Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Pros and cons of standardizing in board games

Standardizing - yay or nay?

To even begin the discussion about standardizing game components, we need to ask ourselves if this is an actual improvement.

Having dedicated lately more than the fair share of my time to publishing rather than designing, I realized that there is a downside of standardizing - it kills some of the creativity of designers (myself included) on the altar of delivering a marketable, user-friendly, industry standard product. The designer in me is trying to fight the other side of my board gaming personality (the publisher) screaming for more freedom and less standard components. 

I - the designer - wish to have a giant board in one of my upcoming titles depicting a detailed map of the world, something which would make the War of the Ring giant board seem average, but I - the publisher - will most likely deny this request on ground of being unreasonable, too expensive and almost impossible to manufacture.

And that's not all... I - the gamer - had the pleasure of opening 46 game boxes bought in Essen and some of them gave me great joy of discovering clever assembly mechanisms and cute little tweaks which made some games special right of the box, while some others had some of the most twisted annoying components that went straight to the "I am not emotionally equipped to deal with this" shelf.

So, perhaps there's a middle ground and an agreement can be sought by the dreamy designer, the pragmatic publisher and the exigent gamer. 

Almost two years ago when NSKN Games was even younger than today, we decided to approach board game publishing with a specific set of mind - making each game component as functional as possible and packing everything in the least possible amount of space.

Same size boxes

In a post on the NSKN Games website called "Less is more" we described this "discovery" and its core principles. We adheres to these principles fully and Exodus: Proxima Centauri (revised edition), Praetor, Progress: Evolution of Technology and Versailles - board games published by NSKN Games since then - are all built accordingly. Our two upcoming titles for the first half of 2015 - Exodus: Edge of Extinction and Mistfall - are following the trend and will have the same ergonomic design. But is this all we can do? The short answer is no, there's definitely room for improvement and this is what I want to explore together with you today.

Game components one by one - standard or not?

1. Game box - it's the first thing you and I see and 90% of the times the box is the decisive factor in our interest and later buying the game or not.

Image source: BoardGameGeek
My first few games were of various sizes and shapes, from the standard square Ticket to Ride box, to the monstrous Twilight Imperium "coffin" and the tiny Catan Card Game. Through the years I have become pickier and the box of Dungeon Fighter caused me head aches because it's just marginally larger than the standard square and yet it does not fit on my very standard IKEA shelves... so I had to let it go.

Image source: thebattlestandard.com
My plea if for standard boxes which save shelf space. Fantasy Flight Games - one of the trend setters in the hobby industry - has given up the iconic "coffin" boxes and switched to square boxes of various heights. I do not know the actual reason behind this move but I can speculate that they are standardizing and making their products gamer-friendly. Think only of Imperial Assault or Descent 2.0.

What is your opinion, do you prefer standard boxes or are you a fan of unlimited creativity and prefer cubical or cylindrical boxes?

2. Rules

Squares, rectangles, A5, A4, letter... the rules is modern games are all over the place. We at NSKN tried our own standard, 285x285mm booklets which are roughly the size of the box. It was or choice for the past 2 years because it allows large graphic examples, the page can be divided into 2 or 3 columns according to needs and it is cost effective.

Cost effective is one of the keys for small publishers like us to succeed. Once we evolved past the point of mere survival (as a company) we had the luxury of rethinking our publishing paradigm and look again for better solutions.

I have been advocating for "our size of the rules" for quite a while until I have recently made an experiment of my own: I took the rules of a random game, put them in both the large square format and A4 (which is almost the same as letter size) and read through them timing myself. Reading the same amount of rules text in A4 format took me about 25% less time. Therefore, the rules of our next game are coming in A4 format, even if that adds a few cents to our production costs.

Which is your preferred rules format? Do you even have one? Is this a key aspect for you when it comes to buying or even playing a game?

3. Boards

This is the point where the discussion gets complicated.

Having analyzed 50 games with non-modular boards published after 2012, I found the following distribution: more than 50% are a 4-fold square or rectangle, 30% are 6-fold rectangles and the rest are... all over the place. When it comes to modular boards, the most common shapes are rectangles, hexagons and starred hexagons, but the distribution here is too difficult to assess because of the wide range of options. Furthermore, less and less of modern board games have an actual board, with German style games sticking more to the original conservative model with an actual board.

I mentioned before that the designer in me wants a giant game board. I have spoken to a few manufacturers and the largest single piece board they can make is 100 x 70 cm and this is not really what I had in mind. Anything beyond that would require all kinds of non-standard "stuff" (I was afraid to ask) and the price would increase five to ten fold for a board just 1.5 times as large.

Comparing boards with the same total area, a 4-fold cut is 30% cheaper in average than a 6-fold cut thus the industry preference for the former. Even when it comes to ergonomics and table space, a square 4-fold cut seems preferable. And yet in Versailles we went with a larger 6-fold board very close to the manufacturer's upper limit because it suited better the game's needs. My inner fight between the designer and the publisher was a clear victory for the designer, while the publisher saw the margins decreasing under his eyes.

Using any standard game board will also save significant costs with the cutting knives when manufacturing with an established large board game factory. For small publishers saving this kind of money may very well make a big difference.

Modular boards offer a greater flexibility and sometime much greater replay value. They do not necessarily increase the manufacturing costs, but they usually do. Yet more and more designers and publishers walk this road, because creativity is no longer limited by a rectangle.

So... what is you view on game boards? With or without? Modular or classic? Does this aspect even matter when it comes to your liking and buying games? 


Writing for quite a while now, I have only covered about half of the topics I had in mind. So. I'd love to see your opinions and I'll resume my train of thought next week.

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  1. First, I also think that standard-sized boxes make more sense as long as all the pieces fit inside.

    Secondly, I think the legibility (functionality and prettiness) of a rulebook involve more things than size, and you could even keep the pages the size they are now if you changed their layout. For instance, the columns in your "Exodus" rules are too wide to comfortably scan and the example/summary text and picture boxes could have been better placed alongside the text, on wider page or column margins. I am not a specialist and I strongly urge you to study this matter further. You could google for recommendations and examples, you could have a look at well designed manuals (such as books in the "For Dummies" or "An Idiot's Guide" series) or, even better, you could pick the brains of a competent technical writer.

    Finally, when it comes to game boards what matters most for me is a practical issue: what table size do I need to play the game? Tables are (more or less) standardised (into low coffee tables, four-person tables, six-person tables, 12-person tables) and the board should leave enough space on the table for the players' components.

    Table size apart, bigger is usually better because it gives the designer and the artist more room to make the game board functional and attractive. I do love the bigger boards of "Versailles", "Twilight Struggle Deluxe Edition", or "Power Struggle". On the other hand, "The Manhattan Project" plays very well (with up to 72 worker chits) on a board marginally wider than that of "Progress". I think the Kickstarter-exclusive board of "Progress" received a lot of Criticism because, while functional in principle, its cramped size allows only a single way to use it, which may or often may not be ideal or intuitive for the players. I do use it alongside an organiser, still, it is not perfect for my personal tastes.

    If it the boards you need are too big to be cost-effective, you may consider moving some of the items on individual players' boards or, as a last resort, a modular table (jig-saw puzzle style?). If properly designed and manufactured, I would not mind a modular board especially if the modularity has been incorporated in its design from the very beginning.

    To conclude this longish rant, it is not just size that matters. Rulebooks could be improved by more professional editing (although they are good enough better than quite a lot of similar complexity), and the boards should be small enough for the entire game to fit on the table and big enough to be functional and visually appealing.

    1. Thank you for your extensive feedback. I mostly agree with your point of view, bigger is not necessarily better and we (NSKN) are also going through various processes of improving our games. From a publisher point of view (and this why I insisted so much on this) sizes go along with costs and some game we were pitched, while they're well designed they are not publish-able. Appreciate your comment and would love to get more of this kind of opinions, feedback always serves us well.

  2. 1. Game boxes
    To get a feeling on this topic, I went to my shelf to take a look. In my opinion there is already some kind of standardisation. Most of my game boxes are square (30x30cm). Coffins I only have a few. The smaller ones I can handle (War of the Ring with 35x30cm and Age of Empires III with 40x30cm). My only "problem case" is an old Axis and Allies with 50x30cm. But there are also smaller boxes: Board games with smaller boards (Manhattan Project 23x30cm) or card games.
    Should these games in smaller boxes also made to fit to the square boxes? I don't think so! I would assume they industry has an interest to minimize box size to ship more units of the game in one cardboard box or on one pallet. And the shops also want to place as many games as possible on their limited shelf space. So I would assume it would be easier for an publisher to get its game on the shelves of the shops with a small box and sell additional material later with an expansion in a new box than to get a big coffin box onto the shelves.

    2. Boards & Tables
    Here I disagree with Bilbofil. I play in a lot of different locations, pubs, community center rooms, at home etc. and always have to fit the game material to the different table sizes. So I'm a fan of modular rectangular boards like Shadows over Camelot and Dead of Winter (but the later has really horrible quality boards). My opinion I can back by the experience that a big folded board is not always flat on the table on all its folds, so I see limited advantage of one big board.
    I agree that a big board gives the designer & the artist more opporunities, but they must use them. A good example for me is Age of Empires III, a bad one Through the Ages.

    3. Rules
    Here I would vote for a rulebook in A4 / letter size instead of 28,5x28,5cm. When learning a new game, when playing it again after some time or the game is Battlestar Galactica, I need to have the rules always at hand. And a smaller size rulebook is simply easier to fit on the table than a bigger one.

  3. Stefan,

    I think you have a very good point, there is no need to add air in a box just for the sake of possible future expansions. There can be several standards, unlike what's happening today.

    For example, the last time we asked for quotes for a board game, for the standard square box we got the following:
    - 295 x 295 x 72 mm
    - 290 x 290 x 75 mm
    - 291 x 291 x 70 mm
    - 300 x 300 x 80 mm
    - 285 x 285 x 75 mm
    The differences are small but not insignificant. Almost every manufacturer has its own standards and especially those who work mostly with small publishers will impose their own since the publisher won't have the funds to spend on creating a slightly different die cut.

    As for rules, I completely agree, that's why we are also switching from the square format 28.5x28.5cm to A4.

    1. Andrei,
      there is a misunderstanding: I meant that if the reason to need a coffin box for a game is not the board but the amount of material (i.e. the nowadays popular minis), it would be wiser to move some material to an expansion (i.e. materials for player no. 5 & 6 etc.) or use a higher square box like FFG uses on Imperial Assault.
      To go back to where I found this blog on your Facebook post: "Did you chose not to buy a board game this year because you had no space at home to store it? If so, then this is a must read for you..."
      Concerning this question, the differences in square boxes you mentioned are insignificant! ;-)

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