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The Joy of Curating: The Tipping Point

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There are many characteristics to our hobby.  Board and role-playing games are about entertainment, creativity, socialization, art and/or intellectual stimulation.  Another major element is collecting – the amassing of games for practical use or otherwise. This aspect often drives amusing discussions about why we collect often inumerable games.  Many look at their stuffed closets and sagging shelves with pride. Others with embarrassment. Likewise, other hobbyists might scan the scarcity of their own collection with satisfaction, while others owning a similar dearth only desire more.  What is an appropriate number of games to own? Is there even such a thing? When does having become collecting? When does collecting become stockpiling? When does stockpiling become hoarding? And when is it time to reduce and just how should one proceed?

This series is about maintaining your collection and keeping it a reasonable number, fully conceding it’s a relative concept.  If you enjoy the mere collecting of unlimited stacks of cardboard and have all the necessary space, this will hardly interest you.  But if you find your ludological hoard growing impractically rampant, this series will discuss managing your collection, deciding when it’s the right time to cull it, address the hurdles to that endeavor, discuss what exactly to glean, look at your options when you’ve reached that point, and end with my own personal journey through the process.  Because, indeed, maintaining your collection is not a one-time job. It is an ongoing process.

The Tipping Point

Perhaps you’ve heard of the mind-boggling concept from physics (though more likely from Star Trek) called the spacetime continuum, which merges time, as a fourth dimension, with the traditional three we typically think of?  Well, the tabletop hobby is often governed by a very different, but just as unfathomable model, that I like to call the spactime conundrum.  How do we find enough space to store all of our games as well as enough time to play them?!  Good luck, Einstein, figuring that one out!

My previous article began this series on collections management and culling by examining how we might apply curatorial principles to the method in which we acquire games, and why.  Eventually your ludological piles will reach a threshold where it’s simply too large to manage and/or use, whether we want to admit it or not. A tipping point. Again, unless you just like and are able to collect games for their representative or historical value to appreciate in a vacuum – kind of like an art collection.  Still, even in that scenario, many might argue there’s got to be that point – an end or rule of some sort.

Returning briefly to my comparison in the first article, even museums cull their collections. Sure, it’s a bit rarer and done with more care than the same process with our hobby collection, but it’s sometimes necessary.  It’s called deaccession. It begins with the curator identifying and justifying why the organization should get rid of the material in the first place. Then they must make sure they aren’t breaking any laws and/or skirting any legal or ethical obligations to the community and donors.  And, of course, always strictly according to a policy adopted by the museum for such occurrences.

Reasons for deaccessioning range from the logical and mundane, such as the museum can no longer care for the particular object, has no space for it, it cannot be practicably restored, or it duplicates something else.  To thornier concerns such as its provenance turns out to be questionable or fraudulent. Or maybe the museum needs to raise funds and can legitimately sell an object and still meet its mission while parting with it. To even far weightier issues such as the museum came to ownership of the item through theft or misappropriation of another’s cultural property (i.e., European museums with Egyptian artifacts and U.S. institutions with Native American material).

We’ll stick to the logical and mundane characteristics for our cardboard collections, as it’s certainly more relevant to us.  (Though we here at the ‘Dragon strongly denounce theft in any form, intentional or accidental. If you misappropriated another’s game, please give it back to them!)

So just when is it that you’ve reached that tipping point?  What is that magical number that announces to your shelves, “It’s time to cull!”?  That number is 108. After running through the spactime continuum calculations, I’ve figured that’s enough to have one game covering all major categories of style, mechanism, and theme, as well as representative examples of the best designers and Spiel des Jahres winners.  What, you don’t believe me? More accurately, you don’t want to believe me!

Jesting aside, alas, there is no magical number.  At least not one that universally applies, of course.  It’s relative and depends on your situation. But since culling objects is even part of a cultural institution’s operation, like a museum, then it’s something we should consider for our own collections personally.  Here are some major parameters indicating that, perhaps, it just might be time for you to downsize.

Space.  Not the final frontier, but shelf space.  You’re simply out of room. Or, usually, worse.  It isn’t that there just aren’t any spots left to put games, but that the ones you currently own are spilling over and into other household spaces reserved for other uses!  I’ve listed this concern first not just because it’s the most obvious and talked about, but because despite acknowledging all of that, it’s still one of the two hardest truth for us hobbyists to confront: the lie that I can squeeze this new game in somewhere!  (I’ll address the second in my next article.)

For the most part, you don’t need any fancy method or system to determine space issues.  The easiest way to see when you’re out of room, and hence might need culling, is with the eyes.  That said, your eyes can deceive you – as in “your eyes were bigger than your stomach” when loading up that plate at the buffet line. For the second trip.  More precisely, your desires (heart) override reality (your eyes). Even though shelves are sagging, boxes fill out the closet, and piles reach the ceiling, we think we can still fit a little more only if we rearrange or get better organized.  That could be true sometimes. But more often, your eyes don’t lie.

There are other, more subtle indicators that you may be out of space.  Can you see everything or, if you have containers with multiple small box games, can you clearly read the labeling (if you’ve labeled them)?  If you have to shove some boxes behind others or routinely shelve them two or three deep, then I contend you’re out of space. It’s not a hill I’ll die on, but you’re viably out of room if you can’t readily scan your collection as needed, for something like confirming inventory or especially while just perusing everything to stinking pick one out to play!  Also, through your cramming and stuffing, do you notice any damage to the edges and corners of your game boxes? Or dishing in the lids of those at the bottom of heavy stacks? If you’re having trouble seeing everything or causing damage through attempts to maximize your storage space, then it’s more than likely you’ve reached a tipping point and should consider downsizing.

Moving.  Indeed, another very practical consideration to the question of culling.  Most people know plenty of time ahead if this sort of major life adjustment is on the horizon.  You may know what new house or apartment you’ll be moving into, and so even have an idea about space.  Regardless, packing up and hauling a large collection of games while you’re already doing the same for an entire household only adds more stress.  And moving is already an extremely stressful project. I know I hope I never have to again, perfectly content with dying in my current house (except when I’m shoveling a foot of snow off the drive in January, then the south looks pretty nice).

If you know you’ll be moving soon, or down the road, it’s smart to start the culling process early, when things aren’t crazy and hectic.  It literally lightens your load and, if you sell most of it, provides some funds that could be helpful – because there are always miscellaneous and often unexpected expenses in the midst of a major move.  So this is a great time to get on that downsizing as it’s a real world excuse to start culling when motivation for such a process can otherwise be difficult (see my next article).

Need money.  Speaking of money…finding yourself short on funds for some, especially unexpected, expense(s) may be that tipping point for you.  Yes, even though it isn’t directly related to the size of your collection, or physically getting out of hand. But it’s a practical consideration and can come in handy – especially if you’ve been considering downsizing, anyway.  Now, you won’t get rich. Board games collecting isn’t an investment. And there are innumerable things more important that hobbies. So, if you need some quick cash, you might find it’s time to address those sagging shelves. Or, if you spend too much money on games (again, relative, though I suspect most of us do), perhaps that means it’s time to decrease the piles.  If only to use the funds to purchase new games, instead of using your normal budget. If you can manage that at a ratio where more are sold away than purchased as replacements, then it can be a good practice.

Adding to the family.  Yet another very real and very practical event that combines the previous two considerations and can lead to your tipping point.  I’m no financial expert, but increasing the size of your household has been known to impact one’s budget – and is a major life change!  Are you moving in with another, getting married, having a baby or taking on the care of another family member or friend? Each of those scenarios impacts your available household space, budget, and life responsibilities.  Life is about change. And that affects our hobbies. As much as we might like to hold on to it (sorry to keep teasing the next article), this is an important tipping point that ushers in that time for many of us – the time to start culling.

Forgotten stuff.  My bad memory is notorious among those who know me.  And, yes, this has happened to me. Now, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have ever forgotten about a particular title if I hadn’t had over 300 of them.  If you’ve reached the point where you’ve forgotten you owned a game or, conversely, went looking for one with no luck only to finally realize you got rid of it, then you might have reached that tipping point.  A corollary to this is losing games. Whether it’s been misplaced, left somewhere and forgotten, or loaned and never returned, if you’ve discovered titles were long out-of-sight, out-of-mind until some chance reunification brought it back to mind, you might need to consider downsizing.

Unused and/or unmanageable collection.  Other than the physical space it takes up relative to what you have available, probably the clearest way to determine whether or not your collection is too large is to stop and think about it logically.  Step back and be reasonable, rather than making stubborn decisions with the heart. Try this argument as an exercise. I collect games to play them. I play all of the games in my collection. Therefore, my collection is the right size.  Or, I collect games to play them. I cannot play all of the games in my collection. Therefore, my collection is too large. An unused collection is one simply wasting space (again, unless you approach it like an art connoisseur or antique collector just showing stuff off).  I mention this mostly briefly, because it seems rather obvious (if still a hard rule to live by) and I’ll address it again in a couple articles.

But another aspect to an unused collection we tend to examine less often is an unmanageable one.  I touched on this when discussing how we can apply curatorial principles to collections management.  If you discover that you’re beginning to acquire unnecessary and/or repeat acquisitions, you’ve reached that tipping point.  Because usually that results from owning a collection that’s so large, you lose track of what you have…even if you do regular inventory.  Unnecessary acquisitions run the gamut from acquiring games you realistically can’t or won’t play, to new editions of designs you already have that work perfectly well, to titles that are very close to other representative games on your shelves, and to some rarer cases of a game that you already own!  All leading to regret after the fact and resulting in idle boxes. If you’ve experienced any of that, even once, then, yes, you guessed it, it’s time.

The Circle of Life.  I’ve already alluded to collections management and culling as a process, a label that I’m sure applies to many areas of life.  Here, I’m unashamedly borrowing it from sports where it references constructing a lasting, winning franchise with a patient intentionality.  With our board games collections, that includes routinely curating games that address the circles and situations in which we currently play, assigning it value and usefulness (see above, so closely related).  Titles that were perfect and exciting fits for your gaming needs five years ago may likely be languishing in the closet today.  That means it’s too big. You’ve reached that threshold. Now, we’ll talk how to examine specific titles that address this issue in a future article, but if you’re discovering that a large number of boxes in your collection aren’t meeting the needs of your changing gaming dynamics, then tip it over and cull some out!

Embarrassed.  There are gamers that beam with pride when considering or talking about their collection of 300+ board games.  Hear me clearly: I am not disparaging those gamers…not in the slightest. That’s fine! In fact, there are actual reasons one might own that many titles beyond the mere collecting of them.  Perhaps said gamer is THE source of a ludology accessible to large numbers of players, at all levels of experience, in a club or other social occasion. This series of guides is not to disparage the amassing of cardboard mountains, though admittedly it might not interest those with no intentions or desires to cull their shelves.

For me, I was a little embarrassed, to be honest.  That might sound odd, but I’m betting that I’m not alone. I mean, it is just a hobby, and compiling that many things that see rare usage just seemed to me trivial and more than a little wasteful.  Not to dive too deeply before wrapping up this series with an article on my personal experiences, but whenever someone asked how many games I had, I was a little reluctant to answer.  Did I really spend that much money on them all? Well, no, because I’m a reviewer. Can you even play them all? Well, no. So what’s the point?! Couldn’t you find a better home for all those unplayed games?  Well, possibly. I had gone from having a small collection of favorites, to one of a good variety, to one that was getting out of hand. While I was not a hoarder, I began to feel like one. That’s when I reached my tipping point.  If you find yourself in that scenario where you sheepishly answers questions about your games, then perhaps you have, too?

Typically every collection has a tipping point if it’s to provide any worth to your needs.  That limit where its size proves a hindrance to utility and instead offers a lot of useless bloat.  Whether that’s a hard and fast number for you, or a general combination of several factors, the next step is getting to it.  And that can be hard. We don’t often like giving things up. I’ll address those obstacles in the next article.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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