Expand, Or Expand Not. There is No Try

A couple years ago I was discussing board game design with a fellow Pittsburgh-based designer. We were debating when it was appropriate to consider game expansions. Do you plan out the expansions when you create the base game? Or do you launch the base game and wait for sales numbers or gamer feedback? At the time, I told him that I was too focused on completing a workable base design to worry about it, but I would give it some thought. As often happens, my thoughts led me back to the movie, Star Wars.

I was seven years old when the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV, aka A New Hope) premiered. Like many kids in 1977, Star Wars became my galaxy. I begged my folks to see it at the theater and then again at the drive-in. I had the t-shirts and toys, pajamas and bed sheets, comic books, coloring books, and notebooks… These were the days before home video – I had to settle for the story of Star Wars on a vinyl record so I could at least listen to it over and over again. My eighth birthday party was Star Wars themed and I still have the molded sugar Death Star, R2D2 and C3PO decorations from my cake in a box in my office. You get the idea. George Lucas’ space opera made a deep impact.

In its original incarnation, Star Wars is an excellent, tightly-knitted adventure. Save for a 15 minute misadventure in a trash compacter – yeah, it’s that long – the story starts mid-chase and doesn’t let up. You meet a princess in peril, the most evil being in the galaxy, the daydreaming farm boy, the wise old sage and the rogue pilot with the coolest sidekick in science fiction all within the first reel.  Add a plot as classic as a Kurosawa film (cough… cough… The Hidden Fortress) and you have a well executed, complete gem of the genre.

But consider what aspects of the Star Wars universe aren’t in A New Hope. To name a few, there’s no Yoda, no Lando Calrissian, no Hoth or Tauntauns, no A-Wings, no B-Wings, no Tie Bombers or Tie Interceptors, no AT-ATs or Scout Walkers, and no General Ackbar’s often imitated phrase, “It’s a trap!” Much of the rich tapestry we embrace as Star Wars lore came later. Then again, so did the Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks so I admit it isn’t all good…

Can you enjoy Star Wars without all of those other elements? Yes! And that’s the point. If the film wasn’t as huge a sensation as it was and Lucas couldn’t raise the money for the sequels, we would still have a fantastic movie to watch and pass down to future generations. What the sequels and the novels and everything else within the Star Wars canon gave us was a larger, more complex and ultimately more satisfying experience. Board game expansions do the same thing if they are handled correctly. Unfortunately, in my experience, board game expansions can be a mixed bag.

A company that has a good handle on expansions is Fireside Games. Their co-operative tower defense game Castle Panic is a solid core game and a great foundation on which to build. In Castle Panic, you defend a castle that was built in the perfectly wrong spot – dead center in enemy territory. The game begins after the six towers and six walls are complete, and the monsters set to knock them down start emerging from the forest. The players draw from a deck of cards containing offensive measures (knights, archers, and the like) but the true key to keeping your towers up and the day victorious is effective teamwork amongst the gamers.

Like Star Wars, Castle Panic is a complete, coherent, satisfying piece of entertainment. But there was more story to tell.

With the first expansion in 2011, Castle Panic: The Wizard’s Tower, you got one upgraded tower (the aforementioned Wizard Tower), a deck of wizard spells that are in play until they run out or the Wizard Tower is knocked down, new mechanics like the ability to catch the walls or the foes on fire, and new and stronger monsters to fight. While the base game was fun, this expansion made the game so much more complex and challenging.

The success of this expansion is not what is added to the game, but what is taken away. When you add the expansion to the base game, you have clear instructions on what monsters you need to take out. This is a brilliant move as it avoids the biggest downfall of expansions – bloat. Too many added components lead to too many choices. The game loses its focus and, as the name suggests, becomes a large and lumbering bloated mess.

Fireside tempted a bloated fate with a second expansion in 2015 called Castle Panic: The Dark Titan. Where The Wizard Tower added bigger boss monsters like dragons and basilisks but reduced the number of smaller monsters so they could fit, Titan added a huge, Sauron sized doomsday monster. Instead of removing monsters so this new big bad guy could fit, Fireside added new allies. While Titan wasn’t as large of a game changer as The Wizard Tower, its balanced approach of allies and enemies gave the game complexity without making it bloated, convoluted, or unbalanced.

During the month of this writing, Fireside is about to release the third expansion, Castle Panic: Engines of War. Given their success record, I’m confident that these new features – the most exciting of which being offensive and defensive siege weapons like Ballistas, Catapults, and Battering Rams – will keep the game as playable as it has always been.

That said, sometimes even the best publishers miss the mark.

As much as I love Munchkin from Steve Jackson Games, for every recommendation I read for one of its many expansions, I read a warning that they can cause the game to bloat. You get too many cards and not only are the decks too tall to manage; you have too many choices to nail down an effective strategy. It’s too much of a good thing. So I expanded my base Munchkin set with the first expansion, Munchkin 2: Unnatural Axe, and I will leave it at that.

Or maybe I’ll stop after getting the Munchkin 3: Clerical Errors expansion…

That’s the problem with expansions to games or sequels to movies that you love. You want to recapture that moment when you first fell in love with the franchise. So you spend the money and take the gamble hoping it pays off. Sometimes that works and the expansion takes the thing you love to new if not totally unfamiliar places. It’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens! On the other hand, it can also be the retread of a favorite that actually subtracts from the greatness of the original (see: Jaws 3D, Matrix Reloaded, any of The Hobbits…).

So I say to my fellow board game designer Conner, wherever you are. Make sure your core game is a completely playable experience and leave it there. This means that you may not use some of your best ideas. Yoda is one of the best Science Fiction characters ever created, but George Lucas was right to not shoehorn him into Star Wars: A New Hope.  If an idea adds too much complexity, or takes the game in a too different of a direction, keep it in your back pocket as a seed for an optional future expansion.  At the same time, don’t ever withhold an essential feature from the core system. Only withhold them because the initial experience didn’t need them in the first place. Just keep telling yourself, the Ewoks can wait.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved