Board Game Expansions Are Rarely Worth It

Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and friends.

As surely as night follows day, a successful board game will be followed by an expansion. Expansions, however, are rarely worth your time.

Ticket to Ride added Ticket to Ride: Europe, Ticket to Ride: Märklin, Ticket to Ride: Asia. Settlers of Catan followed with Seafarers of Catan, and Knights and Cities. Caracassone added Inns and Cathedrals, Traders and Builders, The Dragon and the Princess, and many more. Agricola added Farmers of the Moor. Scythe added Invaders from Afar, and The Wind Gambit. Codenames released Codenames: Deep Undercover and Codenames Duet. It's an endless list.

The never-ending list goes on.

From a publishers perspective, this makes perfect sense. Few enough board games become smash hits. It's far easier to trade off a recognisable brand name to an audience that's already been won over.

However, as a player, here's why I'm perpetually wary of new expansions.

What makes a good game good?

Most truly successful board games are successful not only because of their theme, their innovation or their mechanics, but because they are accessible. I can place my new favourite game in front of friends who have never played, explain the rules, and after ten minutes, we're playing and having a good time. That is a game that I will enjoy because my friends are enjoying it, and I don't possess too much of an advantage because I've played before.

That can only happen when the rules and the mechanics are elegantly simple. (There is, of course, a time and place for games that take six hours and require an hour-long rules explanation, but that time and place was well and truly before I had children.)

Even if the game is complicated, there can still be an elegant simplicity to them. My favourite example is Agricola. Agricola, winner of the 2008 Spiel des Jahres, is a true Euro game and one of the finest exponents of the worker placement mechanic.

It is a complicated game with a lot of moving parts, and can be unforgiving if you don't get ahead of the food-curve. Nevertheless, every single element is connected to the central theme of farming, and the theme lets an average person intuit what they are doing and how to plan for the future.

Both my children (8- and 6-years-old) are able to play Agricola competently, because they understand that you might want to plant grain, so you can reap grain in order to bake bread, in order to feed your family, or acquire a breeding pair of sheep, in order to have more sheep. They tend towards micro-management and can't put an overarching strategy for diversity together yet, but they can build a farm they can be proud of by the end of the game.

The Crime of Complexity

Games being developed don't start elegantly simple. Games start as ideas: a seed that germinates, growing roots and shoots and tangling vines that hopefully grow and delight the eye. By the time the game publisher gets to see the game, it is fully-grown, with all the leaves and vines.

The publisher is a gardener, who must come in, prune and shape. The publisher is an editor, expert in killing darlings. The publisher is a chef, trimming fat and bone and sinew and presenting the dish just so, so that it is pleasing to the mouth as well as to the eye.

An original game is a distillation of all of that into bare essentials - the bits that cannot be removed because they are integral to the game. In an excellent game, these pieces interlock in a way such that every piece is necessary. If the game is complicated, it is only as complicated as it needs to be, and no more.

What happens, then, when you add a game expansion?

Board gamers are cunning and crafty, by nature and nurture. A discerning board gamer recognises each new version of Monopoly for what it is: mutton dressed as lamb, a cynical cash-grab to naive Christmas-present buyers, exactly the same game with different clothes. Nobody wants that.

To earn her money and keep her reputation, the board game designer needs to add another dimension to a game that is already a living, breathing, coherent system. One cannot simply invent a new map, or add a new colour of cards. There needs to be a new mechanic - something that fundamentally changes the game, such that it provides a new experience, without destroying the original experience.

But adding a new dimension to something still introduces complexity. I don't know if you've ever tried to play tic-tac-toe in three dimensions (let alone four), but multi-dimensional tic-tac-toe is a perfect example of making a simple game overly complicated. For those with the right minds, this adds enough strategy, but most people (including me!) are just put off. I don't think I've ever finished a game of 4D tic-tac-toe.

But an editor, a gardener, a chef? They see a board game expansion for what it is. It's something that can be neatly trimmed off the game, without losing a consistent narrative. It's dead weight. it's an enemy to elegant simplicity.

So I've stopped buying expansions. They rarely add more than they subtract from a game. They add superfluous side-quests and unnecessary new features. They complicate, confuse, and muddy the crystal-clear narrative of a game.

Complexity can be okay, sometimes.

Image: Kotaku

One caveat. There is a place for a board game expansion. If your game group has played a game a dozen times and still loves it, if you all know the rules back-to-front and inside-out, then an expansion for that game is a good option. Knowing the base game, the expansion will add another dimension that will keep your interest in a game you've already played to death.

But your best bet, the next time, someone's flatmate or boyfriend wants to join in, is to leave the expansion out. Play the base game, or risk confusing someone with all the detail. Save your money and buy a new shiny board game.


Comments

    I've bought expansions for Settlers and Pandemic, but only to increase the max players to 5-6. 4 players games always ends up leaving 1 person out

      Just what I was going to say. The only expansions I ever remember playing are ones that upped the player count. Everything else: Why not just get a new game entirely for the cost of an expansion?

        I used to agree with this sentiment, until I realised how badly many of those games play with the maximum number of players. I've seen a 4-player game of Catan stretch to 4 hours because of extreme negotiations, so playing the game with 6 is a recipe for an extremely long evening.

        These days I'd prefer to break into two groups of threes (it's not like you're playing D&D), rather than a big game of 6...unless it's a group game optimised for 6+ (like Resistance).

          I'd love to know an example of these extreme negotiations out of pure interest sake. Sounds cool can you tell us one?

            True story.

            A group of about 8 of us at a church camp type thing.
            So we split into two groups. One played Settlers, the other group (with me) played Carcassonne. Carcassonne had well and truly finished, and the Settlers game was nearly 2 hours in. Scores were 8-6-6-7. Someone was really tired and wanted to go to bed, so I jumped into their seat so it wouldn't unbalance the game, figuring the game would end REALLY SOON.

            Instead, the game dragged on for TWO MORE HOURS, because I was playing with three hyper-competitive people who were unwilling to concede a single point to anyone else, and would argue every single trade at length.

            I believe that was my last willing game of Catan, ever.

    The expansions for the third edition of Talisman worked relatively well. They don't expand the physical play area by too much, and none of the card piles get too large to shuffle (at worst, you divide the adventure deck in two and shuffle the halves thoroughly, then merge the piles and lightly shuffle the full pile).

    Fourth edition however, gets both way too large to play without a huge wargame table if you add even one expansion, and the card decks get so big you can't even keep the adventure deck in a single stack (as it would just fall over otherwise)

      Friggin Talisman. Friend has all the expansions and it barely fits the table. As if the game wasn't big enough now you have to leave your chair every time you want to move your piece. Now it regularly takes 6+ hours for one game

      On the same note the expansions for Relic, especially the Nemesis expansion, are pretty good. More players, adversarial options, and games suddenly take 6 hours.

    There are expansions which so improve the base game I can't imagine playing with out them.

    Machi Koro's Harbour expansion is so good and adds massive replayability.
    I seem to recall that Pandemic's On the Brink is essential as well.

    Otherwise, yeah - I don't get enough time with just one game to make it really worthwhile.

      I haven't gotten around to playing Machi Koro, so I can't comment.

      You may be right about Pandemic but I've filed Pandemic under games I'll never play again so I don't intend to find out.

      Was just about to say Machi Koro. Without the harbor expansion the game is too heavily geared towards one strategy.

    I think expansions for deckbuilders tend to be a good thing (so long as they're not suffering from power creep). Variety is the spice of life!

      Dominion. Every card was made before release. The base mechanics are simple and certain cards involve new types of actions that build off the base.
      All cards were arranged by which mechanics they used and sold as expansions by type. This makes the game so easy to teach. You play the game with base cards once. After that, any card that gets swapped in or out is self explanatory.

      My current Dominion game is a huge box of cards that gets plenty of use and has near infinite variety based off a very simple set of mechanics.

        I play a LOT of Dominion.

        I will write an article dedicated to Dominion at some point.

        To some extent, the fact that you only ever pick ten stacks of cards limits the decision space in Dominion, and that trims the overly complicated decision space naturally.

        But I think it's the underlying rules of the expansions that make some of them great and others useless.
        Alchemy (adding a different currency, Potions) is useless, and Adventures (which adds a RPG vibe, letting you pimp up certain cards) is an excellent example of overcomplicating design.

        Empires (which adds Debt) is moderately better than Alchemy, but I wouldn't put it in front of a new player.
        Prosperity is probably my favourite expansion because it's keeps things simple. Adding Platinum and Colonies radically changes the game experience by stretching the game, just so.

          I only have prosperity and we always use it save for new players who are not familiar with board games (parents).

          I usually play base deck with the recommended starter set for new players just so they grok the mechanics. After that, I usually add some from Prosperity or Dark ages. Something to either make money easier to come by, or something that shows how powerful trashing is. From there, it's just whatever comes up.

          Alchemy is the only one I'm never going to buy. It just adds too much complication and general faffing around for not a lot of game benefit.

          I like a lot of the cards in Adventures, but I'd never put it in front of a new player. Prosperity is great, and I think all the others that I've played add a lot of interesting card interactions. But not Alchemy. Not ever.

      Oh and the expansions to Valeria: Card Kingdoms.

      Same idea. Expansions simply add more potential for variety and strategic variation. They don't really change the rules at all. Same simple, solid base that's easy to explain and play in minutes.

    I think you might miss something with Ticket to Ride.

    Europe makes big games more enjoyable by forcing people to gamble on routes.

    Nordic makes the game decent for 2-3 players.

    Everything else is trash.

      I'm happy to disagree on this one, but TtR was one of the big examples in my mind for this article. I didn't dissect it in the article, but I can here, because I have played almost all of them several times.

      Ticket to Ride USA is everyone's favourite gateway board game because it's super simple: draw cards, play cards, draw destination cards. Connect cities. Done.
      Ticket to Ride Europe is my least favourite version. It adds tunnels, ferries and stations, all of which are complications which don't really add significant intrigue to the game. It's unnecessary. Also, the fact that you're locked into your long route at the beginning, I find a bit annoying. I'd prefer choice (see below).
      I find Asia very meh for the same reason.
      I like the diminished scope of Switzerland and Nordic, which making TtR a good couple game.
      Ticket to Ride Maerklin is a strange one, and it's a love-hate thing for most people. It's the version I would prefer to play if I had the choice, but I wouldn't put it in front of a newbie. Here's why. It adds passengers, which indirectly rewards you for connecting to many cities instead of concentrating on long 6-length routes. Also, it improves the long ticket/short ticket formula by giving you choice. That opens up different strategies, and makes collecting short routes viable, which is something that isn't the case in USA (once you've played it enough to discern how the games normally unfold).

      The 1912 expansion for the base game is also good, because you get proper-sized cards for the carriages instead of the dumb little dinky ones, plus the extra set of more interesting routes.

        Do you mean 1910 (the card expansion for USA) or 1912 (Europe)?

        Yeah, I liked 1910 actually. I agree, big cards are definitely better. Tweaking the distribution of destination cards significantly alters the game, especially the Big Cities thing, which forces non-competitive players (I just heard the Ludology podcast dub them "Care Bears") to interact more by introducing blocking around the 9 Big Cities.

        I don't know about the Warehouse thing in 1912; I haven't played it.

          Is it 1910? It might be, I get the two confused (don't play it that often any more)

    I cant think of many expansions I really feel are necessary. Dixit maybe, since thats just more cards. But again and again I get sucked into buying expansions because I think to myself "I like game A, so obviously I'll like the expansion for it". Expansions for Five Tribes and Istanbul comes to mind. They aren't bad, but I just dont play the original game enough to need them. In some cases (like 7 Wonders), I really prefer the base game.

    As far as I'm concerned the Battlestar Galactica board game has a few almost mandatory additions from the expansions (The Cylon fleet being the most important), but generally I agree with the sentiment that most board/card game expansions water down the good stuff with unnecessary complexity.

      Actually, the Pegasus expansion for Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of unnecessary additions to a game. New Caprica should be (and basically is) an entire standalone game. Make a standalone game and make it good, instead of making it an expansion!

        There are two very different schools of thought on the best way to play BSG. One is your way, preferring no expansions, and wanting to run through the base game with usually exactly the recommended 5 players.
        The other way usually uses the Pegasus add-on ship, the Cylon Fleet Board from Exodus, and the Treachery and Mutiny cards from Daybreak (plus or minus the Mutineer if playing with 4 or 6), but going to the base game objective of Kobol. I, and many other people prefer the latter approach, with even the occasional mix in of the New Caprica or Ionian Nebula end goals (have not tried to Earth yet).
        In our opinions, the base game is good, but flawed (pilots are near useless in base BSG due to just being able to jump away from everything, they are better staying on the ship, but that's less fun for everyone), and whilst the expansions add new flaws, they fix some of the ones in the base game. So I can totally see your point of view.
        Just, y'know, you're wrong :P

          So much this. The base Battlestar game feels like something that was released when it was about 80% complete. There's not nearly enough interesting actions and decisions. The expansions - especially when you cherry-pick the good additions and ignore the rest - feel like they're adding in the bit of the base game that wasn't there.

            Fair enough. I may not have played BSG with the right mix of expansions. But I really enjoyed the vanilla experience.

            But then again, my BSG game group is heavily heavily influenced by Resistance (our FB group is Boardgamers, Cylons, Spies, and Restorationists), so we're quite experienced in player-based accusations and slinging mud, so we don't necessarily need more mechanics to add intrigue :)

              Nowadays for that sort of group I'd probably pull out Secret Hitler over BSG anyway. All the fun betrayals and uncertainty in a fraction of the time.

              Even without any other expansion thing, always play with the Cylon fleet given the choice. It makes the Cylons jump to another board when Galactica jumps away and any time Cylon ships should activate but none are on the board, they get added to the Cylon fleet when spins up its own jump track which, when full, causes all the Cylons to jump back onto the main board.

              It makes the game have a much more consistent, creeping threat level where in the base game you'll sometimes spend 90% of the game with no Cylons to worry about and the ability to jump away the moment they arrive causing them to disappear forever.

              I agree about New Caprica though, that's one of the parts I always leave out.

    Whilst I admit I generally like expanding everything, the desire for expansions is a strange one. The different Power Grid maps are great for changing up the formula, and every single one plays more differently than you'd otherwise expect with the new rule sets. Mysterium and Pandemic are so much improved with just the extra cards/roles respectively from their first expansions, that it's almost a shame that they weren't included in the base package, and there are other game like Raiders of the North Sea that aren't overly complicated by their expansions, and could easily be added in with new players. But like new board games, if you aren't into what the expansion is offering, you won't like playing it, and you should do your research first. Don't want a more cutthroat game of Carcassonne, don't add the Dragon or Tower. Don't want a friendlier game of Ticket to Ride with a few wrinkles, don't play Europe (India is best map though).
    If you test out or research what you're getting into, you should know which expansions work for you and your group, and which ones you'd feel ok with adding with new players (most of them).

      Oh, and generally, they are cheaper than a new game and easier to learn, so there is that too...

    Man, I was obssessed with the Nightmare and Atmosfear expansions in my early teens (around when the DVD board games were released). I was really disappointed they never released the mummy, werewolf, or poltergeist games in the original VHS series but loved that Khufu finally got his expansion years later in DVD form. But then I got bitter again that they never delivered any other games afterwards.

    If you can spice up the games I love to play, you bet I'll get the expansions. I agree though, I'd rather introduce people to newer games and save the add-ons for down the road.

      I always thought the base Nightmare game was the werewolf one.

    Spartacus is great. Really shines with the two expansions. Really great game.
    Catan is ok, it gets fantastic with Cities and Knights

      Only have one expansion myself (The Wolf and the Serpent), didn't realise there was a second one!

    Nonsense. You're just not looking at good expansions. Obviously some expansions are crap and just add complexity, but there are a ton of games out there that are very much improved by expansions.

    In particular I disagree with singling Carcassonne's expansions out - I wouldn't even consider playing Carcassonne without Inns & Cathedrals, King & Scout and Traders & Builders (and also ideally the River & River II) for example. The base game is incredibly boring without those additions.

      Traders and Builders is exactly the sort of expansion that I loathe. The extra overhead around the builder and pigs and stuff is extra cruft that complicates an elegantly simple game.
      Ditto The Count.
      King and Scout too: the extra rules around who has the longest road a la Catan was unnecessary accounting. I bought it really early on, but have only ever used the extra tiles, not the King rule.
      Inns and Cathedrals is okay because it only really tweaks the scoring (which in turn tweaks gameplay).

        Oh, Princess and Dragon. This is actually a very clever expansion because it changes a fundamental aspect a game--when you play a meeple, you never move it...but, now you do.

        But it's only something that is of interest to players who've played the game before; otherwise it just looks like a hot mess of rules (why would I even play a farmer when a sodding dragon will come along and eat him straight away?)

        Builder adds emphasis on constructing large cities, which is far more engaging than the standard Carcassonne approach of building lots of small cities and getting your points off the farms (which is exacerbated by the revised rules - original Carcassonne rules were that you only get 2 points for a 2-tile city, and it must be 3 tiles or more to score 2 points per tile). Large cities are more exciting as you get players vying to sneak their meeples in by placing disconnected tiles and then connecting it, and it gives much more value to the Big Meeple.

        The pig meanwhile adds an extra layer of strategy to farms, as you want to place him in a big field but you also need to control that field. Correct pig placement can swing an entire game.

        King and Scout are trivial to keep track of, since it only counts when you score a city or road (and it must be 5 or more tiles to begin with) and since you're counting that up anyway, it's simply a case of remembering how big the previous one was. It's right there on the board. If that's too complicated for you then I'm not sure what to say.

        The river is just an alternative start which IMO is more interesting. I like to throw both rivers into a separate bag, place the river source, then have people play out of the river bag until the end tile (or tiles, if the fork is pulled) are placed, then immediately go to the normal city tiles. It provides more of an interesting structure to play off than just one starting tile.

        I can definitely agree that the Abbey and Mayor expansion adds some extra unnecessary cruft. Also whichever expansion adds the cart, which isn't a great addition because while it's actually very simple, it's also very hard to explain to people how it works. I tend to leave it out. The Mayor (Hammer Pants Meeple) is also not particularly interesting. However the Abbey tiles can be quite helpful in longer games when you're playing with lots of tiles.

    Have you played Citadels? As fun as the base game is I think it really benefits from the expansions. Sometimes you just don't want to live in fear of the thief, or the assassin, it the magician, or the warlord... though some of the alternatives can be grating too.

      Yep. Loved it. Played it a lot. The edition I got came with the extra character cards in it, but most of the complicated purple cards have never seen play. The Witch has also never seen play. I did like that the Queen was added at 9th position.

    The scaling in Carcassone is amazing. Basically it just adds more tiles with some additional mechanics that lengthen the game. You can choose which mechanics you like based on how long you want your game to be. It’s the perfect iPad game too, not needing the sheer space you need for the bigger games.

    But fuck The Dragon and the Princess. I’ve never met anyone who enjoyed that mechanic.

    Arkham Horror? While each expansion brings a potpurri of welcome and not so welcome additions to the game, the inherent modularity of the game allows you to cherry pick your favourite features, or to shuffle them around to make each game different. Some mechanics only really shine when a different mechanic stretches you thin, forcing you to make really difficult decisions. Others, straight out increase the difficulty of the game, which is welcome for the more veteran players.

    And then you have the crazy bastards like I who enjoy inflicting on themselves and like-minded others 7-hour all-expansions games and wish more expansions were still released.

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