The near-constant cry of the Lord of the Rings LCG player, the notion of game death has become an in-joke for fans of Arkham Horror, and a rallying cry for the followers of many, many modern board games, but what’s it all about? Does it make any sense? And do us normal folks need to be worried about it?
At risk of this becoming one of those articles when I talk about the good old days when games were made of lead, and we couldn’t play them anyway because we were too busy dying of consumption down a coal mine, I want to start with a bit of a look back at the past.
Nobody buying a board game made by Hasbro or Waddingtons in the 1980s or 90s ever worried about the game “dying” – once you had your copy of Mousetrap, or Cluedo, it would make literally no impact on your life if the publisher’s factory burned down tomorrow, and nobody ever made that game or a related one again (for Monopoly, this may just be wishful thinking). A Board Game came in a box, everything you needed to play was in that box, and that was that.
Nowadays, it seems that things are different. The idea that when you buy a board game that’s it, is no longer a certainty, in fact it can be the exception rather than the norm. Often a modern game is a starting point, a proof of concept, something that comes with an expectation of further content.
At the most extreme level comes the Core Box for an LCG – most of the time, this isn’t even enough to build a ‘legal’ deck, and will come with special starter rules.
Even when a game can be played “properly” out of the box, lots of games look for more. Deck-builders will always have far more richness when there is a greater card pool to build with, and any game that is scenario-based will always want more scenarios to play. Ultimately though, I think that there’s a point where the value drops away- and by implication the danger of the game “dying” diminishes. Let’s look at a couple of examples
When the Core Set of Arkham LCG was released, I bought it, and thought it was a pretty good product as a starting point. If expansions had never materialised though, I don’t know how much life this game would really have had in it – even leaving aside issues of expectation and communication, the core-box-only product was just a bit too limited.
We’ve now finished the first cycle, and the deluxe which starts the next cycle has just arrived (in today’s post. Hooray!).
I enjoy this game, and hope it continues past the second cycle, but I think that 15 investigators, 2 large campaigns, a mini campaign and a couple of standalone scenarios, along with the volume of player cards that we’ll have by the time Path to Carcosa is complete, would still be enough to keep playing the game for a fair few years if the flow of new product did suddenly stop.
For Lord of the Rings LCG, 100+ Heroes and probably a similar number of scenarios in, a new expansion is much less likely to even register – it might only be 1 or 2 player cards that get used, and if the quest isn’t particularly compelling, it may well not get played again once I’ve successfully beaten it. I’m already thinking that I’ll stop buying after the end of the current cycle / final Saga box which should be out by the autumn, but I wonder whether it would be good for the game, not just for me, if they called it a day – like the Kings of Nuemnor before its waning, knowing when to lay down their lives in good health, rather than prolonging their decline.
Of course, a game doesn’t need to come in a “Living” or collectible format to feel like it needs something more.
For example, Marvel Legendary can very easily be played using only that original box, but a lot of people find the lack of variety and the comparatively low level of difficulty something of a turn-off. In order to get that fully rounded, challenging, game experience that lots of people are looking for, it probably needs an expansion or two.
To take another example, go onto Board Game Geek, and look at any one of the many, many threads about “Which expansion should I buy for Eldritch Horror?” – 99% of the time, you’ll see the same answer. “Get Forsaken Lore first: it rounds out all the core decks and introduces a few odds and ends that should have been in the core game.” Essentially, the consensus seems to be that Eldritch Horror is a game that appears in 2 boxes (Eldritch Horror and Forsaken Lore), then there are the expansions.
I’ve owned Pandemic for several years. I don’t remember how many exactly, but it was before I moved into my current house, so at least 4 ½. When we first got it, we played it a lot. Then it got put to one side for a while – it wasn’t until the hype surrounding Pandemic Legacy really kicked off that I was reminded of this game that had been sat gathering dust.
Sometimes a new release of content is the impetus a game needs to get back to the table – whether it reminds you of something you already have, or whether it refreshes something that was getting stale.
That said, there are dangers – I know that there are games where I’ve been tempted by expansions, but have ultimately held off, simply because I know that the base game has never really been played enough to justify spending more money on it.
What happens to games when there isn’t that relentless pressure to buy more content, that constant string of reminders from the hype machine? Well, to be honest – nothing too terrible. Either you don’t play it, and it sits there, or you do play it, in which case the expansion probably wasn’t crucial. Expansions are good for the game company, because they can sell you more things, but it will vary a lot as to whether they are good for you, the players.
In highly competitive games, like the Game of Thrones LCG, you’ll often hear a lot of references to a “meta” – essentially, the general environment of what everyone else is playing. As time passes, people will work out certain tactics and synergies that are highly effective, then more cards will come out that open up a new strategy, and things shift.
In this kind of environment, it seems to be excepted that the last thing you want is a “stale meta” – where everyone knows all the cards, all the combinations have been tried, and there are certain top decks, against which any other strategy is more of less pointless.
As I say, this is primarily an issue for highly competitive games that have an established history of an evolving card-pool (it need not be cards: insert “dice,” “units,” etc as you prefer). In these environments, the expectations are that the top players will be the ones who can most quickly crack a new release.
Other games, like Chess are still head-to-head and competitive, but haven’t had a new unit since an Englishman asked “what’s an elephant?” and someone decided to replace it with a Bishop – expectation is everything.
A few months back, I picked up a copy of Descent 2nd edition. I was inspired by the positive experiences we’d had with Mansions of Madness, and wanted to see whether Fantasy Flight’s app-driven games were as good when applied to a Fantasy Dungeon Crawler as a Lovecraftian mystery.
Descent is a good game, after a few plays, you can see why it is so highly ranked on BGG. There are definitely some issues – for me the biggest problem was the level of disconnect between the printed rules (which assume “1 vs many” play) and the app-driven experience – and I need to re-read some of the finer points of the rules, but overall, I enjoy it.
Descent has gone a bit quiet recently, with Massive Darkness getting the “new and shiny” vote for our table-top dungeon-crawling needs. I’m still expecting to give it some serious table-time later in the year though, and at some point, I’d imagine I’ll get an expansion or 2. An expansion will give me more variety of monsters, more heroes and classes to choose from and, if I go for the Shadows of Nerekhall box (my current plan), a whole new campaign enabled in the app.
At the moment, most of the big box expansions like Nerekhall seem to be fairly readily available and although a lot of the little Lieutenant packs can be hard to come by, the boxes that add major gameplay changes tend to cycle back in to print relatively often.
That said, it’s been nearly a year since a physical new release for Descent – does that mean FFG are done with it? This is a question which gets asked a lot, and generates a fair amount of heat as people disagree about what can or cannot be known.
Personally, I don’t get the sense that Descent is done with, but if I did, would that change things?
From one perspective, I might be rushing out to get Nerekhall, just in case it disappeared, rather than simply waiting? – once again it’s that sense of what makes a “complete” or incomplete game. On the other hand, I might decide that D2E (as I understand the kids are calling it these days) was fine as a self-contained product that only got fairly limited play, and concentrate my efforts elsewhere (especially if there was a 3rd Edition coming that had full co-op from the word go…)
I do most of my gaming at home, either with my wife, occasionally solo, or with a few friends.
Some games though, just don’t hit the table at home. There are generally 1 or 2 on the go at a time, and currently it’s Runewars Miniatures – 2-player competitive games that my wife just isn’t interested in (in the past Game of Thrones LCG, Star Wars Destiny, and various table-top wargames have all fallen into this category).
For these games, I need to venture out to the FLGS, or some other type of club, and that’s when the question of whether a game is alive or not becomes a big issue.
I’ve been enjoying the Runewars games I’ve played recently, and having Fantasy Flight put out regular Organised Play kits helps push a monthly event on a Saturday where I know other people will turn up to play, and I’ll actually get some use out of those figures I’ve been spending my money on.
If Runewars “dies” – i.e. FFG stop supporting it, or putting out new content, I could potentially end up with a lot of boxes of skeletons, and not a lot to do with them, particularly if the other players move on to something newer and shinier. Right now, Runewars is getting a lot of love and attention from FFG, so I’d hope that I’m safe for a year or so, but past experience has definitely taught me the dangers of investing heavily in something that might be unplayable by the time I get it assembled and painted. The boxes and boxes of Dice Masters which sit forlornly in the corner waiting for my son to be old enough to play dice games are a harsh reminder of that.
When all is said and done, I think it’s fair to say that there is a lot more concern and hype about games “dying” than there really needs to be. Provided a game isn’t played in a legacy format (actually damaging/changing elements as you go along), the chances are that you’ll be able to keep playing with the content you already have for a long while after the manufacturers have stopped churning out extras.
If organised play is important for you, then you do need to keep an eye on what’s happening, simply to avoid running out of opponents – still, this is generally going to be a bigger deal in the world of more competitive gaming, which already has a slightly different level of financial engagement than just buying something to play at home.