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Writing (for) Expansions

Expansions can be a great thing for a small designer and producer. They allow you to continue the tail for sales of your game and increase the possible value of a re-print, additionally allowing you to launch a small game and build on it as resources and interest become available. However, there are some things that can go wrong with expansions and disappoint the fans you’ve gained. I suspect that when they go wrong its due to a lack of forethought in the original design, so in this blog I’m trying to lay out some things to consider when putting together a game that you might want to expand in the future.

To my mind the best reason to do expansions for a game is that you’re a small developer and you want a game that has tons of content but aren’t confident that people will pay out for a high-cost game from an unknown. I think that mostly because that’s what I did with SSO, which I’ll end up using as an example here, so I’ll just take a second to explain how it works.

In SSO the players are a rescue team trying to save the S.S.Omega from a disaster that has befallen it. The base set of the game lays out the ship and provides the crew and rules along with a deck of cards that drives the disaster in question. What I wanted was a game that would let you play through a range of sci-fi horror survival/space disaster tropes, but I also wanted a game that I could sell for £10 and mail out in a standard large letter. The answer was to build the base set with one deck of cards that told one story but that could be slotted in and out to tell other stories with expansions.

So far, we’ve made three deck expansions and a deluxe expansion for SSO, each new expansion has been picked up by existing fans (around 20% of the original sales of the base set, which is very heartening and more than we were expecting) and driven renewed sales of the original game. In addition, it now means that what was launched as a low investment pocket sized game (and is still available in that format) can be an epic tale spanning hours of play with higher end components for the fans that want to follow in on it, which I’m delighted by. It also means that when we return for a re-print (hopefully later this year) we can offer a whole range of products and display our commitment to the ongoing series, all in a way where we’ve been able to cover our costs at each stage and keep financial risk to an absolute minimum.

If you didn’t plan, don’t do

The biggest place where I personally see expansions failing and sometimes upsetting the very fans that they were meant to service is where they’re added onto a game that wasn’t planned to take them. Usually this is where a game does better than expected and a publisher understandably wants to cash in a little on its initial success. If a game is written to be self-contained and the best that it can be these expansions are sometimes quite transparently what they are though, a cash grab based on monetizing good will. The temptation can be strong, but try to avoid this sort of thinking. The best way to monetize the good will of fans after pleasing them with one self-contained game is to offer them another good self-contained game, not milk them like cash cows and put them off coming back for your next big launch. If you want to benefit from the positive attention of a launch more directly then design a new stand-alone title in the same world or genre.

If its not an add-on, don’t add it on

The other worst sort of expansion is the form that is launched with a base game giving basic play elements for that base game. The usual culprit here is an additional player count expansion launched with a Kickstarter, either a solo mode or a 5-6 player mode. There can be good intent here, but generally these expansions are little more than an upsell during a Kickstarter where backers are baited with an initial low price and then offered just a little more and a little more to fill out the game they’ve already paid out for, worse if there is an implication that the game or expansion won’t be available after the campaign. If an expansion directly extends the base game and is being printed at the same time as the base game, and even fits into the base game box, then it should ideally be in that base game box. The box is generally the most expensive part of a game, producing an expansion separately from the base set when it can fit right into it is therefore significantly increasing the end price for backers for no good reason other than profitability for the creator. As such, I’d advise against this sort of behavior.

Modularity is your friend

The biggest thing to consider when designing for expansions is to include modularity in your game. Which is to say, include something that can be slotted in or out while allowing the base set to be its most complete form in itself. With SSO we did this with the challenge decks, the cards that drive the story of the game. The base game never changes its player count, which is as broad as it can possibly be (1-6 players) within the box, but new stories can be added. There are a few places to consider this in a design:

Player powers – Many games come with asymmetrical player powers which are largely modular. An excellent example of this is the game Root, where individual player’s abilities are totally modular based on player boards and individual components, as such expansions adding in new asymmetrical powers have been able to be added elegantly and with deserved popular response. When making player powers consider how much they require specific shared elements in the base set. If they can be made totally modular and not tied to the initial base set you can free yourself up for almost endless expansions.

Boards – Sometimes a more premium option can be board expansions. This isn’t suitable for every game, but certainly for games that fit in the dungeon delving genre modular boards are extremely useful and allow for significant expansions. Game like Space Hulk and Advanced Hero Quest did this masterfully and it continues to be a significant part of the expansion runs of many larger games. For smaller producers, consider whether a worker placement game could have its slots presented on cards or smaller boards to allow them to be swapped out in expansions.

Story Decks – Clearly, I think this is a good idea, but essentially if your core game is the materials for an engine of some kind and the story that engine puts players through is a modular deck then you can put multiple story expansions out fairly easily. Aside from SSO, many of the LCG games from Fantasy Flight use this method, Arkham Horror mythos packs are essentially modular story deck expansions (that actually include pretty much each of these categories) as are the T.I.M.E. Stories expansions.

Player Decks – Deck builders are of course built upon the principle of possibly the ultimate expansion selling game, Magic The Gathering, but even for a self-contained deck builder or deck battler, player decks are a simple enough entity to include as an expansion. If players have a self-contained deck of some sort, expansions are easy and logical extensions.

Beware bloating

If you have a game that you enjoy and people are responding to well it can be tempting to keep expanding almost endlessly, this is a temptation that its worth keeping a close eye on. If the expansions and extensions add complexity, or just weight, to the game then it can lead to bloat. Bloat is essentially the sense that the game is both too much for a new player to keep up with but also that its flabby, that parts overhang or undermine other parts. It’s rare that after a few solid expansions that new ones won’t do what previous parts of the game were doing perfectly well and can end up blurring what were originally satisfyingly well-defined lines. Keep expansions well defined with clear and definitive intent and when you’ve achieved what you wanted from them, stop.

Expansions should never be a necessity

Keep the door open for expansions, but be aware that you might never get to make them. They need to make financial sense, and that will be driven by player interest not your plans or wants, so make sure that your game is a complete and standalone experience whether or not you ever do a single expansion for it.

Consider where you might be able to put out small low-cost expansions for your game at the design level, if there are ways of trimming back elements or making them more self-contained as mechanics to allow for this, see what it looks like if you design for expansions. If you never make them ensure that’s fine, but if you do, you’ll thank yourself for your foresight.


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