Expansions – so much more fun. Oh, really? – part I

Hi. My name is Kuba and I’m an addict. I need my collection to be complete. If there is a game I own and there are any expansions for it, I simply need to buy them. Even the micro ones. But to be completely honest – there are only few that actually land on the table in the end. So, how does it work? Where do expansions work and where they don’t – and why?

Let’s start with a bit of theory. What is actually an expansion for? What purpose should it serve? Well, as a gamer I want an expansion to basically broaden my experience. Add something to the base game, twist it, change it, but… not make it worse. There is nothing more unnerving that to spend two ours playing one of your favorite games only to discover that it was much better on its own. So, if I were to make a culinary parallel (OK, I like good food, I admit), I would say that if you want to improve a dish, you gotta be really careful – you are usually literally a pinch away of ruining the whole meal. It just seems that there are games which are easily expanded and some other, that definitely do not need any extra mambo-jambo. How do we tell them apart?

Now, when it comes to examples: one of my absolutely favorite eurogames, a strong 9/10 in BGG scale, is Ginkgopolis. It’s a fantastic city building, area control and tableu building piece of art. There is also an expansion, called The Experts. Well, you will actually find even six expansions in one box – the segments you can combine with each other or play on it’s own. The truth is that only one of them brings something valuable to the game – and it’s just a rule, nothing physical. The base game is so perfectly balanced that adding anything to it simply spoils it. With The Experts, Ginkgopolis becomes a perfect example of an overdeveloped game. Almost like somebody decided to throw back into the games all the pieces that made it rough on the edges before it’s gone cardboard. Of course, I am sure that there are many people who could say “Well, I play only with the expansion” – I acknowledge and appreciate that. In my personal opinion though, a game of such beauty as Ginkgopolis deserves to be left on its own. There is no need to add anything to a perfect equation – it might just stop totaling up.

OK, some of you might not know Ginkgopolis, but I’m pretty sure that everybody played or at least heard of Twilight Struggle. This magnificent title occupied BGG pole position for six years! Yet, it has been expanded with a few promo cards only – and mainly as a result of localization process – publishers in Poland or Italy wanted to spice up the sales and came up with these cards. Why is that so? Why would such a successful game not be accompanied by any proper expansion? The answer is quite simple, really. The numbers. The game is so perfectly balanced and calculated that nobody of a sane mind would even dream of throwing yet another stone on top of this impressive mountain. It would do nothing but collapse. The only thing that could have happened – and did happen – was to create a sequel, another game set in the same universe and with some corresponding mechanics. 1989: Dawn of Freedom has been such an attempt – and it actually worked pretty well – as a big fan of Twilight Struggle I rarely turn down an opportunity to play a game of 1989. But nobody tried to mess with the original – if you want to have a roast beef and a meringue, you do rather keep them on separate plates, don’t you?

OK, let’s have a look at the micro-expansions. Have you ever played 7 Wonders with Stevie card? Nefertiti with The Solar Bargue? Or Stefan Feld’s Brügge with Household Animals? They are some of these cute goodies you will hunt for during a convention or in BGG store. Cause you know – your collection needs to be complete. Well, let me tell you a secret. It definitely does not. Stevie actually lets you build a stage of a wonder for a couple of coins, while other players struggle to get this final resource they’re still missing. The Bargue gives you extra points for basically playing the game – you will score two points for each card lying in front of you at the end of the game (Nefertiti is a set collection game, so you always end up with a bunch). Last but not least, the Animals give majority points to the player who has most of them – but they are so rare that it is perfectly possible that only one of them will appear throughout the whole game, giving the points to the lucky finder. My point is that you have to be extra careful with the micro expansions, as some of them tend to be published mainly for promotional purposes and can sometimes cause this unpleasant feeling of an unbalanced game. But again – we are talking about eurogames.

Does it mean that eurogames can’t hold expansions? No, absolutely. Village. Kingdom Builder. Dominion. Race for the Galaxy. Simurgh. Many other great euros benefit from being expanded. But it does take a specific structure of a game to allow an expansion to work like a piece of the machine and not to be an unwanted malfunction. OK, but what about American-style games? 4x? Adventure games? Let me come back to that on Thursday.

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