Tuesday, September 2, 2008

C&C Ancients: The hoplon box

There have been many laudable influences on wargaming from eurogames, among them shorter playing times, a move towards more elegant rules and an overall improvement in graphics.

Pulling out my copy of Command and Colors: Ancients, however, reminds me another one: better game boxes.

I've been a wargamer for almost 40 years now, and played games in general for almost 50. (I'm pretty sure I started with Milton Bradley's Go to the Head of the Class). And one consistent problem with games published by American publishers over those decades was flimsy boxes. It was also something I noticed back in the 1980s when I spent some time in Germany while in the Army. This was before the rise of the Eurogame, but Germans have always been big game fans and companies such as Ravensburger were publishing nice versions of traditional games, and these came in nice sturdy boxes.

The tradition of flimsy boxes pioneered by the lies of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers was taken up by Avalon Hill, which wanted nothing more than to be considered a serious game company. The classic Avalon Hill box was a "flat box" similar in dimensions to its MB and Parker contemporaries. There was at least one edition of Stalingrad that came in an oversized flat box in a bid for more attention on store shelves.

This brings up the central contradiction in game box design between the interest of the publisher and the interests of the player. For the publisher, the success of the game box is measured by its success in selling the game. For this purpose the flat box is ideal, especially a lightly constructed one. It's big, has a lot of room for attention-grabbing art and for lots of informative ad copy describing all the game's features in nice big type. Being light it's easy to pick up from the shelf and spin around in the consumer's hands while the potential purchaser soaks up the add copy and the pretty pictures.

The player, however, wants a box that will hold all the game's components after the game has been assembled for play, will stand up to being carried around and won't take up an unnecessary amount of storage space in the home.

Until fairly recently, the publisher's interests tended to prevail over the players. Except for the 3M-introduced Bookcase game box (later adopted by Avalon Hill for some, but not all its games) and the corrugated box and sleeve used by Columbia Games and a few others, most wargame publishers, like most American game publishers in general, stuck to flimsy boxes. In some cases the boxes were exceptionally light and would fall apart almost immediately, but every flat box design is a problem for players. They don't hold up well to being transported, they won't fit well on most common bookshelves and sometimes they won't even hold all the game parts.

I, for one, always liked the AH bookcase boxes the best. They held up well to the wear and tear of life. I have more than a half dozen of the 3M games in their original boxes. Over the years I've rarely had to replace any bookcase boxes. On the other hand, I regularly found it necessary to replace flat boxes. I'm on my second Afrika Corps box and my third Midway box. although now, of course, they can't be replaced except by cannibalising from eBay purchases.

One of the first thing I noticed about the eurogames, in contrast is that they almost always come in a nice compact and sturdy box. The Euro-ized edition of A House Divided, for example, while in very large box, is also in a very tough box. Evidently Euro game publishers are more interested in building up goodwill among customers and a reputation for quality than short-term gains from quick sales.

The Columbia-style boxes have their advantages, although the sleeves tend to rip, so I considers it somewhat inferior to bookcase and euro-style boxes, although much better than any others.

So I was pleased to see that GMT has, at least for Commands & Colors: Ancients, gone with a very sturdy box. This was somewhat of a surprise, because GMT isn't averse to going flimsier. While some of their games are in bookcase style boxes they also have used flat box designs.

Some other American game makers are following the Euro lead. The newest games from Worthington are definitively Euro-standard and even many recent Hasbro games are in a more compact and player-friendly square box that takes up less space and is sturdier, although this isn't universal. The Axis & Allies games, in particular, still have too much air in them.

I hope that GMT goes C&C-style for more new titles, along with other gamemakers. I'm tired of split ends.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that if any wargame company is boxing games based on consumer demand, it would be GMT. It certainly isn't Critical Hit, who put the base ATS game into a box that wouldn't hold the components once they were punched. It wouldn't be the Hasborg'ed AH, which puts out boxes to dominate shelf space.

    One of the primary advantages of the "bookshelf" design (I'm unsure what GMT games every used a "flat" box for a design - I've been buying their stuff since the early 90's and can't think of a one outside of their occasional forays into euros like Battlelines), is that you can store them vertically with no weight other than the game itself. Flat boxes require horizontal stacking most of the time, leading to potential box crushing when a too-heavy game is put on top of it. Even some ostensibly "bookshelf" boxes, such as the OCS titles, almost have to be stored horizontally despite their relative flimsiness, mostly because I prefer to use counter trays to baggies with these games, and the boxes won't support Plano.

    Of course, business decisions rule why boxes are heavy or not. C&C Ancients is a classic example - the weight of the blocks required corrugated material or a heavier dense material. Manouevre, which has a similar box, may be toeing the line in terms of weight, as the cards tend to be a fairly heavy component. Combat Commander, though, was a wonderful surprise. They actually left enough space in the box to allow me to use a counter tray for the units, small Plano boxes for the markers, and card boxes for my sleeved cards. And space for additional scenarios and maps. The whole thing fits very nicely in both the Europe and Med boxes.