Expansions: The good, the bad and the ugly part 1

Your favorite game has hit the table countless times. It’s still your favorite, but something isn’t right. Perhaps it feels a little samey or stale when you are making some of the same moves for the 20th time, or seeing the maybe you see some of the same strategies play out as the last game. When a game hits the doldrums like this nothing can give it a shot of new life quite like a well-timed expansion.

When expansions get out of hand...
When expansions get out of hand…

Board game expansions are add on packs that allow a designer inject new cards, gameplay, and strategies into an existing game.  For a popular game, this is a win for everyone involved. The publisher seeks to keep the game relevant and active in the gaming community, and the gaming community in turn gets some new content to revive a game that maybe they have seen too much of.  Seems like a pretty sure thing, right? However, not all expansions are created equal. Depending on the type of game and the designer’s approach to adding new bells and whistles, expansions can sometimes be more of a headache than they are worth.  Over the next few posts I’d like to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of board game expansions.

The best expansions take a good game and make it great. They elevate and evolve the gameplay experience in a way that makes it feel impossible to going back to playing the game without the expansion. Instead of just adding a bit more variety these expansions introduce new concepts that blend seamlessly with the original rules, and make for a deeper game.

Innovation adds several new gameplay mechanics that blend seamlessly with the original.
Innovation adds several new gameplay mechanics that blend seamlessly with the original.

One expansion that meets this criteria is Innovation Echoes of the Past. Innovation itself is a fantastic game I covered in my short civilization game article. It has a lot of tactical depth, and since every card in the game is unique and not all cards are in play in any given game, the original game always plays out differently. So what could a game with that much variety in the core box possibly need an expansion for? More of the chaos and unpredictability of the base game of course!

Echoes of the past is that one ingredient that really makes a recipe sing, the garnish on top of a great meal. The cards in this expansion only come into play intermittently, as players can only draw one of them at a time. However they are powerful and introduce several gameplay concepts that weren’t in the original game, so when they do come into play it is significant and changes the course of the game. It is a fantastic expansion that I would not play without!

The Leaders expansion gives 7 Wonders more long term strategy.
The Leaders expansion gives 7 Wonders more long term strategy.

Another expansion that fits into this “essential” category for me is 7 Wonders Leaders. 7 Wonders is another game I covered in my short civilization post, and is also a great tactical game, with moment to moment decisions often mattering more than long term planning. The Leaders expansion is great because it gives the game a more long term strategy. Players draft four powerful leader cards at the beginning of the game, and can use these early decisions to guide the more tactical decisions down the road. For example if a player drafts a leader that gives bonus points for science cards, they can seek out more of those cards during the game to really hone that strategy. The base 7 Wonders game is an award winning treasure of a game, but I am always eager to throw this expansion into the mix.

Boarders in Subrubia Inc are worth a lot of points, but can hem you in if you're not careful.
Boarders in Subrubia Inc are worth a lot of points, but can hem you in if you’re not careful.

Suburbia INC also elevates the core game Suburbia and adds small tweaks that make the whole game better. This very sim city-eque tile builder was already good, but the expansion adds boarders, that throw the whole spatial aspect of the game for a loop. and end of round scoring goals that can be tempting to chase even if they don’t meet your end game goals. It is another example of evolving a base game just that little bit and I would not play Suburbia without it.

In all three cases these expansions elevate the original game. The sign of a great expansion in my mind is if it feels like it belonged in the game to begin with, where it blends in seamlessly with the original. Expansions are a wonderful part of the modern board game hobby because they can give new life to a game you already know you enjoy. Sometimes trying a whole new game can be a bit daunting, having to teach new people, including yourself and the always present concern that it might just not be a good game. An expansion is a much safer bet, like adding more toppings to your favorite ice cream sundae. However, it’s not always rosey, and in my next post I’ll touch on the bad side of expansions and how they can go awry.

My board game has become obsolete!

What's old is new again with Dominion second edition.
What’s old is new again with Dominion second edition.

It is a frustrating feature of our consumer culture, that there is always the next best thing around the corner. Your favorite media or device of today is sure to be crushed under the inevitable March of progress. A shiny new phone for example is only the new hotness until the next model. Content creators have been asking us to upgrade our video libraries for years. Jumping from VHS tapes to DVDs, to Blurays, and even now  a new Ultra HD video format asks owners to buy their favorite movies yet again. It also happens in my other favorite hobby, video games, with new game consoles coming out every few years, often incompatible with all of the old games that you already own.

Three playstation consoles, each unable to play the games of the previous system.
Three playstation consoles, each unable to play the games of the previous system.

With all of this constant change, at least we can rely on board games to bypass this march of progress, right? Cardboard, like diamonds, is forever. Your parents’ copy of Monopoly still works today, and plays the same as it did growing up. Finally, here is a bastion where you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses, where a well taken care of game can last through the ages and still be enjoyed by your grandkids years down the line.

Well, I have bad news. Board games, just like all other media, can become obsolete. I have several games on my shelf that have suffered this cruel fate. What could cause such a thing you ask? The answer is in the sinister siren call of the new edition. Version 2.0 of your favorite games, new and improved in a variety of ways. Perhaps it is new, better art that makes the game look that much better. Perhaps it is a few critical rule tweaks that make it play that much better. Perhaps it revamps the whole game and just streamlines it to make it THAT much better. Whatever the change, these new editions often make the version sitting on your shelf look like a sad cardboard jalopy.

This is not inherently a bad thing. After all, new editions generally IMPROVE the original game, and make it better than ever. Why get upset when a good game can become great, and have a chance to reach a new audience? I agree that it can be a noble thing to strive to make the best game possible and improve upon the formula of the original, but sometimes these new editions leave existing fans in a lurch.

Take for example the new editions of Carcassonne. Because of the art changes in the tiles, even if players combine the new edition with their old expansions, the art is incompatible. New expansions released after a second editions are often incompatible with old editions, forcing players to buy a game again if they want to experience the newest content for a game. Even if a game is “compatible” if the cards have different backs or different sizes, it’s simply not an option to throw the old and new together.

An early favorite game of mine when I first got into the hobby was Thunderstone. It took the deck building of Dominion and combine it with exploring a dungeon and fighting monsters. I eagerly picked up new expansions and sought to own every card I could get my hands on. The game was certainly rough around the edges and had some flaws that I could see even in my fervor to own it all.

Original Thunderstone (left) vs New Thunderstone (right) Keywords and Art made for some incompatibility between editions.

Then one day the publisher announced Thunderstone Advanced. A new edition that improved the formula in every way. It seemed intriguing at the time, but would the new card work with my growing collection of card from the original? The answer… sort of. In these more complex card games, interactions between cards often depended on keywords, say cards with the word Silver were more powerful against cards that had the word Werewolf for example. The keywords between the new editions were not going to jive and so I felt left behind, hundreds of dollars invested into a game that was officially out of style.

Publishers often do make an effort to not leave their existing fans behind. Many have introduced compatibility packs to bring existing players up to speed with any changes, without leaving them in the dust. Most recently Dominion, the granddaddy of the deck building genre came out with second editions of its two core sets, Dominion and Dominion Intrigue. Each set introduced 7 new cards to replace 6 cards in the original versions. Rio Grande published an upgrade kit that just included these new cards so that existing owners didn’t need to buy a whole new set. Pandemic put out a similar kit that just included the cards from the new edition so that owners could combine them with the new expansions.

The shiny new edition of Mission Red Planet (left) makes the old edition (right) look very dated indeed.

Often times, however, the old edition is just that. My old edition of Mission Red Planet with its crappy cards, lame skittle “astronauts” and flimsy board will never compare to the new Fantasy Flight edition in all of its splendor. I got plenty of fun times out of it, and it still plays the same as it always did, but I very much doubt it will ever hit the table again when the new shinier version is in someone else’s game bag.

Then again, I am also someone who anticipates these new editions, even when I own the original. A new version of one of my favorite card games Innovation is on the horizon. And you can bet that even though I own the original, I will be there on day one when the new edition comes out to enjoy the rule tweaks and beautiful new card design.

So perhaps while all of these new editions can leave original owners feeling a bit jilted, it’s not all bad news. All of the games I’ve mentioned were improved with their new edition, and surely picked up some new fans. And that is a wonderful sign that this great hobby is growing, and experiencing the same march of progress as other entertainment industries.