By Jack Eddy
It’s 4:30 in the morning. You have work today. Maybe you could make a go of it if you just get up and make some coffee, but your bed begs you to stay, promising an hour or two of sleep, sleep which you will desperately need to make it through your day. So you continue to lay there, trying to empty your mind, but it turns plodding, pulsing warmth. Have you slept at all? In the delirium, your only company is a singular thought that you always return to; Is your copy of Suburbia complete without the 5 Star expansion? Sure, the experience is nearly perfect with the base set and Suburbia Inc, and sure, 5 Star sounds like it may even detract from the purity of the game; but it exists, and you don’t have it, and ordering online is just a click away. After considering this a few thousand times, you look at the clock, it’s 6:52am.
Expansions are a funny thing. When you buy a game, the publisher is trying to sell you a complete product worth your time, money, and energy. They painstakingly craft this delightful box of a goodies, honing it to it’s purest and most perfected form, and yet, inevitably, an expansion comes along. Does this mean the base game was incomplete? Or is it there for people who want to dive in deeper? Perhaps it fixes some issues that the designer and publisher overlooked during playtesting. Or maybe, just possibly, an expansion was created because they know gamers, who have a tendency to be completionists, will feel obligated to buy it.
I don’t truly believe that publishers are as insidious as that. Most of the people in this industry seem to be good natured gamers who want to make game that they’d enjoy playing. Many companies have extremely good customer service, they want consumers to feel like they got value out of their purchase; but you better believe that many publishers are now considering their games as content platforms rather than standalone products. If Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) can get you to feel so invested in Descent, or Imperial Assault, or Netrunner, or Lord of the Rings, or X-Wing, Arkham Horror, or (insert massive product line here) that you feel somewhat obligated to buy the next expansion, then they have achieved their goal.
This parallels a similar trend in the video game industry, where additional downloadable content (DLC) can be purchased for most new game. The best case scenario is that the game feels complete without the DLC, and those who want to dive deeper have the option; this empowers consumers to have the experience that they want, and they won’t feel cheated out of the core game experience. More egregious examples like Mass Effect 3 and Resident Evil 5 (both games that I love), house meaningful story content or game modes on the disc you already purchased, but you have to pay extra to unlock them. Some may argue that you can still play these games without that extra content, I’d argue that there would be a massive prothean-sized hole in the experience. It’s a difficult thing to put your thumb on because value is so hard to measure in the entertainment business. Affordability, artistic impact, and level of entertainment are all extremely subjective, but it does seem like both video game publishers and their cardboard cousins see much better return when they get gamers to buy into small expansions down the road.
In 2015, FFG was credited as publisher for 130 listings on Boardgamegeek; of these, 11 were standalone games. Compare that to 2010, with 99 total and 20 standalone listing. In spite of FFG’s massive success over the years, they are making fewer and fewer new games. And it makes sense too.Each new game has to compete in a massive field with tons of great products, but an expansion is safe, publishers know they already have an audience for that product, and suddenly the value proposition goes out the window. Star Wars: Imperial Assault is usually found in the US for around $70-$80, and it comes with about a billion miniatures, tons of cardboard, cards, gorgeous art… But the mini character pack expansions released at the same time usually come with a single miniature, a couple cards, instructions, and costs $10. For the same price as 8 character packs, you could have a complete game with way more than double the content.
Fantasy Flight is an extreme example, but most publishers want games that have room to expand. If the base game proves to be a success, they will have an install base eagerly awaiting content for their favorite game. Unfortunately, expansions are not always great, and can sometimes bog a game down with needless mechanics and bloated content, making the game a much less focussed experience. Remember, it didn’t get to be your favorite game of all time because it was missing something, sometimes less can be more.
Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of expansions for my games, and there are some that I would say are so good that it fundamentally transforms a game into a better experience. And yes, a few of those may even be from Fantasy Flight Games. I just want gamers to feel empowered to make smart decisions. Consider what you are spending your hard earned money on, be informed of what you are getting, and make sure that it brings value to you. If you are the person who wants to play every mission in descent with the most character options available for an uber epic campaign experience, by all means, do so! Just don’t buy every expansion released for the games you own simply because they exist, lest you end up with a pile of unplayed plastic and paper, reeking with the stench of regret.
In light of how overwhelmingly negative this article turned out, we’ll have something up soon highlighting some of my absolute favorite expansions.