Open Seat Gaming: Collector's Corner - A Discussion of Upgrade Kits
These days, a vast majority of tabletop games come with some type (often multiple types) of bits in them: whether that be wooden cubes or pieces, cardboard chits, plastic cubes, pawns, counters, dials, you name it. The quality of these bits can vary widely, even among games from the same company sometimes.
Companies like Meeple Source exist to fill the hole you might have with your love for a game by giving you the option for many games to upgrade the cardboard or simple components into custom bits, often shaped or themed for that specific game. From pawn-to-custom-meeple replacements to fancy resource and marker tokens, there are a plethora of options if you're looking for something to spice up your game.
But are upgrade packs necessary? If there is one available, should you be looking to pick it up as soon as you can? Let's look at some times it's nice to get upgrade packs and some times when it isn't really needed.
Times for an Upgrade Kit
Upgrade Packs are at their best when they improve upon or make things easier than the components provided in the game itself. There are many ways this can be done and I'm going to touch on a few today.
For those that have played Pandemic and have any of its expansions, you'll recognize the mass of pawns at the top of the above pic. So many shades of the same colors can make it difficult to pick the "right" one for whichever role you're using, especially if multiple people end up with a "light green" or "medium blue" colored role. The Meeple Source meeples shown below the pawns are SUCH an improvement as each one actually looks like the role card it matches and makes it a lot easier to find the one you need, and also keep track of yourself during actual games.
A big reason why I like upgrade kits is that they frequently take cardboard bits/chits and turn them into chunky, wooden pieces that are so much easier to pick up if you're like me and have large hands/fingers. The second image above (with the coins on the right) has The City of Kings bits on the left. Those tiny, square chits are what comes with the base game, and the glorious wooden replacements came with the deluxe edition. I haven't gotten it to the table yet, but I'm already SO glad I got the deluxe edition with the resource upgrades because it would have been a nightmare for me to try and deal with those tiny chits.
Sometimes (like the image in the Conclusion below), companies- for manufacturing, packaging, or cost purposes- decide to go with alternate methods to track things instead of bits. The Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction card game at base comes with cards to keep track of your yellow cake and uranium, but you can get wooden bits for those in the deluxe edition. I believe this was because MP: CR was intended to be a small footprint game: the base cards can fit in a deck box or easily carried in a backpack or game bag and the deluxe wooden bits take up more space (so, naturally, the deluxe box is bigger). I think it was still worth getting the bits (they just feel nicer, too) but it's totally fair to have gotten the smaller one if you're just looking for highest portability.
When Not to Get an Upgrade Kit
First things first, Upgrade Kits should only really be considered if the game is one you play at least semi-regularly. If it's only brought to the table once in a blue moon then it isn't really worth it (unless you have the money to burn). For the few times you play those games you can very likely get by with whatever the game comes with.
Additionally, the Upgrade Kit should provide some actual improvement for the game, unless you're the type to get things just to "beautify" a game (i.e.: replacing usable blank meeples with fancy, painted ones just because you like how they look). It's perfectly fine to be a beauty upgrader, but if you're like me and on a budget for gaming (meaning if I spend too much on upgrades or inserts, that's fewer new, other games I can get) non-improving upgrades are usually not worth it.
I've gotten a couple like that (ex: for Tiny Epic Western) when I've been able to afford it, but there are also ones (ex: for Dead of Winter and a different set for Pandemic) that I haven't gotten because they aren't strictly necessary. Sure they'd make the game look snazzier, but the base tokens for those games are more than sufficient.
Upgrade Kits can adjust or improve several facets of games, but they are definitely a deluxe type of thing and not in everyone's price range (100+ piece kits from Meeple Source can run you $30+). I usually get them for games I play a lot (like some of the ones mentioned above) or that really could use something better than the base bits. There are some I'd like to get but can't justify spending money on currently, and some I definitely feel like I don't need to get. I feel like I'm middle of the road when it comes to Upgrade Kits: more than some but less than all.
Do you have Upgrade Kits for any of your games? Do you like "bling" for games or do you usually pass on this sort of thing? Let me know in the comments here or on social media!
Scott - The Solitary Meeple