Friday, May 23, 2014

The Ever Expanding

This week I'm taking a short break from the Cardboard Olympus to talk about something else: expansions. Let’s face it, there is a list of games that are simply not as fun without one or two additional boxes. Arkham Horror needs The Dunwich Horror to get off the ground. Core Worlds is leaps and bounds better if we add the Galactic Orders to the basic box. Dominion is great, but only with Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity, Alchemy, Cornucopia, Dark Ages and Alchemy your essential deckbuilding experience will truly be complete.

Box cover of Dominion
(source: wikipedia/Dominion_(card_game)) 
Box cover of Arkham Horror
(source: wikipedia/Arkham_Horror)
Okay, I will admit that Dominion is actually a lot of fun with just one of its basic boxes, and I should probably disclose that I had played its primary set so many times that I needed to replace the completely worn treasure cards before I actually got bored with the game. That, however, does not change the fact that the game needed only a few months to see its first big expansion, as if trying to quickly cash in on the craze that it had started.

We all probably know that there are two ways of looking at game expansions. Either we are happy that they exist to make your favourite game bigger, better and more replayable, or we just think of them as ways for the publishers to crack the safe that is your gaming budget (sometimes including money for food, rent and clothes, especially if you're an avid fan of competitive CCGs). In a way, you would be right to believe that it’s a bit of both.

It is true that publishers make money off expansions. It is true that if all of the expansion material was included in the basic box (for the same price), it would probably be better for the person purchasing the game. It is also true, that this could work only in a perfect world, because the reality of designing and publishing games simply makes it impossible.

In my neck of the woods I heard a lot of complaints that Stronghold Games was holding out on them right after Core Worlds hit the store shelves. Admittedly, the publisher made itself an easy mark by printing the base set cards already with the symbols needed for and used only by the game’s first expansion (but, in truth, Race for the Galaxy did a pretty similar thing back in the day and not many people seemed to mind). Some said at that point that elements of the game were purposely removed to be sold separately later, for the sheer and disgusting goal of making more profit.

Box cover of Core Worlds
(source: Boardgamegeek)

Well, it all might be true. It’s entirely possible that Andrew Parks had every single element of what we got in the Galactic Orders box completely functional and running before even submitting the prototype to the publisher. I for one think he did not. And here is why.

Box cover of Core Worlds: Galactic Orders
(source: Boardgamegeek)
The process of designing a moderately complicated game usually leaves you with some bits and bobs that were originally a part of the design but just did not fit in with its final structure. Sometimes it’s because they would just make the game too complicated or convoluted, and sometimes they get trimmed in the process of developing a game, because they add nothing but an extra layer of “fiddliness” without much of a payoff.

If you factor in time, which rarely is an infinite resource when you’re getting around to publishing a game, it is also entirely possible to be forced to remove this or that from the design, because (while being a good idea) it just doesn’t want to work exactly the way it should, and nobody – neither the designer, nor the developer – knows how to make it behave. That is, until the game goes to the printers and serendipity finally decides to return the long overdue call.

In the end, it all boils down to a notion similar to those seen in any form of creative art (and yes, I believe designing games is art) that is prone to being “expanded”: a single book can only be so long, a single canvas can only be so big and a single photo can only fit so many objects before all becomes too small or too blurry to actually make out, making the whole endeavour defeat its purpose.

So, in conclusion: yes, some expansions may be a money grabs (and we’ve witnessed how blatant these practices may become with some video game DLC), but most certainly not all of them are. And the good ones certainly serve one very important purpose: they make what we love last longer. And that is an idea I do not think anyone would find extremely difficult to get behind.

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