March 06, 2012
Gaming with Kids: The Expansion Mind-Set
It's not even a new concept, really. I mean, Egyptian dynasties were rolling out re-themed pharaohs beginning with Pepi II as early as the 23th century B.C. And while kings and emperors and popes have also extended prominent names throughout history to extend power and ideology, even common man has joined in on the practice in christening his firstborn son, "junior." When you got a good thing going, why re-invent the wheel? Just add another spoke! Zip forward to modern times and loosely apply the theory to Hollywood and this becomes my biggest gripe with the movie industry. If you're covering a series of novels as in Narnia, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, then multiple films is understandable. But do we really need another Scary Movie, Jaws, or Matrix just because the previous ones made money? How about all the Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, and even (lest I risk incriminating myself) Star Trek iterations? Obviously this is a highly subjective matter and my criticism is one of personal preference. I would just prefer seeing more original material and less regurgitation. But then again, a sequel can always surprise. The last Rocky - one of the more parodied series in Hollywood history - scored a big hit with a poignant inner reflection of both the character and the franchise, seemingly in conversation, even, with the numerous barbs and jabs thrown its way. In short, I do admit that expanding on the original can be a good thing.
Before I get too far down the rabbit trail, let me bring this back to gaming. My kids want game expansions. They like the familiar. I even expounded on the concept once upon a post. When they have something they're already really into, they want more of it. This is, of course, a natural sentiment. My kids will often catch me scouring BoardGameGeek to update and refine my gaming wish list. They happen to have their own little mini-versions based on my own. And theirs includes expansions of all shapes and sizes for our humble little collection. They are especially keen for add-ons to the likes of Small World, Dominion, Kingsburg, Cyclades and Lifeboat. But in owning such a small collection, I'd rather introduce them to the beauty of variety! With a limited budget to spend on games, I want to teach them how to stretch those dollars to build a well-rounded collection that offers plenty of choices to fit many interests and situations both now and as they grow older. At the same time, I want to get what they like. The two concerns are actually fairly easy to satisfy, because despite all I've said, my kids could easily jump into the "Cult of the New," as well (but that tangent is for the next post...).
My primary hesitation with purchasing expansions has much more to do with value. While I want to strive for a diverse gaming collection, I'm not completely averse to an expansion that really adds something significant to a title we really enjoy. For example, Kingsburg's expansion (under consideration) looks like it is well-made, intuitive, versatile, and adds a number of components and rules that fix that title's biggest weaknesses: uniformity and lack of replayability. In our most recent purchase of Bang! The Bullet, I headed this whole expansion issue off at the pass. The Bullet includes the base game, plus three expansions and a couple of extra goodies - all for the price of what the base game and two expansions would have cost separately. What I want to avoid are over-priced expansions that offer little in extra components and mechanics. I'll also resist the wave of add-ons with which many publishers/titles flood the market. I have no need for 8 expansions to one game.
So there are many reasons that designers and publishers create expansions: to fix an issue with the base game; or to add components that publishing costs prohibited the first go-around; or to tweak mechanics for greater replayability; or to just add more of a good thing. Consumers will judge whether the cost is worth it or not. Probably my favorite designer to date, Bruno Faidutti, wrote an op-ed article on expansions at his web site. It is a thoughtful summary of the topic from a veteran, industry insider. I highly recommend it. But with all that said, there are many expansions (and in some cases multiples of expansions) created to simply exploit a popular game. This is not an evil practice. Quite the contrary, it makes perfect business sense. No, designers are not making millions. Yet publishers will expand on what's already been successful because there is little financial risk. That could actually be a good thing as companies can use the profits from "bread and butter" sales to fund the riskier, "outside-the-box" designs. It would be fantastic to see companies climb out on the limb even further to give us unique games. After all, I think the success of Kickstarter proves that consumers are hungry for those projects heretofore relegated to the Indie side.
Though I may not always share it, I understand my kids' desire for more of the same. Apart from board games, they want gobs of Pokemon cards, even though we only play very casually. They claim to need all 32 Skylander characters, even though they don't have time to play with the 18 they already have. They yearn for every conceivable American Girl outfit and accessory, even though the dolls' wardrobe rivals their own. There is a tad of this "completionist" tendency in me, as well. And that idea I think explains many an attraction for board game expansions. But I'm determined to immerse them in a potpourri of gaming. If for no other reason so that they may find what their interests truly are in the hobby. However, while not all expansions provide a lot of improvement, still others significantly enhance a title or series. I mean, for every Rock V there is a Rocky Balboa!