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Thank You Very Much, Mr. Roboto (A Guide to Math Trades)

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…for doing the jobs nobody wants to–like putting together a long chain of trades to make everybody happy.

Seriously, have you tried doing that by yourself? It’s a pain. You have to send a string of e-mails to people you may not know, get individual confirmations, and organize all of the information  for the other traders. And if one trader backs out? The whole trade dies then and there.

Thank goodness there’s an easier way–the math trade.

What Is a Math Trade?

You may have heard others talking about math trades and asked this very question. Aside from having a somewhat foreboding name to the numberphobic among us, a math trade is a computer-assisted trade based on creating trade chains, which are typically larger than one user (or a group of users) would be able to orchestrate on their own.

Think of it like this: I have game A and want game B. The person with game B, however, doesn’t want A, but they do want game C. The person with game C doesn’t want game B, but they do want game A. In this case, the line is simple: A –> C –> B –> A

A math trade is like that…only with hundreds of users, hundreds of games, hundreds of trades.

Essentially, the “trade” is a geeklist on Board Game Geek where individual users advertise which games they have available for trade. Then, in a separate program (the online want list generator, or OLWLG, for short), users choose which games they would accept in trade for the items they’ve advertised (creating “want lists” for each item advertised). Once the item submission window closes and users have submitted their want lists, the OLWLG runs an algorithm that matches users’ items in trade, like a big group blind date. The OLWLG spits out results, and users send their games to who they’re assigned to.

Are There Risks?

Probably 99 percent of the time this works exactly as planned. Very rarely there are matters that require “geek gold arbitrage,” which basically means a trade is required that is an obvious breach of value (for example, a $20 gift certificate is given for one worth $25) so the trader giving less must offer compensation. (Again, these issues are rare, because users follow the explicit directions given, which forbid this activity–if only all spheres of life were like this!) Also rare is a user flaking out of an assigned trade, which can mess the chain up big time. This hasn’t happened to me, but it has happened to someone I know. These situations are rotten, but usually someone on Board Game Geek fills in the gap and makes sure the spurned receiver doesn’t walk away empty-handed. Oh, the generosity of geeks!

The bigger risk in a math trade is messing up your want lists, either mismatching items (trading for something you didn’t intend) or forgetting to use duplicate protection and receiving multiple copies of an item. This is also rare if you know what you’re doing.

Why Should I Participate?

Math trades are especially useful for two situations: 1) no one will directly trade the game you want for the game you have, or 2) seemingly no one wants the game you have (including you). In the first instance, direct trades are obviously preferable: you can do the legwork up front, avoid the lengthy want list process, and have certainty that you’re getting the game you ask for. But direct trades, while preferable, do not always work out. What you have and what you want may have an equal MSRP (and in other ways be a fair trade), but you have to find a willing trader in order to make it happen. Math trades can assist you in this because the trade partner doesn’t have to want your game as long as someone does.

In the second situation, math trades are a great way to unload some of the games that you don’t want and are having trouble selling or trading. Why is this so? Well, first of all, a lot of people use math trades as a way to trade their slough. But also, because math trades are wide-open affairs, participants will sometimes throw in “sweeteners” to make items more attractive. That extra copy of a Kickstarter game that didn’t pan out? Throw it in with something else, and you might get more in trade. Or package a bunch of small games together and see what you can get. People who are new to the hobby often want to explore–they just want games–and math trades offer a great way to explore. And math trades offer even greater chances to explore if they are no-ship math trades, meaning that participants make the trades in person rather than sending games through the mail. (These usually happen at conventions.) Here, as with the first situation, the trade will only happen if someone else wants your item, so your third copy of novelty Monopoly might sit on the shelf a while longer.

When Do Math Trades Happen?

At the whim of their organizers. There are several BGG users who run math trades frequently (trenttsd’s trades have been very well organized, in my experience, and he usually lets followers know on Twitter that he’s running one), and a big math trade usually happens once a quarter or so, sometimes more often, and they usually happen during lulls in the gaming calendar–so in the time between Gen Con and Essen, Essen and Origins, and so on. But really, they can happen any time. And if you’re thinking, Hey, there hasn’t been one in a while, you can try running one yourself. (Though you should definitely participate in an experienced user’s trade first to see how it’s done.)

If you’re going to a large convention (like Gen Con), you can be sure that someone there will run a no-ship math trade. As I mentioned above, no-ship math trades are preferable because they save you money on shipping, loosening users’ want lists and making them more willing to trade their wares.

Be advised: sometimes trades are country-specific or offer shipping restrictions. You’ll need to read the trade instructions and individual item listings to see where you’re required to ship and where other users are willing to ship.

Also, be advised: I like math trades a lot, and I usually participate in ones that aren’t closed to me. As such, I usually announce them in our weekly news post.

How Do I Participate?

Participating is easy! Go to the trade’s geeklist on Board Game Geek, and click on “add item” in the geeklist’s header. You’ll list your item by type, fill in its condition, where you’re willing to ship, and any other pertinent information, and add it to the list. Then, when the trade organizer syncs the geeklist with the OLWLG, your item will be there. Hooray! You can see the list of what everyone else has to offer and add those items to wantlists for your games with just a few clicks. Easy. (Though this can be very time consuming, depending on the number of items in the trade–I like to do this gradually, as new items are added, rather than in a burst at the end.)

Here are the steps to participating in a math trade spelled out:

  • Add items to the math trade geeklist (during the submission window, usually clearly defined in the geeklist header).
  • Either during the item submission window or once submissions have closed, select items from the list that you’d be willing to trade your items for.
  • Check, double-check, and triple-check your lists to be sure you’ve managed them correctly.
  • Turn on duplicate protection, if necessary. (This ensures you don’t get multiple copies of the same game.)
  • Submit your want list. (All that work you did is worth nothing if you miss this step.)
  • When results are posted, send trade requests for the items you listed.
  • Send your items, and wait for the items you won to be sent to you.
  • Leave other users feedback.

Tips for Successful Math Trading

  • Describe your trade items accurately. You want others to do this for you, so do this for others.
  • Looser want lists are more likely to trade… The more items you put on a want list for your game, the more potential trades you’re opening yourself up to. (For games you want to get rid of, which aren’t super popular and you don’t mind what you get for them, this is especially effective.)
  • …but make sure you’d be willing to make every trade on your want list. It’s only a good trade if you get something you want, or that was better than what you had.
  • Check, double-check, and triple check your want list. It’s the best way to ensure you get what you want.
  • Use duplicate protection. I ended up with two copies of New York once, and I’ve been a staunch advocate for duplicate protection ever since. The process is opaque, but there are guides, and the OLWLG will do most of the hard work for you. It’s worth your time to learn how to do it.
  • Participate in no-ship math trades if you can. No-ship math trades are awesome because there are no fees for shipping. You can be looser in what you accept, and you might end up with a game you love. (It’s happened to me more than once. Thanks, Gen Con math trade!)
  • Ask for help if you need it. You can ask questions here or on Board Game Geek. But you are part of a great community–use it. We’ll help you out.

Other Resources

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. This was a really interesting read. I had heard of math trades before, but never fully understood them. I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the concept now. I may have to take a look at my collection and see if there’s anything I’d like to try and (math) trade.

  2. You really do need to double and triple check your list. I thought I had mine ironed out, and ended up trading games I don’t play but were nice to have (and fairly valuable) for games that I won’t play and nobody seems to want.

    Honestly, I’m with my gaming group’s mindset, which is “we are adults with jobs, we will exchange legal tender for goods and services.” The legwork was simply not worth the outcome for me.

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