Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making a Shut the Box Game with a Cigar Box

In short - "Shut the Box" is a very old counting game that is part strategy part luck. Honestly though, mostly luck so it is a great game for kids to play against an adult. Super easy and fast to play, it can even be played solo. It does help kids with quick addition skills and the game only takes a few minutes and stores in its own box. It is used as a bar/pub game in some parts of the world. Fun for all ages, as they say.

First off, I don't smoke but I like cigar boxes and wanted to use one for this project. No doubt the fine folks at "Overly Sensitive Parenting Quarterly" will freak out at the use of a cigar box for a toy but, hey... I could have used the box to make a "Cigar Box Guitar" and then those crazy kids would just use it to make rock and roll music and who knows what that could lead to.

So instead, I'll do the world a favor and make a counting game with it.

Clearly the Normans took their games
 pretty seriously
The game itself may have been played back as far as the 12th century. It seems to have Norman origins but it is now played all over the world. I was first exposed to it through a TV game show in the 1970s called "High Rollers" hosted by a pre-Jeopardy Alex Trebek. The man had incredible hair.

The game is traditionally played in some sort of a box. I'll explain in more detail later exactly how to play but basically, you have tiles numbered 1 through 9 and you roll dice. Add up what you rolled on the dice and knock down an equal sum from the tiles. Keep doing this until you roll a number you can't match or you knock down all the tiles. Knocking them all down is called "Shutting the box" and you automatically win if you do that. Period. Game over. DONE!

So, first things first... I need a box.

A few months ago I popped by the local mega beer/wine store in search of cigar boxes... honest. That's my story and I'm sticking with it. (BTY They also sell their empty wooden wine crates. Noted for future dinosaur builds.) Anyway, I lucked out. Someone had asked for a bunch of wooden cigar boxes to be set aside and then never showed up to claim them. Right place, right time for me and I got them for 50 cents apiece! YEA ME!

Mrs Toy Making Dad claimed
two as soon as I got home

Some now hold bits and Allen wrenches
in my work space

I had some leftover red oak from another project so I cut out the tiles from that stock.
These ended up being 1 7/8" tall by 3/" wide and 3/8" thick. Obviously, these can be pretty much any size you want as long as they will fit in the box and are thick enough to rotate on the dowel or rod you use as the axle.

I rounded the tops into little tombstone shapes using the disk sander on my belt sander. I wrote little numbers on the bottom in the hopes of keeping them in order but a) that really didn't matter and b) after I put the finish on the tiles, I couldn't read the numbers anyway (D'oh!)

The next step was to drill the pivot holes. The holes are 3/16" so that a 1/8" dowel can be used for them to pivot over. I made a quick jig and attached it to my drill press. Having the pivot hole in a consistent location makes the tiles line up level. Also, it's critical that the hole be perpendicular to the tile so that the tiles will lie flat when they are knocked down.


After (Pretty exciting, huh?)

After drilling all the holes I applied a finish and after it dried some pre-cut craft store number. The kind used to label school projects and posters. The finish was a coat of bee's wax and mineral oil that my little one and I had whipped up a few weeks ago for a different project. I know it isn't an indestructible finish, but WOW, it is sooooo easy to use. Non-toxic, no fumes, no gloves, dries super fast. It even has a slight honey smell to it. It is an absolute joy to work with.

I selected the Gispert Robusto box because it was very solid, had the right look and I could make it work with the dimensions I needed. It was also close at hand and not full of Allen wrenches.

I decided on two 1/8" wood dowels for the game. One for the tiles to pivot on and one to act as a ledge/stop when the tiles are knocked down. They make a satisfying "clack" when you tip them down and they hit the bar. The box walls are less than 1/2" thick so I decided to just drill straight through them and glue the dowels in place. I made sure the tiles had room to move, would rest upright and would hit the bar when knocked down. Again, consistency is key here. I need both bars to be level. The bar is a 7/8" lower and 1" forward of the axle dowel.

In using my drill press I found that the table of the press couldn't go low enough to allow me to drill the 1/8" holes in the box. When I moved the table out of the way, then the box was too low. I found that the perfect spacer I had sitting around was of all things, a Price Albert tobacco can! No... I don't smoke. It was from my grandfather's basement.

And no, I don't have Prince Albert in a can. Therefore I don't need to let him out.

So, here's this post's history lesson. The "Prince Albert" on the can was the eldest son of Queen Victoria. his full name being Albert Edward. When he became King in 1902 he chose to go by "Edward VII". He was King of England for eight years, was very popular and from his name we get the term "Edwardian Era."  He was related to a very large percentage of European royalty at the time (some say nearly all) and in fact, both the Kaiser and Tsar who were to clash so disastrously in WW1 were his nephews (the Tsar by marriage.) His son was George V, King of England during WW1. And yes... he is the King Edward of "King Edward Cigars" which I've had some adventures with over the years but won't go into now.

And no... I don't smoke!

Final assembly was threading the axle dowel through one hole, placing a spacer (in this case a small wood wheel), the numbers in sequence and then another spacer. The dowel was glued into place and then so was the stop bar. Last thing, I glued a little green felt on to the inside of the lid so that there was a soft rolling surface for the dice. (BTY - Dollar Store - 10 dice for $1) Total time was just a couple of hours. I built and played with it in the same day. If only all the projects were so easy :)

And now for us visual learners...

How to Play Shut the Box

As should be expected, there are all sorts of variations on the game but basically there are tiles numbered 1 through 9 (or up to 12) in a box or on a playing surface. The first player takes a die or pair of dice and rolls them. The player then chooses which tiles to knock down so that the sum of the knocked down tiles equals the sum of what was rolled. You keep rolling until you roll a number whose sum you can't match with the tiles.

For example... Say I rolled a 9.

I could then knock down any of the following

I then roll again and keep knocking down numbers.
When I roll a number but can't knock anything down, my turn is over.
Then the values on the remaining tiles are totaled up and that is my score and it is the next players turn after all the numbers have been turned upright again.
If I was are able to knock down all of the tiles, I have "Shut the Box" and win the game at that point even without the other person getting a "fair up."

You can play to a certain number - say first person to 50 loses.
Or you can just do each round - low score wins.

Or you can play like my daughter and I like to play where you go until you can't turn down any numbers and when it is the next player's turn, they pick up where the other person left off.
No tiles are ever turned upright and you just keep going until someone "Shuts the Box."

Two good optional rules we use are -
1) Once the 7, 8 and 9 have been knocked down, you can choose to roll just one die.
2) ANYTIME you roll a double you get to go again, even if you couldn't match the sum.

Remember - As soon as someone Shuts the Box, he or she has won. End of game.

But that's okay.

Just play another one... or two... or ten.


  1. This is AWESOME! You've inspired me to make mu OWN toys & games as well! My "steamboat" put-put boat turned out great! I've even ventured into kites & other bits too! Keep up the excellent work! :)

  2. I don't have a drill press. Do you have any suggestions for alternative ways to attach the tiles?

    1. JT - You could use a "drill guide." It allows you to attach a power drill to another chuck that slides up and down on rails attached to a base. If I did that, I'd probably drill the holes before I cut the pieces to length since it would be easier to work with. You could also go completely old school and use an egg-beater hand drill. I find that those are easier to keep perpendicular than power drills. Good luck!


Just Saying...

While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.