Today I’m thinking about small games and air in boxes.
I’m slowly playing my way through my game collection, culling the unworthy, and enshrining the blessed. As I play even more games than usual, back-to-back, I’m struck again by the wide variation in how games look once you get the box open, and how much each production team has thought, or cared, about this. And, importantly, how much that matters.
When it comes to what stays and what goes, the calculation is baroque and, in detail, probably unexplainable. Not in every aspect though. One of the more quantifiable features of a game that comes into question is the amount of space it takes up on my shelf. I have perhaps five or six times as many games as I have shelves to comfortably put them on. If I cram them in Tetris style, maybe only four times. That’s still not good. Each game must therefore justify the amount of space it takes up, and the larger its volume, the harder it is to convince me to keep it (or buy in the first place – a different, but related discussion). Put simply, the physically bigger the game, the more it has to prove itself on the table. And games which take up only half their volume with actual game are just making life harder for themselves. Ain’t got room for boxes of air.
Speaking of these space hogs, the traditional excuse for a big box full of a lot of nothing and a little game has been that it needs to have shelf presence in the stores. It’s true that this problem seems to be less prevalent these days. I suspect this has more to do with shipping and the greater cost of getting stock from factory to distribution now that the bulk of games are printed in China rather than Europe or the US. However, I digress.
The reduction in the number of games being sold in retail, over the counter, during 2020 is for obvious reasons. In a broader sense, a large and increasing fraction of sales are now online, where you cannot rattle the box, or even tell how big it is from the image on the site. Without the context of the rest of the shelf, you could have a game in a matchbox or a coffin and the art would look the same in the thumbnail. This, I expect, has also played into why gamers end up buying less air these days: less need to impress in person till after the sale has been made. Spend the money on better art instead. But it still happens, and it’s a pain when it does.
Note that you can go too far the other way too. It’s rarer, but it still happens. The North, for example, is so tightly packed that it’s something of a challenge to get the cards out and back in. And then there is the question of whether the obviously planned or even simultaneously released expansion will fit in the core box or not. The fact that several publishers are now producing larger boxes to cover a whole game range, often with bespoke inserts to pack things in carefully, tells you that I’m not the only one after this sort of OCD form of storage. It’s not always easy to get this right when you don’t know how popular the game will be, and therefore how many expansions the income will encourage you to produce.
And there are plenty of other considerations that production teams need to consider. What size are their other games? That will matter when they need to ship mixed cases (the big outer brown card box they ship several games at once in). And speaking of cases, it’s always cheaper to be able to standardise and buy your cases in pre-printed bulk, in standard sizes. This sort of hidden cost is usually invisible to the end user, but someone pays for it. The brown card boxes you throw away don’t come free.
And if we’re getting into cases, there are questions of how high they can be stacked and how they’re palletised, impacting again how the games inside are stored and packed. How much packaging material of what sort do you want to use? For wholesale shipments and individual customers? Not always the same thing. There’s a lot to consider (and a lot which is often ignored or done at the last minute). You *can* do this all at the end, but it’s more efficient to at least consider things like how you will ship and deliver the end product while you’re deciding on the size and robustness of the retail box.
The game on my table today is Villages of Valeria. If I look at it critically, without my usual side order of mercy, then it’s not the best game ever. It’s too light to retain my attention for more than a few plays at once. Nonetheless, in this case that’s fine, and it’s staying in my collection. Why? A few reasons. One is because although it’s a simple puzzle, and each play is much like the last, I enjoy it just as I do sudoku, or various forms of patience. It’s the answer to a particular frame of mind, when I want something not too taxing, with rules I can refresh myself on in 2 minutes, and which is up, done in a comfortable and familiar way, and back away in half an hour or less. So, it scratches a particular itch. That’s not enough to stay in my collection though. I need to be harsher than that to fit everything in the space I have. So what else?
It’s also an attractive game; a statement that’s a little odd for me to make because I’m not a fan of the artist’s style. Even so, for whatever reason, it works for me here. Maybe because the main cards are buildings and not people.
In the end though, the thing that excuses its lack of technical shine is its size. Had it been in a large box full of air it would probably have been traded away by now. As it stands, it takes up so little of my painfully limited shelf space and fits so well for that particular headspace, that it stays, lurking quietly till I need a quick fix of a familiar game I don’t need to think about too much. It comes down when more technically worthy games that I’d give higher marks to stay to gather a little more dust, waiting till my brain or mood (or both) can cope. And there is probably space for this sort of thing in your collection too.
Games shouldn’t really be measured against a single scale. They’re never 10/10 for every occasion. They need to fit different groups of friends, moods, and time slots.
And yes, they also need to fit on the damned shelves.
If you’d like a second weekly dose of all the game-related wisdom you didn’t ask for, this time focussing on the designs I’m working on myself, then you can find it over on my Patreon. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here next Tuesday for another exciting episode…