Inns & Cathedrals

Boardgame expansions are much more common than they used to be.  Last year (2016), around 800 boardgame expansions were released!  And that figure doesn’t include mini/promo-type expansions.  Compare that with around ten years ago: in 2006, the number of expansions released was more like 200.

Now we obviously have more boardgames than we used to so there are more games that could potentially have expansions, but it’s more than that.  Expansions seem to be almost mandatory for any successful boardgame these days.  Some games on Kickstarter will even release expansions at the same time as the base game!

Is this a good thing?  Do you tend to buy expansions?  Are they worth the money?  Let’s investigate…

The first expansion I ever got was the Inns & Cathedrals expansion for Carcassonne.  Carcassonne was one of my first gateway games.  I don’t mean that it introduced me to gaming; I mean that it was one of the first games that I would play regularly with other people who were new to gaming.

However, this meant that I played it a lot!  I generally prefer heavier games when it comes to the strategy genre so Carcassonne was beginning to wane for me somewhat.  I was therefore delighted with the Inns & Cathedrals expansion.

It freshened up the game for me.

It added new tiles, new types of building, a giant meeple (that counted as two ordinary meeples) and components for playing with 6 players.  It freshened up the game for me.  There was more variety, more decisions to be made (should I use my giant meeple now or save him for later?), more opportunities for strategy – it was great!

The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the idea of playing with 6 players.  Turn-based games like Carcassonne can slow down horribly with too many players.  There’s very little to do when it’s not your turn other than wait.  The more players there are, the more downtime there is.

Adding a 5th/6th player, via an expansion, is a sin that many publishing companies are guilty of, in my opinion.  It’s almost never a good idea.  If a game is released with a player count of 2 – 4, that’s usually because it has been playtested and found to work with those numbers of players only.

Shoehorning a 5th player in is asking for trouble.

A publisher isn’t going to artificially restrict a game’s player count to 4 if it will play 5.  The more players it will successfully play the better, as far as the publisher is concerned.  It is an attractive selling point for a game to play 5 or 6 players well.  Not many games manage that.  So if the base game only plays up to 4, shoehorning a 5th player in with an expansion is asking for trouble.

The problem is that people may really enjoy playing a game with 4 people, but find that there are several times when they can’t play it because they have 5.  When publishing companies ask people what they would want most in an expansion to their favourite game, many people reply that they would like to be able to play it with more people, not realising what a disastrous idea that would be!

You would hope that a publishing company wouldn’t sell something that they knew wouldn’t be good, even if they could guarantee sales.  Unfortunately, the financial bottom line often takes precedence here.

So broadly speaking (5th/6th player expansions aside), I really like the idea of expansions.  If there’s a game you really like, buying an expansion typically gives you lots more of it, which can revitalise the game.  However, in practice, I have bought very few expansions over the years.  Why is that?

In short: time and money.  I am in the fortunate position of living very close to a boardgame café (The Dice Cup in Nottingham) and am a member of a large gaming group.  Several of the people in my group buy new games regularly.  I probably play 2-3 new games per week.  That’s a lot of different games.

Now I like playing new games, so this suits me fine, but it does mean that I don’t play the same game many times.  If I had more time, there are lots of games that I would like to play more often, but I haven’t quite managed to work out a way to play games as a full-time occupation… yet!

They rarely seem to provide value for money.

The other key factor here though is money.  Expansions can be expensive: they often cost more than half the price of the base game.  So for the price of two expansions, I could buy a whole new game.  While I like the variety and extra stuff that expansions provide, they rarely seem to provide value for money.  If I had two games, buying a third game seems to add more variety to me than buying expansions for the two games I already have.

However, I can’t help feeling like I must be in the minority here.  Expansions are clearly profitable or the publishing companies wouldn’t keep churning out so many of them each year.

This is especially surprising when you consider the potential market for an expansion: by necessity, it must be considerably smaller than the market for a standalone game.  The only people who are going to buy an expansion for Carcassonne are people who have already bought Carcassonne.

While it will obviously depend on the expansion in question, I suspect that there is an expected sales percentage (compared with the base game) for expansions.  Eg. As a publisher, you might expect sales of an expansion to achieve 30% of the sales of the base game on average and reach 40% if it sells well.

I should say that I’ve plucked these figures out of thin air as publishing companies keep actual sales figures close to their chest, but I would be amazed if it is more than 50% in general.  There must be enough people buying them to justify production though.

Expansions are effectively a way for publishing companies to upsell to their customers.  “Oh, you’ve bought one of our games?  Have you considered this expansion, which will be the perfect accessory to your purchase?”

I suspect that they also make great presents for people.  If you buy your loved one an expansion for a game they already own and enjoy, they’re pretty much guaranteed to like it.  In fact, I think most of the expansions I own were bought for me as presents!

Do you like expansions?  Would you rather spend your money on expansions or new games?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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