Boxes and the court of public opinion


I’ve had a thought… doesn’t happen often, but when it does it bugs me.

Recently someone posted a play report of a game he played of Kandahar, and he said he was having trouble visualizing what was going on, and part of this was the “box of four boxes” layout within the areas – said it reminded him of arranging and rearranging items on a Costco shelf (don’t know why he specified Costco, but never mind).
So when conducting missions he laid out the counters on a map from another, tactical game (Avalon Hill’s Arab-Israeli Wars) to help his imagination about what was going on.
This made me think, WRT the other games using this system (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes) – what if, instead of that schematic-looking box of four boxes, we had four distinct spaces inside each map area:
  • UG – Underground, in the shape of a triangle, to suggest a mountain or a hiding place
  • PTL – Patrol, in the shape of a circle, to suggest binoculars or all-around observation
  • OPS – Operations, in the shape of a hexagon, to suggest tactical ops (like the player visualized it)
  • OC – Operations Completed, in the shape of a square, to suggest the box that the pieces go back into (and I’m running out of distinct shapes)

And these spaces would be separated within the map areas, so as to give the players of some feeling of sending their counters to do jobs (and not stocking shelves). The spaces would be in the same relative positions to each other wherever possible, for conformity. I thought this would also make slightly better use of the space within each map area, as each space would be a bit bigger and counters could overlap its boundaries without confusion – as overcrowding is an occasional problem with the “box of boxes” layout.

But on the other hand, of the hundreds of copies of games using this system that are out there, almost no one has made a point of complaining strenuously about this layout – is this a good sign? I mean if no one notices the graphic layout, then it’s doing its job, right? Or at least not getting in the way.

So here is an example of what it would look like. Yes, you are getting a sneak peek at the map for the next BTR Games release: EOKA (Cyprus 1955-59). This is definitely not the final version, though.

Does it work better? Is it too chaotic and jumbled?

I haven’t had time to sit and actually play anything with this new arrangement, and I am probably not the best person to judge this after all…

Dear Readers, please let me know your thoughts on this.

(wish I’d put a polling widget in here to make it easier for you, but you need some kind of account with the pollster to do that)

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

31 Responses to Boxes and the court of public opinion

  1. Rex Brynen says:

    I think the revised layout is better!

  2. bottosconadmin says:

    Brian, I like the new graphic idea, it would definitely jazz up the graphics. While not equating the boxes to Costco, I can see the person’s point if view. The folks at White Dog Games did something very similar with their Solitaire game in Vietnam and I have to say that the boxes do take away from the map. My one concern with the new format is that the new symbols are going to be covered up by the various counters, and any visual appeal they may have in conveying missions will be lost once counters are placed on the map. Of course, this issue us solved if the map size us increased, but this affects price point and footprint. Oh the joys if game design 🙂

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks Rob.
      The new symbols won’t be covered up any more than they are now I think, and in most cases the function of the space is obvious: Underground is for insurgent pieces only, Patrol is for Government pieces only, and the Operations Complete box fills up as missions are completed.
      Because in some of these games map areas are activated in turn and all activity completed within them, you don’t go back to them later, which helps even further.
      A bigger map, yeah, that always helps! The Algeria revision will have a 17×22 map like the other folio games; EOKA will have an 11×17 but the boxes can be a decent size if you move them around and make them a bit bigger.

  3. alsandor says:

    From my point of view it doesn’t matter. The boxes do NOT remind me of Costco 😉

    • brtrain says:

      Not sure why he cited Costco; perhaps it was a sly allusion to the unfeeling, conformist, corporation-man attitude of BTR Games….

      • alsandor says:

        Or he wanted to slag a corporation where the CEO only takes home 140,000$…:-|

      • brtrain says:

        Michel, I don’t know why I can’t reply to your reply directly… anyway, I may be CEO of BTR Games, but I’ve taken home about $140 in all the time I’ve run the outfit, up to now! (One day I’ll post my sales sheets…)

  4. I like the boxes – and, if anything, I would be more aggressive about making them follow the same layout in each area. For example, Famagusta and Karpas are “scrambled” relative to the others, and I’d let some of the symbols go more to sea to make space. In Famagusta, perhaps you could place Patrol more under Underground, move Ops a bit east, and move OpsComp onto the SE peninsula?

    • brtrain says:

      Thank you James – so far that’s three likes and one don’t-care.
      I had a couple of “that’s nice”s outside of this blog too, but again, no one has played with this format.
      Point taken about keeping the spaces in relative position to each other, even at the cost of going out to sea; this map was just a mockup to test the idea.
      And it looks as if I have a bit of sea to expand into…


  5. Who is BTR, and why aren’t you designing these games for Tiny Battle? 😉

    • brtrain says:

      BTR Games is my personal imprint for DTP versions of my games, which I started when I got frustrated with the delays in publishing some of my designs, and the changes that had happened to them when they did come out – also as a way of keeping my older and less popular designs in print, with some rules and graphic updates.
      Go here ( and you’ll see that some of these have been taken up by other publishers.
      I’m sure I have mentioned the others to you in the past but by and large their physical parameters don’t fit Tiny Battles’ limitations (88 counters), and the subject matter doesn’t excite much interest among most people.
      But this way I can get my designs into the hands of the few people who do want them, and any delays incurred are generally only my fault.

    • brtrain says:

      Oh, and as it is I got a coupla irons in the fire with you guys already!

      • A couple!? Mary wants you to have dozens of irons in the fire with TBP! And 250-single-sided is 125 double-sided, and we can handle up to 176 double-sided. So… we want some games. 😉

      • brtrain says:

        Oh. Well, I can do that.
        I thought you were a bit reticent about the double-size games like Winter Thunder (176 counters, 17×22″ map).
        You’ll have to admit the subject matter of some of these games is not exactly mainstream, in terms of potential sales.
        But that’s what I want to do….

  6. I’ve never really liked the box of boxes but accepted it as utilitarian. You’re trying to show simultaneous allocation of assets among missions in the same geographic area (or geo-socio-pol-econ area), and there’s a limited number of ways to to do that without making it distracting, which is just as bad as dull.

    I do like the shapes version better. I’m not so fussed about it all being exactly the same orientation; the shapes do more for me to show what the mission is than relative orientation. And colour could add to that.

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks, that’s valuable advice!
      And another vote for the shapes.
      I’m trying to be more choosy and less usey about colours these days because of the colourblindness issue but perhaps I don’t need to worry about that here.

      • More choosey = good; less usey = bad, IMO.

        It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone can see the full range of colours and to design so playing games isn’t a misery for them, but that would be a poor reason to stop using colours. There need to be multiple cues, so that everyone can get to the information.

        One of my friends in college played a campaign game of Empires of the Middle Ages for most of a year before he mentioned he was colourblind. The map for EMA is entirely colour-based, with language groups in different colours and variations in different shades (e.g., High German light blue, Low German darker blue &c.) He pointed out what none of us had noticed (because we hadn’t needed to), that all the regions also had an ID code, and that those were grouped according to the language groups (High German 220s, Low German 230s). Not as easy to grasp in a glance, but still usable,

      • brtrain says:

        By “usey” I meant less reliant on colours, not that I would be using colour less. And “choosey” by which colours I would use; apparently there is a palette of shades you can use that is still quite distinguishable for red-green colourblind (the most common type).

        I also try use multiple cues – in this proposed revision we would have distinct shapes, distinct text, and certainly we could use distinct colours.
        I don’t have any mental associations to offer for colours for the four shapes – suggestions?

    • brtrain says:

      I wonder why I can’t reply directly to your reply… perhaps each writer gets only one “reply” button. Anyway, see above.

  7. playnoevil says:

    Brian –

    Why have abstract shapes?

    A tunnel entrance in a stylized hill for underground.

    A silhouette of soldiers walking for patrol.

    A headquarters tent for operations completed.

    A scope target for an operation.

    Something visual.

    Evocative wins.


    • brtrain says:

      Abstract shapes always look like the same abstract shapes to all people, and they’re easier to draw.
      Those are evocative images you propose though, no reason why they couldn’t be put into the shapes which makes it quite language-independent.
      I’d have to get someone more talented to work on those.

      • playnoevil says:

        Another option might be to put the state information on sides of a die.

        Stickers, for cost reasons?

        It would leave the map cleaner and might give you room to enlarge it on the page?

        I’ve been considering how I would approach building games if I started with trying to embody the game in a manner ideal to express the experience I want my players to have instead of what is easiest or cheapest to build, it is changing how I think about game design and making.


      • brtrain says:

        I’m not sure how a die with images would be used wrt the counters – stacked on top?

        I realize I have limited artistic and design skills (I’m stingy with paper too, so I tend to cram things together in layout.), so the BTR Games product is not always the best laid-out or evocative graphic experience.
        I realize it does make a difference: the Microgame Design Group would have been a much greater success if we had been able to offer die-cut, backprinted counters and larger maps, because those were the barriers to respectability – but that was 20 years ago and the cost was prohibitive.
        Many of the MDG games were quite good, and succeeded on their design merits despite the physical drawbacks.

        John Kula, house artist, makes the look of the product rise above the shelf-paper and Hi-liter marker level – but the basic crudity of production results in a simple product that people can even make themselves, with some effort (see my several designs offered for free, at the bottom of ): my offering these things for sale, in comic book bags at a price just over printing and postage, is just saving customers a little of that effort.

        Perhaps the basic fault here is my enthusiasm for just getting the ideas out, and not minding much about how they are expressed.


        • playnoevil says:

          Brian –

          No criticism implied!

          Just sharing thoughts.

          My notion was that the counters themselves could be used to encode their orders, possibly, instead of a map location.

          A variant on what some block games have done.

          Please keep putting out interesting games on unconventional topics!

      • brtrain says:

        Aha, I see – thanks.
        I think that would work better with another system; I’ll keep that in mind as it does cut to the chase for some things.
        And thanks for the vote of confidence!

  8. Roger Beatson says:

    I can see the original posters point but personally I prefer the ‘stack of boxes’ just as they are.

    Brian – I think you made a salient point when you commented that “if no one notices the graphic layout then it’s doing its job, right”. To me the box format is clean, tidy and functional, If you take a look at the new OSS versions of some of the games – they have nice artwork, counters and maps whilst retaining the box format and look great IMHO. The mock up EOKA map with the various shapes looks cluttered (to me at least) and they appear to take up more space visually than the ‘box’ system. Either way I’m buying EOKA but count this as a vote for keeping the boxes.

    • alsandor says:

      Ditto. Also some people have trouble with symbols whereas few people have trouble with the idea of a container with text. I’m not one of hose, but I have an old friend who cannot use a cell phone because most of the information is in the form of symbols and he cannot understand them.

      Lex parsimoniae (adapted) states: among competing box systems, the one with the fewest symbols should be selected.

      • brtrain says:

        I see, you’re casting your vote now, after you said you didn’t care… I gotta watch out for those Undecideds.
        Anyway, I am not losing the text in the boxes, pace your friend with associative visual agnosia. The boxes have different shapes, and have been moved away from each other slightly to allow for more counters to be put in them, that’s all.
        Which of these two changes seem to be bugging people most?
        It still seems to be a way to use the space inside a larger and irregularly shaped map area more intelligently.
        At least to me.

    • brtrain says:

      Okay, so that’s a vote against – thanks for speaking up!
      My main concern with the box of boxes is that it hasn’t been taking up enough space, leading to crowded regular shaped boxes, clumped inside a larger irregularly shaped area.

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