About a decade ago I decided to play more board games. This was partly inspired by a party game I bumped into called Loaded Questions. If you haven’t heard of Loaded Questions it’s an underrated gem. Think of it like this Loaded Questions is to Cranium as Settlers of Catan is to Monopoly. I loved Loaded Questions, so much so that I spent the next 3 or 4 years trying to find a new game that lived up to it. In the meantime we played Loaded Questions so much that we started to see the same cards pop up over and over again. I was so excited when they finally released an expansion… and it wasn’t very good.
That wasn’t the last time I got an expansion to a game, and it under performed, or made me feel like I was better off not buying it. Heck, there are a few expansions I’ve purchased where I opened the box, read the rules, and thought “Nope this will just make the game play longer without adding any real value.” That’s why when I heard someone say a few weeks back “Expansions for board games never work out, and just aren’t needed.” I was quick to agree with him. However, after a moments thought, I was also just as quick to disagree with him, mostly.
That is to say, he’s right a lot of the time expansions don’t add enough value to a game, turn the play time up, sometimes make old weaknesses in the game that much bigger, and any number of things that just make it not worth playing. (Say “New Caprica” to a board gamer, and watch them instantly develop tourettes.) Heck, be honest, how many games do you play so much that you really needed an expansion? Not many. I know guys who buy every expansion for a game they’ve played. I guess if you’re a collector that’s OK, but that’s not to my taste, and so for me, it’s not worth it.
There are, fortunately, exceptions to his rule. What are those exceptions? Well, I think at some level it’s a matter of opinion, so now I’m suddenly going to pull a twist on you, and turn this into a list article:
6 – Smash Up
Smash Up is a game that was built to have expansions, and that is partly what helps get it around the general rule of bad expansions. If you haven’t played Smash Up it’s a great light weight card game that says “deck building takes too long, just smash two piles of cards together, and play with those.” It also, wisely, creates the awesome theme of having every awesome theme. By that I mean you can Pirates, Ninjas, Robots, Dinosaurs, Aliens, Wizards, and so much more. It’s a game designed to have expansions. Oddly, the expansion falls a little short in that they almost instantly start digging up some strange entries like “bear cavalry”, and “killer plants”. I mean I know the source material that inspired those choices, but they are a bit more niche than the broad appeal of ninjas. Still, the expansion just makes the game that much better, and it’s a stand alone mini version of the game. It also introduces the badly needed score tokens. In short, the expansion expands the fun, and value, not the play time.
5 – King of Tokyo
King of Tokyo is a crazy example of an expansion done right! For starters the game didn’t need an expansion. It was a solid game that pretty much perfectly did what it needed to do. Light, dice rolling, fun flavor, fast. It was so good that last sentence is OK being incomplete. Anyway, if ever a game didn’t need an expansion it was King of Tokyo… and the expansion made it better. This is kind of the board game equivalent of what I was talking about with Secret Wars last week. The introduction of monster specific mutations, and leveraging the heart die facing for more effect take the game to a whole new level. Also, giant panda.
4 – Dominion
If Smash Up is a game that was built for expansions, Dominion is the justification for all game expansions ever. Not only is Dominion the best game ever [Citation not needed], but it gets better with every expansion. Yes, this includes the Alchemy expansion (No bias on this site.) if you use it correctly. For those of you who don’t know Dominion welcome to board games! It turns out there are other games than Monopoly, and they are actually good.
Honestly, not everyone loves Dominion, (I’m still confused by that one.) but the base game actually falls flat pretty quickly without expansions. It’s like all the core cards you need to fill basic roles are in the base game, and you need to them make the expansions better, and the expansions make them better. They are reflexively as a whole better than their parts.
Deck builders as a genre lend themselves nicely to expansions. There are exceptions to this as well, but I’ll avoid other deck builders in this list.
3 – Dixit
Dixit is an interesting party game. It seems to be that game that sounds super easy, like a party game should be, but causes more pauses, and ums than you might expect. Once you get your mind in the mode to play Dixit well it can be quite fun. The only problem is you see all of the cards every game. The rules of the game make it so it replays nicely but, in your mind you eventually want to see new cards. Because of this Dixit not only begs from an expansion, it just feels better when you finally have one. Additionally, the art in Dixit can be so surreal and wonderful that having new pictures to look at can be a great visual treat.
2 – Prophecies: In the Shadow of the Titan
For those of you paying attention I’ve just put my own game on a list of awesome stuff. I know that doesn’t sound very objective of me, but this game was designed to be expanded. Not only that it was designed to be fully functional, and to create a fully enjoyable experience, if you never get the expansion. Still, you might say, there are a lot of games designed with that in mind, but they don’t live up to that potential, and that’s part of the problem. How can you safely say that about Prophecies? I can’t. However, I did something odd when I made Prophecies. Part way through play testing I started making expansions for the game, and I included them in the play test without telling the people that were playing the game. They just assumed these new heroes, monsters, treasures, and scenarios were all part of the core game, a very large core game, and it turns out the feedback was universally positive. Still, you might continue, it’s still bad taste to include your own game in a list. Yes, I might add, but this is the only game I can make this kind of comment on. Perhaps, these other games went through a similar process, I can’t say, so I’m forced mention my own game. Good excuse right? Took me a second to come up with it.
1 – Sentinels of the Multiverse
Sentinels is a great game, and you can tell by the manual, the inclusion of dividers, and other artifacts that they most likely did what I just talked about with Prophecies. The thing is you don’t mind. Sentinels, as a base game, is awesome, and has an incredible amount of reply, but that doesn’t stop you from instantly wanting more, and they deliver. The best part is the game engine is very elegant, so expansions feel like they were always meant to be there.
Now, there are definitely more than 6 games that I could mention that include wonderful, meaningful expansions. Some of them I’ve only ever played with expansions, so I can’t comment on the contrast, I haven’t played enough, they are close enough to items on this list, I haven’t played them at all, or haven’t even heard of them. The point is I’m glad expansions exist, but they are like sequels to a movie, you never know what it will do to the series.