Expansions Should be the Extra Sauce, Not the Main Meal – Cardboard Manifesto

23 June 2022
Sometimes less isn't more, as Alexandra Sonechkina argues that base games shouldn't be demos for their expansions

A few years ago, discovering that an extra space was left in the board game box for the game’s expansion would make me feel grateful. How thoughtful – if I ever decide to get an expansion, I won’t need to perform complex Tetris manoeuvres to fit the expansion box onto my board game shelf, I will just add all the extra components to the main base box. However, lately the presence of spare compartments triggers warning bells as it can be the first sign of ‘base game as teaser for the expansions’ syndrome. These games usually have just enough to get you interested and wanting more, and if, just maybe, you got this expansion, oh and that one too, maybe you could have a winner on your hands.

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It seems that only a particular type of game gets affected by this. These are not the living games, where the core concept is that you keep building on the base offering. Nor are these smaller, quick games or those specifically designed with minimal components and streamlined gameplay. These are usually Kickstarter darlings, miniatures lush, component smorgasbord type of games. The games that when you get them through Kickstarter along with exclusive stretch goals and several expansions (looked too good to resist), you need a forklift to place all the boxes onto the shelf. But if you happen to get just the base game, you get one neat box, perhaps with a spare compartment inside, just in case…

It is not so much the matter of quantity as a case of the gameplay relying on variety and spreading it across the expansions, rather than the base game itself. In Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game, for example, the gameplay revolves around you, a hunter, fighting mysterious animal-like machines. Learning behaviour patterns and fighting styles of the machines is the core challenge and attraction of the game. The base games, however, come with just a few enemy types, leaving the most exciting machines (with their impressive minis) for the expansions. You can play a whole game campaign in one sitting and never need to return to it because you have experienced everything the base game has to offer… unless you get the expansions. 

Mezo, an area control game featuring Mayan gods with unique abilities and tactics, includes four gods in the base box, whereas the other eight can be found in different expansions. Fired Up, a bidding combat game, also has its gameplay relying on the individual abilities of its fighters, leaving several to the expansions. Hard City goes as far as to state ‘to be continued…’ on the back of its rulebook. Which was probably intended as a nod to its 80s B-movie theme, but after playing the game feels more like a taster for the extra expansion content.

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Encountering this the first couple of times, I thought I was being greedy, but several similar occurrences later, it was getting harder to ignore the emerging pattern. Perhaps, this is a new state of a post-Kickstarter base game, collateral of needing to entice people into backing to unlock stretch goals and expansions. Perhaps, I am lacking the perspective of complicated conversations which consider what goes into the base game, what is a good expansion and what can be added as a stretch goal to make sure a board game project is viable and the consumer is happy.

Nonetheless, this is the tiniest hill I am prepared to die on: please make your base games the main, most delicious, and satiating meal. The expansions can be that extra sauce, a mint chocolate to cleanse the palette, the rich coffee right at the end, but if you don’t have them, you should still be able to walk away from the table completely satisfied. 


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