison) that a friend who knows how to play can teach you in 20 minutes. The starter decks that come with the rulebooks and player mats are not really necessary should you have that one friend and buying the cycle decks can put you in good position to play anyone.
Rating: A

Maintenance Cost

Magic the Gathering is subject to a horrible curse that befalls most games that are updated frequently: Power Creep. With each new cycle, the cards get better and better, meaning that the deck you bought two years ago is now totally outclassed by the newer, incoming cards. Also, the cycle decks will need boosting to stay competitive. Cards are very cheap, and you can pretty much get any card you want for under $5 (competitive, not collecting), however the costs of keeping up are still there. Magic the Gathering has done better than most games when confronting power creep (I’m looking at you, Yu-Gi-Oh). Each cycle adds a handful of new rules the keep the game interesting. However, these rules often overpower any card that is not from the latest cycle, forcing the player to update his/her deck to adapt or fall out of competitive status. Case in point: Equal cost infect vs. any non-infect geared deck is a slaughter 99% of the time.
Rating: C

Usage Value

Magic the Gathering games are fairly short, lasting between 5 and 15 minutes for veteran players. Like Starcraft, Magic the Gathering is also wildly re-playable. Playing 5 games a day with a friend or group of friend can easily become a fun way to hang out or chat. Of all the games listed here, Magic the Gathering is the easiest to pick up or to convince others to pick up due to it’s low cost and time commitment. Just buying the cycle deck, one play over 100 games with it and still being using it.
Rating: A

Warhammer 40K logo

Warhammer 40K (by Games Workshop) is a sci-fi tabletop game in which the player collects, models, and paints an army of various miniatures before letting them loose in a battle for the future of the galaxy. The game requires not only the mind of a great general, but also the hands of a surgeon and the eye of an artist. in a way, it goes far beyond the previously mentioned games in that each piece on the table is the labor of love of its owner. Some players even construct unique names and back stories for their favorite pieces.

Start-Up Cost

Warhammer 40K is expensive. Really. Expensive. To play a 500pt game (the smallest competitive size) one spends about $150. Include brushes, paints, glue, primer, dice, and a rulebook, you’re already up to around $250. There is a ‘starter fix’ that has two playable armies for $120 that is an absolute steal (also includes easy-to-model miniatures), but this works against the greatest thing Warhammer 40K has going for it: the diversity of the armies. There are about a dozen to pick from. This diversity, however, spawns another problem: the costs of the armies is extremely varied. One player may pay $150 for his/her bare minimum army, while another who likes a more swarm based army could pay as much as $300. This doesn’t even cover the cost of terrain or the carrying cases one might need to get the most out of their figures.
Rating: D+

Maintenance Cost

The power creep in Warhammer 40K is some of the worst I’ve seen in an gaming. An army’s competitiveness is directly correlated to how recently they have had their codex (army specific rulebook) updated. When one buys a 40K army, one must keep in mind that one day their army will be obsolete.  The response to this is either A) come to peace with it and have fun playing their army for fun and laugh when they get blown off the table, or B) buy a full army every time a new one is released. While painting and modeling may be a pain for some, most who have played for a while come to enjoy it immensely. Re-painting chipping paint and fading colors is a fun time to try a new army theme. The real killer, though, is the cost of up-scaling after getting your basic troops. A tank will cost you $60, and a squad of specialty units (e.g the cool ones) will run you at least $45. A maxed out army at 3000pts will almost always be over $500. Some get to $750 and above. Games Workshop also has a nasty habit of raising prices every summer.
Rating: D

Usage Value

Thankfully, Warhammers 40K is very very fun, and the rulebook has over 30 different missions. One could play Warhammer 40K for years and still never play the same type of mission twice. With its internet savvy following, many more missions with special homebrew campaigns and rules are widely available. A Warhammer 40K army could be played for years at a time and still feel fresh at the start of each match. Matches typically last 1-3 hours depending on the size of the armies and the familiarity of players with the rules. That being said, the overall monetary cost is simply too high. By comparison, one could play Magic the Gathering for decades, keeping up with power creep, at the cost of just one Warhammer 40K army. The modeling and painting are great fun and the tabletop battles are the most fun I’ve had in both glorious victory and hilarious defeat. However, the costs still cannot be comparatively justified in dollar amounts even if one was to play for 20 years.
Rating: C-

Feel free to challenge anything in this article or post your own insight in the comments. For the curious, I currently have 12 Magic the Gathering decks, a mono-blue wizard deck being my favorite, my Warhammer 40K armies are Sisters of Battle, Necrons and Chaos Daemons, and my best Axis and Allies power is Japan. I play Terran.


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