Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Problem with Game Boxes

A few weeks ago I inherited a bookshelf. This led to a general cleaning & reorganizing of one of my storage closets, and allowed me to pull a lot of my older games out of storage containers and put them back on shelves.

These included tons of classic American titles from my High School and College years. Dune, Source of the Nile, and Wizard's Quest from Avalon Hill. 2038, Mystic War, and Suzerein from TimJim Games. Arkham Horror and Elric from Chaosium. The Lonely Mountain, The Riddle of the Ring, and The Battle of Five Armies from I.C.E. King Arthur and Excalibur from Wotan Games. And a number of others from these publishers, Steve Jackson Games, TSR, White Wolf, and others. About five feet worth of games, all said and done, neatly arrayed on two shelves.

And that was what struck me, as I was juggling things in and out of the closet, dodging empty storage containers, piles of books, and curious cats. The games all fit. On the bookshelves. Perhaps we took it for granted at the time. But ...

We don't know how good we had it.

This might seem a pretty minor issue to kibitz about, but I suspect that storage issues affect just about anyone who has any size of game collection. And it's because, for all that we might belly ache about old American game design now, there's one thing they definitely got right, at least in the hobby industry: the boxes. They were relatively small, they were relatively consistent even when published by different companies and with different printers, and they were easy to store.

Woe is us that the same isn't true for the German invasion.

Boxes Today

My German boxes are, conversely, a mess.

A few companies get it "right". Alea and Hans im Gluck are my favorites, because they publish classic "bookcase games", just the right size to stand on their end and place on a shelf. Sure, I've learned that I have to baggy all of the pieces to keep my victory points, corn, and buildings from turning into a gooey mash in the bottom of my Puerto Rico box, but that's a small price to pay. I mean, back in the American bookcase days, we just accepted that was what happened, because we didn't have trays inside the boxes, and so everything was going to get mixed together no matter what orientation you put things in. The Carcassonne boxes are pretty good too, and it's been nice to see a few other companies pick them up in recent years.

However the big square boxes used by Days of Wonder, Kosmos, and some others are one of my least favorite. They do have one huge virtue: consistency. A lot of companies use that exact same box size (though there are a few that are just different enough to be annoying: my copies of Pueblo and Rumis almost fit this size, but are enough different to cause some problems). On the downside, those boxes are definitively not bookshelf games. The bookshelves in my house all tend to be 8-10 inches deep. Those square boxes are about 12"x12", just large enough that even when you put them on the top of a bookshelf they tend to hang off. I'm not even sure where I could store these rationally.

I'm slightly more fond of the longer boxes used for games like Samurai, Primordial Soup, and Santiago, and others. They're about 11"x15", which is still too big for the average bookshelf, but at least they only hang off by a little, rather than a lot. Some companies abuse this size box, by putting way too few components, in way too big of a box, but that's another topic.

Other than these several very standard sizes, the rest of my game collection falls into complete chaos. Medium and small boxes are a cacophony of sizes and styles. I find 7 different box sizes on my Reiner Knizia shelf alone (excluding those aforementioned large square and long boxes, which I can't even keep with my main Reiner Knizia collection). Queen Games seems to be generally accepted as the worst offender in weird gamebox sizes; who thought a shoebox was a good size for a game? Smaller square boxes, which should be somewhat consistent, instead come in infinite variations, from teeny (Saga, 6.5"x6.5"), to small (the Kosmos 2-player series, 8"x8"), to medium (Cartagena, 9"x9"), to medium-large (La Strada, 10"x10", the only game I own in this size). New England is another of my least favorites: at a whopping 13.5" tall and 10.5" deep, it looks like a bookshelf game, but won't fit on most shelves--in either the height or the depth department. I believe it's a standard Goldsieber size, but again I don't own any other games at this particular size. The fact that some of my games were alternatively produced in Germany, America, Canada, and China probably doesn't help this confusion of box sizes any.

But, darnit, at least publishers could stop insisting on using every box size under the sun among their own lines. Look at Fantasy Flight, see how consistent their Silver Line is? They've even kept the same size through games published in different countries! Look at Days of Wonder. See how they keep cranking out that same square box, and how their smaller games were pretty consistent too, with the exception of Terra? That's a good thing!

Yes, this is largely an aesthetic issue, but aesthetics are important. I want my games to look good, and I want them to fit on the shelves. Those old American games did!

The Economics of Size

For a while I was hosting all my game nights at my house. That was easy: I took a game off my shelf, tossed it on the table, and played.

Last year, however, I started attending a game night at a local game store, EndGame. And I had to walk to the local train station, then catch Rapid Transit down to Oakland to attend. The whole economy of my gameplaying changed.

Because I had to carry my games to the store.

Suddenly Modern Art became prized greatly above Samurai. I liked the latter better, but I could fit three or four Modern Art-sized games into the same space. I began to curse El Grande, with the vast empty spaces inherent in its box, and when the gaming goliath did come with me it was inevitably stuffed full of Relationship Tightrope, Coloretto, Razzia!, and other small games.

Within this new context I began to worship the small and the compact. Hansa and China, in their wafer-thin boxes, became two of my favorites, and one day I just barely stopped myself from buying Paris! Paris! I'd heard so many bad things about the game, but it was in such a cute, thin box. How could I resist? (I did, but mainly through a lack of funds.)

If you just toss your games into your car, or else do no more than haul them off your shelves, as I did in my lazy days, this won't impact you. But as someone who has to carry his games in his shoulder-bag, schlupping a mile to BART and back, I've grown to love those companies who make my bag lighter and more gameful.

The point of all this?

Boxes. They impact our lives as gamers, and kudos to those companies who actually do think about issues of storage, consistency, and weight.


Joe Gola said...

As someone who stores his games flat, the other thing I appreciate about the Alea boxes and the new HiG boxes is that there's a plastic tray that supports the length of the board. Something unpleasant I just discovered in my collection is that the extraordinary humidity of the summer has caused sagging in the boards of all the games whose boxes have the "bridge" construction like El Grande and Power Grid. I had to spend some time this morning flipping every single game board over to try to even things out.

That might not be a problem for those in dry climates, but for those of us in the Northeast, the weather patterns are sometimes not very conducive to the storage of cardboard for years on end.

Rick said...

I loathe the boxes that Tikal, Mexica and Java come in for their ridiculous length. These games would hav fit better in a deeper box. They would have needed to be a bit creative with the boards, maybe six-part fold them like the Clans board, but it would have been worth it. Now they take a perfect Torres box and cram that into that long, flat thing? In heaven's name, why?!

BTW, I recommend Paris Paris as a pretty good 45-minute light-middleweight. There's a bit of a luck factor in it, but there's also a good degree of thoughtfulness. It's light enough to use as a gateway game, and I've had some success with it in that role.

Nice article as usual, Shannon.

Todd D. said...

Nice article.

I bag most components to speed setup. We are rearranging the house to accomodate baby #2 (Codename: Calamity Jane), and I had to move lots of games downstairs.

I have stuffed some games onto the shelves. I can only see two games with the same size, both Ravensburger titles. Everything else is all over the place. Oh, Can't Stop. Why can't you be more like Transamerica (in size)?

Anonymous said...

Why be so fixated on keeping games in their publishers' ill-chosen boxes? I also carry my games to play groups, and I repack them to squeeze as many as I can into the best or most carryable boxes. I carry like 20 games without being excessively burdened -- I'd never go back to keeping them in their own boxes.

Not that I have brought myself to throw any of the boxes away (they are usually such nice boxes...), but I certainly don't use them for *carrying* the games.