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The Purpose of Expansions

Carcassonne and several of its expansions. Photo via wordsgoneby.blogspot.com.

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!

Game Design Philosophy

GameDesignPhilosophy
After killing Brooklyn Bridge I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about who I am as a designer and what I want to design. So I sat down last night and examined the top 50 games on BGG to see what elements they had in common. My goal was to understand which elements are enjoyable to me and to understand how they are incorporated into some of the best games in the world.

What I ended up with was a list of five things that I feel are important to my game designs. Please note that this article discusses the things that I personally feel are important to good game designs. Your opinions will likely vary. I urge you to create a similar list that you can use as a tool to help you make sure your game design is going down a path that is acceptable to you.

I now realize that had I had this list before working on Brooklyn Bridge, it probably would have turned out to be a better game. I may attempt to re-design it now that I have this list to use as a design tool.

My previous design philosophy was simply to make fun games. That’s not a good philosophy because it is extremely difficult to measure or quantify.

What follows are 5 elements or guidelines that I will seek to follow when designing games. For each I will demonstrate how they exist in both the immensely popular Ticket to Ride and the soon-to-be immensely popular Scoville. Using these as a guideline will provide a measurable way to know whether or not what I am designing has the potential to be an enjoyable game.

1: Quick to Teach / Easy to Understand

This DOES NOT mean the game is simple or light.

This DOES mean that it can generally be set up in 5 minutes and taught in about another 5. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes setting up a game and then another 15 trying to teach it to people.

Ticket to Ride Example: TtR (or perhaps T2R to you) can be set up and explained in about 5 minutes total.

Scoville Example: Scoville requires a little more setup than this guideline but it can be taught in 5 minutes for sure.

Other successful games like The Settlers of Catan are relatively simple to set up and teach. Of course there are very successful games that do not quite meet these criteria. There’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, this is MY design philosophy. So the games I will design will likely meet these things.

2: Minimal “Exception” Rules

“Exception” rules are those that require an individual point of emphasis when teaching. The fewer of these types of rules in a game the “Quicker” and “Easier” it is to teach and understand. This guideline ties into the first one. I will not be designing games that have a long list of FAQs or “exception” rules.

Ticket to Ride Example: There are on the order of two exception rules. 1) You can’t draw two locomotives from the face up pile. 2) If there are ever three locomotives in the face up set then you replace all face up cards.

Scoville Example: There are slightly more than than TtR, but they apply during two phases. 1) You can bid zero and ties are broken from previous turn order. 2) Harvesting: No doubling back, No sharing or going through another player.

The idea here is that the rulebook should be streamlined and straight forward. If your game has a bunch of singular exceptions that need to be covered, I recommend putting that information on a player guide for each player. Then when teaching the game you can simply point out that there are some exceptions and that players should reference the guide.

3: Limited Actions or Choices Per Turn

One easy way to add tension in a game is to limit what players can do. Agricola does this with great success. Most Stefan Feld games do this very well. The idea is that while you may not have a lot of different choices to make, there is some tension in trying to choose the optimal choice.  Similarly you may have a lot of options but can only choose 1 or 2 per turn.

Limiting the number of actions or the number of choices a player has on their turn also has two notably positive effects:

  1. Downtime is minimized
  2. Analysis Paralysis is limited

Downtime decreases if a player only has a few options to choose from. Analysis paralysis, or a player’s inability to make a decision, is limited since there are only so many combinations of things to work through.

Ticket to Ride Example: On your turn you only have three options. 1) Draw train cards. 2) Draw Destination Tickets. 3) Play trains to the board. That’s it. It’s so simple. But the depth of the game comes from decisions like, “Should I draw train cards one more time or should I burn a locomotive card this turn?”

Scoville Example: Each round has four phases, each of which are simple. Bid, Plant, Harvest, Fulfill. Each phase is simple enough that you have a limited number of options. Choices include how much to bid, which pepper to plant, how to harvest, and what to fulfill.

This philosophy guideline was greatly influenced by my recent play of Attika. In Attika you have two choices: Draw tiles or build. That limitation is so stupidly simple and yet the game builds up as it moves along and is quite enjoyable. Which leads me to the next guideline.

4: Include a Natural Buildup

The idea here is that the decisions you are making during a game accelerate and either feel more tense or more important or hopefully both. Games do this differently. Some games build up because you have access to better/more resources. Other games build up because the game presents better scoring opportunities or something of the sort.

When a game builds up naturally it turns it into an emotional experience where you are drawn into the game. When you make a decision early in a game you don’t want a bad choice to destroy your chances. But when you make a decision late in the game you want a good choice to be able to greatly help you out.

Ticket to Ride Example: As the map fills up the decisions become more tense. You might begin to worry that a player will fill up a connection that you needed. Or you might worry that there are not enough turns left to complete all your destination tickets.

Scoville Example: As the fields are planted each round there are more/different cross-breeding opportunities. Your decision space opens up. As you get better peppers there is the sometimes tense choice of whether to plant it for the bonus points or save it and fulfill a recipe to prevent someone else from getting it.

Brooklyn Bridge had no build up at all. I think that good games should include some sort of build up or acceleration. If it fits naturally into the game, that’s even better. What I desire from fun games is that as the game builds up and things get more tense and exciting, that I am getting some sort of increased emotions from my gaming experience. Without a build up I feel like my game designs would lack that emotional aspect.

5: Players Should Be Rewarded

Continuing with the “emotion” idea, I feel it is important that players be able to be rewarded for the actions they take during the game. Point salad games, like several Feld games, do this on just about every turn. When every choice you make gives you points there is a natural positive emotion attached to that. On the other hand if the choices you make never reward you then you’ll likely not have a natural positive emotion during the game. There is something to the idea of moving your scoring marker around the board and seeing yourself jump past other players.

Ticket to Ride Example: A positive emotion and rewarding moment in TtR comes each time you complete a route. This is a secret positive emotion but it is present and it feels awesome.

Scoville Example: When players plant a better pepper and earn an award plaque from the Town Mayor there is a positive emotion and rewarding moment. They know that their action just earned them points that no other player will be able to match.

These types of rewards that provoke positive emotions will likely result in players enjoying the game more than an equivalent game that is void of rewards. I want to design games that will provoke positive emotions and one way to do that is by rewarding players.

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I wish I had written this article a long time ago. Having these guidelines in place will allow me to check off whether or not my current designs are meeting the criteria. That should be easy enough to recognize. If they don’t meet the criteria I’ll be able to tell and hopefully it will allow me to come up with design tweaks that turn my designs into awesome games.

What’s your design philosophy? I’d love to hear how yours differs from mine. Feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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