A Gamer’s Pet Peeve: Big Box, Small Game

Geek Culture

Caylus: Magna Carta. The original box on the left, my new compact box on the right.Caylus: Magna Carta. The original box on the left, my new compact box on the right.

Caylus: Magna Carta. The original box on the left, my new compact box on the right.

One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to board games is the size of the boxes. Wouldn’t it be a great world where everything came in the minimum amount of packaging necessary to protect it? (For one, we could get rid of a whole lot of those injury-causing clamshell packages.) Now, maybe you’re thinking: what’s the big deal? It’s just a box! You must be one of those liberal treehuggers, right?

Well, okay, maybe you’ve got me on the treehugger thing. But my bigger reason for wanting smaller boxes is very practical: I’m running out of room. My collection is currently up to somewhere around 140 games, and my Tetris-inspired organizational skills can only get me so far. What I’d really appreciate is smaller boxes.

I often end up making my own. For example, the photo at the top shows a fantastic game called Caylus: Magna Carta. It’s a fairly complex game that involves resource management, building and rent, like a German version of Monopoly with strategy. As you can see, the components are pretty simple: a bunch of wood bits, some cardboard tokens (points and money), and a deck of cards. This whole thing came in a box that is at least four times bigger than it needs to be. The proof? My homemade box is to the right in the photo.

Gulo Gulo. All the components fit in a box less than half this size.Gulo Gulo. All the components fit in a box less than half this size.

Gulo Gulo. All the components fit in a box less than half this size.

Exhibit B: Gulo Gulo. This is another game that I often recommend for very young kids, and my only complaint about it is, again, the box. There’s a stack of cardboard tiles, a wooden bowl with eggs, six “gulo” pawns, and a cloth sack. You could almost get everything to fit into the cloth sack itself.

Now, I understand the issues. Manufacturers want their games to have shelf presence in stores. They want consumers to see the nice pretty large box on the shelf, so that when they’re paying forty dollars for a board game they feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. After all, how much would you pay for something that, say, fits in your pocket? (Right, this is where board game marketing has gone in the opposite direction of gadget marketing—have they even heard of iPhones?)

When I complained about the new, larger box size for Aquarius, a representative for Looney Labs responded:

I appreciate your concern for the environment. We feel very strongly about the issue ourselves. Unfortunately, our packaging redesign was a necessary evil. Our retail partners were complaining not only that the packaging didn’t attract attention, but that the boxes were too small and easy to steal.
We do, however, make every effort to waste as little as possible, to conserve whenever possible and to recycle whatever we can. We also make a game called EcoFluxx, and 5% of the proceeds are donated to various environmental causes.

So, really, I’m not sure what the solution is here. I suppose part of it is simply, as consumers, to call for change. Maybe if enough of us speak up about the issue, game manufacturers will listen. But in addition to that, we need to be willing to pay for games that are good even though they don’t have big fancy boxes.

Once upon a time, somebody had a similar idea and founded CheapAss Games. Their philosophy was simple: a lot of games share similar bits and pieces, and who needs a box anyway? What you were buying, for a lot less than typical board games, was a set of rules and very simple boards or cards. You could use pawns, dice, and money from any other game you already owned. A lot of CheapAss games were in black and white, and they came in either a large envelope or a corrugated cardboard box (like a pizza box, only smaller). It was a great idea, and CheapAss is still around, but some of their more successful titles were later sold to other companies who published “Deluxe” versions in full color, with all the pieces and—you guessed it—big fancy boxes.

To end this on a positive note, I’d like to share one of my favorite games that gets it right. Meuterer (German for “mutineer”) is a fairly complex strategy game masquerading as a card game. As you can see in the photo below, the “board” is made up of twelve cards, the “ship” piece in the upper right is also a card, and then there are various cards for roles and goods. (And an optional Pirate variant, also consisting of cards.) Because everything is card-based, the entire game fits into a tiny, pocket-sized box, and it was also not too expensive, compared to most other games of its depth and complexity. But, yes, because it’s small and unassuming, I don’t think it’s quite as popular. In fact, the game has been out for almost a decade but is still published only in German, and is now somewhat hard to find. I had to get English rules from BoardGameGeek. Of course, if you manage to find a copy, I highly recommend picking it up (along with its precursor, Verrater, another pocket-sized wonder).

It’s too bad gamers and game manufacturers can’t get together on this issue. I’m going to need a bigger games closet.

Meuterer. Note the extremely small box on the left.Meuterer. Note the extremely small box on the left.

Meuterer. Note the extremely small box on the left.

All photos by Jonathan Liu.

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