In Chris Handy’s Pack o Game series, the names of the games, such as Orc, Gym, and TKO, never contain more than three letters. The cards never exceed one inch in width and three in length. Each box holds exactly 30 of these cards, a tightly folded rulesheet and zero air. And each of those boxes - as the series’ punny title suggests - is roughly the size of a pack of Juicy Fruit. So small, in fact, that Handy complains people have a hard time finding them on shop shelves.
When I stumbled on the trio of games listed above during my Christmas shopping last year, I felt like I had finally found a tabletop game that fit into my life. More specifically, into the tiny apartment I share with my wife. When I first saw how tiny my apartment is - after sharing a two-storey house with a few friends for my first post-grad years - I had to sit down for a minute. We don’t have much shelf space. Neither of us makes much money. I’m a freelance writer; she’s the curator at a small museum. We went a year-and-a-half without Wi-Fi, despite the fact that my job often requires playing online video games. Cash is tight.
So there’s something appealing about Chris Handy’s series. With their diminutive dimensions and $5.99 (£5) price tag, they require so little. Pack o Game is board game design minimalism taken to its extreme and logical end. Anything that isn’t absolutely necessary has been removed. And most game components, it turns out, aren’t absolutely necessary.
Yet, those austere constraints have proved fertile ground for the California-based designer. I haven’t played the entire series (again, cash is tight) but I’ve marvelled at the differences among the few games that I own. Nut tasks players with stringing together matching rows of coloured acorns, a la match-three video games like Candy Crush or Puyo Puyo. Dig casts participants as dogs, searching for bones whose values are altered by the placement of the bowl to which they’re returned. Bus, meanwhile, is a pick-up-and-deliver game where each card forms a section of city street to transport passengers along. So far, Handy has produced 17 games in the line, with seven or eight more on the horizon. Somehow each manages to be distinct, in art and mechanics, though always packaged with the same basic materials.
“I think I’ll run out of interest before I run out of ideas,” Handy tells me over the phone in mid-January.
Tabletop game ideas started coming to Handy back in 2000, before he was even pursuing board gaming as a serious hobby - let alone as a potential career.
“I was on a jetski on the lake and had an idea for a horse racing game, believe it or not. I went home after that trip and made a prototype and within two days I was playing that game,” Handy says. “It eventually came out with [Pandemic publisher] Z-Man Games in 2009, called Long Shot. And that kind of just gave me the bug.”
There was something about the one-by-three-inch card that had so much utility. It was almost like Lego.
Developing a prototype of a game in two days is a quick turnaround. But when Handy began designing the Pack o Game series a few years later, the ideas came even faster, spurred on by a successful weekend unintentionally playtesting the first game in the collection: Hue (then tentatively titled RGB).
“I went to Hawaii for a family wedding and I realised that not only was I taking that game everywhere because it was so small, but we were playing it because I was taking it. I knew after that trip I’ve got to make more games in this form factor and really kind of feel out this design space and see if I can launch it,” Handy says.
Early on, Handy set strict rules for himself. While the initial prototype had included 25 cards and two cubes, he and his wife, Jenn, simplified further, adding five cards, but removing the cubes. Those limitations produced a bumper crop of easy-to-prototype concepts.
“Eight months later, it was on Kickstarter with 10 games ready to go,” Handy says. “It was a whirlwind. I was dreaming of game designs in this format. I was seriously obsessed because [...] people were really responding well to it. There was something about the one-by-three-inch card that had so much utility that allowed for so much gameplay to just really reduce everything out. It was almost like Lego.”
Handy recommends folks not worry about their shelf space, or lack thereof. Instead, he encourages players to throw a game in their car, or backpack, or purse. This works because the time it takes to play each game is also compact: at least five minutes, at most 30.
“When you’re at Applebee’s waiting for your food you can quickly set up a game, get through it and finish up just as the food arrives,” the designer says. “That was happening [in Hawaii], and I realised, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve actually played this game four times and it doesn’t feel like I committed any, ‘Let’s sit down and play a game,’ time [to it].’ It just fit into the craziness of a family wedding weekend. And that value carries into normal everyday life. Everybody’s busy. It’s hard. I have way too many games - some that are in shrink. And not because I don’t love games, but because it’s hard to get them to the table; it’s hard to get people, even my family, to [go] ‘Let’s sit down, let’s open it up, let’s commit this time.’”
Time is money, and for workers in a global economy that increasingly relies on time-intensive gig labour, time and money are short. Pack o Game accommodates people who don’t have much money, or space or time. These are games that fit into a freelance photographer’s camera bag, an Uber driver’s glove box, a college student’s budget, a couple’s monthly date night. They can go anywhere. That’s by design.