Various expansion maps for Power Grid (Photo credits: various users on BGG)
This is the third 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
II. A commentary on board game add-ons – Modules
IV: A commentary on board game add-ons – Spin-offs
My definition of an expansion is a little atypical. Right now there is no clear distinction between modules and expansions. They are basically all lumped together as “expansions”. I usually differentiate modules from expansions by what it brings to the table. For me, modules generally increase complexity while expansions increase variability without directly making the game more complex. Introducing an expansion may change or expand the interpretation of some core rules in the basic game, but more often than not, some elements of the original game is removed and replaced with the new changes. In short, expansions are more a substitution than an addition to the basic mechanism. Perhaps another way to describe an expansion is that it allows a different way to play the same game. With this criteria in mind, I see 5 different types of expansions:
Maps And Player Boards
Most basic games come with one central board or map. Once you play the game several times, the arrangement or layout can get stale. Unlike modules that usually attaches another board to the main board, an expansion map replaces the original map and usually either change a few rules to accommodate the new map or allow you to win the game using a different approach or strategy. In general, the game remains the same, but the new map gives a provides a fresh angle to the game. Power Grid is a fine example of this change where designer Friedemann Freise has imposed geopolitical considerations into the rules of each Power Grid expansion map he puts out. I really applaud the integration of real world information into the design of expansion maps. More and more Power Grid maps are being designed each year. I believe there must be at least half a dozen or so new maps now, outlining the popularity of the game.
Many train games involve building tracks across terrain to connect cities, they are also prime candidates for expansion maps. Train games such as Ticket to Ride or Age of Steam (along with its brethren, Steam) must have published at least dozens of maps each. As in Power Grid, some of these maps have additional features which provides a fresh twist to the game In Ticket to Ride Europe for example, new elements of the game such as station terminals and tunnel connections were introduced. In the Asia expansion board, a team-play mode was included (to critical acclaim!). While some maps in Ticket to Ride have ramped up the complexity, most retain the core game plus one or two new rules (with the exception TTR:UK which introduces a whole new tech tree) to tweak game play. Apart from a central expansion map, player boards can also be included in this category of expansion. Though not as ubiquitous as the main maps, the best example of this category of expansions come from Castles of Burgundy. Here, the new player boards introduces new ways of placing and scoring tiles acquired from the central board. Each board is unique and some will slightly alter game play. Since map expansions tend to be more expensive to publish, only the most popular and successful games with a large fan base can produce sufficient demand to justify additional expansions. Clearly, all the games I have listed have a large following. There are other plenty of games with expansion boards such as Terraforming Mars, Concordia, Web of Power/China to name a few. Expansion boards are fun and they provide a tremendous variety to the game.
I personally love expansion boards, but realistically, I do not get enough play from the core game to justify even buying expansion boards. While I understand the urge to buy additional boards to complete the collection, in truth, I am more than happy playing and rotating through the original map which is more than adequate. The only expansion maps I own are for Power Grid and Ticket to Ride. For folks who play a single game repetitively and in-depth, they will benefit greatly from map expansions which will enhance the longevity and competitiveness of the game.
For games that achieve some popularity, the most commonly asked question in gaming forums are: does the game work well with 2 players and is there a player expansion in the works? So, one way to expand the gaming experience is to include more players. This generally means adding more player pieces of a different color to the game, more tiles or cards of the same type, more action cards, etc. Essentially, more of the same for everything. Rarely does the original rules get altered in the process. Many games have player expansions, for example, The Settler of Catan has a 5-6 player expansion. In fact, each modules that expand Settlers of Catan such as Seafarers of Catan and Cities and Knight of Catan each have their own 5-6 player expansion. There is a long list of games with player expansions and I think 5-6 player expansions are the most common player expansions. I cannot recall a 2 player game coming out with a 3-4 player expansion. Usually, an expansion of that sort requires you to combine to sets of the game either for team or co-op play.
Of all the expansions on this list, this is the one I dislike most. I happen to think that designers already know the optimal player count for each game they design. Increasing player counts usually deteriorates the quality of the game not to mention lengthening the play time. For me, the increase play time due to player expansion negatively correlates with the amount of fun. Come to think of it, my worst experience is a 5-6 player count of Settlers of Catan with Seafarers added to the mix. The game that would never end.
This type of expansion is what I think expansions should be designed for. They are the type of games that require expansions to either continue the development of a story, or to supplement the basic game with a new, standalone story. Nothing embodies this type of expansion more than Legends of Andor. In Andor, the general mechanism of the game remains intact in each adventure but the new stories and adventures that come out are what pushes the story telling to greater heights. Once the core adventures are completed, any expansions can really be played as a standalone or linked together in a continuous epic tale. I am constantly impressed at the creativity of the stories and the variability between the adventures even though the basic mechanism is the same. Legends of Andor just published three large expansions to conclude their trilogy. There are also numerous smaller adventures and expansions to supplement the game. The game continues to grow its fan base and is remains popular. Other games with expansions in this category include Descent, Time Stories, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Mice and Mystics and more. For me, these are the type of expansions I will gladly purchase if the game suits my taste. I am happy that new stories are written and told to expand a good epic or saga.
Factions are expansions that enhance the variety of play by introducing a whole new set of elements or group with special skills, abilities or powers that interact with the core mechanism and opponents in different ways. Factions are most commonly seen in games with a war-like theme where different professions, units , races or nationalities compete with each other for resources. Basic games usually come with a few factions and more can be added via expansions. These expansions enrich the basic game by allowing players to explore how different groups interact with each other in an asymmetric starting point. The game itself is not necessarily more complex, though it can be depending on the factions you select. More often, each faction comes with new preset abilities and skills that just makes the game different. Many prominent games have expansions in this category: Summoner Wars, Rising Sun, Blue Moon the Card Game, Root, Battlelore and more. The factions in board games are typically different from those found in miniature games such as Games Workshop Warhammer 40k. Unlike miniature games, board game factions operate within a much more limited variety and bounded by what comes pre-packaged by the designers. I have a feeling that faction expansions are also more limited in scope and variety compared to miniatures.
I have a love hate relationship with this type of expansion. I have sunk quite a bit of money in Battlelore expansions when it first came out. Each Battlelore expansion featured an ensemble of new units and new ways of drafting and combining units on the field. While I enjoy the variety it brings to the table and also the exploration of how groups interact to exploit weakness, I just don’t have the capacity for repeated plays at the moment.
This category of expansion is the toughest to define. In fact, if you expand the definition of card expansions as providing variety to a game, then almost all LCGs, CCGs’ can fall in this category of expansions. Magic the Gathering is played with the same basic rule for years. The only thing that is different, and keeping it alive are the expansion packs that come out every so often to replenish the content. Many card games also come with numerous expansion packs or small boxes with card expansions to improve the game. For the most part, these cards provide added variety. Games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Thunderstone, Ascension all fall into this category. In fact, many deck builders benefit from card expansions and I would argue, is one of the more important expansions to get if you are a fan of the genre. For me, I also try to stay away from expansions that fit this category simply because I don’t own many games which require expansion packs of this sort. Otherwise, this category could be a huge money sink. Fans who love these expansions though, are quite passionate about it. Race for the Galaxy, Dominion have they own fan base and then there is MtG which needs no introduction.
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