II: A commentary on board game add-ons : Modules

This is the second article in a series focused on board game additions. To read the other articles in the series, click on the link below:

I. A commentary on board game add-ons – Promos

III. A commentary on board game add-ons – Expansions

IV: A commentary on board game add-ons – Spin-offs

In a previous commentary, I wrote about promos, what constitute a promo and its impact on our hobby. I defined promos as a single addition to a game, usually offered for free. However these days, promos are becoming more elaborate and sold to customers for a fee at various websites. Most promos are harmless and usually don’t change the game structure too much. However, the line between promos and modules, which is the next category of add-ons are now slightly muddied because I suspect, some promos are also being sold for profit. Regardless of whether or not that is true, it makes it harder to differentiate between promos and modules.

I define modules as add-ons that are more elaborate than promos. While promos may add a card (or postcard), tile or token to the game, modules usually contains more pieces and are designed mainly to add complexity to any base game. Often, modules will introduce a combination of new rules, a set of new pieces or even provide a new board which integrates but does not replace the main board. Modules are designed to elevate the complexity of the base game by allowing players to have more actions per turn, more locations to place workers, more items or treasures to collect, or simply more ways to score victory points. Unlike a single item promo that is independent of player skill or background, modules often target advanced players who have played the base game multiple times and want a fresh take on the game. Some designers will publish several modules in one shot and allow the players to choose which of the modules they want added to the base game. Multiple modules can often be combined for a much longer experience. In practice, not all modules are created equal and most gamers will likely pick and choose the modules that suit their tastes.

Some of the modules for Broom Service, a fine game by Alea

Some modules also come prepackaged with the base game and allow players to integrate these modules as they see fit. There are many examples of games in this category. Fresco, a popular worker placement game comes with a handful of modules with the base game. Once players familiarize themselves with the base game, they can increase the complexity by inserting the modules which allow portraits to be painted, new blended paints with new cathedral scoring tiles and also new ways to boost income. In fact, Queen Games often publishes modules known as “Queenies” along side their base games. Some of these Queenies are used as promotional tools for their crowd funding pledges, others are incorporated into the main game or sold separately.

Another way that publisher introduce modules is by bundling them and selling them as an “expansion”. Again, there are plenty of examples in this category but none more prominent than Alhambra, winner of the 2003 Spiel des Jahres and designed by Dirk Henn. Since winning the SDJ, Alhambra has produced over two dozen modules with several of these modules packaged together and sold as an expansion. For example, the Treasure Chamber expansion sold by Queen Games contain 4 modules: The Treasure Chamber, The Architect Cards, The Bazaars and The Attackers. I assume many of these modules can be mixed and matched with the Alhambra base game. More recently, Queen Games has crowd funded an Alhambra Mega Box that contains all 24 modules plus at least a dozen more created by guest designers! It is hard to imagine playing a massive game which includes most of these modules. Carcassonne is another game that has a tremendous number of modules, and also promo tiles. New Carcassonne modules have been released at a regular pace each year and it is tough to keep track of how many modules have been created for the game. As popular as Carcassonne is, there are several modules which I consider integral to the basic game and these include Traders and Builders, Inns and Cathedral as well as The River. As it turns out, these are the first few modules published for the base game and I feel provide enough variety for most casual gamers. It is interesting to note that both Alhambra and Carcassonne are tile-laying games and the sheer amount of modules added to these games are more the exception than the rule. Most games spot only a handful of add-ons and it is rare, even for a successful game to see so many published modules.

Some would consider the Souks module for Yspahan a crucial module to balance game play

Unlike Alhambra or Carcassonne where all the modules are bundled specifically for their base games, publishers these days are becoming more creative and have bundled different modules for different games under one package. For example, Alea and Ystari published a compilation of modules for games published under their label. The Alea Treasure Chest was extremely popular and contained many modules for several of the popular games in the Alea series including Notre Dame, Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico and many more. Similarly, Ystari published a Ystari Box which contained modules for Yspahan, Metropolys, Amyitis, etc. Both these compilations came out at least several years back and I am surprised to see that this type of module compilation hasn’t gained in popularity. More recently, module compilations have emerged during holiday events in the form of Advent Calendar boxes. I suppose players are expected to reveal one module per day leading up to Christmas. Unlike Ystari or Alea compilations, these modules are designed for different games from various publishers. I suspect the compilations are not nearly as popular because players don’t necessarily own all the games which the modules are designed for. Often, players will trade to get what they want even though there are clearly some modules that are more popular than others.

These days, there are many other avenues to get modules as publishers have worked with in house or third party online gaming portals to distribute their merchandise. It is unclear if the publishers or designers profit from direct sales of these modules but I believe that in some cases, there is indeed revenue to be earned. The best example for purchasing modules (and promos) is from the BoardGameGeek store. Here, one can find a selection of these add-ons for a nominal price. Since the demand for modules are present and increasing, I think having these web portals for distribution is a clever idea.

On a personal level, my style of play involves a broad rotation of games which means I am not particularly keen on integrating modules into the base game. Often, I find the base game more than adequate to meet my gaming needs and the addition of modules only clutter the game play by increasing complexity without necessarily improving on the quality of play. Given a choice, I would much rather play a new game rather than a game with new modules. So, I generally shun modules unless there is a reason for me to do otherwise. Obviously, this is a gross generalization and there are exceptions to the rule. Specifically, there is a class of games which I think shines with the addition of modules, that is assuming of course you like the game to begin with. I characterize these games as having low complexity, relatively modular with sparse rule sets and usually plays very quick. Games in this category include Splendor, Carcassonne, Cacao, Alhambra, Zooloretto, Bohnanza and to a lesser extent more complex games such as Hadara. Because the game is already quite streamlined, there is room to increase complexity without pushing the game over the limit. These games also seem to be modular enough to support an increase in diversity without sacrificing the overall structure and flavor of the game. Many games though are already quite complex as a standalone and those are the games where the modules only cater to the hardcore fan base. I am quite aware that some modules are designed to rectify a flaw or perceived imbalance in game play. These modules act more like patches and should be considered on its own merit.

More components for the Fresco modules. You have the portraits and new blended paints as well as an upgraded ceiling tile

The debate of whether modules are good for gaming rages on and there are people who are passionate on both sides of the aisle. Ultimately, this all boils down to personal taste. If you love a game and play it often, then picking up modules or expansions makes a lot of sense. If you are someone like me that sacrifices depth for diversity, then you may never reach a point where modules are required because it may take months or even years before you come back to replay a game. To each their own.


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