Things of No Interest: Thoughts on Boardgame Expansions

Things of No Interest: Thoughts on Boardgame Expansions

Not my collection, but this is about how much HS stuff I own
After writing up my notes on Kingdom Builder: Marshlands the other night, I thought I'd throw out my random thoughts on game expansions.

When I first got into the Boardgaming hobby around 2005, expansions were nowhere near as common as they are today (unless you played Heroscape). Some games, like Age of Steam and Power Grid, had expansion boards/maps that could be used as an alternate playing board, but typically that was the extent, except for a few one off games. Anymore, it seems that most games are designed with an expansion ready to go to the printers the moment the base game arrives in the player's hands. And I get it - from the publisher's point of view it is a huge win. The expansion material might have just been part of the original design, but was taken out to keep the base game costs down, so selling an expansion is great for them as the development costs are really low. For games like Descent, Imperial Assault, Eldritch Horror, Dominion, Legendary, etc - you have a built in player base that loves expanding a game because they are die hard fans of the game (also of note, there seems to be an overwhelming number of "completion-ists" in this hobby and in some ways, the publishers are using that to their advantage).

At any rate, I thought I'd share my train of thoughts on expansions by first exploring the kinds of expansions I see.

Solo, co-op or +players expansions - i.e. expansions that change the player counts of a game.
I don't really like playing solo plays of games, so for me, that isn't an appealing addon for an expansion. Solo play addons take the value of the expansion down because of that. For example - Orleans: Invasion. The expansion is a good sized one, and has more to it than a solo and co-op set, but they could have gotten away with just the new buildings and scenario as a smaller expansion instead of a "large" one that also has solo and co-op. Co-op options fall in the same boat for me as solo. If I wanted a co-op game, I would have bought that in the first place. A solo expansion is fine if it is a purely solo expansion (Archipelago offers a deck expansion just for solo play). Give me the option, but don't bundle it in with "real" expansion stuff.

Adding player counts is a mixed bag and really depends on the game. The original first edition of A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame was a five-player affair. The Clash of Kings expansion for the game was spectacular and added a sixth house. Frankly, the game was better with six players than it was with five. But that's not true of all games. Sometimes you have to wonder why the publisher thought another player would be a good thing. Kingdom Builder is a good game with 2-4 players (though the game is pretty tight with four). Their first expansion added an addition player set of pieces. Why add in a fifth player? The setup is the same (ie no additional board space), and downtime is an issue since you can't plan ahead with that many players, so why in the world would you add a fifth player? It does not make the game better in any way.

For deck building games, expansions are a must for this reason alone. If you only play the base set of cards over and over, it doesn't take long to figure out all the synergies and best choices. Make the variability of the mix higher and (in theory) your interest in the game should last longer. It must be true - look at how many different Dominion, Thunderstone, Legendary (Marvel), Ascension, etc expansions there are. AEG's and FFG both seem to have adopted a financial model built on you buying expansions. Deck builders are not the only genre where this works though. Kingdom Builder, Orleans, Power Grid, Eldritch Horror, etc - these games have expansions that change up the game experience with minor different tweaks and new content. The other thing this kind of expansion can do - fix weaknesses in the base game. Is there that one building that NEVER gets used in your games because it doesn't work well with other things? Add some new content that has good synergy with it and give players a reason to use it.

MOAR boards and cards!
Ok, we are talking expansions, shouldn't all of them EXPAND the game? What I mean by expandability is that we literally are expanding the game. New map boards in Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror expand the existing map. Scoundrels of Skullport for Lords of Waterdeep adds additional boards that give the players new places to place their workers. These kind of expansions typically introduce more complexity to the game as opposed to variability expansions that just change the game's content. You now have more options, not just different ones.

Viticulture might have done this better than any game I can think of recently. The full Tuscany expansion is really a large number of mini expansions, most of which truly expand that game (some are more cards for existing decks, so those are variability expansions, but most of Tuscany change the game by adding new options). Tuscany definitely ups the complexity level of the game. After you add enough of the mini expansions, the number of choices you have on any given turn is fairly large. However, I have found this to be a "really good thing" in Viticulture. Having so many different ways to score points or accomplish your tasks starts to make it a bit of a puzzle game - how can I do my task (sell wine, harvest grapes, etc) in the most efficient way possible while being a stumbling block to my opponents? And that's not to say that others aren't doing it well too. As I said, Waterdeep's expansion adds new areas and complexity to the game, but it is awesome and really opens the game up, making it better. I mentioned earlier the first edition A Game of Thrones: The Board Game really needed that first expansion. Besides adding another player house (Martell) to the game, the fixes that the Clash of Kings expansion brought (ports - which fixed such a major flaw in the game that it became printed on the base game map in the 2nd edition) coupled with the other additional options really made the game a better game.

Sometimes, the expansion that expands isn't great - it just makes the game longer or more complex. Sadly, pretty much everything that came out for Zooloretto is kind of in this boat. Zooloretto is good because it is a nice family game that was easy enough for kids to play, but had enough good choices for gamer adults to enjoy. The expansions just gave you more and more and more options. Instead of three things to do with money, now I have twelve. Sorry, that defeats the easy access of the original game and still doesn't make it more of a gamer's game. Have you played Carcassonne? Have you played Carc with 8+ expansions? What about Alhambra? Sometimes more isn't better, it is just more.

Look at all those cards.
Oh the horror!
What do I want in an expansion?
For me, variability is the thing I tend to care about the most when deciding on whether I should get an expansion. When I really like a game, new content or different options from the ones you normally have open up the game in interesting ways. For a game like Eldritch Horror, new cards mean the likelihood of any game's story being like one of the previous games is much lower. I have so many Legendary sets (and I think I only have like half of them) that I could play the game for a week or two straight and barely have scratched the combinations of possibilities.

Expandability is ok at times, but not when it adds complexity and then fails to make the game better somehow. If it means you can try a lot of different paths to winning, not the same tired formula every game - that's great. For a game like Alhambra, I've found this isn't quite the case with its bazillion mini-expansions. A few of the expansions are good and make the game more accessible for players, but a lot of them just make it longer or more convoluted. When they don't make the game more interesting or efficient, then you don't need them.

Carcassonne and its expansions are a mixed bag for me. The expansions add new and interesting ways to play, but they also make the game longer and more complex. I guess it depends a lot on how much you like a game when deciding to grab this kind of expansion.

Expansion issues?
Back in the day... you used to get a new Power Grid map and you'd toss it in the box with your base set. Done. Have you seen how much stuff there is you have all the Descent 2nd edition expansions? No way that fits in the base box. Or the base box and the expansion boxes (mostly because the hero and monster packs come in blisters, but whatever). Queen Games started doing "Big Box" releases (and often you can order an empty big box if you collected all the stuff along the way) which would keep everything in one (albeit large) box. A lot of enterprising folks either build or buy storage solutions for games to keep everything together (because really, if the expansion is integral, it needs to be altogether for you to play). Storage concerns for the never ending stream of expansions is a real thing.

You can also have too much. Sometimes I think publishers keep trying to churn out stuff until they "Jump the Shark". I think most publishers end up doing this with their deck building games. At what point is enough, enough? When money is involved, I suppose enough is when it doesn't look like one more will make money, but for me, it depends on how much I like the game and how much I'm going to actually play it along with how much is it actually costing me.

Another issue with expansions - what do you do when it is easy to discern new parts from the old? If you are playing a deck building game like Thunderstone (and I mention Thunderstone, because the original game was a horrific offender here), then all the cards from different sets need to match. The backs can't be different colors, nor can the finish of the cards be different, lest you are able to tell if the next card you draw is a new one or an older one. Even if the printer gets them all the same (and FFG is really good about this) - the older cards are probably going to be worn looking while the newer are nice and sharp. You can sleeve all the cards (and I'm a sleever because of this very problem), but that is an added expense to both the base game and each expansion.

Last note in my head. Hey! Every game doesn't need an expansion!!!! Seriously. Sometimes a game is just good as it is. Leave it alone. Samurai is one of my top five favorite games and it does not need a new map nor does it need an expansion for more players or secret powers. It is brilliant exactly as it is. Don't you think it is a little sad that only a few of the BGG top 20 games don't have expansions? Again, I understand that the publishers and designers want to make money, but are they trying to make the best games possible, or the best cash cow they can? I have no problem with expansions, except when I play the base game and it feels broken or incomplete. An expansion should feel like an option. I should be able to enjoy a game and not need an expansion. If I need it, it should have been in the game in the first place. If it makes the game I love, more enjoyable, then it was a good expansion.

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