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.

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