Tuesday, February 5, 2019

WEG Memoirs: Assembling Boxed Games

Remember when roleplaying games came in boxes packed with multiple rulebooks, cards, dice, and other goodies? What a a joy to revel in opening that box and celebrating each little piece that promised to grant us an exciting gaming experience. Yet how did they get into that gorgeous box in an age before cheaper Chinese manufacturers and robot automation? Humans put them there. Humans working in a stuffy, hot warehouse, mindlessly laboring at an assembly line, putting each component into each box one at a time. For a short while in that glorious age I was one of those humans.

I was barely settled into my office at West End Games the summer of 1993, a new editorial hire expected to establish the Star Wars Adventure Journal from a shambling slushpile of article submissions, the company’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game license with Lucasfilm, and three years’ reporting and editing experience at a small-town weekly newspaper. But before I could begin I joined the rest of the West End staff – editors, graphic designers, even our intrepid production manager Rich Hawran – to help assemble the soon-to-release Shatterzone game boxed set. A portion of the company’s vast warehouse adjacent to the two-story offices up front was walled off from the rest of the space. Normally the warehouse staff used this area to assemble, pack, and ship orders to distributors. But for this task the long line of work tables was surrounded by pallets of game components waiting for assembly: cards printed and shrink-wrapped in Mexico, rulebooks printed right in Honesdale at Paragon Press, custom-colored dice from Chessex, and boxes from Quebecor (as best as I can recall...these providers obviously changed over the years). The summer heat was just beginning to cook up the warehouse atmosphere as everyone found a place at the long, cardboard-covered work tables, each with a pile of components awaiting their attention.

First someone would unload the two-part telescoping boxes and open them, nestling the lower portion in the perpendicular upper portion so the whole package could pass down the line. Then someone put in a copy of the first Shatterzone Quarterly newsletter (at the time the main way to build a gaming “community” much as TORG had with the Infiniverse newsletter). The next person packed one copy each of the Rule Book, Players’ Guide, and Universe Guide. Then someone dropped in one A deck and one B deck of the cards, then on to the next person for two speckled d10s (“pieces of the Shatterzone” one designer joked). Then someone closed the box and piled it next to the shrink-wrap machine to await its final, shiny covering. One person scurried about all the activity at the long assembly table ensuring each station had a steady supply of components unboxed from the nearby pallets. Our production manager pitched in where he was most needed (not unlike his usual duties), helping to restock components, manically helping out at a backlogged station, or, more often than not, running the temperamental shrink-wrap machine.

As a new hire I found this work an exciting part of the game-creation process, but the novelty soon wore off. The assembly line was not without its problems. Certain tasks took longer than others, resulting in backlogs at choke points and resentment from those behind and ahead in the assembly line. The atmosphere was stuffy and hot, especially for the poor soul who had the knack to efficiently operate the shrink-wrap machine (I tried once and failed miserably while wasting tons of plastic wrap). Management gave us a sense of urgency; the hot new game of the year often released in August at Gen Con, the premiere game convention in the United States...way back when it occupied the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena (MECCA). The hard concrete floor took its toll on everyone after a morning and afternoon constantly standing (though we sometimes used broken-down boxes as impromptu anti-fatigue mats). Editors and artists grumbled about taking time away from their regular duties – also on deadline – and resented those on high-priority projects who got reprieves from assembly work to go back to their nice, cool office. I think the regular warehouse staff – considered the lowest employees in the corporate hierarchy by everyone else – found some satisfaction watching all those high-fallutin’ artist and editor types sweating away at this monotonous labor, the final step in the creation of their silly games.

I don’t recall exactly which components I packed that first hot summer in the warehouse. At some point I was on dice; each game got two custom-speckled d10s, but every now and then we found an odd d6 in there to which the packer was entitled. I don’t remember if management ever bought us lunch or drinks, though I do remember a general feeling that management didn’t think much of us game types (they were too concerned selling pricey imported Italian shoes...). Depending on the year we had varying levels of camaraderie on the assembly line; early on our jocular sales manager kept us in good humor with his antics (not always appreciated by management), but later both editors and graphic designers, already overworked in their regular duties, resented the assembly task, especially on games they didn’t like for whatever reason (it wasn’t theirs, they disagreed about how it was designed, they had a grudge with the lead designer...lots of friction between creative types).

The herculean task of assembling boxed games became a dreaded annual ritual for a while. Though it became more frequent as West End produced more boxed games – primarily for the Masterbook series – it was also relegated more to the growing warehouse staff, though editors were still drafted to help them on shifts when deadlines were tight. As game designers the process provided some satisfaction, both working on the final assembly of a game but also seeing it physically completed and ready for distribution. Some designers received quiet resentment for creating games with numerous components to pack; I was probably the guiltiest, having designed the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game with three booklets, dice, several sheets of perforated cards, character templates, cardstock stand-ups, and maps, all with a single explanatory cover sheet on top.

During my time at West End – mid 1993 to the company’s bankruptcy in mid 1998 – we published around 12 boxed roleplaying game sets incorporating components from rulebooks and dice to cards, maps, cardstock stand-ups, and actual metal miniatures. These included Shatterzone, numerous Masterbook releases (the “Worlds of” Indiana Jones, Bloodshadows, Tank Girl), The Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game, Star Wars and Men in Black Introductory Adventure Games, three Star Wars Miniatures Battles boxes (Starter Set, Vehicle Starter Set, Mos Eisley Adventure Set), The Darkstryder Campaign and Lords of the Expanse setting. That’s an average of 2.5 boxed sets a year. My first year we only did Shatterzone, the second the Masterbook-based World of Indiana Jones and World of Bloodshadows; after that the company had fewer reservations about boxed sets, though it probably should have (The World of Tank Girl being a disastrous example).

Perhaps West End continued relying on the perceived marketing prestige of boxed sets well beyond their time. Toward the end of the 1990s core roleplaying games came more in high-quality book format – hardcover and full-color, much like the “super-mondo” edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Revised & Expanded. A flood of boxed games and settings from industry giant TSR probably led to its financial troubles in 1997 (primarily from poor sales and high distributor returns). I never had much insight into company finances, so I don’t know if West End produced its boxed sets at a loss or suffered from high return rates (though rumors claimed both were true...but we all know “Rumors Are Treason”). No doubt such high production values contributed to the financial woes that sent West End into bankruptcy in mid 1998.

As a gamer I’m still tempted by a boxed roleplaying game filled with attractive components. I still have boxed sets for many of the games I enjoyed in my more carefree days: my Basic/Expert D&D boxes, a host of other TSR games of that era (Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Gangbusters), that thick Cyberpunk first edition box, Paranoia, first edition Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, Pendragon. I still feel a boxed set with useful components remains essential for any introductory roleplaying game...apparently so do the producers of the Pathfinder and current D&D games. For me a box also provided a convenient container for associated materials like supplements, my personal character sheets, NPC cards, adventures and scenario notes, and other ephemera. Opening one of my boxed games gives me a nostalgic trip back to the days when I could immerse myself in a game for its own sake without using it as an escape from the overbearing responsibilities of the modern adult world. In this Internet Age I fear they’re relics of a bygone time before desktop publishing, PDFs, and the interwebzes transformed the roleplaying game industry, fracturing it into the extremes of high-production-value companies and hobbyists-publishers using PDF and print-on-demand (and everyone in between). I still wish I could have boxed sets of a few current roleplaying games – Hero Kids and Ironsworn come to mind – and in this print-on-demand, PDF, and print-and-play era I can at least assemble my own. Who knows what new developments will reshape the face of core roleplaying game components? I am certain, however, they’re not headed back to the halcyon days of boxed sets.


  1. When I worked at Steve Jackson Games, the closest I got to a "boxing night" was helping to haul already-filled Dino Hunt sets out of an overheated steel shipping container in the August heat of Texas (I'm not sure how the dinosaurs didn't melt because I sure did!), but I heard legends of them doing boxing events where they'd call for gamer-volunteers and feed them pizza =)

    1. At least SJG was near gamer-volunteers. WEG was in the middle of nowhere. Now and then we had freelancers visit who helped out, but the staff still did much of the work.

  2. My boxed sets are rather limited. I own the Darkstryder boxed set from WEG. The Twilight: 2000 boxed set, which was rather awesome. My first RPG ever...the Star Trek Roleplaying Games by FASA. And just recently I picked up a boxed set of Star Trek Adventures by Modiphius. It was neat to open it up and see the goodies like in the good ol' days.

    1. We still see rpg boxed sets, just not as often as we used to. Oddly enough, the Spanish version of the Darkstryder boxed set was a hardcover sourcebook with maps and cards bound in...an interesting alternative to a complicated, component-filled boxed set.


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