Poorly Boxed

Before I begin, I want to clearly state that I chose the box art for The Settlers of Catan because it's so well known. I am making no specific commentary on their box or this game.

I was thinking about Empire Reborn the other day and how I would potentially market it to others. Or, how I'd describe it for a playtest. My first thought is to call it a war game. It's about war. War games were my initial inspiration. But, "war game" has very specific connotations for players. Things like history (my game's fictional), complex simulation (mine's greatly abstracted), long playing (my game is an hour), and more. If you examine the Top War Games list on BGG, you'll see a simulation of the cold war, D-Day, Napoleonic things, and more.

The other issue is that war games are greatly polarizing. For some players, the words "war game" are worse than "take that" or "random."

I also began to think about how board games in general do a poor job of giving players a clear idea of what the game is about from the box. I feel like this is a problem far more unique to the board game hobby than others, potentially due to its more niche audience.

If you see a movie poster with Arnold Schwarzenegger between the months of May and August, you can safely assume it's an action movie. If you see an Xbox 360 game with a dude with a gun, anywhere, you know it's a first-person shooter. At best, board games tell you the setting and that's it. Sometimes, not even that! However, it's very difficult to know what you'll be doing without reading a review or the rules.

Board games have a severe barrier to entry compared to other mediums that is a hindrance regardless of the rich meaty goodness that awaits players if they only persevere. Board games have rule books and tons of new mechanics. How much more terrifying do you think a non-Hasbro game is to people passing through the store if they know nothing about it?


Then, there's the other side of this equation (Editor's Note: How many sides are we at now?)...can you tell customers too much? Plus, space on a box is a premium commodity. Do you waste it on potentially boring explanation? If I say that Empire Reborn is a "Card driven area control game with a 19th century war theme" you would probably call me a nerd and throw produce at me. If I said that Farmageddon is a "Light strategy game of risk taking in which you manage a hand of cards to earn the most points" you would keep walking.

Let's simplify it further. Do normal people know what any of the following terms mean?

  • Set Collection
  • Push your luck
  • Area control
  • Worker placement
  • Dungeon crawler
  • Abstract

From my own experience working alongside nerds, the answer is "typically not." Is there iconography we can use to clarify these elements? Alien Frontiers uses a lot of great iconography to tell you what's possible for players -- perhaps there's a lesson there? How foolish am I in thinking we could show players, on the front of the box, through simple iconography: This is a game for 2-4 players, ages 10+, in 60 minutes, that uses an Area Control mechanic.

One of the things that fascinates and drives me in this hobby is how much more we can do to give customers a better experience from start to finish. There are so many things we can still improve: Cleaner and more accessible rules and designs, shorter play times, more convenient distribution methods, more broadly appealing and novel themes, having a fantastic web presence to reach customers and answer their questions more conveniently. Now, I feel that we can add more informative packaging to the list. Oh boy, more to do!

Here are some ideas I have for improving this:

  • Prominently feature the Age Requirement, Play Time, and Number of players on the front and sides of the box. Most games do this already and that's good as it's the first thing I check. I noticed Seasons did this very prominently on its front cover and I appreciated it.
  • Show the setup game on the back of the box and walk the customer through the experience and why it's special. Risk: Legacy does this very well. Granted, people already know Risk. It's a classic! Still, this box does a great job of telling you why  Legacy is special.

  • Use the front cover to get players "in the door" with a compelling theme and art style...
  • ...then use the text on the back to reinforce your explanatory image. Focus on mechanics and function, not more theme. Obviously, use a little. We're not selling toilet paper, but toys! Perhaps note the type of person who would like this game. "This is a great game for players who like to work together and trade!" or "This is a game for players who love to lead great armies in battle."
  • Prominently feature the active components. Try to reinforce visually what players will be doing every turn. If they are going to place tiles, make those clear. If they roll dice, show 'em. I saw this on a box tonight at Barnes and Noble and thought it was interesting (bottom right next to the time):
  • Make sure language is playful, but not overly so. At some point, puns and alliteration are a distraction. Crisp, precise copy must be the focus. You'd be surprised at how witty you can be without slapping someone in the face with a Three-Stooges style honking device.

Update! I brought 1812: The Invasion of Canada into work today and noticed that they do a great job of highlighting important elements for the game on the back.

One thing I think we can steer away from is a  Component list. I don't think these are terribly useful on the back of the box and they take up quite a bit of space. If you're being examined by an experienced gamer, they'll know. If you're being examined by a new gamer, they won't care. Plus, your imagery should show them the BEST stuff already -- miniatures, a gorgeous board, cards, etc. Look how big the components list is on the back of Catan.

I may be over thinking a problem that may not need to be solved. I just looked at my copy of King of Tokyo. Aside from telling me how many players, at what age, and how long the game takes, there is NO information other than the title. The back of the box is literally a blank image. King of Tokyo sold out of its first print run and is selling like crazy on round two. So, perhaps I'm creation solutions that are unnecessary?

What do you think?


I've been digging into icon and box art design lately for digital games (XBLA/PC). There are some similar concerns. Of course, there, the marketplace is a different animal from perusing shelves at a game store, but I suspect there are some similarities, in that you want an image that grabs attention without being overbearing or too obscure, then just enough information to make a potential customer want to learn more, then pull them through and make the sale.

It seems to me that there are a few levels of interest to drill down through; the initial "ooh, shiny" response, the "OK, what sort of game is this" response, the "how many players/how much time" response, and the back-of-the-mind "polish" layer throughout, all leading to the "how much" that could kill the whole sale.

Or, phrased another way, a progression through "notice", "investigate", "intrigue" and "involve", where any stage you can lose people. Each functions a little differently, shifting the balance between superficial and substantial, hopefully shifting from the former to the latter.

...I haven't nailed it all down to an art or a science yet, but it seems to me that there is good reason to study it.

I agree with just about everything you said. I have seen some games show a grid that shows the different luck/skill/strategy for a game. Dice Hate Me rates their games on the different levels of each one. I think this maybe something that the gaming industry as a whole could adopt. We get some sense of this from the requirements, but something more in depth would be good.

My only disagreement is with the component list. And that can be in the rules I guess. But I want it somewhere either on the box or the rules in case I need to make sure everything is there before I sell or trade it away. Good article. Something for publishers to think about.

I should have noted that I believe they should be in the Rules. They are at the top of every rules document I write. I just don't think the box space needs to be used for it. Thanks for the input!

For sure. I also don't mind if it gives you a general overview of what is inside. I think a picture does this the best. I.e. for Risk Legacy example.

I miss board game boxes that show a healthy white family thoroughly enjoying themselves. http://andrewejenkins.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/the-game-of-life.jpg

You hit it dead on; if you want more than gamers to pick yer game up without necessarily trying it first, the packaging has to convey what's going on. Layout of gameplay or the steps to playing (if possible) are both great.