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tabletop games, packaging, boxes, design, board games

Bookshelf, Bookcase, Bookcase-Like

A Case Study in Game Storage Design

Marco Arnaudo (Indiana University)

As paratextual studies have amply demonstrated, one can often judge a book by its cover, a movie by its poster, and a toy by its package—or, at the very least, one can get a good sense of the type of interpretation that the maker of the artifact intended to encourage.1 In the present essay, I will apply methods and concepts from paratextual studies to a well-known object among tabletop gamers: the Bookcase game box.2 This peculiar item in the history of modern games is interesting for many reasons, including that it was recognized by makers, players, and collectors as a specific design product (as opposed to “just a box”), influenced game culture in the three decades in which it thrived (late 1960s to late 1990s), and even anticipated important practices in twenty-first-century tabletop gaming.

Packaging for games changed enormously throughout history, but when the modern game market emerged in the eighteenth century and stabilized many of its practices in the late nineteenth, long and thin rectangular boxes tended to become the norm.3 From the 1930s on, the immense and unwavering popularity of Monopoly, which came in a box of this kind, consolidated the popularity of this format even further. To this day, many consider the long box to be the game box—including the United States Postal Service, which produces a “Large Flat Rate Board Game Box” measuring approximately twenty-four by eleven by three inches, and with an illustration of game components on it.4

The long box was designed to comfortably hold a board folded in two, together with a rule sheet and the few components that most commercial games require to play (which explains why the long box is also so thin). Traditionally, these boxes tended to have no dividers, and the components were usually left loose in the box, or contained inside a smaller box. By far the favorite orientation of the box cover was horizontal (landscape style), with a much smaller group presenting the cover illustration vertically.5 There are good reasons why this box format became popular: it is an effective and efficient way to store its contents; it has an attractive visual ratio; and it presents a large surface that can support cover art and capture the attention of potential buyers in stores (an all-important factor before the explosion of online commerce).

At the same time, as a storage unit, the long box also presents considerable limitations. In particular, the only feasible way to store multiple long-box games together is to stack them one on top of the other. Placing them vertically next to each other, like books on a shelf, would cause the thin box to pop open, releasing the components. Stacking long boxes vertically, however, means putting considerable pressure on the games at the bottom, and it makes it impractical to retrieve the games in the lower parts of the stack. They also take up a lot of shelf space if stored parallel to the wall, and storing them perpendicular to the wall would require unusually deep shelves (which some collectors have custom-made) (fig. 1).

Figure 1

Long boxes stored on a custom-built shelf. (Image courtesy of author)

Still, the format worked well enough for the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth, when most people playing games were still children (whose concern for preservation tends to be limited), or casual adult players who owned only a few games. For these players, removing a game from a vertical stack meant having to move three or four boxes a couple of times a month or year: not a great inconvenience, after all. With the advent of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century hobby gaming, adults started amassing collections of hundreds or thousands of games that they cherished and played often, and at that point retrievability and preservation became desirable traits in game packaging. This is the sense in which the Bookcase game box broke new ground.

The innovation came in 1962, when the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) decided to diversify its production (up to then centered mainly on chemical products) to include board games.6 It was a perfectly understandable move at a time when a burgeoning American middle class had time and money to invest in recreational activities, and leisure business suddenly acquired considerable economic force.7 Ambitiously enough for a company with no experience in the field, 3M decided not just to follow common trends in gaming but to come up with a fully formed, innovative concept—a whole package in which box, illustrations, physical components, and gameplay were fully synergized. The target group was made of precisely those middle- and upper-class married adults who, as David Surdam pointed out, had the means and the inclination to purchase entertainment products. 3M even made the intended audience explicit in the illustrations and photographs on the boxes of the games themselves and in advertisements. We find a man and a woman playing together on the front cover of Jati (1965) and Foil (1968), and in the advertisement for Feudal (1967);8 three couples on the back of Point of Law (1972); two couples on the cover of Challenge Bridge (1973); a man, a boy, and two women (a visiting aunt?) on the cover of Phlounder (1962); a man and a male teenager on the cover of Breakthru (1965)—all white, well-dressed, apparently heterosexual, and (the adults) apparently married and monogamous (fig. 2). The result is the artificial expression of a society still largely segregated, which sees leisure and wealth as pertaining to a specific group only. Rather than whiteness, then, the unusual aspect is the emphasis on adults, who are shown as the main users of the games. Older children can be allowed to partake in the games on occasion, but only if male, and, in the case of Breakthru, exceptionally well-groomed.

Figure 2

The intended players of 3M’s games. (Image courtesy of author)

With this audience in mind, 3M games had to be simple because their target audience was thought of as busy adults who would play for relaxation and would not want to engage with a long rule book. Simple gaming, after all, had been the standard of all gaming since antiquity. Rule sets with dozens of pages, requiring hours of learning, only emerged with nineteenth-century professional wargaming, and by the 1960s they were known outside of the military only in minuscule circles of recreational wargamers. The rules of 3M games followed classical trends: they could be explained in a couple of paragraphs, and they were so short that in some cases they could be printed inside the lid of the box. These games had to be beautifully crafted, as they were aimed at adults who could be enticed by the prospect of owning aesthetically pleasing objects. For this reason, 3M games came with sophisticated painted illustrations on the cover, and contained carefully conceived components striving for a combination of functionality and aesthetics. Cheap plastic and unpainted wood (common game materials at the time) were replaced by sturdy plastic in attractive colors and shiny, polished metal. Components were designed to have a modern, slick look.

The final touch was that not just the components inside the box but the box itself was conceived as an elegant object, imbued with an air of highbrow elegance—and this was the most striking innovation, design-wise. With the exception of a line of small games called “Gamerettes,” most of 3M’s games were released in specially designed boxes that had the appearance of large, expensive, antiquarian books. The size was 12 by 8.5 by 2.5 inches, like one would expect from a ponderous book; each box was housed in a slipcase, and both box and slipcase were made to look bound in a thick layer of leather. The colors tended to be rich but subdued (red, brown, maroon), as opposed to the vibrant primary colors that characterized commercial games’ boxes. The long sides of the slipcase, simulating the spine of a book, showed the title of the game, a short subtitle (like “Adventure in High Finance” for Acquire, 1962), and the indication “3M Bookshelf Game” in a small, gold-foil font at the bottom. In later years, the spine also started including elegant abstract motifs. The short sides of the slipcase were understandably left blank; since the box was intended to stand vertically, like a book on a shelf, those sides would not have been visible anyway. The material was thick, sturdy, durable cardboard, as one can attest from the impressive integrity most copies of 3M games have preserved even to this day. Only in the last two 3M games, Contigo (1974) and Events (1974), did the company started cutting costs by employing thin cardboard as support for the leathery cover.

Publishers and hobbyists therefore began to use the expression “Bookshelf Game” to indicate this line of games, in a sort of peculiar synecdoche, by which the container came to define its content. Regardless of topic or mechanics, a 3M game was a Bookshelf Game because it was published in a line with that name, and because it came in a box that looked at home on a bookshelf, next to a line of books. The box made the game, in a sense (fig. 3).

Figure 3

A shelf of Bookshelf games. (Image courtesy of author)

Everything in this design tells us that the hope behind the project was that potential buyers would want to acquire 3M’s games both as games and as beautiful objects. To emphasize this intended position in the market, 3M started making full use of the back of the box (in this case, the slipcase), which most companies still tended to leave blank. The back of 3M’s slipcases featured short descriptions of the games and, most importantly, large color photographs showing the games themselves in different types of environments. In some cases, the setting for the staged picture was selected to resonate with the theme of the game. Stocks and Bonds (1965) for example, was shown on the table of a business meeting room, while Facts in Five (1966), a game about general knowledge, was set up in what appears to be a public library. The result is slightly surreal because these locations hardly seem to be places where a group of friends would gather to play (fig. 4).

Figure 4

The back of Facts in Five and Stocks and Bonds. (Image courtesy of author)

In most cases, however, the staged picture on the back featured the game in the kind of middle-class home the publisher imagined the buyer lived in. The game was set up to showcase the attractiveness of the components and was often paired with beautiful ornamental objects, like a stone dragon sitting next to the board of Jumpin (a game with a thin Chinese theme). The overall idea seemed to be to use a previously underutilized surface on the box to help the potential buyer imagine not just how the game could be played, but how it would look in their home, with both box and game functioning as elements of home décor (fig. 5). The game and the boxes didn’t just look good; they made your house look good, and they made you the kind of refined person who collects attractive objects. The resemblance to books also connected the games to objects that educated middle-class adults may have already been buying and thinking of as interior decoration.

Figure 5

The places where the games are (allegedly) played. (Image courtesy of author)

The emphasis on the box, which suddenly shifted from simple container to cornerstone of the brand, also had an impact on the production of the games. In some cases, the box itself was integrated with the game, becoming a component in itself. The box of Oh-Wah-Ree (1962), when removed from the slipcase, turned out to be made of two sections connected along a central axis, which opened like a book. The game is a mancala variant, and the two sections of the box, once laid flat on a table, provide a circuit of molded plastic, glued to the box itself, which the players use to maneuver their stones. With considerable symbolic density, the box of this Bookshelf Game functioned like a sort of book, and this book-box was (rather than contained) the game itself (fig. 6). The boards of other games, like Acquire (1962), Jumpin (1964), or Contigo (1974), were also made of molded plastic and permanently attached to the inside of the box, blurring again the line between content and container.

Figure 6

Oh-Wah-Ree ’s box, functioning as the board of the game. (Image courtesy of author)

Since the size of the boxes had to remain unchanged from game to game to act as a brand indicator and preserve the book-like appearance, in some cases the game had to be conformed to the box. Obviously, fitting the games in a box of a specific size prevented the publication of larger designs. More interestingly, physically small games in the Bookshelf line included components whose main or sole role seemed to be to fill the space inside the box. Facts in Five (1966), for example, is a card game, and could fit in a conventional card deck box. Being sold in a Bookshelf box, it came with a large pad of score sheets, which took up most of the room in the box, and which a player could have replaced with common paper.9 Foil (1968) was published both as a Bookshelf game and as a Gamerette, and the only difference was that in the Bookshelf version the game also included plastic card holders. Paradoxically, the buyer would end up paying for an unnecessarily large box and for the unnecessary components that justified the box itself. But then, people have been known for acquiring books based mainly on how they would look on a shelf, especially if part of a series, so applying the same idea to games meant to look like a book series wasn’t much of a stretch.

When it came out, 3M’s Bookshelf line was daring and atypical. Its impact on the history of game design (strictly speaking) is minimal. Of the twenty-six Bookshelf games 3M published between 1962 and 1974 (plus Jati, prototyped in a hundred copies, and never released), only one stood out for its gameplay and became a classic: Sid Sackson’s Acquire, which has been regularly republished since, and is considered to be the fundamental source of inspiration for the Eurogame (so called because it developed mainly in Europe, despite its American origins).10 Many other Bookshelf games were repackaged versions of patent-free traditional designs, like chess or backgammon, and rather limited reimaginings of similar games (like Oh-Wah-Ree for mancala, or Jumpin for peg solitaire), so they were never bound to add much in terms of gameplay to start with. Original games by 3M other than Acquire are simply rather bland, without enough meaningful decisions to hold the interest of today’s hobby player. Their abstract nature also worked against them, as tabletop gaming from the 1970s on moved in decidedly more thematic directions. 3M game designs were largely forgotten by the late 1980s and took no part in the renaissance that tabletop gaming has been experiencing in the last two decades. However, the pioneering idea of producing games for adult hobbyists in specifically designed boxes has given 3M’s Bookshelf line an important role in the history of game culture.

Not that that innovation had great resonance in every quarter. The company Gamut of Games released several games in the 1970s that appear to have picked up some hints from 3M, for example, in their showing photographs of the games on the boxes together with “serving suggestions” (like snacks and drinks sitting next to the board).11 Yet, Gamut of Games still strongly favored the long, flat, rectangular box. Simulation Publications Inc. (SPI), founded in 1969 by Jim Dunnigan, became a major force among adult hobbyists for its excellent array of historical wargames; still, in many of its productions, the company took its inspiration from classic flat, shallow, rectangular boxes, simply replacing cardboard with plastic. Plastic being smoother than cardboard, the resulting tray-like boxes were even more prone to fall open than classic boxes, to the point that they could only be stored in vertical stacks and had to be held shut with plastic bands (fig. 7). These examples show that games designed for adult hobbyists and packaged with the needs of adult hobbyists in mind did not follow a straight path.

Figure 7

A stack of SPI games in plastic trays, in the only way they can be stored. (Image courtesy of author)

The company that most productively incorporated the ideas at the heart of 3M’s Bookshelf line, and turned it into something that would come to influence twenty-first-century tabletop gaming, is Avalon Hill. Founded by Charles S. Roberts in 1952 to publish his own game TACTICS, Avalon Hill quickly grew to become the premier publisher of tabletop games geared toward adults. At a time when most recreational wargaming was done with armies of metal miniatures (requiring an investment of time and money to acquire and prepare the components), Roberts came up with the idea of wargames as complete, self-sufficient units—wargames, that is, that one could take out of the box, learn, play, and put back in the box, without any need to purchase or prepare additional materials. The idea that a wargame for hobbyists had a box was revolutionary enough, since many wargames before the 1950s consisted simply of a rule book and whatever collection of soldiers and terrain features the player had assembled separately. Unsurprisingly, Roberts relied on the conventions of storage of the period, and all early Avalon Hill games came out in traditional flat, long, cardboard boxes. A radical change occurred in the late 1960s. While 3M was still producing new Bookshelf games, and Avalon Hill kept publishing wargames in classic flat rectangular boxes (1914, 1968; Anzio, 1969), Roberts’s company also started publishing several games in boxes explicitly inspired by 3M’s, to the point of verging on appropriation. Avalon Hill’s Tuf, (1967—about mathematics), Tuf-abet (1969—interlocking words), C&O/B&O (1969—railroading), Stock Market Game (1970—trading), and Origins of World War II (1971—diplomacy) came out in boxes of the same size as 3M’s Bookshelf games. Moreover, they were all contained in slipcases that had front and back illustrations, and all even printed “bookcase game” on the side, in a large, all-capital font, and in light color over dark background, which gave the label more prominence than its discreet 3M counterpart ever had (fig. 8).

Figure 8

A shelf of Bookcase Games. (Image courtesy of author)

In the early days of the Bookcase box, Avalon Hill reserved the new format for its non-wargames, maybe fearing to upset wargamers used to the old flat tray. Starting from 1970, with Kriegspiel (1970), Luftwaffe (1970), and Panzerblitz (1970), the Bookcase box began to be used for wargames, too, becoming the most common format for all Avalon Hill games, wargames and non-wargames alike. The year 1972 saw another innovation in the format, as Richthofen’s War came out in Bookcase format without the slipcase, soon to be followed by Trireme (1973) and PanzerArmee Afrika (1973). From there on, most Avalon Hill games for the next twenty-five years would be released in Bookcase boxes labeled as such on the side. Things came to full circle when in 1976 Avalon Hill acquired all the games that had been published by 3M and started republishing several of those Bookshelf games as Bookcase games.

The main difference between 3M’s original Bookshelf boxes and the Avalon Hill counterpart was that Avalon Hill’s Bookcase boxes, despite the name, never pretended to be books, as they dropped the leather binding from the beginning and got rid of the slipcase soon after. Yet, between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, these boxes were still designed to be stored standing in a horizontal line, like books, as demonstrated by the short sides of the lid being left blank. If such boxes had been stacked with the short side facing the viewer (a solution that makes use of the entire depth of the shelf), it would have been impossible to tell which game was in which box (fig. 9). Avalon Hill improved on this detail when, starting with Up Front (1983), it began printing the name of the games on the short sides of the boxes, too. The practice severed that last, thin symbolic connection between the Bookcase box and its original source (books). Bookcase games could now be stored more efficiently and flexibly than before, but this could only be done in a way in which people rarely keep books on a shelf (with only the short side showing) (fig. 10).

Figure 9

The same shelf in the previous picture holds the same games in less space, but it is much harder to identify them. (Image courtesy of author)

Figure 10

Later Bookcase Games, stored perpendicularly to the wall, and still easily identifiable. (Image courtesy of author)

Having lost any connection with books, the Bookcase indication appeared at least a bit incongruous. Of course, a collector could still line these boxes up on a bookshelf, but nothing in the design of the box itself pointed specifically to this practice. Nevertheless, Avalon Hill’s Bookcase boxes did provide adult hobbyists with considerable advantages. Being made of cardboard and having enough depth that the lid fit the sides of the box snugly, they were not likely to open accidentally like SPI’s tray boxes. They could be lined up standing next to each other, making it easy to pull out any one game without upsetting the others. The absence of a slipcase meant that, once opened to play the game, the storage unit did not take up much space on the table. Moreover, although the cardboard was less thick than 3M’s leathery version, Bookcase boxes turned out to be sturdy and durable (and most of them can still be found in excellent condition in the collector’s market). Equally importantly, Avalon Hill never had to resort to producing unnecessary components to justify the use of the box. Most of their games came with a mounted board, which once folded into four sections would fit perfectly inside the box, taking up a good half of its depth. This left just enough space for rule book, dice, player aids, and tokens (which were often numerous). Boxes and games complemented each other nicely.

Like 3M’s Bookshelf games, Avalon Hill Bookcase boxes came to define whether the game within them belonged to a certain line of products or not. To be a Bookcase game, all a game needed was to be packaged and sold in a Bookcase box. As we saw, originally that seemed like a way for Avalon Hill to distinguish non-wargames from wargames, but the distinction was soon forgotten. By the late 1970s, the Bookcase format and the Bookcase indication on the side were being used for most of Avalon Hill’s games, with notable exceptions being small card games and large wargames still appearing in the by-then nostalgic long, flat format.

In fairly rare cases, Avalon Hill published games in Bookcase format that had a different indication on the side. For example, the adventure game Source of the Nile (1978), the medical game Intern (1979), and the party game Drinker’s Wild (1981—“a game that could drive you to drink”)12 were packaged in boxes of the Bookcase type, but they were labeled as “leisure game” on the side. One may be tempted to see patterns (Bookcase for wargames; leisure for non-wargames), but the leisure indication was applied inconsistently and too infrequently to form a clear picture. For example, the romantic game Quest for the Ideal Mate (1987) was labeled as a Bookcase game on the side, just like the military games Raid on St. Nazaire and Patton’s Best released the same year. The Bookcase label even ended up on Avalon Hill’s strangest and today’s rarest title: the Black Magic Ritual Kit (1974)—not a game but a set of procedures and tools to (allegedly) summon spirits! The Black Magic Ritual Kit may have been a cash grab built on the popularity of The Exorcist movie, but it shared a family resemblance with other Avalon Hill titles thanks to the Bookcase box and the indication on the side that it was a “Bookcase Kit.”

Until its demise in 1998, Avalon Hill kept publishing most of its games in Bookcase boxes with the Bookcase label.13 The offerings covered a vast range that included many settings for historical wargames (by far the common type), but also sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, exploration, trading, development, and party games, for a total of over a hundred titles published in this format. This impressive critical mass made the Bookcase box a stable presence in the gaming culture of the late twentieth century and ferried it to the threshold of the current renaissance of the hobby. The immense popularity of Avalon Hill games also explains why hobbyists usually refer to this format as the Bookcase box, and not Bookshelf.

Only in its last years of operation did Avalon Hill drop the Bookcase designation consistently, and the predominance of the Bookcase format came to be questioned. This was possibly a belated attempt to renew the games’ appearance in a difficult decade for tabletop gaming, with traditional players leaving the hobby in favor of video gaming, and the twenty-first-century renaissance of analog gaming not having started yet. Another indication of attempted change is that plenty of copies of Avalon Hill’s games of the 1990s can be found with a sticker attached to the lid, saying “ages 8 and up.” A possibility is that Avalon Hill tried to reach the family market by altering the (correct) impression that it specialized in games for adults—but not to the point of compromising the look of its Bookcase games by printing the information directly on the box.

The wargame Empire of the Rising Sun (1995) was the last Avalon Hill game published in Bookcase format to also show the Bookcase name on the side. London Is Burning (1995) came out the same year in Bookcase format, but with no indication on the side. The management and investment game Air Baron (1996) was labeled as a Leisure Game on the side but featured a larger box than the usual Bookcase (ten inches in width instead of eight). The economic game Stock Market Guru (1997) came out in Bookcase format, but, like London Is Burning, with no game label on the side. The fantasy game Titan Arena (1997) was smaller in format (almost a Gamerette) and also bore no game indication on the side.

In the same period, the bona fide wargames Rome vs. Carthage (1996), Stonewall’s Last Battle (1996), Bitter Woods (1998), On to Richmond! (1998), and For the People (1998), which would have certainly been called Bookcase games up until a few years prior, were now all labeled “Strategy Game” on the side (while still being packaged in Bookcase boxes). The “Bookcase” label dropped, “Strategy Game” may have been preferred to a more descriptive “War Game” to help a possible expansion into the family market. In any case, it looks like in the 1990s Avalon Hill realized how opaque, nondescriptive, and ultimately self-referential the term bookcase game had become. As a connection to Avalon Hill’s (and 3M’s) glorious past, the “Bookcase Game” label had ensured continuity and tradition among old-school fans. In an age of expansion toward new players, that indication failed to have any discernible meaning in the eyes of the intended audience. “Strategy Game” at least said something about the game in the box, instead of hinting at some by then obscure fact about the history of the company.

What is the legacy of the Bookcase box in the history of gaming? Thinking about the early days of the design, several interesting hypotheses present themselves. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was created by designers who were familiar with Bookcase games, to the point that they recommended using the board of Outdoor Survival when playing D&D.14 The bookcase-like format of the box of the first edition of D&D (1974), however, may have to do mainly with the components of the game being primarily books. And yet, a box was included, which would not be the case for many role-playing games afterward, which consisted entirely of a rule book. One also wonders if the idea of game boxes posing as something else had a role in Yaquinto’s decision (between 1980 and 1983) to publish games in large, flat, square boxes simulating vinyl records. The look of these boxes was so deceiving that Barbarians (1981) showed the disclaimer: “Game only—no music record.” The line of games in these boxes also got its name from the box (“Album Game”).

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Mayfair produced a number of titles based on preexisting works of fiction, like for the games The Forever War (1983), Dragonriders of Pern (1983), Barbara Cartland (1985), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game (1986), Elfquest: The Board Game (1986), or Xanth (1991). All of these games came out in a vertical format that’s almost identical to the Bookcase format, just a little thinner. Mayfair’s box for the Lone Wolf and Cub Game (1989), in particular, for size and look, is almost indistinguishable from one of the Bookcase games that Avalon Hill was publishing at the time.

Meanwhile Acquire, the only 3M/Avalon Hill game to still be regularly published, has long lost its connection with the Bookcase format, despite having been one of the games that started it. Avalon Hill published it one last time in 1995 in a long, flat format (possibly trying to align it with the look of commercial games like Monopoly). When picked up by Hasbro, Acquire received another long-box edition in 1999 and was then reprinted in large square boxes in 2008 and 2016.

Avalon Hill’s large catalog of wargames in Bookcase boxes is probably the reason why the Bookcase-like box is the dominant format in games by late twentieth- and twenty-first-century wargaming companies, like GMT, DVG, MMP, or Compass. Given that wargaming is still a small niche in all recreational gaming, however, this is not where the Bookcase has left its biggest mark. Rather, we owe the success of the Bookcase-like box in the twenty-first century to the American game publishers Rio Grande and Z-Man. They incorporated right at the time of Avalon Hill’s downfall (in 1998 and 1999, respectively), when the memory of the Bookcase was still fresh. They adopted a vertical format similar to the Bookcase from early on and employed it for some of the most successful and impactful games of our time, like Puerto Rico (2002), Agricola (2007), Stone Age (2008), and most notably Pandemic (2008) (fig. 11).

Figure 11

Twenty-first-century Bookcase-like games. (Image courtesy of author)

The boxes of these games preserve the general proportions of Avalon Hill’s antecedent (only sometimes thinner) and show their concern for storage flexibility by including the name of the game on all sides of the lid. Through these games, a Bookcase-like format is now familiar to a new generation of gamers who may have heard of Avalon Hill only in passing and may know nothing of 3M. As Z-Man and Rio Grande came to be major proponents of Eurogaming in the US, it is possible that they, rather than Avalon Hill, had an impact on the frequent use of vertical, Bookcase-like boxes by younger publishers of Eurogames like TMG (incorporated in 2009). Even Mayfair seems to have been affected by this fairly recent connection between Eurogaming and vertical format. Its most popular game, Settlers of Catan (later simply Catan), which caused the twenty-first-century explosion of Eurogaming, came out in square and flat rectangular boxes between the 1990s and the early 2010s, only to switch to a vertical, Bookcase-like format since 2016. None of the adopters of Bookcase-like boxes, however, ever labeled these games based on the box itself. Labels of this kind are rare these days anyway, with the most visible case being the designation “Big Box” which has appeared on large editions of games by Z-Man, Queen, and Pegasus.

To be clear: hobby games are published today in a vast variety of formats. The Bookcase-like box is not the only type and actually not even the main one. Another format has gained predominance in the last decade: the so-called medium square, which is approximately 11.7 by 11.7 by 2.8 inches. The medium square was made popular by the successful Ticket to Ride (Day of Wonder, 2004) and its many iterations and is now used by a plethora of publishers for games of all genres. As the game hobby gains ground among many more middle-class adults than 3M could ever have dreamed of, more capital becomes available, and bigger, more expensive productions become possible—nay, frequent. When passionate adults are willing to spend considerable amounts of money for physically impressive, larger productions, the Bookcase or Bookcase-like vertical box is not always enough to hold all the components. The more capacious medium square, which can be stored with equal ease vertically or horizontally, in turn becomes desirable.

While recent trends lead us to suspect that the medium square box may one day become the standard in hobby tabletop gaming, there is no reason to believe that the leaner, Bookcase-like box will disappear any time soon. Games that require a substantial but not massive apparatus of components are likely to retain a strong appeal, especially now that the supremely successful Catan has embraced the format. As long as this type of game continues to exist, passionate players with large collections will appreciate boxes that are durable, can be stacked horizontally or vertically, can be easily retrieved from the shelf, and tend to cost less than most games in medium square boxes. The fact that adult collectors can purchase expensive games, after all, does not mean that they won’t purchase slightly smaller quality games. And as long this kind of demand persists, the vertical Bookcase box pioneered by 3M, further developed by Avalon Hill, and popularized to unprecedented levels by Rio Grande, Z-Man, and TMG, is likely to remain a strong presence in game rooms around the world.


1. ^ See, respectively, John Frow, Genre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005); Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010); Marco Arnaudo, “The Shifting Thresholds of Paratextuality and Play: The Case of Kinkeshi, M.U.S.C.L.E., and Exogini,” Simultanea 1, no. 1 (2020),

2. ^ On paratextuality in analog games, see Kurt Lancaster, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001); Paul Booth, Game Play: Paratextuality in Contemporary Board Games (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015); Marco Arnaudo, Storytelling in the Modern Board Game (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018); and Bethan Jones, “Unusual Geography: Discworld Board Games and Paratextual L-Space,” Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media 7 (2014): 55–73.

3. ^ See Caroline Goodfellow, A Collector’s Guide to Games and Puzzles (Rochester, Kent: Grange Books, 1997); Philip Orbanes, The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004); and Margaret Hofer, The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board & Table Games (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).

4. ^ See “Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Board Game Box,” Shipping Supplies, Postal Store, US Postal Service, accessed June 2, 2020,

5. ^ This information can be verified on the website Board Game Geek, using advanced search and browsing vintage games by decade.

6. ^ See Stewart Woods, Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 33–35; J. Babinsack, “By the Book,” Knucklebones (May 2007): 22–26; and Dave Shapiro, “To Boldly Go,” The Games Journal (2003),

7. ^ See David George Surdam, Century of the Leisured Masses: Entertainment and the Transformation of Twentieth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25.

8. ^ See Feudal (images web page), Board Game Geek, accessed June 2, 2020,

9. ^ To be fair, the original edition of the game (by Advanced Ideas, 1964) came in a flat rectangular box and also contained a scorepad. When 3M picked up the design, however, it could have chosen to drop the pad and place the game in the Gamerette series. The decision to keep the pad and publish Facts in Five as a Bookshelf game is still a relevant one.

10. ^ See Stewart Woods, Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 33–35.

11. ^ See the games Cartel (1973), Infinity (1974), Realm (1973, but see the 1974 edition).

12. ^ Avalon Hill game catalog (1982).

13. ^ See Peter De Rosa, “The Fall of Avalon Hill,” Strategist, September 1998, accessed June 2, 2020,

14. ^ See Jon Peterson, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games (San Diego: Unreason Press, 2012), 307–9.