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Point-Counterpoint: Expansions

September 17, 2011

Tom Rosen and Larry Levy are good friends who regularly get together to play games as part of their games group. Despite thisĖor perhaps because of itĖthey seem to have very different ideas about gaming and are not shy about pointing out just how misguided the otherís views are. In this semi-regular series, weíll eavesdrop on one of their many gaming arguments to get their opposing opinions on a variety of subjects. Feel free to take a side and add your own thoughts on the subject as well.

This time, the topic is board game expansions. Letís listen in...

Expansion Fever (Tom)

Expansions are the lifeblood of modern board games. They are the lure that keeps me coming back for more with countless titles. An expansion has the potential to inject new life into an old favorite and often succeeds in resuscitating a game on its last legs. There are so many virtues of these small treasures to extol.

First and foremost, they give you the opportunity for a new experience without having to learn a whole new game. I often want to try something different but am not in the mood to sit through an entire rules explanation and learning game. Expansions that are done right give you the best of both worlds. A new map in Age of Steam or new characters in Mr. Jack or armies in Neuroshima Hex, they all shake things up without much of a barrier to entry.

Second, expansions are economical. This may seem insane to those of you who have spent gobs of money on countless expansions for Carcassonne, Heroscape, or Dominion, but expansions really are economical if acquired in moderation and with some forethought. Pandemic was on its last legs and would have been dead weight without On the Brink and Summoner Wars would surely get tired fast without new faction decks to try out. If a moderate cost allows me to extend the lifespan of my big box game then Iíll consider that a win.

Third, video games have patches, why shouldnít board games? Expansions allow a designer to improve or fix an earlier release. Designers are human and sure to learn more about their games after theyíve been released into the wild to be experimented with by the masses. It seems only fair to allow them to fine tune their games by essentially making a new version available through incorporating additional components and rules. A Game of Thrones is a fine example of this principle with significant improvements and fixes introduced by Clash of Kings and Storm of Swords, so much so that the upcoming 2nd Edition will incorporate elements from both. Carcassonne was similarly improved by the new units and tiles in both Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders before the game eventually went off the deep end.

Those are just a few reasons why expansions deserve a place of honor in any gamerís collection and ought to be treasured as a gamerís best friend.

Expansion Fatigue (Larry)

Actually, a steady flow of new games with interesting ideas, compelling themes, and innovative mechanics are the lifeblood of modern boardgaming. Expansions of existing games are just an added enhancement that publishers love, because it allows them to cater to an audience that is already hooked, usually at a reduced cost and reduced effort. Some gamers love the idea and some donít. Include me squarely in the latter camp.

Before I get to the specifics of why I almost always avoid expansions, let me address each of Tomís points. First, itís true that there are plenty of gamers who prefer to play something familiar rather than having to learn something completely new. I, however, am the exact opposite of that. I love learning new games and will almost always prefer to play something new rather than an old favorite. That desire to explore a new system is very rarely satisfied by an expansion. More often, itís a tweak of or an addition to the base game. The thrill just isnít the same. Playing an expansion gives me the worst of both worlds: it lacks the thrill of the new and doesnít allow me to explore a game I already know.

Second, expansions are economical? Sure, if by economical, you mean a money pit! I can buy a new game and play it dozens of times, getting terrific value for my money. But once expansions enter the picture, thereís no end to how much money I can pour into that same game. And we both know this isnít an academic distinction Iím making: there are players who pour hundreds of dollars into new enhancements of their favorite design. I say play the games you like and fork over the dollars if they fit into your budget. But donít tell me that Iím saving money by purchasing each and every expansion that comes out.

Finally, yes, designers and publishers should be allowed to make mistakes and to correct them with a patch. Many are able to do this with an official variant, possibly communicated on the Geek; these can be played free of charge without having to buy an expansion. But sure, if the expansion leads to an improved gaming experience, Iím not opposed. And I have played some games, like Carcassonne and Mare Nostrum, which were enhanced by their expansions.

But gaming time is precious and limited, so thereís a lot to be said for a designer getting it right the first time. To be honest, with so many good games out there, itís the rare game that gets a second chance. Why take a chance on a game you know to be flawed, that might be improved with a patch, when you can play something you know is good?

And letís get real: the vast majority of expansions are not aimed at those who didnít care for the base game, but at those who canít get enough of it and want more. So taking all that into account, your third point barely registers.

I will point out one related concern. Iím a little fearful that the current emphasis on expansions in our hobby may be leading to a trend towards disposable designs. I play the latest expansion a couple of times, I say ďOkay, Iíve figured that one outĒ, and then move on to the next. This, as opposed to truly exploring a single game with a single set of rules. Iím seeing a little of this in myself. Weíve recently been playing Age of Industry on its two base maps and two expansion maps. And while itís been fun, thereís the tendency to say, ďWhat gimmicks do I need to master this scenario?Ē and to check out another one after youíve had some success. Whereas I never felt that way with the gameís predecessor, Brass. Each game was a continued challenge even though the rules and the map remained the same. It may be that Brass is a little deeper than AoI, but the explanation can just as likely be the attitude that players get toward the game due to its expandable nature. While the variety is nice, I donít think this is altogether a healthy situation for the game and for the hobby as a whole.

I could continue to poke holes in your feeble arguments, but I guess I should give you a chance to pipe up. So letís see if you can do better.

Tomís Rebuttal

The worst of both worlds?! The gloves are coming off now!

Surely you mean that expansions are the panacea for all of board gamingís ailments. They provide the thrill of trying something new without the downtime and effort of learning something entirely new. Itís so much quicker and easier to learn an overlay that integrates a few new components and rules into an old favorite, rather than slogging through an entirely new system. Yet with just a little upfront effort, you get the benefit of experiencing something new, different, and exciting.

As far as expansions allowing designers to improve or fix earlier releases, it sounds like youíll come around on that theory. You make a great point with Mare Nostrum and I appreciate the additional support for my position. War of the Ring deserves to be mentioned here as well with the greater balance that is achieved through the introduction of siege engines, Galadriel, and the Ents.

It looks like thereís room for you to come around on the first two points as well. Youíre right that expansions are not economical if purchased wholesale and without regard for their potential impact on game play. However, Iím not advocating the purchase of every expansion ever made, but rather for the utility of many expansions in revitalizing a sunk cost investment. My copy of Small World would start collecting dust if I hadnít been able to shake things up for the small cost of the Cursed and Grand Dames expansions. Galaxy Trucker would have suffered a similar fate if not for the new tiles and boards introduced by the Big Expansion. And Hansa Teutonica would never have seen so many plays if the East Expansion map had not been released. Those base games have seen so much more table time as a direct result of their expansions. I may not have your mathematical expertise, but simple arithmetic tells me that these are economical expansions. I could run the amortization numbers but I know theyíll tell me Iím coming out ahead by purchasing these expansions.

The rise of disposable designs is a potential problem in the modern board game market, but it has nothing to do with expansions. In fact, expansions are a solid indicator that a game is not disposable. The glut of new releases over the past few years has witnessed all sorts of throw-away middleweight games coming out. Those inconsequential, derivative games are disposable and responsible for turning a burgeoning market into an overflowing one. But those are not the games that get expansions. You see expansions for the tried and true games, the games that have their real fans and that can stand up to 50+ plays. Games that get new maps are anything but disposable. It would be absurd to say that Age of Steam, Power Grid, or Ticket to Ride are disposable games. Theyíre some of the most enduring designs of the past decade and their surplus of maps are a testament to that fact.

Whether itís a new map or new armies, new tiles or new units, new rules or modifications, expansions frequently bring out the best in existing games. In many facets of life, itís hard to get something exactly right the first time around. Expansions recognize that fact. Expansions let us allow the designer into our home to fiddle with his or her creation and fine-tune it. Expansions allow a game to mature into the fully realized design that it was meant to be. Board games flourish when expanded and boardgamers benefit when they embrace expansions.

You surely realize that your position has become untenable at this point. I will graciously accept your concession now.

Larryís Rebuttal

Damn nice of you, Tom. I might be tempted to accept if you had actually made any relevant points.

Hereís the thing. Iím not saying there shouldnít be any expansions or that theyíre evil and shouldnít be played. Iím just saying they arenít for me. As I mentioned earlier, I am a fully pledged member of the Cult of the New. With exceeding few exceptions, a game expansion just doesnít satisfy my desire to try something novel. They rarely introduce new mechanics or combine existing ones in interesting ways. So they just donít score on the Newness factor.

Another point is that expansions work best for dyed-in-the-wool fans of a game who have played it numerous times and want a slightly different approach to freshen things up. That does not describe how I play games. I crave variety, so I play a lot of different games, both new ones and old favorites. If I play the same game half a dozen times a year, thatís a lot. I just donít ever get to the point where an expansion is required, as thereís still plenty to explore in the base game.

As a case in point, Age of Steam is one of my all-time favorite designs, solidly entrenched in my Top 10. But until recently, I had never played anything but the Rust Belt map that comes with the game. Why should I? The original map plays great, the game is always a challenge, and itís a tough game to get to the table. I realize that thereís approximately 197 expansions for this game, but I donít see the need for them. Iím perfectly happy with the original game I bought.

And obviously Iím not saying that this makes Age of Steam at all disposable. But each individual expansion does seem to come off as somewhat disposable, given the way that some of the gameís fans keep snapping them up like so many M&Mís. I just worry a bit about the subconscious effect of all this plenty.

Exploring the depths and nuances of a game is one of the best things about our hobby, but expansions often make that exploration more difficult. Hansa Teutonica is a good example. I like the base game, but struggled with some of the strategy. But when the expansion came out, all of the gameís many fans wanted to play the new version. This only put me further behind the learning curve and was definitely frustrating at times. In my case, it made for a lesser game experience than just playing the original game.

This attitude addresses all of your points. Expansions give you something fresh without the drudgery of having to learn new rules? Iím a rules junkie, man! I love going through a new rule set, so thatís a definite negative point against expansions for me. Expansions give you the incentive to play a game more often? I rarely get to play the base game enough before all the shiny new releases get all the attention! And if they donít get the game right the first time, Iím just not likely to throw good money after bad in the hope that an expansion will improve things. Better off selling the failed game and moving on to something new.

Iím happy that you enjoy all your expansions, Tom. But for me, they truly are the worst of both worlds. Let me play something brand new or an old favorite and leave those silly new maps at home.

Tomís Final Say

I think you may actually put many Cult of the New members to shame with your utter devotion to all things shiny and new. Itís beginning to become apparent that expansions may not fit into your unique approach to the hobby, but I maintain that expansions are a blessing for the vast majority of gamers who see far more than a half dozen plays on their favorites in a given year.

While you master the breadth of the hobby, many of us are striving for a bit of depth as well. Based on the five & dime (and quarter) lists you see every January, I think youíre an outlier in your ways. I often have 10-15 games that see over ten plays in a given year, and overall Iíve had a number of games hit 50+ plays. Games like Carcassonne, Mr. Jack, Pandemic, and Reef Encounter are enduring designs that stand up to play after play, but eventually, as they reach 50 plays, they need a bit of a boost to shake things up. I donít want to just discard them and move on to one of the many inferior 2011 releases, I want to continue to explore these tried and true games with a tweak or two.

Expansions are the hobbyís savior from disposable designs. You decry this growing trend but fail to recognize its true source. Disposable designing comes from your hummingbird ways of flitting hither and thither, never stopping to smell the roses, if you will, and engage at a meaningful level with a game. Expansions are what allow gamers to repeatedly play and explore the best games from years past. Yes, expansions can be exploited for a quick buck, as you tend to see following each Spiel des Jahres award presentation, or as you see once a single game amasses a double digit number of expansions. But youíre throwing the baby out with the bath water if you dismiss all expansions because of a few bad apples. Expansions have enormous potential to improve the hobby and the board gaming experience, and as we can see from the specific examples Iíve mentioned throughout, theyíve already achieved this potential in many cases and they have a promising future ahead.

Larryís Final Say

But the whole point is that I am striving for depth by ignoring expansions. Look, Iíd love to get to play my favorite games from each year more often, but I donít get to game as much as you do, nor do I have a regular two-player opponent (Iíve noticed that many of the examples you cite are two-player affairs). You can only play the games that others want to and the call of the new and shiny affects most of my potential opponents as strongly as it does me. But when I am able to devote a good deal of time to a design, I want to use it to develop a greater appreciation for the base game, rather than hurtling off in a new direction with some expansion. It is the expansion lovers who are the real hummingbirds, craving some sparkly new tweak instead of truly mastering the game as published.

I acknowledge that I am not typical in my feelings towards expansions. And Iím not too unhappy with the current state of affairs in gaming, since even with Expansion Fever at an all-time high, thereís more than enough new stuff coming out each year. But I do have to admit that the expectation of expansions in many cases has me a bit concerned. I recently purchased The Lord of the Rings Card Game and it came in a box about four or five times larger than it needed to be. It was truly ludicrous. The justification, of course, is that it provides room for the dozen or so expansions that FFG assumes that everyone will pick up. I guess thatís a good thing for the target audience, but the suggestiveness of the packaging made me feel a little sad. Sometimes you just want to buy a standalone game and not make a lifestyle choice.

(See The Opinionated Gamers for this column plus additional comments on it)