The Joy of Curating: Managing Your Collection


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 prune, 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.

Managing Your Collection

The original idea behind this series was actually a simple article on the personal experience culling my own collection over the past year.  It had simply gotten too large and I needed to address that issue. Because it was a problem. I thought writing about my own efforts might interest, help, or inspire others.  But as I planned and researched and brainstormed, I felt I needed to broaden my musings on the subject, both generally and personally. Why did I feel I reached that point? What did I do?  What are some hurdles to parting ways to stacks of cardboard boxes? Where does one turn?

And why must we always approach the subject from the negative angle with the term culling? It denotes purging, whittling away, tearing apart, paring down, getting rid of something just to get rid of it, and ripping off that painful band-aid!  That’s why I wanted to look at the subject from the perspective of curating your collection, instead.

Before life thrust me into my current employment I was a public historian for a decade, including a curator of collections for eight years at a small start-up museum.  To my mind, it’s an appropriate word for a discussion about board games collections. It’s root lies in the Latin cūrāre, meaning to attend to, be responsible for, or restore to health.  It has been applied spiritually in the foundation of the word curate, a Parish priest responsible for watching over his parishioners, and legally to describe someone with guardianship over another.

There are frequent conversations in the hobby surrounding collection culling, and while the focus is always on getting rid of stuff (I’ve said it myself), the aim is actually a traditional form of curation.  Museum curators are tasked with identifying, cataloging, and preserving a collection of objects or other material for historical and/or cultural research and interpretation. Now, while the goal in our hobby is certainly not as lofty as a museum’s, I contend that the basic principle is the same.

You’ve identified and amassed a bunch of games over the years (or maybe quite less, if you have a real problem!).  After such acquisitions (which is still potentially ongoing), you need to house and access them. Ideally, all of your efforts are undertaken towards the aim of actually using and enjoying the fruits of your collection!  Yet as it becomes too unwieldy and unrealistic to benefit from (as it was in my case), it may be necessary to reduce it. Essentially, the reason one might trim their collection, then, is exactly to fine tune its worth, in a practical sense.

So how then might curatorial principles apply to board games collecting?

Identifying and Acquiring.  Listen…even museums don’t take everything.  More than that, they don’t even take everything that actually correlates to their mission plan and vision statement!  They just can’t. For a number of reasons. Space and funding are the big ones, but also an object’s condition, duplication, or questionable provenance.  If such discernment is important for cultural institutions with lots of money, space, and staff, then perhaps it’s helpful to us as board game collectors, too?

The two main concerns with respect to a collection in our hobby are generally space versus relative use.  If you’re not into collecting board games just to be a collector, then before acquiring new titles you should first consider two questions.  Do I have room to add this new box? Am I going to realistically play this new game? The former is fairly concrete and physically measurable.  Museums – especially smaller ones – grapple with this issue daily. The latter question is admittedly more abstract and dependent. It’s one that only you can answer and it’s important to be honest with yourself – which is difficult because we all like shiny new things and get excited over hot items hitting the market that everyone is raving about. The fear of missing out – that acronym who’s meaning I always forget.

Just as museums wrestle with whether or not objects best preserve and interpret their history or art, we must consider which games are most practical for our collection.  Except in a pure collector’s concept, the vast majority of collections in the hobby are to be used. Bloated collections in a limited space defeat that purpose. So whether you come up with a rule like “One in, one out,” or just learn to say, “No!,” careful acquisition is halfway to successful culling.

Inventorying and Housing.  A collection is useless if you can’t functionally access the items you need from it.  Really the most important aspect of a museum curator’s job is managing the collection.  Specifically cataloging and identifying the provenance of objects for exhibition and research in a manner that aligns with the institution’s mission.

Again, the main purpose of a board games collection is its use.  Practical use. Have you ever lost one of your games? (Guilty.) Have you ever forgotten you even had one? (Yep, guilty again!)  Or thought you traded or sold one away, only to see it surprisingly there still on the shelf? (I’ll just hang my head now.) If you’re going to play your games, and you have a large enough collection, you’ll need to properly inventory them.  Most of this is common sense organization. You don’t need to follow Marie Kondo.

Most of our readers likely have accounts with Board Game Geek and utilize the collections tool there. If you’d like a customized system, such as making one on Excel or just recording them in a Word file, that’s fine.  It’s up to you. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Plus the one on BGG works fantastically, is mostly intuitive, and easy to navigate. However it is you like to keep track of owned games, make sure to stay on top of it! When one comes in or goes out, update your inventory that day. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget and let it slip!

Furthermore, while museums need to consider storing objects in appropriate environmentally controlled rooms and archival quality containers, simple storage solutions will suffice for less culturally significant objects like board games!  Basements and attics are not ideal as their environments tend to change more severely, but alas it’s often all we have. In any event, it’s recommended to have some sort of system that eases access and inventory. Perhaps you like to shelve titles alphabetically or by box size?  Maybe you prefer categorical organization by theme, mechanism, publisher, or designer? Feasibly you could store lots of small box games in bins or containers. If so, make sure to label the contents of each one. Whatever method you utilize, stay consistent and be routine. As games get misplaced or set aside for whatever reason, even if well intentioned, your collections usability can suffer.

Just as good organization and cataloging improves a museum collection’s value and use, it’s just as helpful in managing your own, which again is half the battle of collection management.  Be that in tracking acquisitions and disposals, in understanding how large a collection truly is, and/or in facilitating the process of trimming.

Purpose and Use.  Museums must acquire only material objects that align with their vision and mission.  Otherwise, they’re not of any use. That’s their mandate. They exist to preserve and interpret a particular heritage.  Countermanding that purpose is a waste of funding, which tends to tick off taxpayers or donors. That’s why a place like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum here in Springfield, IL, proudly displays the 16th president’s iconic stovepipe hat and the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, doesn’t.

Perhaps that sounds like a stupidly bizarre analogy, but I’m not sure it’s too off the mark for the way many hobbyists impulsively or haphazardly grow their mountains of cardboard.  The biggest culprits to unwieldy, and hence unuseful, board game collections are unnecessary and unrealistic additions. Therefore, this concept is closely related to the first about acquisitions.  And returning to the original impetus for this series, culling your collection is about blowing the chaff from the wheat. The less bloat upon your shelves, the easier it is to manage and trim, as needed.  Restrained, researched, goal-oriented growth keeps collections streamlined so that they can better serve their purpose.

Do you really have a time and place for that day-long Twilight Imperium 4th edition, no matter how sweet those minis look?  Do you play enough Dominion to utilize every single expansion that has ever come out? Do you truly have the type of group that can deal with the complexity of A Feast for Odin?  Or one that has the patience to deal with a cooperative exercise like Pandemic? Does anyone else you play with want to revisit the nostalgia of Fireball Island? And maybe Kickstarter isn’t the best place for you to hang out…? While I’ll consider all of these questions when discussing what to cull, knowing your collection’s purpose might prevent you from getting to that point in the first place with ill-conceived acquisitions!  Or at least so quickly.

Just as museum collections are guided by their purpose, understanding how your board game collection is used will help keep it focused, usable, and well-loved.  If you’re the source of many different types of games to suit many different occasions, this is more difficult to get a handle on. But most of us have specific groups and gaming scenarios in which particular types of games get to the table.  Concentrate on acquiring titles that meet those criteria and stick to it!

Many of the points I addressed above will show up again in the next few articles as I discuss when it’s time to trim your collection, the difficulties, and what and how.  Employing a curatorial mindset, though, can help keep your collection manageable and usable before you even amass more than you can use, and certainly while you’re in the midst of it.  With all that said, it’s still very possible – some may even say inevitable – that your collection simply reaches a point where it’s too big. When do you know you’ve reached that point?  I’ll examine that 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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