Epic Gumdrop Ep 10: Boardgame Boxes

Mage Knight Box

On this episode of Epic Gumdrop we look at the history and development of the boardgame box. What makes a great box? What makes a poor box design better? And what drives the decisions when designing a box?

 

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Here are our notes from the show:

 

BOX HISTORY

Like all parts of games history, it is sometimes difficult to find properly cited facts. There are lots of opinions and many websites written from the perspective of the user or designer’s memory.

Some interesting facts:

  • The first commercial paperboard (not corrugated) produced in England in 1817 (Wikipedia).
  • Chuck Groth, in his book Exploring Package Design, notes that the oldest existing cardboard box package design was produced in Germany for a board game called The Game of Besieging in 1817.
  • “In the 1930s and ‘40s, many board games were sold as a game board with a separate parts box,” notes Bruce Whitehill in a retrospective talk on Sid Sackson.
    (From a talk given at the symposium “Game Authors in Our Time” at the opening of the Alex Randolph Studios in the Deutsche Spiele-Archiv, Marburg, Germany, May 5, 2006)

The use of cardboard, once popularized, overtakes wood as a box medium – but I’m not sure exactly when this is. In 1817 cardboard was still a rarity and you see games with wooden cases produced for many decades to come.

One of the more interesting developments in game box design is the Bookshelf Game. Bruce Whitehill again has written a good definition of the Bookshelf game on his site:

  • “Bookshelf Game: Folding box game which would store standing upright and, on the hinged side, would look like two books. In the U.S. this form of packaging was begun around 1875 by McLoughlin Bros., and was re-popularized in the 1960s by 3M (a company whose game line was later bought by Avalon Hill). The earliest bookshelf games had no embossed or titled cover on the “spine”; the gameboard was on the outside of the “book cover” and the playing pieces were stored inside; by 1880 most bookshelf games had a book-like spine, one game outside and two games inside, and the folded gameboard fit into a slipcover.”
  • Yes, it is the same 3M that you know for notepaper and other chemicals.
  • In 1998 when Hasbro bought Avalon Hill the line was dissolved, although games like Acquire still published.
  • Some of the titles rights expired, like Facts in Five, which was picked up by University Games and continued as a Bookshelf Game

 

Caverna Box

BOX DESIGN

Some issues with game boxes:

  • Too many components lead to box chaos. Now there is Plano or other plastic sorting containers to organize game boxes. This is where a slightly larger box may come in handy. My first thought after organizing Caverna was that the effort to set it up would prohibit me playing it unless I sorted out some organization method. Apparently I was not alone on this.
  • Also foam core mods and many creative solutions. Just check out the BGG page for Storage Solutions for 8.7 million ideas
  • Too many expansions don’t fit in the box.
    • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game did a fine job anticipating this.
    • LCGs or other deck based games with lots of expansions quickly run out of room. Box modding becomes essential and an art form unto itself
  • Now rather than having to be a craftsman or buy a time machine to buy your games in oldy times, you can simply buy custom wood cases online. Too many dominion expansions? There’s a custom built case for that.
  • Well designed plastic inserts: Mage Knight the board game. While I hate more plastic, they are probably using much less than all those Plano boxes. And I am wayyy more likely to play the game now.

BOX ART

  • Box art is currently pretty amazing, and the difference between a great design and a low-mid range design is pretty glaring. A Kickstarter with no budget can rival a big publisher in appearances with a little graphic design savvy. And as much as we’d like to heed the Bo Diddley song, we judge board games by their covers.
  • While mass production and computer design has brought us lots of advances in game boxes and their innards, we’d still like to see much more thought given to component storage. Just throwing in a couple dozen plastic bags to help us out is not good design. Clever use of cardboard inserts would go a long way. But while games have higher production values overall this doesn’t mean publishers are any more capable than their predecessors 100 years ago in the area of box engineering.

BOX AS MARKETING TOOL

  • While they used to use the back of the box to advertise other games (and still often do around the inside edges), now the entire box is a marketing exercise: just how big does the box need to get before we see an increase in sales? They seem to ask. Nice to see trends towards smaller boxes in North America. It’s absurd, particularly when so many games only need 1/2 the space (some much less!). Great to catch eyes and sell copies, but brutal for storage for both stores and consumers.
  • The Big Box. They are often lovely. Carcassonne and Alhambra put out beautifully thought out big boxes that completely warrant their size and make you so much more likely to break them out for a quick game.
  • Have great box hacks? Let us know below. We are always looking for better ways to organize and store components.
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