New Game Weekend: Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia

bsboxAfter a week away on vacation I returned to Brooklyn and the Metropolitan Wargamers club in Park Slope this past weekend. The club was packed on the Labor Day weekend with lots of different games hitting the tables. I paired-off with one of my fellow members to try out his new copy of Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia.

Based on the latest game in the long-running Bioshock video game franchise, this 2013 boardgame is at its root an area control game. Players choose to play as one of the two factions – the Vox Populi led by Daisy Fitzroy and the Founders led by Zachary H. Comstock. The game plays in a one-on-one two-player game or in a four-player team version of the game.

Play begins with each faction placing their starting miniatures and Turret and Home Base building markers. Each turn begins with the draw of a victory point mission card followed by a World Event Card which kicks off a secret vote with each player committing influence points from their hand of five Action cards. Winning or defeating the vote varies in importance, as the neutral Booker and Elizabeth characters advance to different spaces on the board and other game-changing events are put into play.

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The winner of the vote also receives the first turn marker which is key to controlling the flow of the game. Starting with the first player, units are purchased or Action cards are upgraded with Silver Eagle coins. Action card upgrades give you greater influence in votes, stronger combat values or more purchasing power in subsequent turns. The player then moves up to four units to adjacent squares or takes a chnace gliding to neighboring territories across the Skyline. Most units move one space but the Founders’ Songbird and Voz Populi’s Airship models each move up to two spaces. Skyline moves are achieved through rolls of special dice sliding you to the next node or risking a fall into thin air with each roll.

Combat occurs next. Common, Special and Leader units each carry a different die value, with different colored dice being rolled to resolve combat situations. Loss of a combat results in a figure being removed. Playing Action cards and upgrades add to combat effectiveness as do the special Turret markers. Conquering unoccupied spaces earns additional Silver Eagle coins, and controlling all spaces in a territory earns victory points. Destroyed units are removed from play or returned to Home Base safe havens. A mix of controlling territories and completing missions of combined actions wins victory points, and the first player to ten victory points wins the game.

There’s a lot going on in this game, and well-played plans and strategies are forced to change as world events switch from turn to turn. In my first game, I found controlling the first player spot was key. However, controlling the first player role means spending lots of cards which can come back to haunt you in a heavy combat challenge later in a turn. As the game advances, the heroine Elizabeth moves along a timeline track which also alters how the game plays out. Her protector Booker is also a big spoiler in swaying votes and possibly attacking each faction at different points in the game. Unlike most area control games where occupying and defending a won territory is often enough to ensure victory, the Skyline allows an opposing player to drop right into or behind your defenses and attack.

For a bit more of an intro to the game’s actual gameplay, check out the video below from the alwyas-entertaining Watch It Played video series.

If you aren’t up on your Bioshock Infinite video game lore, I could see some initial challenges in wrapping your head around the interplay of the characters, factions and events in the boardgame. I’ve spent quite a few hours watching my son work his way through the spectacular action and storyline in the video game, making my understanding of the boardgame’s narrative a bit richer from the get-go. Whether you’re a fan of the video game already or just interested in a really rich and challenging area control board game experience, you should hop the next airship back in time for the floating nation of Columbia.

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Loving The Evil Dead: Why Do We Like Nazi Zombies?

Gaming, at its core, is a matter of pitting at least two sides against each other in a test of tactics and strategy. Whether you’re playing chess or moving hundreds of miniature soldiers around on a tabletop battlefield, you have to pick a side. In most games, there isn’t necessarily a “good” side or a “bad” side. But then you get to Nazis and from there you go to Nazi zombies.

Nazis are the bad guys of the 20th-century, and Nazi zombies take their evil to another level. Maybe its because there’s no way anyone can feel badly about slaughtering a horde of Nazi zombies that makes them so appealing as a foe. There’s also a horrific visual impact of Nazi zombies, as well as some conjecture the Nazis actually had some relation to the supernatural. For whatever reason, Nazi zombies are swarming everywhere and have been creeping up on us for some time.

Nazis And The Occult

Beginning in the 1950s, a spin-off post-WWII historical narrative began to emerge involving the real or supposed fascination that Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich held for the occult. While the Nazi obsession with ceremony and iconography can’t be denied, most of the Nazi-occult conspiracy theories seem to be more about trying to explain how something as evil as Hitler’s Reich could be allowed to rise to power right in front of a watching world. Books, fictional movies and documentaries have delved extensively into this topic of Nazi fascination with weird science and magic. Numerous movies like The Boys From Brazil, Hellboy, Captain America and my favorite, Raiders of the Lost Ark, have all used Nazism and the occult as main plot points. Throwing the dark arts into the mix with the already-hated Nazi bad guys is just one more way pop culture has amped-up the inherent evil of Nazis and their doomed quest for world domination.

Nazi Zombies On Film

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About a decade after the first scholarship on Nazism and the occult emerged, George Romero launched the first wave of modern zombie films with his classic Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. Through a series of sequels and other Romero-influenced movies, the zombie genre slowly grew worldwide during the rise of horror and slasher films in the 1970s and 80s. The Nazi zombie movie subgenre probably arrived in 1977 with Shockwaves starring British horror screen veteran Peter Cushing in the role of a SS commander breeding Nazi zombies who attack a yacht’s shipwrecked crew. The movie began a minor trend almost exclusive to European filmmakers in the 1980s with the B-movies Zombie Lake and Oasis Of the Zombies.

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The second life of all things zombie came post-9/11 in a surge of movies, comic books, novels and the critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead TV show. Again, European movies led the way on the Nazi zombie theme with Horrors of War, Outpost and War Of The Dead. My personal favorite in the modern wave of Nazi zombie cinema is 2008’s Dead Snow, a Norwegian film that made the rounds on the art film circuit. The dark uniforms and red, white and black swastika armbands against the mountain snow makes for striking visuals, even more-so as the blood begins to splatter. The film is a tight amalgam of themes from the genre — cursed treasure, local legend and, of course, unsuspecting good-looking vacationers winding up smack in the middle of a battle to the death with Nazi zombies.

Next up on the still-growing list of Nazi zombie movies is this year’s Frankenstein’s Army, which offers a riff on the Nazi zombie theme with a heavy dose of classic horror, science fiction and even steampunk thrown in. Again, the makers of this latest entry in the Nazi zombie genre are European. I don’t think its a coincidence that most Nazi zombie movies have risen out of many of the countries once occupied by the Axis forces. Since many Europeans live most directly with the spaces and stories of WWII all around them, clearly the Nazi zombie storylines of these films are tapping into a vein of horror that still resonates today.

Nazi Zombie Video Games

As a kid, one of my earliest video game memories on my Apple II computer was Castle Wolfenstein. While there were no zombies in the game way back in 1981, the modern iterations of the Wolfensetin video game series have included zombies. Not only did the new Wolfenstein games help popularize the now-ubiquitous first person shooter (FPS) game mechanic, but they fired some of the earliest shots in the escalating video game Nazi zombie wars.  Call Of Duty has risen to become one of the most successful franchises in the FPS genre, and a big part of its success can be tied to its Nazi zombie expansions. I would argue that without Nazi zombies as targets, many more wary parents may have kept FPS games out of their children’s hands. Hurling grenades and unloading clips into crowds of Third Reich undead is something to which even the most cautious parents may very well have turned a blind eye.

Nazi Zombies Tabletop Games

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With the 21st-century rise of all things zombie, tabletop games have also become infected with the undead. Zombicide, Zombies!!! and Last Night On Earth are among the host of gamer favorites pitting the living versus the unliving. Naturally, Nazi zombies have found their way to the tabletop, too. Two popular games — Dust Tactics and Incursion — take an alternative history approach to incorporating zombies into Axis powers. Among all the futuristic technology available in the miniatures game Dust Tactics are squads of zombie soldiers which prove to be fast and incredibly deadly in the game. Similarly, the game Incursion include zombies in the living arsenal created by evil Nazi scientists.

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Beyond packaged boardgames, wargaming has followed the zombie trend. The “weird World War II” genre of miniature and RPG games offers some monstrously fun modelling and play possibilities with such things as bizarre zombie battlescapes, fantasy technology, magic-using stormtroopers and lycanthropic soldiers in a WWII alternate universe. Weird War II: Blood On The Rhine from 2001 was one of the early RPG systems incorporating zombies and occult alternatives to the WWII time period. Nazi zombie miniatures in both 15mm and 28mm scales are now mainstays in online gaming forums and at regional conventions. Rules systems have been written to accommodate the Nazi zombie craze and players regularly create house rules for other regular WWII-themed games such as Flames of War and Bolt Action.

Nazi zombies have their own history now, rising out of theories of Nazi-occultism and then mined as the nightmare bedtime story for European horror filmmakers for nearly four decades. As the ultimate in evil, Nazi zombies now lurk in every corner of popular culture, much of it overlapping with the gaming hobby onscreen and on the table. Debates will continue to rage between the historical gaming purists and those who love their Nazi zombies. Honestly, playing with Nazi zombies has become just too fun to ignore and the horde just keeps coming.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Talking Football

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I was never a sporty kid, on the field or off. My playtime in the 1970s and 80s was much more apt to be spent gluing-up Airfix models, battling with Kenner Star Wars action figures or campaigning through the latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure. One of the few memories I have of a game I loved as a kid that didn’t involve dank passages, spellcraft and random encounters with wandering bugbears was Mattel’s Talking Football game.

First released in 1971 and then re-reissued in 1977 as Talking ABC Monday Night Football, this semi-obscure classic was the alternative to the electric football games a lot of my friends had in the 1970s. The electric football games looked great with their customizable football player miniatures vibrating all over the little field in random directions but those never really added up to much of a game for me. Talking Football was in a league of its own.

talkingfbcontentsTalking Football had a pretty conventional football field playing board with sliding plastic clips to show yardage progress and first down markers. Other plastic components included a little scoreboard and a place to mark downs and quarters. The nifty mechanic of the game was in the tiny plastic records that made the game “talk.” Play began with the offensive player selecting from one of the ten “standard” play or three “special” play records. The chosen record was inserted into a little handheld player and then the defensive player rotated the record to a defensive play. Once plays were selected, a lever was pressed and simulated audio recordings of announcers calling the play would play in combination of the offensive and defensive selections. The result of the play would be recorded on the field and the next play would be set.

To a kid living in the pre-videogame era of the late 1970s, Talking Football was a blast and a bit of a technological wonder. Over time, players got used to the hundred or so combinations of plays and the game would repeat itself a bit at times. This became part of the strategy, as the game was basically one of picking the right play you thought would best defeat what you predicted your opponent would pick. To answer the repetitive standard set of 13 records, Mattel also offered expansion packs for the game with celebrity player voices on picture disc records, including Merlin Olsen and O.J. Simpson.

I didn’t own a copy of Talking Football, but one of my good friends did. Flash forward more than three decades, and that friend is an on-air radio personality at a rock station in Northern New York State. I don’t know if the hours we spent playing Talking Football and hearing those recorded announcers call plays had any effect on my friend’s future career choice. That said, I think of how games shaped me into the person I am today and like to think that maybe those scratchy, plastic voices still reverberate with my old friend today.

Collector’s Note: Mattel’s Talking Football can be found for sale from special sports memorabilia companies and on eBay. The standard game can run anywhere from $40-200, depending on condition. Buyers should beware that many collectors indicate the original players haven’t always aged very well due to their cheap, dated technology. The individual player records go for around $10 apiece.

New Game Weekend: Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

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Unlike myself, electronic games have been a constant presence with both my sons since they were born. Now aged 8 and 13, my boys have graduated up through a host of platforms and games with the Leapster, DS, PS2, Wii, PS3, online through sites like Steam and on the iPhone. Over the past year, their obsessive play over Minecraft has been gradually replaced with scores of hours logged with the wildy-popular Civilization V.

Developed more than 20 years ago by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley, the Civilization franchise has evolved from a PC-only DOS game to occupy a variety of gaming platforms. The turn-based civilization-building mechanic and historical theme sets up an incredibly-engaging and educational universe for players to plan and play out a nearly-endless variety of paths in human advancement from the ancient era to the near future. The latest iteration, Civilization V, broke on the scene in 2010 with two expansions since. Worldwide, the game has sold millions of copies and has continuously won accolades from a couple generations gaming critics and devoted fans alike.

Even though my kids are devoted electronic gamers, they’ve also been raised with a healthy love for card, board and miniatures gaming. So, when my 8-year-old caught wind last week that a boardgame version of Civilization existed, I leapt at the chance to introduce the boys to the game. I’ve played a number of civilization-building games such as Clash of Cultures but hadn’t yet played Civilization.

Now published by Fantasy Flight Games, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game has been around since 2002 and can be found at your local Barnes and Noble for $60 or cheaper online. Like many games of this type, the box comes stuffed with hundreds of components plus more than 300 cards. Geared for 2-4 players ages 14 and up, Civilization takes 3+ hours to play. Fortunately, my boys have been exposed to enough games, both online and on the tabletop, that they’ve been able to quickly pick up on the basic play and strategy Civilization offers.

CivContentsCivilization involves a march toward victory in one of four ways: Economic, Military, Cultural or Technological. Players begin by selecting a civilization such as the Americans, Egyptians, Romans or Russians. Each starting civilization carries its own strengths in play, making this first choice an important one in setting your strategy for the game. Based on the number of players, a map of hidden tiles is laid out and the market area is set up to the side of the board.

After set-up, the game progresses through a series of turns. In the Start Turn, a player may build a city or change their government type – an important choice which can greatly affect the path of a player’s civilization. Next, the Trade Phase allows a player to reap trade points from the areas around their cities and offer trades in resources with other players.

In the City Management Phase, the player may build units or buildings, harvest resources or focus on developing their culture. Building units – Scouts or Armies – allows the player to explore and conquer areas of the board. Constructing buildings such as Markets, Temples or Baracks allows a variety of bonuses to your civilization. At a higher price, Wonders like The Oracle, The Hanging Gardens or Angkor Wat may be built. Finally, a player may pay to build their military prowess through a progression from simple archers and pikemen to tanks and aircraft. Aside from building, a player may harvest resources such as silk, iron, incense or wheat to be later spent to activate certain technologies already researched. A player may also choose to focus on culture, with gained cultural points moving the player up the culture track while also earning special cultural event cards played to change different courses of the game’s play.

Next, in the Movement Phase a players may move their Scouts and/or Armies to explore, claim new territory or engage in combat with a barbarian village or another player. In the final Research Phase, players may spend their earned trade points to develop new technologies. The game’s “technology pyramid” is built progressively by each player as they grow from simple technologies such as Metalurgy and Horseback Riding toward higher level advancements all the way up to Flight and Nuclear Energy.

The play adavances through the above turns until a player arrives at a victory condition. Cultural victory is earned by completing progress on the culture track. A military victory is won by conquering an opponent’s capital city. Earning a technological win is done by completing the technology pyramid all the way up to Space Flight. Finally, an economic outcome is reached by collecting 15 gold coins earned through various actions your civilization makes throughout the game.

To summarize the game in a couple paragraphs is hard, as the variation of play in the game is boundless. This weekend, my younger son and I played through our first quick starter game on an eight-tile two player-map (pic below). Despite over twenty pages or rules and scores of playing pieces to manage, he picked up the game really fast. Along the way, there’s a ton of reading I’m certain is not covered in the general elementary curriculum with stops along the way to have side conversations on the meanings of words such as “despotism” and “anarchy.” At his age, my son’s memory is quite amazing and our discussions of the finer points of the rules has continued even away from the game table.

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In our second game (pic below), three of us played on a larger map. My older son, a pretty experienced gamer at this point, blew threw a ten minute intro to the rules and played as the Prussians with an aggressively militaristic strategy I’ve grown used to over the years. Using the Egyptians, my younger son focused on culture and building construction. For my own strategy, I played as the Romans with a healthy mix of the military and cultural expansionism for which their empire was known.

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For parents and critics of them who decry the falling attention spans of today’s kids, weekends like this past one show how with a bit of parental creativity all the stereotypes simply fall away. A game like Civilization — both online and off — offers so many opportunities to build vocabulary, learn history and develop some complex multi-layered management skills I see sorely lacking in many of the adults I encounter. Over hours of focused play, not only are my sons and I developing our civilizations but we’re also developing each other — an investment in time together well-spent.

New Game Weekend: Innovation

Humans at one of our most basic levels are builders, and gaming offers a wide variety of opportunities to experience the push of civilization building over time. It’s no surprise then that one of the big genres a lot of board, card and even video games fall into is civilization development. The combination of historical facts and the linear nature of societal advancement through the ages lends the subject to a wide variety of games. Gamers return again and again to the chance to play out the evolution of technology, philosophy, warfare, religion, agriculture and art. Sid Meir’s Civilization, Small World, Settlers of Catan, Clash of Cultures and Tzolk’in are just a few of the games I’ve played that fall into this broad category, both historically-based or set in a fantasy realm.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers, a few of us played through Innovation, the 2010 award-winning card game from Asmadi Games. Retailing at $20, the game consists of 105 unique and text-heavy cards played against a simple set of rules but with a lot complexity in keeping track of your own civilization’s innovation track.

Like most civilization building games, Innovation proceeds along a linear timeline from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. After starting with four cards laid out in front of them, each player chooses two actions in each turn: Draw, Meld, Dogma or Achieve. Cards are drawn from chronological eras numbered 1-10 with cards depicting progressively-advanced innovations. A meld action allows a player to play a like-colored card on top of a card already laid out in front of them. Melded cards supercede the innovation on the cards previously played underneath.

The dogma action is where the meat of the game takes place. Each dogma allows a variety of single or multiple actions that can affect not just the one player but other players displaying equal or greater numbers of symbols such as crowns, factories, lightbulbs, castles, leaves, etc. Dogma actions can result in additional drawn or discarded cards, taking cards from other players or fanning the pile of cards to the right, left, up or down.  As cards are collected and scored, players can take an achieve action to score a level of era achievement for their civilization. Some dogma actions allow a combination of cards to be used to score special achievment cards such as Monument, Empire or Wonder. The first player with five achievements wins the game.

As with most civilization development games, Innovation involves a lot of balance between charting your own progress while keeping an eye on the advancement of other players. Certain dogmas are extremely valuable in moving your civilization forward, but they may also assist the other players, too. This combination of collaborative and competitive play allows Innovation to mirror the arc of human societal development as the ebb and flow of alliances and strength can shift from turn to turn.

Innovation is deceptively easy out of the box, and it’s only through a play through a game or two that the true complexity is felt. Unlike other civilization games which can often  involve managing hundreds of pieces, charts and cards, Innovation’s simple card mechanic is one of its strongest points. The devleopment of human civilization has been a complex road for sure, but with Innovation the road doesn’t get bogged down in a big box of stuff and all the strategy you need is right there in the cards.

Favorite Kickstarters of the Month (July 2013)

Kickstarter can be a weird, volatile environment. Some projects come and go with little fanfare while others soar into the stratosphere with backer support. There can be all manner of highs, lows and outright trouble for projects on their journey from idea to funding to delivery. That said, four of the projects I wrote about in June wound up successfully funded in the past month. The fifth, the seafaring game Admiral, was funded but the project was then suspended inexplicably with a day to go. No doubt there’s a story there, but for now, here are the projects I’ll be watching as we hit the first hot month of the summer in July.

Cthulhu Wars: Drawing on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, this game is the big story in games on Kickstarter right now. With dozens of gorgeously grotesque miniatures and many planned expansions, this strategy board game turns the tables and allows the players to play as Lovecraft’s beastly horde seeking to control the surface of a ruined Earth. Many of the pledgers have bought in at the higher funding levels of $200-500+, no doubt attracted by not only the theme but the tons of extra maps, gaming pieces and figures rewards. The project is trending toward nearly $1 million in funding in its closing days, and the more than 3300 backers are delivering a built-in fan base of this classic horror genre already popular with gamers.

Seas of Iron: I’m not a big naval gaming fan, but I really like the looks of this very modest battleship wargame from Battle Bunker Games. The battleships are comprised of two-sided cards defining the sections of each ship where you deploy your crew and fire volleys at your opponent. When a section is destroyed, cards are flipped over to show that part of your ship aflame. The Kickstarter exclusives include the famed Yamato and Bismarck warships. Just $20 allows for a backer to get a full version of the game which allows enough flexibility for 1-on-1 or small fleet play with combined sets.

Devil Dogs and Dragons: I’ve invested in more than a few of the Anglo-Zulu War 28mm miniatures from Empress Miniatures. They make quality, spirited and detailed miniatures, so its great to see them expanding their Modern Combat line. There’s a lot of interest in gaming modern warfare right now, and the 28mm scale seems to be a clear favorite with small squad-level engagements in the dusty and hot embattled corners of the world. These 28mm figures fill out modern US Marine Corps and Chinese People’s Liberation Army options for deployment in the Asia-Pacific desert and jungle regions. With a bit more imagination, these guys will even find a home in various zombie, alien invasion or post-apocalyptic scenarios.

Fife & Drum American Revolution Range: Just in time for the 4th of July weekend, Fife & Drum Miniatures is also expanding their established line of miniatures. Sculpted in a large 30mm or 1/56 scale, these majestic figures offer incredible detail for the Colonial Period ranging from the Seven Years War to the American War of Independence. The Kickstarter campaign will help fund the company’s expansion into new British cavalry, Hessian, Highlander and French infantry offerings. At the $50 level, backers receive a special three-figure “Spirit of ’76” vignette, making this project perfect for any patriot and fan of the AWI period.

Gettysburg: The Tide Turns: Finally, and in keeping with the theme of American military history, I’m throwing in one video game offering to round out the list. The Battle of Gettysburg is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month, and so this timely iOS game for the iPad and iPhone looks to be a deal at just $10 to back the project. Developed by Shenandoah Studio, the makers of the previously Kickstarted Battle of the Bulge iOS game, this simulation looks to be a very promising 21st-century tribute to the strategy, tactics and heroics found on the famed Pennsylvania battlefield 150 years ago.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Choose Your Own Adventure Books

       

This week there was news the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book series is to be developed into a film series by 20th Century Fox. Launched in 1979, the series was enormously popular throughout the 80s and 90s, sold over 250 million copies and is still published today. The movie announcement got me thinking about how these books played yet another part in my personal growth as a gamer.

The CYOA series follows the form of a gamebook which allows a reader to participate in how a story unfolds through a a variety of choices made along the way. To a young kid, the CYOA books shared a lot in common with my role playing game interests. Each book presented a fantastically-themed self-contained adventure, International travel, outerspace journeys, crime investigations and sword and sorcery tales filled the pages of each paperback, and collecting them was part of the fun. Choices made while reading each story could take you to more than 20, 30 or 40 different endings to the book, making for a lot of re-reading value in seeing how things might turn out differently each time.

The CYOA mechanic provided the feel of a solo game for when no one else was around with which to play something a bit more complex like D&D. Looking back from today, the structure of jumping back and forth through the narrative is akin to the experience of clicking through hyperlinks online. Even videogames today like 2012’s award-winning The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games share in the basic chapter and choices format people of my generation grew up on.

There’s no telling what shape the proposed Choose Your Own Adventure movies series will take, and it may prove to be yet another Hollywood move to attempt to cash-in on a known property. That said, it’s interesting to see just one more way these books continue to ripple through the culture over 30 years later.

Collector’s Note: The Choose Your Own Adventure series is still published today and can also be picked up fairly easily used starting at about $3-5 each on eBay. For true collectors, first editions from books early in the series can go from hundreds or even over a thosand dollars from rare book dealers like AbeBooks.