Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL, is the finest games store in the Chicago area. Every spring and fall they hold a fabulous games auction.
Now, I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve been to some terrific games auctions in my time, starting with CanGames in Ottawa in the early 80s, then the friendly auctions at WinterWar in Champaign, IL where I was a grad student in the 90s.
And of course, for sheer quantity of items on offer, nothing beats the legendary GenCon auction, held over multiple days in Indianapolis every August.
But if you really, really want that rare gaming item, bidding against hundreds of hard core gaming fans from across the country at GenCon is a sure way to pay top dollar for it.
For real bargains, you need a small local auction. And I’ve never found one friendlier or more rewarding than the twice-a-year event at Games Plus, which is attended by perhaps a hundred gamers and collectors from the Chicago area.
It’s spread across four days and includes thousands of games of virtually every vintage and description, sorted into four categories. Occasionally I drop by Friday night for the Historical Games, especially when I’m on the hunt for hard-to-find Avalon Hill or SPI titles. But usually I save up for the main event: the Saturday Fantasy and Science Fiction auction, which starts at 10:00 a.m. and runs until early evening.
Knowing my lack of control in the past, my wife Alice gave me a strict budget this year. I was not to return home with more than $200 of auction loot. So you can imagine my measured apprehension when my winnings were totaled and the auctioneer handed me a bill for $1,667.75.
When I relate this story to friends, their most common question is “Are you still married?”
Let’s just say the best answer I can give is, “conditionally.”
But back to the auction. Because, man, that was a blast.
It’s true that my memories are a little… vague. It’s possible I was in the grip of what’s often called “auction fever,” which is a form of temporary insanity.
(The “temporary” aspect turned out to be key to my passionate argument to save my marriage, but that’s another story.)
But the end result was that I brought home a marvelous collection of treasures, a lesson in the evolution of fantasy games, and quite a few auction war stories, which I shared with anyone who would listen… and more than a few who didn’t listen, to be honest.
I’ve been in pursuit of the deluxe 2010 edition of Horus Heresy, a Warhammer 40,000 board game from Games Workshop, for several years. It’s still in print and available through several outlets, but with a retail price of $110 it was a little out of my price range.
So when a near mint condition copy of the game went on the auction block, I bid with enthusiasm. Not enough enthusiasm to win however, and the high bidder carried it away with a triumphant expression for $42.
Before long a second copy was offered up. My resolve had hardened by this point, and after a lively round of bidding I won it for $46.
I felt quite satisfied — until a third copy went on the block only moments later, this one in the best shape of the batch. With all the heavy bidders now removed, this pristine copy looked headed for a sale at the criminally low price of $30. Exasperated, I lifted my auction card, certain I wasn’t going to win again, but determined not to miss out on a bargain.
I now have two copies of Horus Heresy. At least I got that second one for $42 (still not cheap!)
There were genuine bargains as well, most of them sheer auction luck. Hundreds of items are sold every hour, most flashing by in the span of a few seconds, and you don’t have time to carefully consider every purchase. You have to make a call in an instant, and every once in a while I made the right one.
One of the most hotly-anticipated items in the auction was set of a mint condition AD&D boxed sets from TSR. More than a few bidders had their eye on them as they were carried up front, and people began edging forward in their seats as the items ahead of them in the queue were gradually sold.
The first in the lot was one of the rarest box sets TSR ever printed, Forgotten Realms: The North. Many D&D fans have never even seen it, and I paid an exorbitant fee for a tattered copy a few years ago. By contrast, this one looked in pristine shape.
The auctioneer lifted it up, holding it for all to see. “A copy of Forgotten Realms: The North in excellent shape, with a starting bid of just two dollars,” he said. Two dozen bidding cards went in the air, including mine.
“Missing the maps,” the auctioneer concluded.
There was a collective groan. The beautiful maps TSR included in their boxed sets two decades ago were one of the chief reasons for their collectability. Across the room, all the bidding cards dropped.
Except for mine. What the hell, at least the box was in better shape than my copy.
I won it uncontested for two bucks, and then won the sets that followed — also mapless, and also sold for close to the minimum bid.
A few minutes later the auctioneer announced the next set of items up for bid: a collection of beautifully laminated maps from the boxed sets I had just purchased.
There was a second — and much louder — groan. I won the maps for a song, and now I had a collection of excellent condition boxed sets from TSR (with maps!) for a pittance.
Serendipity is what auctions are all about. I didn’t go in search of D&D adventures; I went chiefly looking for relics from what I considered the golden age of SF and fantasy wargaming, the late 70s and early 80s, particularly Dwarfstar games like Demonlord and the near-priceless Barbarian Prince, and classic mini-games from Metagaming like Melee and Wizard.
Of course, I found virtually none of them. What I found instead is that fantasy gaming is very much alive and well, with an incredible assortment of modern titles of which I was almost completely unaware.
Now, I don’t consider myself unschooled in fantasy gaming. I have a fair collection, even if much of it has been consigned to the crawlspace to make room for all those leftover review copies that keep piling up.
Yes, my collection is aging somewhat, but I keep tabs on the latest releases every month from Fantasy Flight games, Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, Steve Jackson Games, Age of Wonder, AEG, and most of the other key players.
Turns out, that’s not nearly enough to keep abreast of the best in modern SF and Fantasy gaming.
As I usually do, I brought a pen and index card to the auction to jot down the really intriguing titles that came up. I expected to win a few, of course, but when you see a tantalizing gem for the first time in the hands of an auctioneer, that’s not always the best moment to throw caution to the winds.
Better to jot down the title, make a note of the selling price, and then do a little research in the days that follow to see what options are available to the collecting enthusiast.
[Of course there are moments when the artifact in question is so tantalizing that the proper course of action is to bid like a mad fool, crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.
But we’re speaking here of recommended behavior, not the sort that results in an auction bill for $1,667.75 and a wife who has complete control of your masculinity for the next 3 months.]
Anyway, I brought a pen and paper. Some tantalizing but unfamiliar gems came up. I bid on them. When I lost, I jotted down the title and the winning bid.
Soon I ran out of paper. I quickly dug an old Google maps printout out of my jacket pocket and used the back to scribble more titles. I ran out of room on that, and made use of a second sheet of scrap paper.
Fortunately the auction ended just as I reached the bottom of the third sheet, as my next option was to start writing on the guy next to me.
And here’s the odd thing. Most of these tantalizing gems were not relics from a forgotten age, placed in zip-lock bags by our gaming ancestors decades ago.
No, most of these out-of-print objects of desire were published just a few scant years ago, and are now hotly in demand.
Games like BattleLore from Age of Wonder, copies of which sold for $50 or more, and over a dozen of its expansion packs — virtually all of which eluded my eager grasp.
Most of them looked intriguing, but it was that copy of Scottish Wars that I really wanted.
I know virtually nothing about BattleLore, and certainly didn’t know it was out of print and now worth its weight in gold. But something about a game featuring detailed miniatures of mounted dwarves (yes, mounted) in screaming combat on the Scottish heath spoke to my very soul.
Alas, it was not to be. But I wrote it on the list. And underlined it.
I checked online when I got home, of course. Copies of Battlelore start at $160 at Amazon.
And Scottish Wars? Still in print! I found a new copy for $21 online. It is on its way to me even as we speak.
As evidenced by my list, BattleLore was by no means the only treasure of modern gaming that had somehow eluded my attention.
There was also the massive Earth Reborn by Z-man games, the enigmatic Fist of the Dragonstones (Days of Wonder), The Adventurers: Temple of Chac (AEG and Dust Games), Star Trek: Expeditions (NECA), Empires (Hobby Products), and All Things Zombie from Lock ‘N Load Publishing, just to name a few of the highlights.
I’ve spent the last week tracking down information on these games — and dozens more — and the search has led me to a host of innovative companies publishing highly acclaimed fantasy and science fiction games.
It’s been an exciting week, really. And it has me thinking that maybe we’re living in the golden age of SF and fantasy gaming right now.
I’ll let you know for sure as soon as that copy of Scottish Wars arrives.
In the meantime, I’m still sifting through the boxes I brought back from the auction. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that it will take me a full six months to sort through them all, which will conveniently take me to the doorstep of the fall auction at Games Plus.
Hope to see you there!