Despite inflation– houses prices, petrol, clothes, food; a few things seem to be shrinking. Mars bars and waggon wheels are certainly smaller than they used to be. But what about board games? The last few years have seen so many games produced, all of which seem to conform to a standard box size - irrespective of the components and game mechanics.
But is it Necessary?
This feature highlights some examples of good practice. This is where publishers and designers have considered the environmental impact of bulky games, perhaps developing a more streamlined gaming approach. Others might still take a more laissez-faire attitude. These might be boxes with more space than the turbine hall of the Tate Modern. To see who climbs to the top of the podium in the war of waste, read on. Perhaps, in the future, this element of game design might become part of our assessment of the game?
Sitting on the Shelf
Take a look at most “serious” gamer’s shelves. We know how they look. Rows of lovely games, stacked vertically [horizontal stacking is permitted] and filling every spare centimetre of Kallax® shelving. It looks pretty. It certainly is impressive. There is something pleasing about seeing dozens of uniform games boxes. But - let me challenge this mindset. Why bother? The game is what is contained within rather than the cardboard on the outside. At its crudest, a game could be just a handful of components in a zip lock bag or draw-string pouch. The actual volume of components, when condensed to such a state, is usually small.
The design of game boxes generally focuses on three competing factors; the size of the largest component, presentation of the components, and shelf appeal. Often these separate issues will align, but occasionally the drive to get shelf space will mean a game must “catch the eye”. This might skew priorities.
The largest piece or component is usually the playing board. Six-fold boards are used in games such as Ticket to Ride or Tinner’s Trail and are becoming very commonplace. Unfolded, the board and playing area will be about 50 by 80 centimetres - more than enough to fill a gaming table before adding individual boards. An alternative could be a modular board with interlocking adjacent pieces. This is particularly effective for Tzolk’in, due to the irregularly spaced cogs. Whether folded or modular, game boards will occupy about 20 millimetres of depth and usually cover the area of the box.
Sometimes it's not so easy to stack your essential components. In Planet a player’s board is a large dodecahedron. This plastic 12-sided shape has a series of small magnets on each face. It is to these that players add their landscapes to terraform their planet. The size and shape of these mean that the box has to be large enough to accommodate these unusual pieces. It is part of what makes the game so unique.
Other components, whilst not essential to the game, could enhance play. These are seldom of a standard shape, but still need to fit alongside other pieces. The bird feeder and dice tower in Wingspan certainly add to the enjoyment of the game, yet occupy plenty of room in the box. Most games have components that do not stack well. Although Pandemic and Sushi Roll might use cubes or dice, this is the exception rather than the rule. Gamers want more than a white cube to depict a sheep [Agricola]. Instead, we have become accustomed to shaped meeples or mini-figures. There is a risk that these nicely fashioned pieces could end up damaged, hence the need for an insert.
Inserts are a double-edged sword. At one level they could present the game as a wonderful depiction of what is on offer. Each crafted meeple has its own “home”. This enables checking of items, as missing pieces show up as gaps. Zona springs to mind here. Similarly, many inserts hold all the pieces and cards nicely secure. In Splendor, each stack of disks has its own slot. Open the lid and the game is almost ready to play straight out of the box.
However, many game inserts are designed for one edition only, with no scope for expansions. Here is the problem. Whilst the insert encases the minis and cards in a nice presentation plastic tray, there is a huge space underneath that isn't filled. The irregular shape of the slots and spaces mean that any new expansion pieces are unlikely to have space or to even fit. It is rare to find manufacturers or publishers that have thought ahead to future expansions. Matagot Games and Room 25 do deserve a special mention for their forward planning here, where the season two expansion fits perfectly into the original box.
Many publishers are guilty of “the trough”. In their desire to be more eco friendly and avoid plastic they fill much of the box with a cardboard insert. This is to raise and present the board at the top of the box. However, the trough is the dumping ground for all other components. Often the trough size and depth means that is it is less than a third of the size of the box, with much empty space. In order to keep the components together, gamers will often bag their pieces. Avoiding plastic as an insert material means it may end up replaced by many plastic bags.
How a series of games look next to each other can show the publishers attention to detail. I can understand why Century: Spice Road was followed the next year by Eastern Wonders and then New World in 2019. Plan B Games have linked these thematically and artistically. For the sake of aesthetics, these games need to sit together with similar box sizes - irrespective of the volume of components within.
Is This a Waste of Space?
Having established some good reasons for space, there are some games that are a little larger than expected. Conversely, some publishers have certainly given thought to make their games as compact as possible.
But who has performed well?
How can you quantify game-space utilisation?
Rather than just a cursory look at the box and an estimate of the game weight, something as important as wasted space requires a more nuanced approach! Science and maths will answer this question – which of my games is the “heavyweight champion of 2021”? [densest packed box].
Like any competition, there have to be rules. A pack of cards would have 100% utilisation, and with only one type of component, it is easy to fit in a small box. Card games such as Star Realms, Oh my Goods! and 6 Nimmt! were excluded. For the sake of simplifying the maths, only games with a cuboid box were considered, so Dobble and Timeline stayed on the shelf. For each game box, I measured internal dimensions and calculated internal volume. Inserts were considered as part of the components if they were used to present the game. Simple cardboard trough inserts were considered part of the box, and not included in the components. The total weight of components [and rule book] was measured. Based on the density of cardboard [about 0.69 grammes per cm3] the actual volume of these components was calculated. From these two figures, the proportion of the box used for components could be measured.
Before conducting this experiment I had an inkling of the probable frontrunners. Lift the lid on any of the Tiny Epic games by Gamelyn and there is very little waste. The cards, meeples, and boards need careful placement to get them to fit after a game.
Claiming the runner up slot was Wingspan with 53%. This was a surprise, given this is a standard shape and size. However, there are many additional cards here, some added from the Oceania Expansion, yet all of which fit nicely within their plastic holder. The dice tower and food containers fit with millimetres to spare.
The bronze medal position goes to Streets. This game gets a big thumbs up from me at every level. Sinister Fish have done their homework but also are not afraid of swimming against the flow. The box is mainly thick street cards. The reason that “only” 51% of the box is used is that all of the money tokens are stored in a drawstring bag and building tokens have chunky cardboard boxes of their own. The booklet for the rules sits slightly proud of these components, so there is a little “air” at the top of the box.
At the back of the field are a few games with large boxes and relatively few components. Perhaps the makers of Takenoko [20%], Foothills [21%] and Inuit [23%] felt their games needed box appeal. These three are excellent games. My family and I really enjoy them. However, these publishers cannot use the excuse of large components or the need for a big board to justify the box volume. Their components are superb. Everyone loves the panda in Takenoko, but perhaps later editions should re-design the insert to make the box smaller. Design and space considerations have improved over the years. By way of comparison, an older game of Monopoly only uses 26% of the box space.
This little project showed me that most games boxes sit at about 35% full. Given the variety of component shapes and sizes, this is a reasonable average. One or two big names have boxes that are full to the brim- Robinson Crusoe [44%] and Nusfjord [48%]. These figures probably represent the predominantly flat components such as cards or tokens within these games. The use of the lovely trees in Photosynthesis [22%] and Bosk [29%] mean these cannot be stacked closely and therefore are less dense.
No game is a waste of space. This blog is not to suggest games to avoid based on space utilisation. However, excellent design, good practice and attention to detail should be applauded. Small densely packed games often punch above their weight. They may not look as impressive when unwrapped if given as a present, but this study shows that good things can come in small packages.