As surely as night follows day, a successful board game will be followed by an expansion. Board game 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.
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.
This story originally appeared in 2018.