The Purpose of Expansions

Carcassonne and several of its expansions. Photo via

Scoville is on the ocean in a container on a massive vessel (info via latest KS update). That’s pretty sweet and it means that the time is rapidly approaching when all of the awesome Kickstarter backers will be able to get Scoville to the table! I couldn’t be more excited.

So naturally I might as well begin work on an expansion (which I playtested last week!). Working on it has brought me to the question of “What is the purpose of an Expansion?” Today I’ll briefly try to address that. Throughout I’ll be using Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride as examples.

From a designer’s perspective here are the three main reasons I think a game should receive an expansion :

  1. Increase Replayability and Variability
  2. Add something new
  3. Add depth

And here are three reasons a publisher may want to publish an expansion (in addition to those above, of course):

  1. Sell more of the original game
  2. Make money at a higher margin since expansions don’t typically cost as much
  3. Provide more quality products to help build your catalog

Obviously the designer reasons and the publisher reasons that I provided are not nearly exhaustive, so take that however you want. I’ll only be covering the reasons for an expansion from the designer’s perspective. At the end I’ll also provide some things that an expansion SHOULD NOT do.

Increase Replayability and Variability

One of the things I like to design into my games is the ability to play it over and over and never have the same experience.I like to define Replayability and Variability thusly:

REPLAYABILITY: When a game can be played over and over again without it feeling old and “samey” despite the setup and game conditions being identical.

VARIABILITY: When a game presents different scenarios for play such that no two plays could ever be identical.

Kingdom Builder – Variable Setup FTW!

Those sound the same and they basically mean the same thing to me. The point is that I do not want to play a game the exact same way it was played prior. That turns the players into robots seeking to find the optimal plays in a game. I prefer games where it is different based on who you are playing with or how the game is designed.

This can be accomplished in several ways but most often via randomness. Sometimes the original design doesn’t receive all the variability the game deserves. Other times the designer comes up with new ways to increase variability after the game is published. Either way, creating an expansion is a great way to bring the game to people’s tables again and make the experience better.

Some of my favorite examples of expansions increasing the replayability/variability of a game are the Carcassonne expansions. (They actually meet all three “expansion” criteria I am mentioning today, so I’ll use this example for each below as well.) The Carcassonne expansions add replayability because they implement situations that are different based on the people you are playing with and based on the tiles you draw.

But perhaps the best instance that I can think of for variability is with the random board setup and scoring conditions from Kingdom Builder. That is one of the most replayable and variable games in my collection and that doesn’t necessarily refer to the expansions.

Add Something New

Add something new… like new routes to Ticket to Ride!

Sometimes a game is deserving of a new addition that changes the game and how it is played. Adding something new to a game can make players want to play it again. It can be a new mechanic, new components, new cards, dice, etc.

Adding something new doesn’t necessarily add depth. Adding new elements can simply make the game enjoyable to play again.

In the Carcassonne world, the Inns and Cathedrals expansion did not really increase depth. Rather, by adding something new it lured gamers to play again and again. The Inns and Cathedrals addition is very minor but it adds enough to change the way people play the game.

Another example is the USA 1910 expansion for Ticket to Ride. Basically it adds a bunch of routes without changing any rules. This is such a simple and smooth expansion to integrate with the base game. Designer’s should keep these sorts of additions in mind with creating expansions.

An easy (actually ridiculously easy) way to expand Scoville is to design a whole bunch of new recipes that utilize previously unused combinations of peppers. This would add something new to the game without changing a single rule. Ironically I hadn’t thought of that until just now, while writing the article. I will be creating 20 new recipes!

Add Depth

Grain, Beer, and Fruit by the Foot!

Often an expansion will provide ways to make a game deeper strategically, tactically, or even thematically. This usually coincides with adding something new. A new mechanic can be added to the game that changes the gameplay or injects depth of decisions. Or perhaps new components are added that add depth via breadth (is that even possible?). I suppose that would be something like instead of limiting the game to four different resources, you could bump it to 6, which could add depth.

The idea behind this reason is to take a game that players have become familiar with and make it deeper. Sometimes players refer to this as “heavier.”

In Carcassonne the Traders and Builders expansion adds notable depth. Players have the objectives of finishing castles such that they earn the bonus tokens of Grain, Beer, and Fruit by the Foot (or maybe grain, wine, and cloth… not sure). This sort of depth adds a distinct layer to the strategy players utilize during the game.

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What Expansions SHOULD NOT do…

I am of the opinion that expansions should not:

  1. Cost more than the base game (Though I suppose an argument could be made for certain situations).
  2. Change the base game so dramatically that it is a completely different thing.
  3. Detract from the original concept of the base game.
  4. Add an overwhelming number of new rules or exceptions to rules.
  5. Modify the original rules.

Not an expansion.

So the simplest way to create an expansion is to simply add some new components like the Ticket to Ride USA 1910 expansion. That expansion did not cost more than the base game. It did not change the base game at all. It did not detract from the original concept. It added zero new rules. And it did not modify the rules. That’s a streamlined expansion.

When expansions violate the 5 points I listed then they start to break away from what I consider an expansion and fall more in line with a whole new game. This would be akin to Ticket to Ride – Europe. The base game is the same but there are new components, new rules, and the original rules were modified enough that this doesn’t meet my criteria for an expansion.

NOTE: Ticket to Ride – Europe was neither marketed nor sold as an expansion.

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So what do you think? What makes an expansion worthwhile to you? What are some of you favorite and least favorite expansions? Thanks for reading!


Posted on October 21, 2014, in Board Games, Game Design, The Boards and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. That’s exciting about Scoville! I’m already excited about receiving my copy of Scoville, so the idea of an expansion for it is quite enticing!

    Very interesting article, my only question is with the Carcassonne expansions that you mentioned, how do those affect the game play? You say Inns and Cathedrals only changes the way you would play, I take that to mean that strategies you would normally use in Carcassonne needs to change slightly for different/better results, without going through the rulebook can you please describe the general gist of how gameplay changes/how strategies change.

    On a similar note, in traders and builders, how does gaining resources such as beer, wheat and cloth depth to a game, what are they used for? Why is it beneficial to collect one or any of them?

    As for an expansion I think changes gameplay but only adds one new rule (that doesn’t clash with existing rules) is actually the new expansion for Ticket to Ride, Ticket to Ride: Netherlands. What it adds is coins, and majority of the routes between cities are double routes that can be accessed even in a two player game, however you start with a set amount of coins, and as well as collecting certain colour train cards to build routes you also need to pay the ‘toll’ of the route in coins. What changes in gameplay is that the first claimed route (on a double route) the coins are paid to the bank/supply and the second, or third, route is paid to the player whom first built the route. There are massive bonuses at the end of the game for whoever has the most coins, second-most, third-most, etc.
    A general strategy in a game of Ticket to Ride is to just continuously collect train cards until you can build a whole heap of routes on your successive turns.
    In the Netherlands expansion, however, this strategy is flipped on its head and suddenly players are expected to claim routes as soon as they can in order to be first one on a double route.

  2. gamestarterblog

    I have thought of many game ideas, and I can think of many that I just keep building in my head to such an extent that the thought of an expansion comes into my mind. Of course none of my games have made it off the prototype table, probably due mostly to lack of dedication on my part. But as soon as I start thinking “expansion” I think “I don’t even have a base set to build it on.”
    As far as games that make it to my table, I would have to agree with you. You can’t add to much to the game before it becomes a different game.
    There was one expansion I played for Catan which added so much that, in my opinion, it made it a different game.
    I think the first board game I bought for myself was Carcassonne, I loved it so much I bought a second base set. But even with two base sets it was just more of the same, until I got the Inns and Cathedrals expansion. Which added just enough to make the game interesting again.

  3. I don’t see this in expansions so much anymore, but long ago it seems the main reason for expansions was to make the game playable for a greater number of players: say, make a 4-player game playable by 6 players. That’s not always a great idea though, because more players inevitably makes the game longer. We had the expansions to play 6-player Cosmic Encounter (okay, technically sort-of up to 8 with the Shark and the Skeptic) but we never played more than 5.

  4. Sometimes, of course, an expansion is actually just a part of the original game that was removed without affecting the game sufficiently to feel odd. (For instance, it’s moderately easy to see that Seafarers of Catan was, essentially, the original game and Settlers of Catan is that game but with the overcomplicated boats taken out.)

    I like your distinction between replayability and variability, and how they are not the same and yet are the same. That’s definitely made me think about some of my own designs in a slightly different way.

  1. Pingback: News Bits: October 27, 2014 | iSlaytheDragon

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