That said, as long as you have a reliable printer, some games are virtually free and there are other ways to moderate the cost. Having a tool box of assorted dice, tokens, dry erase markers and pawns is an investment that goes a long ways.
Having said that (and there’s a lot to say about budget PnP), you also have to ask yourself what you’re willing to settle for for ‘free’. To quote my dad, if you wouldn’t pay a dime for it, why are you bothering getting it for free?
Now, I freely admit that I personally give more leeway for PnP games than I would for a published game that I would have to pay quite a bit more for. Particularly if it is not from an established publisher but from a hobby designer. (If I have paid for the files, my standards go up) But there is a definite line.
Shortly after I first discovered Boardgame Geek, I tried out Malta Convoy. All it takes to make it is printing out a page and adding dice. However, it’s a game where you barely have any choices. It’s mostly rolling the dice and recording what they tell you to record.
I’d still probably pull out Malta Convoy and play it out of nostalgia value but there are literally dozens of games I’d recommend over it that are also print and add dice. Being free just isn’t enough. Even a free PnP game has to have some value.
There’s definitely a tipping point for me. What got me thinking about the value of ‘free’ games was Outlaw. Outlaw is basically a poor cousin to Pikomino, tossing dice in order to claim spots to earn points. It’s another game that doesn’t require any more construction than print the board and add dice and tokens.
Outlaw is, honestly, a so-so game. It’s too easy to have a null round or even accidentally knock one of your own tokens off the board. The game can become a grind. It doesn’t have the legs to be a game I’d want to play a lot of.
But, I have seen dice games that publishers were asking money for that were worse. In fact, I’d say that Outlaw is actually pretty middle of the road for light dice games, which is a genre I think it pretty fun and easy to get folks into.
So Outlaw is a game that I made a laminated board for and it’s a game I’ve recommended to people. It’s not brilliant but it is a good return for ‘free’. It passed the threshold.
All that said, what I’ll settle in the name of ‘free’ hasn’t been as big a deal recently. Over the last few years, I really think a lot of solid PnP games have come out. PnP contests and prototypes with Kickstarter in mind probably has a lot to do with that. I will happily listen to any argument to the contrary but I think you have to settle for ‘free’ a lot less than when I started.