After another couple of playtesting it’s become apparent that the artiste game is the strongest by an order of magnitude. Whether I’m testing with gamers, musicians or just people who want an excuse to do something other than continue with their regular work for twenty minutes it’s consistently come out on top. We’re going to commit to making that game, so now I’m tasked with developing and balancing it as well as looking at ways to expand it, so I’d like to spend this weeks post talking about expansions.
As a gamer I dislike expansions, I almost never buy them. In the majority of cases a base game is the designer’s best work and expansions attempt to prolong it past the point that players got all that they can out of the core game. They also tend to be priced comparably to full games, so even if they did breathe new life into an old game it never seems economical to buy one in preference to getting an entirely new game. They are not my favourite thing.
However there have been exceptions. The only game I’ve given a perfect rating to on BGG is the Space Alert expansion and Descent: Road to Legend provided almost a years worth of Sundays of gaming experiences. I think that these expansions are particularly strong because they offer a fundamentally new experience that the original games could not. In both cases they create tension between long term and short term choices.
In Space Alert the game becomes more interesting as players balance the needs of this mission against the needs of an achievement system that allows them to accrue experience between games to start new games with extra abilities. In Descent the tension arises because rather than having the group lose when they run out of conquest they instead gain an infinite number of attempts with each defeat increasing the difficulty of the decisive final battle. Victory is inevitable (if you’re willing to die enough times) but the cost can be excessive. It moves the question from “What is the most efficient way to win this?” to “Is winning it worth the trouble?”
For the artiste game entirely redefining the game play experience may be a tall order. The base game only needs about 18 cards to function, so the plan is to try to add a bit more variety to the core game and get it up to 24. Then to test a bunch of 10 card expansion packs and pick the best of them. The logic underlying this is that we’re in contact with plenty of printers that are set up for printing 54 card decks (That being a standard pack of playing cards) and it’s not much more expensive to do that than to print the 24 and have to get a more limited run of a custom size box printed up. Economically I hate buying expansions, but even I’d have trouble arguing with “Here’s the fully tested game that’s doing really well and we’ve thrown in three expansions at no extra cost.”
The upshot of that though, is that the game is fairly compact and the expansions are positively tiny. It’s a tough limitation to work within, so redefining the game through one of the expansions might be a tall order. However it’s not the only tough limitation, designing a game to be played by people who don’t have a history in the hobby gaming market but that will still be fun for gamers has been tough. Expansions have the possibility of providing some relief there, as they can be used to add complexity in a way that’d be satisfying for gamers but that won’t overwhelm any brand new players. Different players have different comfort zones and will play a different number of times before adding in all of the extra comfort, so it can act as a buffer to allow for some ideas that would be beyond the scope of the base game.
This post is about the nature of expansion and their design so I’ll leave the getting into the details of the artiste expansions that I’m working on for another post. To summerise: Each one is a ten card expansion that adds some new mechanic to the game (to add some new type of play) and expands the number of playable roles (to give the game some more longevity) and is themed around some problem in the orchestra that can be anything from a glitch ridden tech rehearsal to members of the orchestra falling in love with each other and having goals beyond the music.
The guidelines underpinning the expansions is as follows:
- Each expansion needs a strong thematic identity. If you can’t complete the sentence “Remember that game where…” talking about something cool in the context of the fictional orchestra then the idea’s not good enough.
- Each expansion needs a strong mechanical identity. If you can’t complete the sentence “Remember that game where…” talking about something cool in the context of playing a game then the idea’s not good enough.
- Each expansion needs to add at least one new role. Social deduction games thrive on having a bunch of variety in the situations that can emerge from the game.
- Each expansion needs to add something that’s not a role. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a card – for instance the violinists fighting over who gets to be first chair in the core game could be an expansion because you have to care about something new: Which player is in which seat. If there’s literally no new idea or mechanic then it’d be better to wrap the expansion into the core game and make the core game bigger (Don’t rule this out if the situation arises!)
- The content added by expansions should be no more complex than the core game. The game with an expansion will of course be more complex than the game alone – but anyone who can play the core game should be able to add in the expansion once they’re sufficiently used to the game. If an expansions rules wind up becoming more involved than the core rules something has gone wrong.
- Where possible the expansions should aim to satisfy needs that can’t be met by the core game. This could be because the need runs contrary to a requirement for the core game (especially complexity) or because the need runs contrary to needs of other testers (so you wouldn’t want it to be a mandatory part of the game).
While these are tailored to this particular project, I think that they would almost certainly generalise to creating an expansion for any game. For some games the mechanical or thematic identity might be more or less important and the thing that the game needs more of (in our case roles) would change from game to game.
Overall this feels like a good grounding to start developing expansions from