Sep 062012

Naughty nurse has some zombie trouble
Shotgun or no, Betty the naughty nurse has Zombie trouble

Like all of us, I have birthdays. Probably more than most DDO players. The most recent example seems to have been globally recognized by my family as an opportunity to shower me with Bronco paraphernalia and games. By a happy coincidence, I happen to love Bronco gear and games, so this went rather well.

One of the more interesting games I received was not actually a game, but instead an expansion called “Growing Hunger” for the board game “Last Night on Earth“. As we played the expansion (because one simply must play all birthday games immediately), it set me to thinking. What makes a good game expansion?

The trend lately has been to create expansion sets for every game that is even moderately successful. Many expansions, very many, and generally with uneven results. For instance, Settlers of Catan has probably a dozen expansions but most of them can be safely skipped, the main game is better without the expansions (Seafarers of Catan is an exception).

On the other hand, Dominion (a popular card deck building game) has exploded with expansions too but all of the ones I’ve tried are quite enjoyable.

Sadly I paid full prices for this. More sadly, I did it twice.
On the plus side, now you don’t have to.

What makes an expansion “quite enjoyable” versus “safely skippable”? I’ve come up with guidelines that you may find useful:

1. The expansion should do more than just allow more players to play. Or less players.

Sticking on new players or making a multiplayer game into a two-player game usually does not work well. If the game was suitable for 2-8 players, it would have been launched like that in the first place. Imagine chess for three (and yes, this specific expansion has been done, more than once). It just doesn’t work, chess is intrinsically a two-player game. Alternately, imagine Spades as a two-player game. You might be able to work up a set of rules that work but that doesn’t mean it will be fun, or even still be Spades.

We haven't met a Dominion expansion we don't like. Or can avoid buying.

We haven’t met a Dominion expansion we don’t like. Or can avoid buying.


2. The expansion should add to the original game but not subtract from it or rewrite it

The expansions for Dominion work because they add new cards with new capabilities but do not remove original cards or tactics. You never stop playing the original game.

The expansions for Catan do not work because they either (a) don’t add anything except change – for instance having “Brigands” instead of a “Robber”, or (b) change the nature of the game altogether*. Some of them remove the original victory conditions, and especially in the case of the expansion that allows two-player games, change the spirit of the game from a “Build up your position” game to a “screw your opponent” game.

* With the exception of Seafarers of Catan, an expansion that adds new ways to build and more board space without rewriting the original game or removing anything.

The greatest expansion game ever was probably Cosmic Encounter. In this game, each player had a unique special power, and the various combinations between the various special powers was what made the game fun. Each new expansion (and there were many! Nine according to Boardgamegeek) added more unique powers, and therefore, more fun!

3. If the original game is good enough, it is perfectly acceptable for an expansion to just add more of the same

There is nothing ground-breaking in the Growing Hunger expansion, it is just more of the original game. More heros, more zombies, more scenarios, and a couple of new ways for the heros to kickass on said zombies and vice versa. A fine expansion, but a thoroughly optional one. The expanded game is not more fun than the original game or all that different, but nothing is harmed here either and the additional variety is refreshing if you have played the original game one too many times.

I started this article expecting to discuss a custom game mod I made for Monopoly. A very early, very primitive, very simple sort of game expansion that is an example of expansion by addition. But time has passed; it will have to wait for another day.

🙂 😀 🙂

  One Response to “Game Expansions: More of a good thing. Usually.”

Comments (1)
  1. My favorite expansion game was the Games Workshop version of Talisman (2nd ed. I think). While the expansions were not perfect, they all added to the game, although there was one expansion involving dragons which added a few too many dragons to the game.

    Great article Geoff!

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