BOX COVERS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

There was a game that was published several years ago that had a very good box cover - distinctive, memorable, something special - that is being republished with a very… well, it's not a bad cover but neither could I call it a good one; it's just kinda there, polished and skillful and utterly uninteresting. I'm not going to tell you what the game is - heck, if you're reading this, there's a good chance you know what the game is.

I'm also not going to say that I don't understand the decision. First of all, it's quite possible that the rights to the good cover are tied up with the previous publisher. Secondly, even if they could use the good cover, it's not one that immediately communicates what the game is about, while the new cover absolutely tells you what the thing is in the most literal way possible. The first cover is arresting, bold, and interesting; when you look at it, you get curious. You ask the question, what is this game about?, and maybe you start to look for answers. You engage with the thing.

The second cover doesn't ask any questions, doesn't want there to be any questions. And to be clear, this doesn't make it bad; it just makes it ordinary. It's exactly like almost every other box cover out there, working from the assumption that a cover that asks questions will confuse and alienate a potential customer instead of making them curious, that they will simply shrug and move on. And I am reminded of course of the thing Mencken once said, that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. There's a reason why more people went to see Paul Blart than Annihilation, and it's not because of Kevin James's sensitive and nuanced performance, or an appreciation for the director's grasp of mise-en-scene.

The purpose of the cover, after all, like any other piece of packaging, is to sell the thing that's inside it, and ideally you want to sell it to as many people as possible. There's also a general expectation among customers with board games - I've seen at least one artist working in the form reference it explicitly - that the box cover art will be indicative of the game's art and production values, and so a more minimalist or visually arresting approach becomes much riskier. It's not like a book cover or movie poster, where the outside isn't expected to match what's inside.

Which just reminds me of course that Mary and I exist in a happy little corner that's somewhat inured from those concerns. When I design a box cover, I don't give much thought to the question of will this cover sell the maximum number of copies to the maximum number of people. My primary goal is to create something bold and stylish and interesting. Or, to put it another way, I'm trying to create something that appeals to my own tastes, and to Mary's.

This isn't to say that I'm all Ars Gratia Artis or whatever, or that we don't think of it as marketing. It is marketing, based on the idea that people are attracted to cool and distinctive visuals, and that if you catch their eye, they will ask questions and will try to find the answers.

And in a broader sense, our peculiar brand of box design is a way in which we market Hollandspiele as a whole. It's a cohesive sort of visual identity that ties together what is often a very diverse and disparate catalogue. All the covers look like they belong together, and people are unlikely to mistake one of our games for another publisher's, or vice-versa. That's been an important part of our continued success. Unlike most things we do, this was actually on purpose! We very consciously attempted to emulate the boutique home media label the Criterion Collection, whose distinctive packaging and attention to graphic design helped to build their passionate fanbase. That fanbase is more willing to buy a DVD released by Criterion; if the same DVD was released by another label, they might overlook it.

The idea of Criterion is what's doing the heavy lifting. Similarly, some of our customers are increasingly more likely to try a Hollandspiele game because of the idea of Hollandspiele. First and foremost, that idea is built on the quality of the games we release, but part of selling that idea is the box design.

Which all probably sounds like I'm tooting my own horn a little, since I am responsible for all but a handful of our box covers. And, I mean, I'm proud of my work, but that doesn't mean that I think I hit the mark every time. There are however a small handful of covers that I consider to be better than my average work, and I thought it'd be nice to end the article with those.


  • As the person that sells your game at conventions, I can tell you that the box art DOES get comments and people will pick it up. These are people who say “no” when I say “have you heard of Hollandspiele?” That’s good – the cover is attracting interest from outside the core audience. Then they turn it around and look at the back. Some read it, some don’t some ask me about it. But the most common thing I hear is “what does the game components look like?” And “give me an idea of how it plays” or “what is it like”. That last question is sometimes hard to answer because many Hollandspiele games do not play like other games out there. Some back covers do have components or pieces of the map on them to give a player an idea – those are the ones that seem to sell better to new fans. And having the canvas maps on the table (like we did at CSW) made it alot easier to explain the games to both those who know Hollandspiele and those who were seeing them for the first time. I think that as long as the back covers give potential customers an idea of what’s in the box (pics/illos are always better) it’s going to help the games get more exposure to the people who haven’t heard of you yet, but would likely want to play a few of your titles.

    Another example – one of your best sellers – Table Battles. Most people looking at the box can’t figure out exactly what it is. I take a card from the deck, tell them what it means and how it works, then that the average game takes only 15-20 minutes. Then I tell them the system works with ancients, medieval, Civil War and soon – dinousaurs!. Pretty often, that turns into a “I’ll try it” or ’I talked to my friend about it and I want it too".


  • Brian: thanks. :-)

    Gregg: That’s a tricky question and I’m not sure how to answer it - these are the kinds of covers that, if I was in the store, would attract me to it and make me want to buy it, and I’d like to think that would lead me to the same place. At the same time, if we were producing games traditionally, with the outlay of tens of thousands of dollars every time, we’d probably second-guess ourselves more because more is at stake financially. Like, will a game with one of my covers hit a funding goal on kickstarter? I have no idea. Would it flop on a store shelf? The problem is that if it did, that’d be it – we’d be out of business. And the thing is, I’m not someone who likes taking those sorts of risks – it’s an inveterate part of my character – so the Tom who would be attracted to that kind of business model and be okay with those risks very well might be a Tom with a different set of aesthetic priorities. I’m not sure if that exactly answers your question, but it’s what I got. :)

    Tom Russell

  • Long time reader, first time commentator….

    Would your cover style and philosophy be the same — and if not, how would it be different? — if your business model also included traditional retail, whether brick-and-mortar or online? Your covers are only competing with each other, right, since customers are seeing them on your site — where they’ve already expressed an interest in your wares, since that’s where they pointed their browser — not on store shelves fighting for attention with rivals’ games or even on a third-party online store?

    Maybe a more concise way to ask that: How interconnected are your cover philosophy and your business model?

    Gregg Keizer

  • I really like your willingness to experiment with these. And that you listen when I tell you I hate suchandsuch.

    Brian Train

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