30 March 2021
What kind of expansions are there out there?
Words by Simon Castle
Amongst other things, 2020 was a year of expansions for many of our favourite games. But what kind of expansions are there out there? Simon Castle takes a look at the ways we can get more game out of our tabletop favourites
There are thousands of different games out there vying for attention, and many of them are endlessly replayable, with variations in setup or difficulty keeping them fresh for game after game. Yet, sometimes, you want more – not necessarily a new game, because you want more time with ones you know and love, but more of a change than the content you have can provide.
Enter the expansion – new material for an existing game that can be incorporated with the original to provide refreshed experiences without having to learn a whole new ruleset. But not all expansions set out to fulfil the same goal, so we’ve created a guide to the various flavours expansions come in so you can know what to look out for when you spot a ‘requires a copy of the base game to play’ on the box.
MORE OF THE SAME
The simplest type of expansion out there, this category covers products that simply add more. More cards, more variety, more stuff for all the things that already exist. These are particularly desirable when the base game doesn’t want or need a gameplay shake-up, but specific elements of it are repeating too much from game to game. They’re easy to integrate and have minimal new rules to learn but can reinvigorate a game that was starting to become a bit too familiar. Once you’ve added them to your copy of the game, you’ll probably never take them out again, even if their content doesn’t get used in every gaming session.
A subcategory of this is the ‘increased player count’ expansion, which can very literally be more of the same – just another player’s worth of components – although more frequently these will be added with some sort of new content too.
Terraforming Mars: Hellas & Elysium – two new maps to terraform, along with variant awards and milestones to compete for.
Eldritch Horror: Forsaken Lore – the first expansion added a new Ancient One to face, but also doubled or trebled the size of the game’s many decks, making it a must-have expansion.
NEW BOX, WHO DIS?
When you want a bit more than just ‘a bit more’, these expansions have your back. Frequently coming in a bigger box than the previous category – potentially as large as the original game! – many games have expansions that, while not drastically altering the existing rules, add a whole new mechanic or aspect for consideration. These are expansions that will make the game take up more space across your table, not just make the card decks a bit higher. They may also be elements that you just won’t want to play with every time – whether for reasons of time, space, complexity, or simply variety.
Great Western Trail: Railways of the North – this game of cattle herding saw its linear trainline expand into a convoluted network across an extension to the main board.
Underwater Cities: New Discoveries – one of the modules in this expansion allows players to offer artifacts they find on the ocean floor to a museum in exchange for rewards.
Sometimes things come to light once a game has been released that give the developers cause to go ‘we should address this’ – even if the base game is a great experience already. Some of those fixes might come in the form of rules or card errata, but for bigger changes (say, a whole new combat system, or support for a strategy to make it as viable as it was intended) an expansion can prove the best method of release. These will usually come with elements that fit in another of these categories – no one wants to pay for just a ‘fix’ – but you’ll frequently find the most raved-about parts of these are the direct improvements on the original game.
Fallout: Atomic Bonds – many reviews found the competitive scoring and abrupt ending of the base game a disappointment. Atomic Bonds makes the game co-operative and ensures the end of the game is narrative rather than VP-driven.
Res Arcana: Lux et Tenebrae – while the base game is far from broken, the expansion took the opportunity to fix the few flaws that were present, such as player count scaling.
THE NEW MODE
Expanding a game doesn’t always have to just expand the content of the game. Some expansions change how a game works entirely, adding whole new gameplay modes while using many of the original mechanics. The most common examples of these are adding competitive (or at least, one-vs-many) modes to co-operative games, co-operative modes to previously competitive-only experiences, or campaign variants to traditionally single-session games.
Pandemic: On the Brink – the Bio-Terrorist module in the original Pandemic’s first expansion offered the option to turn the fully co-operative classic into a hidden-movement one-vs-many game.
Scythe: Rise of Fenris – while Scythe’s other expansions could easily have been examples of earlier categories on this list, Rise of Fenris overshadows them by providing a replayable eight-episode campaign mode to this previously single-game experience.
A specific type of expansion, for so-called living games which keep having new material added. Most common for card games and wargaming miniatures, where a constant drip of new content helps to develop a meta and provide ongoing material for discussion within the player base. This might be continuous in the sense fixed new content being released on a monthly or bimonthly, but in other cases might be a larger release of content two or three times a year, from which expansions will contain randomised elements.
Magic: The Gathering – multiple new sets a year keep this evergreen behemoth fresh, ensuring players always have new cards to chase and decks to construct.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game – this sees a near-monthly new release of a new pack, containing a chapter of the latest narrative campaign, a stand-alone scenario, or sometimes an expansion to previous expansions.
MORE, BUT MODULAR
Some games – especially narratively focussed ones – use expansions as a method to provide new scenarios. In these games, the base game might just be a set of framework material on which each of the expansions provides the scenario-specific content needed for that individual level. In some cases, the base game might even be presented as nothing but that shell with a ‘first expansion’ included as part of the package, to establish the approach.
T.I.M.E. Stories – the original cycle of T.I.M.E. Stories contained one story scenario in each box, containing all the cards you needed to play that episode, but all of them required the base game box for the core components used throughout.
Chronicles of Crime: Welcome to Redview – this swapped out the modern-day, London Met based police work of the base game with teenagers in a 70s/80s American town facing some slightly more supernatural mysteries – keeping just the main board and app between them.
Expansions are great. Why bother with the original game in the first place?
If this is you, Expand-alones are the solution! These are boxes that can provide expansions for the original game – but provide enough content that they can be used on their own to play the game even without the original. Deck-builders are particularly frequent users of this type of expansion, with setups that use just some combinations of different sets of cards – making it easy to release boxes containing enough new sets that it can work on its own, but can also mix and match with sets from the original – but they’re far from the only games that can use this model.
Dominion – each of Dominion’s big boxes provides a fully playable experience on its own, but with multiple you can mix and match their content for a huge number of possible setups.
Codenames – with original, co-op, picture-based, franchise-themed and NSFW versions available, there are many ways to play exactly your favourite sort of Codenames…but you can also combine the cards for a really strange mix of targets to clue, if you want.
Downloadable content, or DLC, is the common term for many computer games’ expansions, and through the growth of app-based games it has become a thing in some board-games too. One of the advantages of digitally-enhanced games is that new material can be produced and sold for the game without any need for physical packages or new boxes – a simple purchase on the app (or occasionally even just a free update) allows your existing content to be used for a whole new set of gameplay.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth – Hunt for the Ember Crown doubled the amount of content available from your base game box, adding a second full campaign entirely via a digital download.
Mansions of Madness Second Edition – while several large physical expansions are available, each offering ever-less Mansion-like locations to explore, there are also three scenarios available to be purchased on the app building on just the core components.
This feature originally appeared in Issue 50 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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