The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits


After some discussion about Small World expansions, I’ve been thinking about expansions.  I thought I had rambled about those on the blog a few years ago, but as Reiner Wolfcastle once said, “The Googles, they do nothing!”

Does every game have a limit beyond which expansions make it worse?

We’re now considering only non-practical design issues, not physical things like space and weight. I have no idea how much a fully-expanded game of Arkham Horror weighs, or how many boxes (although I suspect it still takes up less space than Descent-in-multiple-fishing-tackle-boxes…)

I’m going to leap ahead — expansions that add new rules and systems will eventually overload any game. But there’s another category of expansions … those that increase variety by swapping things out and different things in. Can these work?

Looking at some examples of games that do this, it’s clear that “varietal” expansions don’t burden a system much. You don’t need any new rules to shuffle new aliens for Cosmic, new races/powers for Small World, new kingdom cards for Dominion, great old ones for Arkham Horror, et cetera.

[Note that all the above games mix the “variety” expansion with stuff that actually expands the rulespace.]

But the thread that ties all the above together is that whatever you add, you replace. When you put new aliens/races/kingdom cards/GOOs in, you are still drawing the same amount for each game (1 per player, 6 at a time for drafting, 10, 1). If you get a new track for Formula De, you only race on a single track a time.

Whereas, when you add cards to Race, you aren’t removing anything. Ignoring new features (goals, takeovers, etc) could you keep adding cards to the game (assuming they were balanced and the deck balance didn’t change radically)? As a player you’ll still only draw some number of cards per game, but your judgment must reflect the deck’s composition. Due to deck size constraints, you’ll eventually run into bizarre luck (“I drew nothing but 7+ defense worlds!”). The “add more cards to let players cycle through the deck” will slow the game down (and, by inference, weaken the base cards that don’t have that power). I’m not sure what the limit for expansion is, but I’m sure there is one. (And it’s easy to say this; Tom has stated the issue before).

Perhaps this issue is with Race … I suspect I could expand Wiz-War’s deck (making sure to keep the distributions correct). Eventually you’d get some problems with a large deck (“I only drew number cards.”) Being a more chaotic game, Wiz-War certainly allows for more expansion. But limitless? Hm. I think a game with a million (no more unbalanced than current) cards may work.  What makes the difference? One of Race’s core mechanics is exploring (searching the deck for a card that works). I think that player’s expectations may be what differentiates it, for me.

[I just realized that Wiz-War’s “Search the deck/discard pile” cards probably mean that you really can’t get too big, but that’s a mild limit.]

Are “Varietals” limited? I suspect that, as a practical matter, they aren’t. Someone is buying all those Age of Steam maps. I just picked up Alchemy, and I’m on track for a large chunk of Dominion, if not completeness.sions that do expand the game’s rules. Cosmic via moons, lucre, flares, reversing, etc. Dominion more mildly with potions, duration, etc. Small world has some varietals and some expansions].

Anyway, not much point to all this. Just thinking out loud.

Written by taogaming

July 25, 2010 at 9:21 am

Posted in Ramblings

2 Responses

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  1. I agree with your conclusion, but for me, the limit is most typically 0. I’ve gone through and eliminated a bunch of expansions from my collection, for just this reason. I think there are far more games where I found myself enjoying the game less after expansions starting arriving, than the reverse case; playing Carcassonne with no expansions again has actually been refreshing, and has reminded me of why I liked the game back when it arrived.

    The first example of a “good” expansion for me is always Isfahan, which added a needed bit of randomness to Samarkand. I think there’s always room for expansions such as Isfahan which make a minor tweak to the game conditions, in a way that will make it appeal more to some players. There aren’t many such expansions, but they’re definitely among the most tolerable.

    Games with completely unrelated cards – Dixit, say – can always be safely expanded. Even an infinite number of Dixit cards wouldn’t detract from the experience, other than the shuffling.

    Varietals do have one negative effect, in my experience; when only the base map exists, there’s no question as to which map to play. And, as you note, it’s rare to get varietals that don’t expand the rule space.

    Many games have expansions to handle new numbers of players; I’m not convinced of the usefulness of those expansions, as in most cases they “allow” games to handle non-ideal player counts. Settlers with six? Sometimes expansions simply make the game work better with a player count that was already supported (such as the first Bohnanza expansion or the 2038 expansion); those tend to be much less of an issue.

    Joe (who plays Race with just the first expansion, or with a subset of the cards from the base and first two expansions)

    Joe Huber

    July 26, 2010 at 9:37 am

    • This was only a theoretical limit. I’m pretty open to varietals, although mainly in games where there are only random things (like Cosmic, Small World). I suppose the “Pick which expansions to use” could be annoying if it led to debates. Obviously my tolerance for expansions (in general) is much higher, although I learned my lesson about overexpansion 20 years ago.


      July 26, 2010 at 11:47 pm

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