Each episode of The Game School (my show on Teacher Hug Radio), contains a game design challenge. Here’s a recent challenge for you to tackle. 

In these mini game design challenges, the idea is that we make decisions quickly – we want to have the outline of a game in 10 minutes. Don’t ponder all the possible choices, just make a snap decision at each decision point and go with it.  At each point, you don’t need to have any idea about how your game will work, you’re just making one decision. The result of making a series of decisions will be the outline of a game. No special equipment is needed, we are just mapping out ideas. The aim is to get used to swift idea creation – to react to a stimulus and creative decisions. You can go on to create prototypes, playtest, refine and repeat if you wish, but the initial idea creation process is what we’re interested in here. 

Today’s challenge is to make a game where the box is a key component – and is therefore integral to the gameplay. I always love it when I get a game and the box is used in some way. I admire the ingenuity and efficiency of it. Game boxes can be integrated into a game in all sorts of ways and today we’re going to use the box as the inspiration for our game design challenge. So let’s get cracking.

Your first task is to decide what size and shape of box you want to use. Do you like the idea of making a game that fits in a small card box? Or maybe you want a big box game with a giant shelf presence. Perhaps you fancy a taller box like a spaghetti jar or Pick-Up-Sticks container. Maybe you want a box that will fit neatly in a certain bag. What about a flat-ish cylindrical Dobble tin? Or perhaps a large flat box… What takes your fancy? Don’t think too much about it. Just pick a box.

Ok, so you’ve got an idea of your box size and shape. It’s time to consider what the main function of your box is going to be. I’m going to give you lots of different ideas here, pick the thing that most appeals to you. If one of the options creates the spark of an idea, go with that. 

You could use the box to create height for some key feature. For example, do you want to create a game where players play on two different levels – on the box and off the box? You could even flip the box over and have a separate lid that is a different height to create a third in-between level. Or you could stand the lid up to one end of the box, anchored by the box on top of it, to create a higher ‘feature wall’. 

You could also use the box as a base for other components to slot into. The Amazing Spider-Man Game uses the box as the base for a cityscape – the buildings slot in around it on all four sides and rise up above the top of the box. You can modify your box to enable other components to be slotted in and around it.

Perhaps you’d like a giant maypole protruding upwards from the centre of the box? Or maybe you’d like some slides that cascade away from the sides of the box in different directions? You could flip the box, slot four pillars in the four corners just inside your box and then balance the box lid above these, creating a sort of pergola arrangement – with two areas one directly above the other. With very few additional components you could create a pretty dramatic playing space.

Alternatively the box could open out to create the playing space – revealing the board printed inside the box. Backgammon is a classic example of this. For this to work well, your box needs to be flatish, so that that the sides aren’t too deep and all players can see the whole play area. Unless, of course, you’d like to create a game that has deliberately restricted views for different players. Using the depth of a box to create a different view for each player would be a very interesting twist, worth exploring.

The idea of printing a board on the inside of a box is surprisingly under-used. It’s loopy, when you think about it, that so many game boxes include separate boards, when the box could serve this function brilliantly.  Maybe you just want to flip your box over and use it as a scoretrack. It doesn’t have to be a huge amazing board, the box could just serve a function that’s normally performed by another component. Perhaps it’s just got the key information players need to keep referring to printed inside the lid, so you can stand it up as an easy visual aid. 

You could also use the box as a base for things to balance on. The game Baobab uses the cylindrical tin box as the trunk of the Baobab tree. The leaves are created during the game with circular cards balanced on top of the cylinder and then on top of each other – in an increasingly wide and satisfyingly impressive canopy. Could your box be used to balance other things on or from? Could it stand upright and support a horizontal pole which is used to hang other things off it? How else could your box be used to support additional components placed as part of gameplay?

Maybe you could create different compartments within the box – to be used to store different components in different sections? Or you could create little boxes, which are only opened at certain points in the game – maybe the gameplay triggers the opening of boxes, or there could be some items that are hidden which players must work to discover during the game. Ok, so have you made a decision about how your box will be used? Sketch it out quickly. 

Right, so now you have a box and you know how you’ll use the box. What theme does this design lend itself to? What does the box set-up remind you of? Does it remind you of any real-life situation? Have you created something that could look like a wild west saloon? Maybe you’ve got the start of a Mayan pyramid? Or is your box beginning to resemble a waterpark?

If you can’t think of a real-world situation, create a fantasy one. In what world does your box set-up make sense? Have you created a cave for goblins? A futuristic spaceship? Or a hedgehog’s washing line? Pick a theme – choose the first thing that comes to mind.

Now – what sort of game does this theme and this set-up lend itself to? What is the aim in the game? Do you have a mission you’re trying to achieve? Is it a race? Are you stealing gold? Building a new town? Collecting paintings to hang in a gallery? What do you want players to strive towards? Make sure the core purpose fits in well with the chosen theme. Mark up the sketch of your game. Decorate your core structure. Label important elements, start to work the theme into the plan.

In Niagara players must travel in canoes up and down a fast flowing river – which is constructed on top of the large game box. They have to take care not to lose canoes over the waterfall – over the edge of the box. Their aim is to collect hidden jewels that lie on the banks near the top of the falls and protect them from desperadoes trying to claim them. The box setup lends itself to this large river flowing off into a waterfall. It’s a theme they’ve really dived into. 

Ok, so now you’ve nearly mapped out your initial game idea. All that’s left to do is to think about how players achieve their goal. Are there set actions they can undertake or choose from each turn? Do players have pawns that travel around in some way? Are cards swapped and collected to trigger actions within the game space? Maybe a dice roll determines what resources are available to use or what direction you can move in? How do players work towards their goal? Make some snap decisions and add these elements to your game sketch. Work out what a turn or round looks like and write it in bullet points at the side of your sketch. 

Brilliant, you’ve done your initial game mapping. Of course, you can keep working on your game. Find the right sort of box and create your first prototype, but you don’t have to. I’d love to see some quick idea sketches!