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Book Review: The White Box Essays

The White Box Essays by Jeremy Holcomb isn't just a book about game design, but rather an overview of the whole process.  Each step of creating a game is covered by a short chapter.  The topics aren't covered in great depth, but do provide valuable information.  If you want to read 5 pages about what a game "is", check out a book like "Rules of Play"... if you want information about nearly every aspect of creating a game, from conception to production to fulfillment, then the White Box Essays is the place to start.

Review

The White Box Essays short topic format make it easy to pick and choose what chapters sound interesting, but it is fairly easy just to power through the whole book as well.

The chapters really do cover a wide range of topics and it isn't all tips for writing rules or the kind of information to put on the outside of the box.  The book also covers pitfalls and traps that game creators can fall into, whether it is trying to design a co-op right out of the gate, or how you pitch your games and network.

If there is an aspect of game creation you can think of, there is probably a chapter the covers it.  However, there are a few chapters that really stood out to me that I will cover in a bit more detail.  Some of the things I found most interesting were the chapters that point out areas of improvement for the industry.

Chapter 11: How to More Than Double Your Games Sales

If there was a single essay I could carry around and force people in the board game industry to read, this would be the it.  Presenting arguments from an economic point of view focuses on the costs of some lamentable practices of the industry.  The three topics covered in Chapter 11 are accommodating the color blind, including women, and including people of color.

The concept of representation isn't radical, but it is presented concisely and without apology.  This is something that some companies already get, like Paizo, and other's don't, like Fantasy Flight Games.  As the hobby continues to grow, it will hopefully be less unusual to see diversity in board games and that diversity will continue to have economic benefits for companies that embrace it.

Chapter 22: On the Dotted Line

I have read quite a few books and articles about board games and I have never come across one that walks you step by step through a fairly standard contract.  For designers that wish to sell their creations, the contract is the single most important document they will interact with.  To see an actual contract with each paragraph explained was illuminating.

Summary

The Bad

The style of book is straight forward advice, without a lot of footnotes or qualifiers.  Jeremy is providing his insight about the game industry and as such, and usually presents things as definitive "don't do this" or "do that".  I like advice that is presented as "this is more difficult" rather than "you should not do this".  If you are looking for exhaustive information on a topic, presented from all sides, there are other books.

Some of the advice runs counter to what I have heard game companies specifically say at GenCon panels.  For example, Jeremy specifically says not to try and pitch an expansion as your first product.  However, I have heard several publishers and designers say that designing an expansion is a good way to start learning game design and even be published.

The Good

The breadth of the topics covered really makes this a good book for anyone interested in creating board games.  In the words of the author, the book provides 'guideposts' which sometimes includes dangers and other issues to watch out for.

The essay's that present different viewpoints (particularly about accessibility) are rarely talked about in design articles.  Like any industry, the board game industry isn't perfect and thoughtful critique is needed for growth.

The Conclusion

The White Box Essays is a great book that covers a wide range of topics, related to board game creation.  I would recommend this book to anyone entering the industry as it contains practical, real world advice about industry conventions (for example, Chapter 2 covers protecting your ideas and Chapters 17 - 19 covers pitching your game to publishers).  Quick to read, an excellent starting place.

Who Should Buy This Book

I would recommend this book to anyone getting into game design or production.  It gives a great overview of the industry and is a good way to discover any gaps in your knowledge.  I would also recommend Chapter 11 for any game designer or developer, regardless of experience.

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