Board Games

What’s in a Box?

A Game in Any Other Container Would Play as Well

You probably like boxes – most people do. Boxes contain things and, in our materialistic culture, everyone loves ‘things’. Things are great. You can hold things, poke things, lick things? In a world where so much of our entertainment and ‘possessions’ are digital, tangible objects are exciting.’Get to the point already!’you’re probably thinking. Three sentences in and you haven’t revealed the point of this article. That’s just it, when you conceal something it becomes that much more exciting. So I’ll get to the point, this isn’t even about things, it’s about what holds them – boxes.
We’ve fallen in love with the act of unboxing. Monthly subscription boxes, unboxing videos, Kickstarter and next day delivery – they all act to satisfy this need to know ‘what’s in the box’. As people that love board games, we perhaps love boxes more than most. The hobby has grown because games are easier than ever to buy thanks to online shopping. Ordering a board game and having it arrive feels good. You get to tear open the package and behold your box then get that same satisfaction all over again as you prise it open and rummage through the contents. Even when you know exactly what’s in the box thanks to previews and articles, it’s still exciting to look inside for yourself. Backing games on Kickstarter is more popular than ever; they tease out more and more money from you with just one more stretch goal, one more backer level, one more exciting box to open and one more layer of cellophane to tear through.

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Tortuga 1667: A game I bought just because the box is so tasty.

The growth of the board gaming hobby can be seen as a reaction to digital life; an analogue escape from screens, online interactions and push notifications. An opportunity to have quality social time with friends or strangers over a shared experience. That isn’t the whole story, but there is some truth to it. My collection of films, music and video games are digital. What physical parts there are remain stored in my parents’ houses. Board games make up a significant percentage of my physical possessions, and there’s a particular joy to owning a box of stuff. You have lovely miniatures to fiddle with, dice to roll and decks of cards to rifle through.
It’s more than the things contained within the box though, it’s the boxes themselves. Opening a box, in particular, a big board game like Twilight Imperium, is a physical experience. You’ll crack open a DVD case with little thought but opening a game box takes thought. It can sometimes require multiple people as you try to slide apart a box whose two halves are perfectly snug together. I can’t get enough of the ‘thunk’ a game makes as the bottom of the box separates from the lid and drops to the table or sharing a smile with the other players as the halves let out that weird scraping-squeak noise – the box fart.

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Big ol’ space lion keeping watch over my room.

Returning to this draft having left it a week or so, I began to worry I was going a bit mad. Then I got Fog of Love: a game whose box is a joy to behold. The minimalist design is a treat for eyes. As the cellophane peels back, you feel the delightfully smooth finish and the subtle embossing of the title. Rather than separating in standard box fashion, the inner container slides out from the side revealing the board. Upon removing the board and rules, a big stupid grin appeared on my face. Cradling the dinky wooden counters and decks cards was a big moulded insert.
It’s a curious quirk of becoming infatuated with board games, that you begin to take a certain joy in having your precious pieces, counters and cards satisfactorily organised. All too often I will open a game for the first time, punch out bits and unwrap the cards before realising there’s no way to correctly order everything in the box. In this way boxes are able to evoke emotion in us with just the prospect of organisation; whether that’s the nice surprise of finding a good insert or the subtle pessimism that it’s going to be a mess getting everything back in the box.

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There’s more to opening boxes than just hoping for an insert. When my games go travelling, there’s always a little dread in the back of my mind that I’ll open it to find a jumbled mess inside. When I visit a board game cafe or pick up a scruffy looking game from a charity shop, I mentally cross my fingers that I’ll find all the pieces inside. Most thrilling of all, however, is when I open a box with no idea what I’ll discover inside. That’s where Legacy games come in.
A big box packed full of smaller boxes of unknown and mysterious contents; is there anything more exciting? It doesn’t matter what the game is, just the presentation of a Legacy game can be exciting. Reviews and previews stoke curiosity and forum posts tagged “spoiler” just increase the intrigue further. Being outside the small circle of people who know what’s in the box(es) creates a powerful hook. When reviewing the legacy game Seafall, Shut Up and Sit Down even suggest some people might just enjoy buying the game to sit down for an evening, open everything up and see how it all works.

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Look at all those tiny boxes full of possibility. Can for Scale.

Another great thing about board game boxes is that we can enjoy them without even cracking the lid. The board game communities online love ‘shelfies’: pictures of games stacked on shelves. Boxes piled together to form bright tableaus of colour and illustration can look gorgeous. Balanced precariously above my cupboard, the gloriously pulpy space lion on the side of Twilight Imperium stares out across the expanse of the galaxy that is my room. Boxes can become a feature of a room when shelved or displayed nicely (or stacked up in a corner and filling all the space under your bed…). In the same way, people love to store and display books, showing off board games offers a similar satisfaction; organising games by colour to create a feature wall or merely enjoying the puzzle of finding the best way to slot all the odd size boxes together. A well-organised collection is as much a source of pride or feature of a room as an elegant sofa, a bookshelf or those other things that are nice and go in rooms.

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Not the most ‘gram worthy “shelfie”

Boxes aren’t always relegated to storage duty. As much as they can be gorgeous objects that sit on the shelf, they can equally be active parts of the games they protect. The EXIT escape room games utilise the box as part of the puzzle; numerous German games including Funkelschatz, Gruselgrütze, Kakerlakak, Schnappt Hubi and others all incorporate the box as part of the play experience. The game I really want to focus on for a moment, however, is Mafia de Cuba. This party game actively uses the excitement of opening a box as a core mechanic. The box, styled as a fake box of cigars, is passed around the table by the Don and each player secretly removes something that determines their role in this social deduction game. Players in secret take a role chip or steal some diamonds from the box before passing it on. The Don has to wait, wondering what will be left in the box when it returns to him. In this way, every game begins with the Don opening the box and reacting to what’s inside. Mafia de Cuba is a decent social game made wonderful by this one moment when the box is opened.

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That about puts a lid on my love for board game boxes. It’s a subtle part of the hobby and boxes do have their downsides: whether that’s no space to move in your room or opening it to find a fruit salad of game bits. Yet, there are so many little things to be enjoyed about them. Take a moment to appreciate the “thunk” on the table, the satisfying heft in your hand, the dainty way it fits in your pocket or even just the weird picture of a space lion staring at you from the top of a cupboard.

The only guy who puts more stock in a pile of boxes than me.

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