Expansions: The good the bad and the ugly part 2

While expansions can be great, like extra gravy on top of mashed potatoes, it’s not all good news. Expansions do have some downsides. There are, for example, bad expansions. I have thankfully been mostly out of the blast radius of these, so I have minimal direct experience. But I remember a few expansions that absolutely killed all excitement for a game in my local game group. Expansions ┬áthat were so bad that they actually hurt the experience of the original game, and left people with a sour taste in their mouth.

One of my favorite games is Suburbia, a game that captures all of the fun of the classic PC game Sim City. Suburbia’s first expansion, Suburbia Inc, did what any great expansion should. It added a few small new elements, and gave players more of what they already loved. However, it’s second expansion Suburbia 5 Star was so bad it ended up making people shelve the game for a few months. 5 Start added a few things, just like Suburbia Inc… but these additions poisoned the well.

The new star system in action.

The first thing it did was to add a fifth player. Suburbia had always been a four player game, and what could be better than making a favorite game accomodate more players? This is another case of being careful what you wish for. Suburbia Five Star was one of those cases where adding another player broke the delicate balance of downtime vs. decision time in the game. It might not seem like much, but just a little bit more downtime from a fifth player can make the wait between turns seem too long. Multiply this small wait for a whole game’s worth of turns, and something shifts in the perception of the game itself. The best games are like time travel. You look up at the end of the game and wonder just how time flew by so fast. If the opposite happens and you check your watch midgame only to despair that the evening is almost over… that’s a bad sign.

The other misstep was the new star system that the expansion added. This new system affected every aspect of the game, from player order each turn to being a tiebreaker for the goals that players chase to score points. Unlike many expansions that add a small new aspect to the game, this was game changing stuff that affected the core of the experience. It did not go over too well with the game’s most passionate fans, and so instead of injecting new life and energy like an expansion should, this change left the game sitting on the shelf gathering dust.

Another game that fundamentally changes with an expansion is Machi Koro. ┬áMachi Koro is a nice family style game where players roll a die every turn, and that roll determines what happens based on the building cards in their and other players’ city tableau. When Machi Koro’s Harbor expansion came out, everyone in my local group was excited about new cards for a game that they already loved. But just like Suburbia Five Star, this expansion flipped the script in a negative way. The original game had an easy straight forward setup, where all cards were available from the start, so players had equal opportunity to build their city. In the expansion, the marketplace of what cards are available is determined from a random card draw, and continues to be random from there based on a central deck of all the different cards available. So now the game had two layers of randomness, both the result of dice rolls every turn AND the randomness of the card draw. This proved to be a bridge too far for my group, and so the game was shelved.

Ok, so there are bad expansions. But what is the ugly? Well, there is a an unfortunate truth that not all games really need or have room for an expansion. I guess that metaphor here is that your favorite game is a perfectly tuned sports car. If it’s great as it is, do you really need to hook a camper trailer worth of new stuff to the back of it? While many modern games are designed with expansions in mind, there are also games that just don’t need any more than what is included in the box.

Sometimes there’s too much of a good thing…

There is also the conundrum of too much of a good thing. For example, I own all of the Dominion expansions, as it was one of my favorite games. The allure of more cards for a game I love is always compelling, like a siren song… but how many of those cards have I really explored in any depth? The truth is; not many. I have a hard and fast rule that I won’t buy an expansion to a game unless I have played the original game at least ten times, but even with this rule I sometimes feel like my group hasn’t fully plumbed the depths of a particular game before we are bolting on new shiny bits to it with the latest expansion. This might be a group specific thing of course. If your group has played a particular game almost exclusively, it is much more likely to be ready to dive into some new content.

Another potentially group specific thing is when to introduce an expansion. If not everyone at the table has played the base game, is it really fair to throw them into the deep end with an expansion right from the start? Do you specifically exclude people who haven’t played the base game? If you are playing with the same group each week this is less of a problem as most people in the group will have played the same things, but in a more transient or public gaming group, all bets are off.

Still, at the end of the day, expansions are a pretty great. It’s hard to argue with more of a game that you love, and these missteps I’ve discussed are few and far between. What are some of your favorite expansions?

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