Expansions. Are they what makes board gaming truly great? Or do they ruin perfectly fine games? – You will not find the answer here. However, in true Clio’s Board Games – Affordable Gaming fashion, I will aim at helping you decide if board game expansions are worth your hard-earned money.
Expansions are (usually) cheaper than base games, and you normally only buy the them when you already liked the base game. So, do they offer a good gaming experience at a low price and a low risk of disappointment? …well, it depends. But what does it depend on? – Mostly the type of the expansion (and your approach to it). This article will go over three types of expansions which I have named the “More Stuff” expansion, the “More Scenarios” expansion, and the “New Mechanism” expansion.
The “More Stuff” Expansion
This is the most common kind of expansion. You’ll get new event cards, new playable factions, new minis, or whatever else there is in the base game, just some more of it. Often, that also includes one or more new mechanisms which are not central to your game experience. One example is Sun of Macedon (Jaro Andruszkiewicz/Mark Simonitch, Phalanx Games), a small expansion for Hannibal & Hamilcar (Mark Simonitch/Jaro Andruszkiewicz, Phalanx Games) which offers a few more strategy cards and another general (including the miniature for it).
Yay or Nay? – Often, these expansions are rather a Nay. Base games are usually (and should be) carefully crafted game experiences. Putting more things in them might give more variety, but also upset this fine balance and dilute the game experience. In addition, expansions of this kind often make the game longer, especially if you combine multiple expansions. Village (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele) plays in under 90 minutes with four people. If you throw in both Village: Inn (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele) and Village: Port (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele) and add the fifth player the expansions accommodate, you’re closer to 150min. Presented with the choice between those two gaming times, I’d rather have the tight experience of the base game.
So, why would you still get an expansion like this? – For some people, the answer is collecting/completionism. Aside from that, if you and your gaming group have played a game a lot, you might yearn for some variety. From my experience, that happens when you’ve played a game many times during a short period of time. For example, I’m rather new to Hannibal & Hamilcar, so I don’t feel drawn to the Sun of Macedon expansion, no matter how cool a Greek general would be.
Lastly, there are games that seem incomplete or even broken without an expansion. I’ve heard people say Eldritch Horror (Corey Konieczka/Nikki Valens, Fantasy Flight Games) is unplayable without its first expansion Forsaken Lore (Nikki Valens, Fantasy Flight Games) as the limited amount of encounter cards can make encounters become repetitive (Forsaken Lore roughly doubles the number of encounter cards). Personally, I think the Eldritch Horror base game works by itself, but when an Other World encounter makes me meet and feed hyperintelligent cats for the second time during a game, I see where the criticism comes from. More generally, I think you should be wary of trying to fix an unfinished game by buying a related product – it does reward sloppy development and/or greedy distribution habits.
The “More Scenarios” Expansion
The idea here is to put the same game system to a different application, thereby offering a fresh experience without you having to learn new rules. This kind of expansion is not uncommon in war games, as designers often find that their system to model one battle or campaign can be used for other, similar conflicts. For example, instead of playing the battles included in the Table Battles (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele) base game, you can try out some new scenarios in Table Battles: Wars of the Roses (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele) or Table Battles: Age of Alexander (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele).
Yay or Nay? – “More Scenarios” expansions are usually only worth it after spending some time with the base game. As they introduce alternative rather than additional components, they are less likely to bloat a game than “More Stuff” expansions. For games with a fixed narrative sequence of scenario progression (like Mice & Mystics (Jerry Hawthorne, Plaid Hat Games)), buying an expansion or next installment is your only option to see how the story continues (in this case: Heart of Glorm (Jerry Hawthorne, Plaid Hat Games)). Sometimes, the expansion scenarios can even get you interested when the base game did not spark your curiosity: The Table Battles base game with its early modern battles covers a period of tactical warfare I am only mildly interested in, but the Age of Alexander expansion is right up my alley. Of course, you’ll have to bear in mind that this will have you spend money on two products when you’re likely to only use one to the fullest.
The “New Mechanism” Expansion
Lastly, some expansions introduce one or more new mechanisms which change the base game effectively into a new game. There are not very many expansions which dare to pull this off. One of them is Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester) which turns the original two-player game of Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester) into a four-player game. The two German states are joined by a (strictly egoistic) superpower ally. So, instead of a one-on-one confrontation, the game will be a delicate tightrope balancing act in which you try neither to fall off to the right where your faction loses because you’ve been not cooperative enough with your ally nor to the left where your faction wins but your ally exploits that to win themselves.
Yay or Nay? – This kind of expansion offers the biggest chances as well as the biggest risks. You might get a full new game at the price of an expansion – and one whose style you already like while not having to learn a completely new set of rules! On the other hand, you might be disappointed if the expansion changes aspects of the game which are crucial to your enjoyment – say, you are a big fan of the two-player punch-counterpunch style of Wir sind das Volk! or just never get to play with four people.
Beware the Expansion?
As you’ve surely noticed, I have given no unqualified Yays. All types of expansions come with their risks, but the “More Stuff” expansion is most likely to disappoint. Frankly, it’s the easiest way to make money off an already successful game. The expansion is not required to convince by itself and will just ride on the wave its base game created. My advice when it comes to expansions is the same as when it comes to new full games: See what you can play out of the games you already own before you feel like you should spend more to broaden that experience. Especially with expansions, less may be more – or at least less may be the same fun at a lower price.
Sun of Macedon (Jaro Andruszkiewicz/Mark Simonitch, Phalanx Games)
Hannibal & Hamilcar (Mark Simonitch/Jaro Andruszkiewicz), Phalanx Games)
Village (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele)
Village: Inn (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele)
Village: Port (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, eggertspiele)
Eldritch Horror (Corey Konieczka/Nikki Valens, Fantasy Flight Games)
Forsaken Lore (Nikki Valens, Fantasy Flight Games)
Table Battles (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele)
Table Battles: Wars of the Roses (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele)
Table Battles: Age of Alexander (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele)
Mice & Mystics (Jerry Hawthorne, Plaid Hat Games)
Heart of Glorm (Jerry Hawthorne, Plaid Hat Games)
Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester)
Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester)