Introduction: From the Cod Banks to the Classroom - Shut the Box Game

About: I live in a forest garden by the sea in an old Celtic longhouse in the Baie de Mont Saint Michel, France, which I share with Andy and our poultry. Before I escaped and became a happy peasant, I had three jobs …

A Little History

Shut the Box or Trac, in French, is a portable/pocket game of chance and skill from the Middle Ages. Legend has it that it originated in Normandy and became a favourite game amongst the Duchy's sailing and fishing communities. As Shut the Box could be played for money it was most likely to be taken up by the pirates who were also famous along the Normandy and Brittany coasts. Dice games were incredibly popular with pirates although many of the The Pirate Codes (including that of the 'Golden Age' pirate, Bartholomew Roberts aka Black Bart) did not allow for gambling once the men and women were aboard ship.

As we live along the West coast of Lower Normandy I can believe in the game's Norman origins. Cod-fishing boats like the Marité (pictured above in the bay of Granville) bear witness to the harsh life of the sailors on those long voyages to line-fish off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Shut the Box would have been a diversion not only from the tedium of the journey but also from the nightmare of what lay ahead, i.e. being lowered into the fog in a tiny Dory boat, often to be swallowed up into the gloom for good.

Shut the Box is normally played with 9 or 12 numbered wooden tiles. The chance in the game comes from it being based around a throw of two dice and the skill in choosing which tile or tiles to lay down in order that the box may close or the lowest score be achieved.

As with all sea-faring traditions the very nature of their being spread far and wide across the World has meant that this game has become popular in many countries.

Since the 1960s this has also become a favourite British pub game, with the box being passed around a group of players to decide who'll pay the round of drinks or will win a pot of money..... and I've seen it on Youtube as part of a German game show!


A discarded wooden box - I found four boxes behind the bottle recycling bank and chose the deepest of the cigarillo boxes, which also was hinged so most suitable.

A piece of thin untreated thin pallet plank (for tips on finding, choosing and using pallet wood please see the link at the end of this Instructable).

3 wooden barbecue skewers

A piece of green baize/felt-type material

Watercolour and poster paints

Some faux leather from a Christmas ribbon

Glass beads for eyes.

The numbers were made from découpage papers.

The dice were cut from a pallet stringer board

Wood glue

Sand paper

The tools comprise:

Step 1: Shut the Box in Modern Mathematics Teaching

By the very nature of the game and the skill with which the players must quickly decide what numbers to chose from the total of their score, it is easy to see why and how Shut the Box would become a useful and popular aid in the teaching of numbers. The game is used chiefly in kindergarten and primary school mathematics, as a user-friendly, entertaining way to explain basic number bond addition. However, this should not be its limits, as I would suggest that the game itself can be fabricated easily in the home-school environment and its design and construction can be used as part of the learning process for any age of student as it incorporates skills such as measurement, design, art, woodworking and the use of tools. As an added bonus there is also a lot of enjoyment to be derived and critical thinking processes to be fostered from the gathering and/or upcycling of materials and from putting a more individual mark on the original and rather straightforward design. So the whole process of creating and playing Shut the Box can be used as a multi-discipline exercise incorporating Science, Technology, Art & Design, Creativity and with a touch of History and Social History thrown in. This suits the ethos of a home-school environment where parents often choose to take on a topic or focus and run with it for a whole or half day of study whilst espousing a more holistic approach to learning across the disciplines. In using one initial idea such as the creation or use of this game, they can encourage their children to explore their own interests and avenues and extend their fields of research from the internet or books to museums and the great outdoors.

Step 2: Rules and How to Play

As with all ancient games that have travelled around the World, as far as the rules are concerned they differ from game to game, area to area and country to country but essentially as a game for one to an infinite number of players they are as follows:

  • The first or lone player throws the two dice.
  • The sum of the score is then either used as a whole number or a combination of numbers to 'shut' the chosen tile(s).
  • For example, if the player throws a 3 and a 5, then he can choose to lay down the:-


the 3 and the 5;

the 7 and the 1;

the 4, the 3 and the 1; etc.,.

  • He continues his turn until he throws a number for which he can no longer lay down any tiles.
  • At this point his score is the sum of the tiles left standing upright.
  • All the tiles are then returned to their upright position.
  • The box is passed to the next player if there is one.
  • The player who closes down the box or has the lowest score wins that round.

Step 3: Some Thoughts on Traditional Design

Traditional game boxes are quite simple, usually comprising some kind of small box, lined with green baize on the one side and with a set of numbered wooden tiles on the other which are held in place with a wooden dowel or round metal bar.

In my design I wanted to incorporate the Norman origins and I'm inspired by those seafaring horses of the Bayeux tapestry, whose chunky form and bright colours are, to my mind, more interesting than the usual plain tiles of the game! I also decided that as my box really is a pocket version, I would need a double row of tiles to allow me the individual width to accomplish my design of the horse heads.

I also thought it would be an extra challenge to make my own wooden dice.

For a home-school project I can see that ideas for the design can be inspired by encouraging discussion around the origins of the game, thus engendering a variety of styles and opening pathways for more individual research.

Step 4: Construction

Measure the baize/felt to fit the inside of the lid.

Cut it to size and attach it with an acrylic glue.

You have now made the dice rolling area.

In order to make sure everything fits correctly into the box, It is a good idea to create a mock-up of the final game with card. This creation of a prototype is a common practice in design and development and gives the child an idea of both how the design would look and how important plans are both for design and for the passing on of instructions to a manufacturer or craftsman. In my first mock-up above I am just working out the tile spacing, my final design, as you can see from the later pictures, has the correct positioning of the wooden tiles, facing the dice-rolling area.

Two strips of fruit crate wood were cut to length and wedged into the base of the bottom of the box to act as support for the tiles when they are in the folded-down position as the game is in play.

For my design I cut a strip from the pallet wood plank measuring 9cm x 2cm but the size will depend on the box chosen and the chosen size for the tiles.

Each 'tile' can then be drilled to accommodate the support bar. In order to make sure that all the tiles are drilled in the same way, it is a good idea to attach a 'stop' made of a piece of rectangular wood, to the fixed jaw of the vice. This can be temporarily glued to the vice with a glue gun.

Drill the two shortest sides of the box to accommodate the wooden skewers. (This process was repeated in my case, as already explained, I had decided that the box, being quite small would look better with a double row of tiles).

Thread the bar through the tiles (horse heads) and then thread them through the sides of the cigarillo box.

A third set of holes is then drilled in the box to accommodate another skewer, which will act as a back stop for the second row of tiles.

All the skewers are then cut flush with the outside face of the box.

A little glue can be added to the sides of the cigarillo box holes to hold the skewers in place.

Step 5: Artwork

I designed a little simple pattern for my horses' heads and then cut nine of them from water colour paper. Then I applied a colour wash to each and left it to dry.

I added a mane to each horse this was made from some coloured string saved from a gift. Then I applied the bridle material, which was a faux leather from a Christmas garland. I cut this in two first as it was too wide for the size of the heads. Lastly I applied gold glass beads for the eyes with the glue gun.

For the representation of the numbers, I cut out numbers from a printed sheet and then appliquéd them on to the horses with the glue gun.

Step 6: Dice & Links

Cut a square section from the full length of the pallet stringer board.

Mark a line from the end of the section the height and width of the section so as to produce a cube when cut.

Cut ensuring that the saw cut is maintained at right angles to the outside faces.

Hand-sand the edges of the cubes and the corners (so as they are not pointy).

If you make your own dice then you will have to find the protocol for marking the faces, again this is a good little research exercise.

Using an indelible marker write the numbers on each face.

It is fun and interesting to then roll the dice several times whilst making note of the number which comes up, to establish the random (or otherwise) nature of the sequence with which any given number occurs.

If you have been careful in your cutting, the dice should show no bias, if not then it is 'back to the drawing or rather cutting board'!

Ready to roll!

Hope you enjoyed this project and that you will have fun making one of your own Shut the Box games. Please do publish pictures if you do - I would love to see them.

Useful Links

Collecting, Choosing and Using Free Untreated Pallet Wood

Traditional Shut The Box - for ideas or if you'd rather buy one!

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