Better package design

pic872076_md[1]My Mario T. Lanza

When an order of games arrived, I used to neatly stacked each title on the shelf wrapped for a later day. I saw no need to rush. I had secured the title and would get to it sooner or later. Trouble is, I have recently learned that even the most well-respected publishers will sometimes mispackage a game’s contents. Fearful of discovering packing mistakes when it is too late to be corrected, I now almost immediately open every game, pop its chits, and make inventory of the contents against the rules manifest.

Baggies, baggies, baggies*

*I use “baggies” as a generic term for resealable plastic bags.
The next step in my game-opening ritual is putting related bits into their own baggies. I have learned to bag bits according to the setup distribution. Each individual player’s bits, for example, are bagged together. I bag almost everything, even cards if there is no specific place for them in the inserts. Because everything goes into a baggie I begun to question what features make inserts useful. Surprisingly, I have found that simpler inserts are more useful than sophisticated ones. More on this in a moment.

Baggies solve numerous issues: they’re the duct tape of the boardgame world. The are easily replaceable and highly useful. I do not use grocery-store baggies as they are too large. Instead use baggies that I purchase at a craft store. I predominantly use the 3″ x 4.75″ size, though the smaller 2″ x 3.75″ size does occasionally come in handy. Both sizes zip shut.

Larger ones that are just a little too large, won’t minimize content shifting the way it should. Though this is less with durable plastic and wooden bits, this causes undue wear to cardboard components. The 3″ x .475” size baggie that I use seems to be perfectly designed for use with most boardgames. The design of box inserts should not prohibit the use of baggies. With that said, we’re ready to discuss the meat of the article: box inserts.

Box inserts
Unlike most hobbies, the packaging–box and insert–are actually considered part of the product. A well-designed box insert should provide for the following:

  • Longevity
    The best inserts preserve the life of the components and prevent wear.
  • Shifting
    To add life to game components, shifting must be minimized. When contents shift around and jostle up against each other — especially when some components are hard (wood) and others soft (cardboard) — undue wear results. In most cases, all an insert need to provide is a few, generic wells and several small baggies. I’ll be putting most bits into separate baggies whether or not the baggies are provided.
    It doesn’t seem to matter whether an insert has very specific compartments for its various bits, as they will often come loose during transport. How many times have you opened a box only to find that a few cards have slid into other parts of the box? Baggies eliminate this.
    Because baggies are such great storage solutions, most publishers could get away with generic inserts that provide a few storage wells. As a rule of thumb, if a set of components can be easily bagged and unbagged, provide the generic well and a baggie. If not, then provide a precision-fit well. Typically, precision-fit wells work better with larger components like decks or tiles (e.g. Mesopotamia) where using baggies can prove unwieldy. Likewise, precision wells for tiny bits (like the canal for Amun-Re’s farmers) can prove unwieldy.
  • Support
    The insert and the box should provide solid support to all of the larger components such as the game board itself. The strength and integrity of the box and the insert matter. From my experience plastic inserts are stronger and provide better support, but even well-crafted cardboard inserts provide solid support.
    Additionally, minimizing air space surrounding the game board and other large bits lends additional support. Consider how much stronger a box whose insert presses the game board flush against the lid and the edges of the box is than one whose insert has a cushion of air over and around the game board. I don’t mean to suggest that components be tightly in order to reduce air space. A hard plastic insert whose board fits snugly on top may have excellent strength despite providing a large inner wells for storing bagged components. Most of the strength comes when the sides and top of the box are reinforced, not full of air. For this very same reason, precision-fit wells (when filled) can add strength to the package.
    One of the most important support issues is the support that an insert provides to the game board itself. For the sake of convenience, which we’ll get to shortly, it makes sense to store the board on the top of everything else. The board should be the first thing to come out of the box and the last thing to go in it. This usability matter demands that all boxes have inserts. Accordingly, inserts must provide excellent support to the bottom of the board in order to prevent its gradual bowing.
    At a minimum, an insert must provide support to each corner of the board. At best it should add support to the edges and to the centre of the board. Think of a board as having up to 9 points of support: the 4 edges, and the centre. So, support is adequate, 8-point support is very good, and 9- or 10-point support is best. 10-point support!? Well, I’ve already mentioned that the 9th point comes from support at the centre of the board. Think of the additional 1 point as coming from multiple points of support at the centre of the board.
  • Storage and Transport
    Shifting and support are the two factors than matter most in the storage and transport of games. Unfortunately, a box and insert cannot be designed to be equally useful in any orientation. Gravity is the enemy of game boards. I have learned that game boxes were designed to lie flat on the shelf. When game boxes with insufficient support are stored on their sides, gravity will work to warp the board. Even boards whose boxes and inserts offer sufficient support will bow when the lid comes loose due to being stored sideways.
    Gamers who store games on their side are trading one longevity issue for another–pressure from stacking vs. the pull of gravity. Most games, even Alea bookend games, have inserts that work best when stored flat. For best results, store games flat in relatively shallow stacks of like-size boxes. In this way, gravity will work for, not against you, and bits will become less likely to become unsettled.
    During transport, no matter how meticulous our packing, games may shift and fall into odd angles. Baggies are the indispensable means to prevent content shifting. How many times have you arrived at an away game destination and popped the lid off a box only to find the contents had become a bit like a salad? Have I mentioned: “baggies!”?
  • Usefulness
    The most useful inserts allow us to easily set up and put away our components. Rarely will an intricate insert having lots of precision-fit wells outperform a handful of baggies and a simple insert having only a few compartments.
  • Convenience
    Because baggies and generic inserts are more convenient than intricate inserts I have come to prefer them. When putting a game away it’s easier to put all of them into a baggie and to put away the single baggie, than it is for 5 people to be reaching over the box with handfuls of bits.
    Convenience is the very reason the board is packed on top. It’s far more troublesome having to store a board in the bottom of the box and all the bits on top of it. It just doesn’t work well. This is one of the primary justifications for having inserts, but at the same time we run into trouble when an insert provides inadequate support to the board. This could lead to bowing. Not good!
  • Organization
    pic446508_md[1]Generic inserts are highly useful, but some are better than others. The better inserts have a useful subdivision of compartments. pic872046_md[1]There are two dominant kinds of generic inserts. The first (see Power Grid) has a central compartment and offers 6-point support to board only on its corners and on its two sides. The second (see Goldland) has a central and a more narrow side compartment. Of the two I prefer the latter because it affords organizational choices. Many games use this design quite well.

I really can’t envision the need for generic inserts to have more than 6 compartments (two rows of 3). Fewer compartments could also work well. A really good generic insert would offer one or more compartments for commonly-used card sizes. Ultimately, each could decide for himself how to make best use of the insert.

For some games, adding a few precision-fit wells to an otherwise generic insert will make sense. Remember, larger components work better with precision-fit wells than baggies. (Perfect example: the tiles for my copy of Neuland, which are stored in a bag, have already worn for their shifting.) These hybrid generic/custom inserts needn’t be over-designed. Publishers should be left to concentrate on more important matters.

Well designed inserts have compartments that are obviously designed for certain components; no instructions required. This is another reason why simple generic inserts are better. The more generic an insert – to a point – the more freedom a person has to organize the components. A person should definitely not have to puzzle over packing them away.

Speaking of puzzling over inserts: let’s look at Revolution. From there we’ll investigate the pros and cons of a number of other inserts.

Revolution by Phalanx
Functional, but not intuitiveIn addition to the horrific rules that came with the game, the generic insert so non-intuitive that I and a few others on BGG tossed Later, I found this well-labelled photo on BGG, but of course it was too late. This is a case of a generic insert that was over-designed. While the later photo proved the insert was functional, it’s non-intuitive layout made instructions almost a requirement.

A board and its contents in absence of an insertI’m not sorry for having tossed the insert. I have found that games with a profuse number of bits are more easily managed with baggies and general storage spaces. Having to tediously stack bits into tiny canals is more trouble than it’s worth. Often, bits will spill out of these trays during transport anyway.

As you can see, it’s a little chaotic to have everything stored loosely in baggies on top of the board. At least the bottom of the box provides excellent support to the board.

pic872032_md[1]Andromeda by Abacus
Andromeda has a sturdy plastic insert with cupped wells for the cubes and a well for the “cosmic ashtray.” Because the insert is so simple I see no major issues with its design. It is solid and provides excellent 10-point board support. One of the most solid inserts included with any game, and the board fits perfectly.

pic872033_md[1]Additionally, The board fits against the box’s edges. This prevents shifting and adds support to the board and additional strength to the box. Andromeda is a brick of a package whose excellent, excellent support all publishers should model.

For its great design, it has only one notable issue. The cupped wells that the wooden cubes should be stored there. The problem is that wooden cubes jostling during transport could cause spotted wear on the game board. Again: use baggies. Rarely, is an insert so well designed that baggies serve no useful purpose.

pic872080_md[1]Tikal by Ravensburger
The insert created for Tikal is excellent. It even has a shallow well for its rule book! Just the same, even with Tikal I have experienced content shifting. Unfortunately, the insert is so precise that little space remains for bagged contents. This is one reason that I favour more generic inserts. Very few inserts are so perfectly fitted to every bit. Still, why bother. A generic insert and some baggies will do the trick.

Tikal’s hexes are are a perfect example of the kind of component that deserves its own precision-fit wells. Other than that, the left over of the insert could have included just a single compartment – and some baggies for treasures, temple tiles, and each player’s bits.

Medieval Merchant by Goldsieber
I like the generic Goldsieber inserts. They are artistically covered with the game’s art — nice touch! — and they are divided into two spaces a central space and a side space. I usually store the bits most subject to wear for shifting in the side well, and the remaining pic872071_md[1]bits in the centre area. These inserts are sturdy enough and provide adequate support to the board. Their simple design works well with bagged components.

I’ve mentioned the importance of eliminating shifting space. Medieval Merchants board was not made to fit flush against the edges and lid of the box as, ideally, it should have. It seems to me that this sort of issue could be eliminated if publishers had a menu of boxes and precisely-sized boards from which to choose. Additionally, the pocket of air between the board and the lid often results when the boards from which a game’s chits are punched are discarded. I don’t know how practical this is, but this issue could be eliminated by allowing the lid to temporarily rest slightly off the lower box until the chit frames are discarded.

Goldland by Goldsieber
pic872046_md[1]Another Goldsieber title, Goldland, makes use of the same design. Note that the large tiles are stored in the side well. The drawback again is shifting. The best inserts minimize content shifting. Now, there’s not a big issue with the content shifting of the small bagged components, but of the large unbagged ones. Note that the wooden bits and cardboard ones are separately bagged to reduce wear.

Here’s another case where having a simple game allows for a simple, almost generic, insert. The large plastic blocks all fit into a central well. The insert could have been designed with cube-sized pic872075_md[1]wells but that would have been a case of unnecessary over-design. Personally, I prefer simple inserts like this. It serves its purpose with only a few wells. Even the precision-fit wells for the player pawns could have been simply replaced by a small compartment. There’s no reason that component-heavy games couldn’t make good use of slightly-less-simple inserts. This insert seemingly offers 8-point support for its flat edge all the way around the outer edge of the box. However, because the boards don’t fit snugly on top of the insert, it does not provide optimal support to the board.

Hacienda by Hans im Glück
pic872047_md[1]One problem common to a lot of precision-fit is that they are designed to near-perfect depth. This sometimes results in, wells that are slightly too shallow. Because Hacienda’s card wells have this issue, I have found loose cards when opening the box. Likewise, the player aid wells are a bit shallow. Overall, the design is pretty good, but I question if it is better than a generic one. Overall a good insert, but more specialized than I prefer.

What if the insert had a number of generic compartments? The player animal chits could be separated, bagged and stored in one compartment, the land tiles in another, and the remaining bits in the last quarter. Only the cards warrant precision-fit wells. Can you see it? In some ways it would be easier to use.

Naval Battles by Phalanx
pic872074_md[1]Naval Battles illustrates another case of shallow wells. Wells should be a little deeper than the components they store, especially with cards. Cards can slightly bow after some use and may not settle perfectly into their wells. It’s better that the wells be a little deeper than necessary so that the top cards/chits don’t slide, off into other parts of the box.

Mesopotamia by Mayfair and Phalanx
pic872073_md[1]Some inserts are a little over-designed. While I think Mesopotamia’s inserts do a worthy job, publishers should expect that some of their customers will bag the game’s components. If the wells have little extra room, this can become difficult. Despite having a little difficulty putting the game away, I like the design. It allows me to keep the rocks apart from the other components. Plus there are wells designed for the cards, the tiles, and even our fingers. Finger-wells are necessary and rarely missed by publishers.

Antike by Eggert-Spiele
pic872454_md[1]Here’s the generic cardboard insert that came with Antike. I had to discard it because once I bagged each player’s bits separately it was simply too shallow to easily store the components underneath. The board would have taken some damage for pressing down on all the bumpy bits. As with Revolution, I store the board inconveniently under the bits, no insert.

Way Out West by Warfrog
pic872085_md[1]Here’s that simple cardboard insert again. For many games it work just fine. Again, as you can see, the only real issue is that the board sits loosely on top of the insert. Loose fitting boards are more likely to wear and bow. Way Out West would have benefited from a board that fit flush into the box top.

Union Pacific by Amigo Spiele
pic872083_md[1]Look at this near perfection! The insert was practically designed to be a functional bits manager. The wells even have inset numbers indicating their bit counts. Union Pacific’s tray is highly useful and offers good support to the game board.

Iron Dragon by Mayfair
pic872050_md[1]One would suspect that Iron Dragon’s insert was designed for practical use. Nevertheless, I dislike the design. I would have preferred a generic plastic insert with several wells and a wad of baggies. Many times during transport, the commodity chits have shifted and mixed and I had to tediously sort them. Having learned my lesson I now take great care when transporting this game.

pic872049_md[1]The practical design seems to suggest that the box be kept on the table as a bit manager. I have never liked this. No matter how well designed a component tray, having a box on the table is cumbersome and can obscure a player’s view. Even the well-designed Union Pacific tray, I store on a chair next to me. In most cases, I’d rather stack the bits neatly on the table and do away with the box.

Edel, Stein, and Reich by Alea
pic872043_md[1]Another minor case of over-design. The money chits have, their own little wells. Thought this is a fairly new game I can see that these chits will become unsettled. Why bother? I say give me a well and a baggie. It’s otherwise simple design is nice. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that custom wells should be eliminated. Card wells are almost always useful. The trick is to the cards in the wells. Rubber bands come to mind, but I avoid them for having heard how aged rubber bands can ruin components.

Wildlife by Uberplay
pic872086_md[1]Yuck. Wildlife’s insert almost looks generic. It’s too busy, too specific, and too 3D. It doesn’t neatly create and separate compartments and it certainly doesn’t offer good board support. At the very least a board should be supported on all its corners!

Magna Grecia by Clementoni / Rio Grande Games
pic872069_md[1]Look familiar? Here’s a very similar insert offer subpar board support. Though you can’t see it from the dead on angle, the board is completely bowed on the unsupported corner. I bought it new and only ever played it once. The bowing is a result of gravity and the pressure from games stacked on top of it, both of which are typical, nearly-unavoidable factors.

Colossal Arena by Fantasy Flight Games
pic872040_md[1]More card wells that are slightly too shallow. As the game has no board, the insert should have been deep enough for it to press flush against the lid. Don’t you dare store this game on its side!

Java by Ravensburger
pic872056_md[1]The insert is adequate in some ways; however, note how the numbered palace tiles are in the general mix. Shallow half-wells are pointless. They assume that a game will always be stored and, transported in a leveled fashion. The insert does offer only adequate, 4-point support. Note also that the cards are stored at an angle. Bad. I’ve noted warping components that are stored at an angle. Inserts should be designed to put gravity to work for, not against us.

Condottiere by EuroGames
pic872041_md[1]The generic insert with a central well. This is sufficient for most games. Again, the key is good board support. The standard insert with some colour, but in this case, it works.

Really, all a well-designed insert need do is help organize and protect contents.

Amun-Re by Hans im Glück / Rio Grande Games
pic873945_md[1]The Amun-Re farmer well is case of poor design. Trying to stack the farmers upright is more bothersome than it’s worth, as they easily slide down flatly into the well. Using a baggie solved the issue. Ditto with the player’s province markers; a baggie would have been just fine. Simplicity is best.

Industria by Queen
pic872048_md[1]Take the generic storage bin in Industria’s box. Nice. The bits are bagged and stored together making the game especially easy to put away. The only thing is that the square tiles would have benefited from custom wells; however, I don’t mind that Queen chose to maximize their use of the generic insert at the cost of custom wells. No big deal. I really like the free-form storage wells of Industria. The only issue with having one common well for all bits, is to have to pile too many bagged bits on of one another weighing down on the bottom-of-the-pile bits. Unless a game has profuse components, this shouldn’t be an issue. It’s certainly not an issue with Industria. Also, that makes having an additional side bin useful.

TransAmerica by Winning Moves / Rio Grande Games
pic872081_md[1]Another case of a single central well that is more than adequate. The board itself sits securely in place — a very good fit.

Again, with simple games standard insert works just fine.

Caylus by Ystari
pic872039_md[1]Here we have a single central well and it works just fine. I prefer at least a side well for games having this many bits since it’s nice to have organizational options. Quartered wells would be even better. There’d be more storage options and the board would be better supported. Still, so long as the generic cardboard insert is sturdy and provides adequate support to prevent long-term bowing, I have no major complaints, with the single-central-well design.

Rheinländer by Hasbro
pic872077_md[1]Rheinlander exemplifies over-design. The insert is very nice in that it has spots for the plastic figures and the shields, but these spots are fussy and lack usability. Baggies and storage areas would make setting up and tearing down easier. Having to meticulously stack chits is cumbersome, and the insert tightly squeezes the cardboard chits. I can’t imagine this is good for longevity. Again, baggies and a bin would have been better. You’d think I be happy about this level of design, but it’s more troublesome than it’s worth. Plus, because the design is so space limited, it’s not possible to baggie everything. It forces its design to be used. Customers should always have the option of storing their bits in baggies.

La Strada by Kosmos / Mayfair
pic872062_md[1]The insert for La Strada is pretty – good. It has custom wells for the puzzle-together board. These wells are useful and necessary. It also has wells for each players hex tiles. While the insert is simple enough that it’s remains highly useful, I would have preferred a side well and a few baggies. Nothing beats baggies for usability. Are you catching a theme here?

Simple enough. Not bad.

Babel by Kosmos / Rio Grande Games
pic872035_md[1]Simple wells, perfectly useful and the board fits securely in the top of the box preventing any content shifting. Excellent. Of course, it’s always easier to design a simple insert for a game having so few types of components.

Lost Cities by Kosmos / Rio Grande Games
pic872067_md[1]Again, perfectly simple. The fits just right into the top of the box. The size of the box is just right.

Refreshing! Packing card games is a cinch. Finger-wells even!

La Città by Kosmos / Rio Grande Games
pic872058_md[1]Great, great design. Now, as you’ve learned I don’t normally favor lots of custom wells over baggies and bins, but La Citta has lots and lots of hex tiles. It has too many tiles for a big baggie (shifting) and too many tiles to bother with little baggies (cumbersome). It made sense to use custom wells for the hex tiles primarily because there were so many. It made sense to use them for the triangular terrain tiles for their larger size. Separate wells were provided for the gold coins and harvest markers. Useful, but unnecessary. As you can see, they belong in baggies anyway.

Aladdin’s Dragons by Hans im Glück / Rio Grande Games
pic872028_md[1]Bit salad! This is a from the day when I left each insert to its own duty. This game was on my shelf for a couple years like this. The inserts looks to have excellent 10-point support. This is just more justification for putting all bits in baggies.

Seen this before? My case for baggies.

Acquire by Hasbro
pic872452_md[1]Not well organized, probably my fault. On lighter side, I like the shares manager. I spoke earlier (on Iron Dragon and Union Pacific) about bits managers. Only smaller ones that pop out of the box are practical and unobtrusive. The shares holder provided with Acquire is excellent. It has a small footprint on the table.

The bits manager for Acquire’s shares and the hotel chain caps is nice.
There you have it. An overview of insert usability from a gamer who is possibly a bit too obsessive compulsive.

To close, how about a checklist for inserts:

  1. Simplicity.
    Make inserts no more complicated than necessary.
  2. Generic wells.
    In line with simplicity, create generic where bagged bits can be stored. At the very least, provide a side well for organizational options.
  3. Custom wells.
    Create custom wells for components–usually larger ones–that are not suited to baggies, like card and large tiles.
  4. No custom wells for small chits.
    Don’t require lots of small chits to be stacked into custom-fit wells. It’s cumbersome.
  5. Baggies.
    Provide baggies as the primary means of storing small bits and components. At the very least, afford that your insert can store bagged bits.
  6. Board support.
    Provide solid support underneath all edges of the board to bowing.
  7. Box support.
    A well-designed insert should add strength to the box. It should itself be sturdy and supportive.
  8. A snug board.
    The board should fit snugly on top of the insert against the edges of the This will both minimize shifting and add strength to the box.
  9. Small footprint bits managers.
    Don’t design the insert as it fits in the box to be used as a bits manager. In most cases it is unwieldy to have the entire box on the table.
  10. Baggies + Generic Wells = Usefulness.
    The baggies and generic wells makes a great combo. They are intuitive because they allow each person to store his bits using whatever organization he desires. They prevent shifting and They prevent bits from mixing. They’re fast and easy to take out and put away. They’re replaceable. They’re duct tape–use ‘em.

I’m predisposed to a “less is more” mentality and I think generic wells and baggies follow suit with that. A lot of my points are purely my own and others may differ. Still, I must present my views and analyses if only to free them from my racing mind. Thankfully, after this rather lengthy post–whether you like it or lump it–my gait is lighter.

This article was first posted on my long-defunct boardgame blog: Boardgamers’ Pastime. It was originally entitled “Fill In The Blank”. To some degree I wrote it for publishers. This article is pure opinion, however, strongly voiced. I mean no disrespect. I primarily posted it here on the geek, in it’s original form, to preserve it.

Article published with kind permission of the author.

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