A meditation on game box sizes

At work, we recently had a discussion about box sizes. I wrote a whole essay to get to my thoughts on the matter, and then, as sometimes happens, the essay was not really relevant to the final, relatively short comment. So I thought I’d put it here.

The original question was: Does the American market want big, fancy boxes? My argument was basically, no.

There are a few standout party games (Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Pictionary, Taboo… you can think of a few more) and they do come in unnecessarily big boxes. And they sell very well! From the outside it’s hard to deconstruct how much of sales is due to oversized, bright packaging. But everybody does it, so even if you think it doesn’t work, you can’t not do it, right?

Except interestingly, the big boxes aren’t so big any more. I’ve got an “updated for the ’90s” version of Pictionary that comes in a crazy size: 18″ long, 7.5″ wide, and 3″ deep. That was 20 years ago. A more recent edition shaves the length down to 10.5″ and basically leave the other two dimensions alone. I checked product specs on Amazon, and the most recent version of Cranium is 10.5″ x 10.5″ — and that’s a game full of stuff, not just air! Party games just don’t come in big, stupid boxes of air like they used to.

That’s mass market though. What about hobby market?

In the US market, they’re OK with big boxes as long as the size is justified by the contents inside. No one had a problem with Ogre in a box that measured nearly 4 square feet because it weighed 15 pounds. American hobby gamers do not want a big box for marketing purposes, just to take up shelf space or just to be “American.” For instance, Guildhall‘s box is not large. 10.5″ x 10.5″ (~26x26cm). But at AEG we got many complaints about the box size because it only contained 120 cards and some punchboard tokens. The thinking at the time was to make boxes bigger so they would stand out on a store shelf.

I see the wisdom there, but it doesn’t hold up to experience. Looney Labs is doing great with Fluxx in a small box, for example. The hardcore customers order off the internet and would rather pay less shipping for a smaller box. They’ll never see it in a store anyway. You don’t want to cater to those guys, but their money spends as well as anyone’s.

Customers also want consistency within a line. They’re happy to have the boxes stack well on a shelf or for travel. So even expansions that come in a smaller box should have at least two dimensions the same as the base game so you can hold them all together.

I know Fantasy Flight has sworn by having an entire line of games that uses the same size boxes and inserts. I don’t know if that was a really successful choice for them…. Maybe! It was definitely an inexpensive choice for printing and design costs.

But cheap and commoditized is not the Iello way. We make fantastic looking games. That should be our primary decision-maker in box size. Who cares if it’s big–does it look amazing?

Under that rubric, smaller boxes are generally better, regardless of market. Currently, my favorite box trick is Castellan from Steve Jackson Games. The retail box is big with a plastic shell, but the game contents are neatly packaged within a smaller interior box which you pull out and actually keep. Big for the store, small for the storage.

Other tricks include:

  • plastic windows to show off cool internal components (Fun Farm, Dicecapades)
  • varnish print layer (every Iello game has one of these)
  • tins instead of cardboard boxes (Forbidden Island/Desert)
  • lenticular sections (haven’t seen a game do this yet, but it was all the rage in comics 20 years ago)
  • holographic elements (haven’t seen this outside of an occasional sticker)
  • textures like faux snakeskin or fake fur (never seen this, probably not cost effective and nightmarish to stock)

Any other ideas? Leave me a comment.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A meditation on game box sizes

  1. I would pay reasonable money to have a set of generic boxes that are multiples of each other’s sizes so that two mediums can stack atop one large on a shelf, and so on. The obvious base unit is a card game. Then sell bags that fit the games perfectly for travel.

    I think it could be done, a la Game Crafter, where you pick your games from a list, order them, and the boxes arrive with game art that has a united feel to them. They would arrive flattened, with inserts that you pop out and assemble. It wouldn’t be difficult to put your name or your gaming club’s name into a form and have a great looking library of games that all sit on shelves with modular sizes and easy to browse names and icons (type of game/time/players/complexity).

    The death of the idea, of course, is licensing the game art, or even the legality of using the logo for the various games that are internationally licensed. Custom wraps on chipboard boxes, print on demand? That’s a tech issue being solved by the PoD folks. But getting legal rights? That’s a long involved process that I suspect would ratchet up the prices above what would make it a worthwhile project.

    As a little note re: lenticular — Onyx Path tried doing this with the 20th Anniversary of their Mage RPG book and found that almost nobody was able to do it any more. As it faded from popularity, the manufacturing capability died off. They did eventually find one company who could do it, but it’s interesting to see how a popular marketing device is almost unavailable a couple decades later. I would imagine it may be hard to find companies to make rubber wrist bracelets in 20 years.

    And tin/metal boxes still sucker me in, but that is probably just my taste.

  2. jefftyjeffjeff

    At AEG we toyed with the generic box idea for card games. The Thunderstone tray is the best I’ve seen for deckbuilders. They own plenty of generic fantasy art. It would be an inexpensive experiment for them to try what you’re suggesting — produce a set of consistently shaped boxes with generic colorful theme-appropriate art on it.

    Nobody thought it would sell, and I was (and still am) one of them. There are already people who will sell you plain, white card boxes, and they probably do ok at that business. There are super-niche sellers of generic thin wood boxes for games, which as far as I can tell, look better for storage than travel.

    Based on what I’ve seen though, I’m not sure there are enough Evan Edwardses out there to make what you propose worth doing.

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