I like Big Boxes and I cannot lie…
Well, actually. I’m not sure that I do.
Given the mass proliferation of expansions that most modern Board Games experience, the Big Box edition is a fairly logical evolution. For the game publisher, they can grab your money all at once, rather than just having to hope that you buy all the back-catalogue of expansions. (I’d imagine that there are also economies of scale in selling 1 big thing on 1 occasion, rather than a string of different small purchases.)
For the gamer, there are advantages too – it’s typically cheaper to buy a Big Box than to buy all of the contents separately, and the use of box-space is typically more optimised: no need to pad things out with a massive insert to disguise the fact that all you’re really getting is a few decks of cards.
A few years ago, I bought the big box edition of Alhambra. I’d done a lot of reading about the game, decided that it seemed good, and wanted to make the long-term saving. The box is very big, but it’s also packed with stuff, and everything has a very specific slot to go in, with a photograph to guide you when putting stuff back. As a big fan of optimised storage solutions, this seemed like a no-brainer.
However, regular readers may remember me mentioning not that long ago that Alhambra recently hit the table for the first time in over 2 years. So what went wrong?
Before I get too far into the post-mortem, I feel like I ought to offer a brief explanation of how Alhambra plays. The object of the game is to construct your own version of the Spanish Palace of the same name, by buying tiles and arranging them in a network. On your turn you can pick up money, use money picked up earlier to buy tiles, or rearrange the tiles you already have. At random points throughout the game (roughly 2/5th and 4/5th through the money deck) players will score their Alhambras, and points are given to the player who has the most tiles of each type of building, with different types being worth more than others. Although it sounds slightly complex, the scoring is laid out clearly on each player’s individual board, and you get the hang of it quickly. It’s also worth noting that whilst you score tiles based on their colours, you buy them based on their position in the marketplace.
… back to the topic at hand, having played Alhambra Big Box a fair few times, I do think it’s a good game, one that I have enjoyed playing. That said, it does have issues. Firstly, it doesn’t work all that well with 2: you have a dummy player, who we’ve never quite forgiven for beating us the first time we tried a 2-player game. The dummy player himself is quite random in his abilities, but the scope for the players to exploit his presence makes the game a bit too strategic for my wife’s tastes. Having largely ruled this one out as a 2-player option, we need to look at other groups: sadly, this is where the second issue came in, that one of the people we game with most often when it isn’t just the two of us, just didn’t like the game. He found the aspect of saving up over several turns for a tile which disappeared before he could buy it too infuriating (personally, I don’t have that much of an issue with this – it forces players to balance between buying things and keeping a well-stocked hand and it tends to balance out over the course of the game anyway. Either way, this wasn’t a game I cared enough about to fight him on those issues). By the time we’d ruled out 2-player sessions at home, and 3 or 4-player sessions with him involved, that’s probably 80-90% of our gaming time gone, and Alhambra was left to gather dust.
As far as the actual expansions for Alhambra go, they were a bit of a mixed bag.
I really like the “change” mechanic: in basic Alhambra, if you over-pay for a building, your excess money is lost (in fact, you’re doubly punished for overpaying, as your turn ends immediately, whereas paying the exact amount allows you another action). This expansion was a very simple thing: a cloth bag containing cardboard coins in the colours of the 4 currencies of the game: for each 2 money you paid above the asking price, you get back 1 random coin, which is worth 1 towards future purchases. It added to the decision-making, and allowed a measure of gain from decisions that just looked bad otherwise.
The change wasn’t the only inclusion, far from it – Alhambra expansions add almost everything you could think of to the game: characters with variable powers, new currencies, tiles, bits of wood, I think there may even be a dice in there. The Big Box combines 5 released expansion boxes, each with 4 or 5 different modular elements that you can add to your game.
The fact that they were all modular was nice, for variety, but too often, they were fixing a problem that didn’t exist, or answering a question that hadn’t been asked. Some I played with once, others I never bothered with at all. Several years later, there are bits of this that remain untouched and overall this feels like too much stuff, and too much space, given over to a game that doesn’t get much play.
The other (blindingly obvious) thing about buying a “Big Box” edition of a game, is that it comes in a big box. A box so big, in fact, that it wouldn’t fit on our normal game-shelf, and it ended up having to live on top of a bookcase. Lots of our games go through periods where they aren’t being played much, but there’s always that time when someone scans their eyes across the bookcase and spots one, saying “how about a game of X? We haven’t played that in a while.” – once it’s up out of sight, that doesn’t tend to happen.
Having dragged it down to play the other week, it sat in the middle of the living room floor for a while. As we prepared to go round to a friend’s house one day, I considered taking it along, only to be put off by the fact that it wouldn’t fit in any of the bags I’d typically use for transporting games.
Although it doesn’t affect Alhambra, the other problem with Big Box editions is that they fail to keep up: Carcassonne seems to be a particular culprit for this, with multiple Big Box editions appearing over the years as they try to keep pace with the never-ending and sometimes bewildering string of expansions. According to Board Game Geek, there have been at least 5 different ones – some friends of ours have a “Carcassonne Big Box” but I’m fairly sure it’s a different Big Box to the one now available on Amazon. Dominion is another game which seems to have had multiple slightly different iterations of “big box” over the years, with differences that could be difficult to identify for those unfamiliar with the game.
Another issue with Big Boxes, is one I’ve mentioned before in relation to Carcassonne, the fact that some games suffer severely from bloat: eventually all those expansions either give you so many components, or just so much complexity that a fun 20-minute game becomes an hour-long slog.
If I go to meet-ups of the local gaming group, I periodically see Big Boxes – certainly the version of El Grande we played a few months ago (I say “a few months.” To be honest, I think it was about Christmas time) was from a Big Box – but I think we only used the basic version of the game. It’s no good having lots of expansions if nobody knows the game, and you’re having to extract them all again for the newbies.
Of course, you could have a fixed Big Box as a starter point, and still have expansions on top of this. With modern games being in such a fluctuating state though, even that becomes tricky. Pandemic only made it as far as 1 expansion before they rebooted it, and made all the future expansions to match the new style. Would people have been more annoyed if they’d bought Pandemic and On The Brink together as a “Big Box” then found it wasn’t future compatible?
A month or so ago, a new edition of Dominion was announced – half a dozen of the Kingdom cards are being replaced, the result of 8 years’ experience of extending the game, and thousands if not millions of recorded plays, dwarfing what would be possible in any play-test group. The publishers have confirmed that, for a little while at least, there will be upgrade packs available for the cards that are completely new for second edition, but there’s a ruckus developing over the cards undergoing “minor” changes. How will these be made available? Will people have to re-buy the base set if they want the revised wordings? If so, that might not be the end of the world for those with the ordinary version of the game- chances are they can sell on their old versions, but it’s a lot harder with a Big Box.
There are games I’ve played in the past that I’ve ended up buying into in a big way. After a while (sometimes months, sometimes years) when the hype fades, the time can come to reassess your collection. Often, part of me thinks, that the sensible thing to do would be to part with some or all of the expansions (freeing up space and money), but keep the base game. Often that’s been the point where I realise I’ve shot myself in the foot by ditching the expansion boxes (for this reason I now tend to stack empty expansion boxes on top of a cupboard for future use), but for anyone who buys in to the Big Box, it’s never an option.
Of course, selling games always has its limits, and it’s easy to over-estimate the liquid value of a game, but anything that restricts future courses of action feels like an issue.
Overall, despite being a completionist and a big fan of efficient storage solutions for my games, I think I’m generally unconvinced by the Big Box. At root, it feels typical of the modern consumer mentality, convincing people to buy based on a theoretical saving that doesn’t stop to consider whether you would have actually bought all that stuff in the first place. It happens on a daily basis in the supermarket: Yes the bigger tub of cream is cheaper per litre, but if I’m going to end up throwing half of it away, then I’d have been better off with the smaller tub that cost 50p less.
As I said earlier, I like Alhambra, and I think it’s a good game, but it’s not one that’s suddenly likely to see lots of play. If I had the base game, or maybe even one expansion (whichever one the change comes in) then I’d keep it, play it now and again, and not really worry about it too much. As it is though, the Big Box sits in the middle of the living room floor, asking to either be hidden back on top of the cupboard, or moved on. A large part of me is tempted to sell it – if only it weren’t so big and heavy when I come to posting it…