Cheapass Games Goes Print and Play

Back when I got into hobby games, roundabout early 2002, Cheapass Games in particular caught my eye because a number of the company’s titles were on the shelf of games I encountered in the student lounge and their business model at the time. Cheapass made a selling point out of being just that; not only were the components printed on low cost cardstock, but they were the absolute bare minimum: boards, cards and rule sheets. It was on the owner to supply the generic bits: pawns, dice, cubes or whatever might be needed. I thought it was rather clever — and still do; I’d rather haul one tackle box and an assortment of games with a slim form factor than two or three of the typical mid-sized Eurogame boxes. Unfortunately, that benefit all depends on multiple publishers buying into the design model, which I don’t think really happened, beyond a few labels like Placebo Press.1

Anyway, Cheapass Games has been on hiatus for a few years now. Until a few weeks ago, when a revised website launched with one of their Hip Pocket titles, Agora, available for free download under a Creative Commons license, specifically the Attribution – Non Commercial – NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. This means the work can be freely distributed, so long as attribution is given to the creator, it’s not sold and the contents not remixed — so one couldn’t take the artwork and reuse it elsewhere.

I’ve written about Agora before. It’s a fun, deceptively light game that I don’t think gets enough credit because it doesn’t have a snazzy graphic design to catch the eye. So not only is this new version free to download, it’s also more visually stimulating, with color art that resembles elements of a marketplace, in contrast to the austere walls and pillars of the Hip Pocket edition. As with many things released for free, there’s also a section encouraging people who enjoy it to donate some amount of money in recognition of the entertainment they received.

This got me to thinking. I like Agora a lot and I want Cheapass Games to know that. I showed that by buying it originally, but it’s a very indirect form of doing so, as the store I bought it from had it on the shelf so long, they were probably more glad to see the back of it than interested in restocking. Given that I already had already bought the original printed version, how much more should I give them?

Happily, last week Cheapass published two more things. They ransomed2 a chess variant called Tishai that — which I feel like I’ve seen before somewhere in their catalogs and other publications — and a matrix showing suggested amounts to donate based on the intersection of a person’s economic means and enjoyment of a game. So an astronaut who thinks Agora is so-so and a student who loves it can feel okay about donating different amounts.

I will be interested to see where Cheapass goes with the print and play model. If they’re republishing old titles, I’m going to keep facing the question “Should I donate, having already bought the print version?” And typically, the answer will be “no.” Overall, I would much rather dig around and buy the old print editions, purely out of laziness of not wanting to deal with printing, gluing, cutting and so forth. Something like Agora‘s the exception, where I like it so much, I’d like to give the company a bit more than I did in the first place.

For the games well-spoken of that I can’t easily find in print, them showing up in this new download and donate model would be quite nice. I’ve always wanted to give Starbase Jeff a try.


1 I have read criticisms of the system suggesting that it’s a case of selling a playtest copy of the game, then using feedback to create a fully marketable version. Aside from the fact that there are role-playing designers doing that with their ashcan editions, I can see the logic, particularly since Kill Doctor Lucky got the fancy-pants treatment around 2006. On the other hand, that was almost ten years after that game first hit the stores, so that’s quite a long playtest cycle, if the supposition is true.

2 “Ransom” as in the sense a monetary goal is stated and people pledge various amounts. Once the pledges meet or exceed the goal, the item becomes available to everyone — typically; I imagine there must be a ransom variant where only pledgers get the content.

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2 thoughts on “Cheapass Games Goes Print and Play

  1. Cheapass Games have always been kind of “meh” to me, but that donation chart is great. Now that I’m moving into becoming a teacher though I can see some Cheapass games actually having a use within the classroom with a bit of tweaking. Agora is something that might fit. And they get teachers on their donation chart, we’re at the bottom of the rung!

    I’m very excited about the ransom model. GMT Games has been successfully using that model for over a decade now with their wargames, allowing a lot of obscure subjects to get published and avoiding publishing catastrophes that could put them out of business on any given title.

    My sister is currently using kickstarter (I put it in the website link) as she continues to reach for the stars as a performer in New York. I look forward to using it someday for one of my grand gaming visions. It’s essential for the gaming hobby, because there are a lot of really good ideas out there, but people don’t necessarily have the time to be able to mold these ideas into something others can use, unless of course they are compensated.

    I’ve got some solid work I’ve done in game design, but to really finish it up I need to be freed up to not worry if we can pay for the heating oil. Ransoming ends up being a kind of traditional barn raising get together where something fruitful is made that enriches the community.

  2. Pingback: Cheapass Games’ TimeLine Up for Ransom | Held Action

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