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Three Tips for Thrifting Board Games

I have recently witnessed a huge surge of people posting about the incredible board games they have found at thrift stores. These moments of enthusiasm—that joy of the find—are part of what makes the hobby so great. Inevitably, there are the same number of people, if not more, calling these posts fake or complaining about how their own local thrift shops have nothing to offer.

In this post I share some tips for improving your chances of finding top-notch games for cheap at your local thrift shops.

Two Different Worlds Thrifting for Games

Chances are if you are reading this, your experience thrifting for board games has been a fairly disappointing one. Let me know if this sounds familiar: you walk into Goodwill, Savers, or a local thrift store expecting to sift through a tall stack of games and puzzles, ultimately finding some hidden gem, a vintage 1st edition of a classic, or a newish title still in shrink that slipped through the cracks. Instead the entirety of the games isle consists of half-eaten Trivial Pursuits from decades prior, tacky puzzles with pieces missing, eleven different versions of something called Ker Plunk, and a discarded case of a fleeting designer’s questionable passion project. Maybe a copy of Apples to Apples is in decent enough condition to buy, but is that really what you’re looking to spend your $4.99 on today?

That’s not to say there isn’t value in some of these games. Many of them may bring nostalgia, complete a game night collection, or can be excellent sources for finding replacement pieces. But if you’re thrifting for harder-to-find titles, small-press games, or really anything that isn’t a mass market item, thrift store shelves stacked to the brim with games you’ve seen a thousand times can be monotonous and discouraging.

A wooden shelf in a bookstore filled with boxed board games and puzzles.
Games shelf at a local used bookstore

Meanwhile popular board game forums, various tabletop-focused subreddits, and other social media feeds are filled with folks boasting a completely different experience thrifting for games. For example, The Ancient and Loyal Order of Thrifters on BoardGameGeek keeps a weekly thread of Thrift Store/Bargain Finds and each week’s schedule looks like a warehouse-sized collection of vintage and modern treasures discovered amidst piles of refuse in second hand stores. Other tabletop focused groups are likewise filled with delighted gamers sharing how they found $100 games for mere dimes and brought home stacks of excellent games as a full lot for less than lunch. Like clockwork, the comment sections become filled with replies questioning the provenance of the games or bemoaning the fact that their thrift stores never seem to have anything even close to a playable game. This call and response has become a bit of routine.

Three Tips for Thrifting Board Games

I am not claiming to be an expert thrifter, but I have found some success finding really neat games at thrift stores (and I think my strategy presented in the tips below is a big part of why)! My thrifted board games collection is fairly modest—Guillotine for $2 and Cascadia still in shrink for $5 from Goodwill; Vast: Crystal Caverns for $20 from a bookstore; a collection of Tiny Epic games that I traded for some jackets and shirts; and some others. Still, considering just how tough it is to find diamonds in the rough, I’m really pleased with what I’ve come across so far, while there are definitely some things I’ve seen while thrifting that I wish I had purchased at the time.

The three tips below can help you begin to form a coherent strategy for thrifting for games, but luck is still a big factor. Like thrifting for anything, you never know what you’re going to find, and if you go into the experience expecting to find a specific item, you’re likely to leave disappointed. So my honorable mention advice before I get started is: go into it with an open mind and aim to have fun.

Mixed boxed games and puzzles including Apples to Apples Party Box on a metal shelf
Games shelf at a local Goodwill

Tip #1: Check Stock Times

One of the likely reasons you haven’t been able to find interesting games at your local thrift store is because someone is finding and buying them before you. It’s not that your local shop doesn’t have anything good; they had it, but it’s been purchased already. My first tip is an obvious one: get there first!

Like most retailers, thrift stores have designated days and times when new products are put out on the shelves. Depending on the size, scale, and services of the individual store this may be a daily routine or there could be a set day of the week that the entire shop is restocked. Each store is bound to operate differently based on their needs. But generally, most stores have standard procedures for receiving donated and purchased items, labeling and inventorying them, and moving them out in some sort of organized way onto the sales floor.

Ask a staff member if that store has set restocking times and when those times are. If they are able to share this information, plan your visit to that store at or shortly after those times if it is convenient for you. This way, you get to be one of the first people to look through new items, including any new board games that have been added and there is a better chance that rare finds and exciting titles are still there and haven’t been snatched-up already.

Tip #2: Visit Different Stores, Often

Most thrift stores don’t stock items regularly; in other words, they don’t have standard inventory that they bring in, sell through, and then order more. Instead, they normally stock their shop with donations, make bulk purchases to bring in new items, or carefully order a curated collection of goods (this last one is normally only for higher end goods and clothing). This means that the product that they stock one week will not be the same as what they stock the next week and their turnover of unique—especially quality—items is going to be comparably high compared to standard retail. When something sells, it’s gone.

Making frequent visits to thrift stores increases your overall chances of happening across choice finds. Of course, this scales with your availability and willingness to shop more. Thrift stores have some of the highest inventory turnover of all retail, but because of how new products are sourced, items are cycling daily and weekly—more frequently than, say, at your local game store. So if you only visit thrift stores every so often and never seem to find any valuable board games, it’s not that your store doesn’t carry good games, you probably just missed them.

Similarly, the more different thrift stores you can visit, the more items you will be able to sift through. Again, by nature of how thrift stores source new items, the selection of items at one location is going to be wholly different than those at another. By regularly visiting multiple spots you can also become more familiar with your local stores and the types of items they typically stock. Use Tip #1 to help you plan for Tip #2.

Tip #3: Ask About Holds

This last tip requires building a relationship with your local thrift shops founded on mutual respect. If you are serious about wanting to successfully thrift for games, then you should be willing to put in the work to make personal, positive connections with your local thrift shops, and know and respect their operations and staff.

If you feel it’s appropriate, it doesn’t hurt to ask someone at your local thrift store if they could be on the lookout on your behalf for any board games coming in. They may be willing to keep certain products in limited quantities off the shelf for a time as a special hold, or contact you if something specific you are looking for comes through their door. Of course some thrift stores may be more capable or willing to offer such a special service than others. Corporate chains, for instance, may have a standard policy against holds for customers, while mom-and-pop shops with a more local community focus may be more inclined.

But if you want a thrift store to go above and beyond for you, be willing to do the same for them. Purchase things from them regularly, offer your own unique services in exchange, donate or sell items to them frequently, or even volunteer. Sometimes becoming a friend of the store is as simple as being regular, respectful, and genuinely interested in being part of their customer community.

Boxed board games including Race to the Treasure and Minecraft Travel Puzzle on a slatwall shelf
Some nice games at a local Goodwill

Final Thoughts

Like I said earlier, luck is an important part of successfully thrifting for board games. But there are so many other factors that could impact your experience. For example, living in or near a city means you will likely have access to more options and a larger pool of items passing through various stores. The overall consumer market in your region will also affect if and how board games trickle into thrift stores near you; if there’s not a primary market for tabletop games near you, it follows that the secondary market will also be wanting.

Your budget is another thing to consider. Everyone is going to have a different threshold for what they are willing to pay for games. A great deal for one may not be the same bargain for another. Understanding the pricing strategies of your local thrift stores should help you be able to adjust your expectations for what to find.

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