Pimp my Games - Taking Your Components to the Next Level
Most hardcore board gamers live a life of luxury and excess in this hobby. We like to buy things that make us happy. Just look at all of the “shelf of shame” posts, unboxing videos, or numerous “deals” threads published across different sites as we all share with each other how to get best prices. Some of us like to take that to the next level, upgrading the games, components, storage, and even gaming tables to improve both the gameplay experience and the enjoyment associated with this great hobby. I’ll take you through a tour of some of the upgrades I’ve found to be most useful and necessary in my board gaming life.
Chances are if you’re reading this article, you’re well aware of IKEA’s Kallax and it’s legacy in the board gaming world - I won’t talk about where to store your games specifically, but rather how to store what’s inside your games. It’s time to ditch that baggy lifestyle and upgrade to the next level. Baggies are slow to setup and tear down and end up with you opening up a box and staring at an unsorted and unsightly pile of polyethylene. Here’s a few easy ways to clean up your storage solutions.
Plastic containers - You can find several different solutions and options for containers, but for my money nothing comes close to the value and usefulness of these containers from Dollar Tree. And at 10 for $1, there isn’t a better pricepoint in board gaming! They come in both square and round versions, but I prefer the square, as they seem to maximize space needs in our boxes best. I’ll make “player packs” putting all of the starting pieces, resources, coins, etc for each player at the table. They can hold different values of currencies and different chits that need sorted. For many games, you can even play straight out of these containers.
Photo boxes - For larger sorting needs, these boxes from craft store Michaels have been invaluable. I’ve used them for Gloomhaven player packs, storing all cards, gear cards, attack deck, player board, AND mini inside of them. I also used them for Rising Sun, sorting each clan into their own box that held all miniature figures, player screen, mini bases, strongholds, and more. These also work wonderfully for any small Print and Play card games you may have, or for putting a few small box games into one mobile storage solution. They go on sale often, and Michaels always seems to have coupons floating around.
Plano organizers - They are often situational and only work for the right games and solutions, but when they do, it can be a wonderful marriage of plastic and cardboard. You’ll find them under several different marketing names and in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The storage solution we used for Gloomhaven was largely based on large Plano containers, and I don’t think I’d ever even attempt to play Antiquity out of a box of baggies - my Plano box is a life saver in that game.
GMT counter trays - My friend picked up a bulk bundle of these on a GMT sale, and while also very situational, I have found them to be quite useful when I need a large storage solution that has many places for many chits. It ended up being the perfect solution for Quacks of Quedlinburg, plus the Herb Witches expansion.
Foamcore - Foamcore is a cheap alternative to expensive wooden inserts or 3D printing, and can be quite satisfying to do if you’re into handmade crafting. It requires precision and patience, two qualities I can sometimes be lacking in. If you’re unfamiliar, this is referring to using foam backed poster board, and cutting, gluing, and assembling it either by your own design or plans shared online by others for popular games. I quickly grew out of it, but enjoyed making inserts while I was doing it.
Broken Token and Co - If money is truly no object, it doesn’t get much better than the laser cut wooden inserts from Broken Token, Meeple Realty, and other companies. But with costs that can often equal or exceed the game itself, it has always been hard for me to recommend this over other solutions.
3D printed organizers - Perhaps your tastes are a little more refined than cheap plastic dollar store containers and foam board and glue. If you’re a tinkerer, and enjoy the latest and greatest in technology, I can’t recommend a 3D printer enough. It is a deep and wonderful hobby and a great companion hobby to board gaming. And if you think this is too expensive a hobby, know that my printer that I’ve done all my inserts with is the Creality Ender 3, which can frequently be had for under $200. It is a hobby that will command your time and require a bit of tinkering to get it dialed in, but is so satisfying once you’re knocking out inserts for all of your games. I’m not knowledgeable or capable of designing my own things yet, instead just using the numerous online databases for sharing such as www.thingiverse.com.
When considering storage upgrades, remember that it isn’t just aesthetic. Yes it is nice to open a box and see everything neatly presented and ready for play. But what’s even nicer is the dramatic decrease in setup and tear down time that you’ll experience once you embrace these upgrades in your games.
So now you’ve got your chits and bits all sorted and ready to play, but why stop there -- let’s upgrade those too. From metal coins to poker chips to chit upgrades, let’s look to the next level on what goes inside the box.
Metal Coins - Metal coins are amazing. Whether it's the clang when you pay into tax stand in Architects of the West Kingdom, the secret jingling behind your player screen in Rising Sun, or the satisfaction of an opponent handing you handful of tolls in Great Western Trail metal coins just add to the experience and the main reason we’re all here -- fun. You can get metal coins from a variety of sources - often available in Kickstarter addons for certain games, or at online retailers like Meeple Source. I highly recommend the Scythe coins if you’re looking for an all purpose set. I don’t love their overwhelming thematic nature, but they are a large overall set of currency with multiple denominations. I will defer to a master on the subject for more reading, reddit user PixelartMeeple and his 2 part column Metal Coins for Board Games, A Compulsion.
Poker Chips - If you’re playing 18xx you know that poker chips are a must. Not only is paper money cumbersome, difficult to organize, and almost impossible to tally up in any kind of timely manner, but the clickity clack of poker chips is just so satisfying. From Iron Clays to popular brands such as Majestic or Milano, the well is deep when it comes to finding what is right for you on poker chips.
Top Shelf Gamer Resources - Top Shelf Gamer is truly all about excess in board games. They offer sets that will upgrade games that don’t even really need it, taking cubes and wooden resources into deluxe painted molded plastic thematic bits. I have the set for Grand Austria Hotel, and while it is appealing to the eye and thematic, part of me misses the cubes when playing a tried and true euro like GAH. They also sell coins and foamcore inserts as well. Your mileage may vary here, but one thing is for sure: be prepared to pay.
3D printed resources - We’ve talked about 3d printing already, but you can also 3D print custom bits for games such as molded food source tokens for Wingspan, dinosaurs for Dinosaur Island, or terrain tiles in Kingdom Death: Monster. The sky's the limit in 3D printing, as your imagination and technical abilities can allow you to make whatever you’d like.
BGG Store Geekup Bit Sets - While I don’t personally own any of these, mainly due to their price tag, they sure do look nice and I hear nothing but good things about them online. Made in hard bakelite plastic, they look to give a very premium feel to their games. The list of games they offer is quite low, but if you’re looking to take your copy of Race for the Galaxy, Antiquity, Quacks of Quedlinburg, or a few others, they are worth a look.
Sleeves - I am not a huge proponent of the Church of Sleeves, but will often sleeve a game when it is out of print, hard to get, or has a large deck to shuffle or has cards that are shuffled quite often. Nobody likes shuffling a 100+ card deck if it isn’t sleeved. My usage of sleeves is quite limited so I won’t recommend any specific brand to you, but there are numerous sources online that will.
Bowls or Cups - An absolute necessity at the gaming table. An unsightly pile of chits on the table or a few cups of coins, bits, and chits? I know what I prefer. I use some cheap Dollar Store glass bowls that I picked up for 4/$1 that work wonderfully. A friend of mine has the brightly colored silicone muffin cups which are wonderful as well and terrific for traveling. The options are endless here.
3D Printed Advantages - Yes, another shoutout to 3D printing. If you’re using custom inserts, often times they are playable straight out of the box and onto the table. You can also 3D print the exact bowls and cups that you fit your needs. 3D printed card trays are common for organization and tidiness. Sorted token holders, player boards, the list goes on and on.
Binders - This is very game specific, but when doing a big box campaign game like Kingdom Death: Monster or Gloomhaven, some of the best quality of life gameplay upgrades we’ve done have to do with putting cards into binders for ease of use. For instance in Gloomhaven, you have a market to go shop at in each city phase. Rather than flipping through a deck of cards, everything is cleanly presented to you in a binder to view what you can or can’t buy. For a game that you intend to put 200+ hours and 80 plays into, this is a game changer.
There is no bigger, better, or more expensive upgrade than you can make than taking your board gaming table to the next level. If you play regularly in your home, there are several benefits to having a dedicated gaming table. While this will vary wildly based on your living space, number of rooms, and if you have a specific room for gaming or play on your dining room table, I’ll share my experiences on how a gaming table is beneficial, and how to go about getting or making your own.
The most common kind of gaming table you’ll see has a recessed vault and removal top, allowing many tables to double as a standard piece of dining room furniture, but then be transformed like Clark Kent in a phone booth into your super gaming table. Having a setup like this is wonderful for a board gamer like myself that has a wife, 2 kids, and a family life to lead outside of my fortunate gaming time. I’ve had multiple week long sessions of Gloomhaven that I kept set up in the table, simply placing the top back on and going about our week. We’ve had a game of 1830 go longer than anticipated, and again, just pop the top on, and pick it up next time. And the everyday gameplay benefits of playing inside the vault are obvious as well. Cards slide across the neoprene mat inside the vault, and are easy to pick up and maneuver around. Dice roll quietly and without worry of one spilling off the edge of the table. And the big climax to any good dexterity stacking game, when everything falls to the table, turns from a loud racket into a quiet thud onto the gaming mat below.
It isn’t without its drawbacks at times as well. My personal setup has a heavy tabletop that requires 2 people to remove it - meaning I rarely get to enjoy my recessed vault for solo gaming. My tabletop is 60 inches x 38 inches, big enough for even the biggest table hogs, but the recessed portion of my table is only 52 x 30, which often isn’t big enough for games with large dedicated player boards and a large table footprint. But if I went even larger, you wouldn’t be able to reach across the table and access the board - a bit of a catch 22.
There are several online resources for gaming tables if price is no issue for you. I can’t speak to any of them personally as I’ve never seen one in the flesh, so do your due diligence in researching these companies. I considered buying a dedicated gaming table, but my wife really adored our current dining room table and didn’t want to replace it, so I began looking into the process of modifying my dining table into a convertible gaming table. There are numerous resources and threads on BGG on how to do this, but the one I followed is here. I spent under $200 on materials, including a $50 circular saw that I purchased. My woodworking skills heading into this project were maybe a 3/10, so don’t think that this isn’t something you could pursue as well. With a knowledge of woodworking, you could easily design and build your own custom table from scratch as well. I’m left with a table I’m both proud to have modified, proud to display, and always excited to show to people when they come over to game.
Is there anything wrong with gaming with the bare essentials, cardboard money chits, piles of tokens dumped out of baggies onto the floor of your living room? Absolutely not. Board games are, at their root, about the enjoyment of the company of others while using your brain in an entertaining and challenging way that it may not be getting used during the monotony of your 9-5 day. So in whatever way you find that joy, keep on doing it. My enjoyment of this hobby is accentuated and punctuated by many of the component, storage, gameplay, and table upgrades that I’ve shared here. If you’ve got any questions about anything I’ve shared or shown in this column don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter @James_CBReality. Keep on gaming, and keep cardboard (and metal coins) a reality in your life.