Extension is the New Expansion
May 25, 2008
John Pizer, Joseph Lane, Madame, Spring-Heeled Man, and Abberline. These are the new suspects in the Whitechapel district of London. The night still covers the gloomy alleys with darkness and only a few corners are still illuminated by the gaslights, and the mood is set for a tense game of Mr. Jack yet again. Thirteen investigators have now gathered to catch the cunning villain, who is impersonating one of them. The five new characters introduced by the Mr. Jack Extension breathe new life into the game, reinvigorating the game play and making for a fresh experience. Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, the original designers of Mr. Jack, along with Steve McKeogh and Arnaud Fillon, winners of the contest to submit ideas for new characters and abilities, have added a nice mix of ideas to the game that both significantly expand the universe of possibilities but still stay true to the spirit of the game and feel familiar. Balancing and achieving those opposing goals is the key to making a great expansion, or should I say extension. The Mr. Jack Extension is one of a select few expansions that successfully merges innovative concepts into a base game while still maintaining the balance and flow of the original. The only other expansions that fit that mold with equal skill and grace are a pair of Carcassonne expansions (specifically Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders, and none of the others) and a handful of Age of Steam maps (like Scandinavia and Ireland). It’s certainly not an easy balance to strike, which accounts for the dearth of worthwhile expansions in the game industry. Yet we, including myself, keep buying countless expansions, hoping beyond hope to discover a diamond in the rough. There is constantly the allure to reinvigorate a staid and tired game for a fraction of the cost of a brand new game, an allure that even repeated failures cannot seem to deter. What’s ironic is how many people have been put off from buying the Mr. Jack Extension because it is “overpriced.” I put the word in quotes because it’s a tricky concept and a word subject to many interpretations. I will certainly concede that $27 (or $32 with shipping) is a lot to pay for 5 wooden disks and 10 cards. However, it’s far from overpriced if it can provide countless hours of enjoyment. I can’t imagine anyone would rather get three mediocre expansions for $10 each. Of course it’s hard to take the plunge and risk buying the Mr. Jack Extension on faith, but for anyone that enjoyed the original game, it really should be a no brainer, despite the cost. Messrs. Cathala, Maublanc, McKeogh, and Fillon have accomplished something very special with this extension.
The five new characters each introduce a new facet to the game, but one that fits snugly into the Whitechapel district that you already know and love. First, John Pizer “is the butcher of the district of Whitechapel. His leather apron and ability to handle the knives make him an ideal suspect. Moreover, his imposing physique frightens the characters whom he meets.” Pizer is the anti-Sergeant Goodley. Instead of drawing characters towards him, Pizer repulses them away from him. Any characters adjacent to Pizer after he moves must move three spaces away from him. This introduces yet another powerful character since he is the second character that can not only move himself but also move other characters around on the board, thus drastically influencing the distribution of characters between dark and light. Second, Joseph Lane “is an anarchist. He tries to convince the masses of the district of Whitechapel to assemble barricades to bring about a revolution.” Lane introduces an original concept to the game since he allows you to place a barrier between any two hexes, which is completely impassable. I’ve already seen this ability used to great effect to win a game on turn 8 as Mr. Jack by preventing the inspector from reaching and accusing the villain despite having determined whom it is. It’s not an ability that will always be useful, but one that could prove very interesting on certain occasions. Third, Madame is the “hostess of an infamous establishment of the district,” who “pretends to be a middle-class lady and gives herself airs and graces. She is vain, and cannot bear anything dirty.” Madame is definitely a serious threat to escape since she can move up to 6 spaces, just like Miss Stealthy who moves only 4 spaces but can walk through walls. Even though Madame’s disadvantage is that she can’t use the sewers to teleport around the board, she is still very mobile and can frequently put pressure on the inspector, forcing him to constantly take her threat of escape into account. Fourth, Spring-Heeled Man “is an urban legend of the Victorian age . . . a kind of superhero of yesteryear,” who “had the reputation of committing his crimes and then fleeing while jumping over buildings and other obstacles.” Spring-Heeled Man is another especially mobile character who can traverse the board in a single bound, like the Superman of Whitechapel. He can use movement points to perform jumps, either over buildings and lampposts, or over other characters. These jumps are tricky to use well in practice, but just like Joseph Lane’s barricade, they can be critical in particular circumstances. This character’s jumping ability makes it more difficult to plot out all of the various permutations and implications of your decisions, as his potential changes drastically as others move around him. Fifth, Abberline “is charged by Scotland Yard with directing this difficult investigation. A meticulous and scrupulous inspector, he unceasingly questions the characters who he meets.” Abberline limits the movement of adjacent characters to only a single space. Importantly, unlike other characters whose abilities are only triggered when they are selected and used, Abberline’s ability is ever present, even when other characters are taking their turn, such as Sergeant Goodley and John Pizer, whose abilities cannot override Abberline’s permanent ability. Introducing new characters into the perfectly balanced Mr. Jack could have been a disaster, but this cast of characters just fits remarkably well.
Perhaps it’s a stretch to attribute the success of the Mr. Jack Extension to it being an extension rather than an expansion, but on the other hand, maybe extension is really what the game industry should be working towards when trying to milk its cash cows instead of the more traditional notion of expansion. After all, expansion is defined as an “increase in volume” whereas extension is defined as an “enlargement in scope.” Isn’t that what’s wrong with expansions? The essence of many failed expansions is that they simply increase the volume of the games we already enjoy, adding stuff to these games, just for the sake of adding stuff to them. Expansions add volume, but without purpose, without direction. Extensions alter the scope of a game, providing new possibilities and choices to the players, giving them more latitude within the universe of the game, but without unnecessarily increasing the volume of that universe.
(See this Review for this article plus additional comments on it)