Learning to Let Go
I own a lot of games, and a lot of those games have expansions, re-implementations, or otherwise compatible products. Today I want to think a bit about some of the big games collections I own, and when is the time to stop adding to them.
Too slow to stop
The undisputed waning giant of our gaming table is Pathfinder ACG. Playtime has plummeted from 265 games in 2015 to 81 in 2016, and a mere 22 for 2017. It hasn’t hit the table at all since last July.
Back in the period where this was getting played all the time, we bought everything that was going. 3 (and a bit) complete adventure paths, all the class-decks they could throw at us, and even some promos off of the secondary market.
Several of the class decks though, never really got that much play –or else they did, but most of the cards were just duplicates of things we had. A lot of the newer class decks look much more varied and interesting, but having shelled out on the earlier, unused, stuff it’s hard to justify spending any more.
I like to support the FLGS where I can, but 1.) they’re often not as cheap as the online retailers, and 2.) they tend to struggle to get stock for things that aren’t brand-new, unless it’s something that’s shifting in massive volumes. The way around both of these issues is to pre-order (they offer a 10% pre-order discount), but when you have a standing pre-order for anything new in a particular product line, it’s easy to just drift into buying new stuff.
I recently sold one adventure path (Wrath of the Righteous). It was a massive faff, and it won’t have got me anywhere near my money back, but it freed up a bit of space and a bit of cash. With hindsight, I should definitely have stopped getting Pathfinder stuff earlier than I did.
The Stuff of Legends
Another game which feels very big, and sometimes off-balance these days, is (to give it its proper name) “Legendary: A Marvel deck-building game“. With 2 base sets (normal and villains), 5 big-box expansions (Dark City, Secret Wars 1, Secret Wars 2, Civil War, X-Men) and a similar number of small-box expansions (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, Paint the Town Red, Deadpool, Fear Itself) I have A LOT of cards for this by now.
At its heart Legendary is still a great game – we play it reasonably often and have a lot of fun. However, the multiplication of keywords means you’re often left fumbling for a rules reference sheet, you will find Mastermind/Villain/Scheme synergies which don’t give the players a chance, and a lot of the special content ends up not getting used (I can’t remember the last time I used a Horror, a Pet-Sidekick, or an Ambition).
I was fortunate enough that I didn’t pay for either the (slightly disappointing) Deadpool, or the (excellent) X-Men boxes, and I started skipping new expansions a year or so ago: my Legendary collection is ‘missing’ the Noir, Spider-Man Homecoming, Champions and Fantastic 4 expansions. However much I enjoy the game, I’m not intending to pick those up any time soon and, unless the upcoming Hulk big-box appears to review, I can’t imagine even considering it for long.
Stretching things out
For a game like Legendary, whilst the set-up and keeping track of things can get quite Byzantine, the actual game experience remains broadly the same.
For other games, each new expansion stretches the basic experience.
Recently, I dusted off my copy of Carcassonne to play with a visiting relative. Like many people, Carcassonne was one of the first games we encountered when discovering modern board-gaming (alongside Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan). We liked it. We bought a version that had ‘The River’ included. Then we bought The River 2. And Inns and Cathedrals. And Builders and Traders. And Mayor and Abbey. AND the Princess and the Dragon. For a game listed on BGG as 30-45 minutes, you were now looking at a good hour for this sprawling mess of a game as you waded through the million tiles, and countless additional rules.
I’ve long since taken out all the Mayor and Abbey and Princess and Dragon content (don’t have the boxes, so can’t really sell them on). For the recent game we stripped out some of the extra rules (Inns, Cathedrals, Traders), whilst leaving in other bits (giant meeple, builder, extra tiles), and only used a partial set of River stuff. The overall experience was fun, and a good reminder of why Carcassonne was such a successful game in the first place.
Still, it’s interesting to think that (for us at least) whilst 1 or 2 expansions made the game better, too many made it noticeably worse.
If you played a lot of Carcassonne, I guess you could vary which expansions you used – keep it at no more than 2, but swap them around. For us, this is in 1 or 2 games a year territory these days (like most 1v1 games with my wife where I win too consistently for it to be fun any more often), and we’re not likely to do that much swapping things around.
Despite the stories above, I don’t want to suggest that bloat and confusion are the inevitable consequence of prolonged expansion-buying.
Runebound (3rd edition) is a fairly new game for us – got it in 2017, and played it 10 times, which is perfectly respectable for a 2-hour game. I have 2 expansions for it, the small-box Caught in a Web, and the larger Unbreakable Bonds. (Unbreakable Bonds is particularly good, as it adds a fully co-op mode). There are other expansions out there, but right now I’m feeling pretty happy with the set-up we have – around 8 Heroes, 5 quests (all of which can be played fully cooperatively), and options to mix up the skill decks. For this game, knowing where to stop seems key.
Interestingly, despite talking about it in relatively glowing terms, I realised as I was re-working this draft, that Runebound hasn’t actually been played yet this year. Clearly something needs to happen soon.
Eldritch Horror was a new acquisition late in 2016, traded for something else that no longer got played. We enjoyed it, and the inevitable tide of expansions followed. The first expansion is barely even an expansion – it’s more a fix for things that should have been in the original game: 6 mysteries per Ancient One rather than 4 (you use three per game), cards to pad out the encounter decks, and tokens to implement the Focus mechanic (taking an action to get a token you can use for a re-roll later).
Since then I’ve picked up 3 expansions from Games Quest to review, and a few others here and there – a birthday present, a bit of store credit from a mystery review, a Christmas present.
By now, the game is pretty weighty. It easily fills 2 large boxes, with the character standees in a separate small box. We have enough Ancient Ones that you’re unlikely to remember running into any of them more than twice, and 22 of the 55 investigators we own have only taken part in a single game. There are also 3 side-boards which appear fairly rarely indeed.
Despite all that, the expansions feel like sensible purchases, if not necessarily ‘good value’ had I paid cash for them all – we’ll still regularly get through over half of a location encounter deck in a single game, and the Rumour cards have a big enough impact that you don’t want to see them coming up too often. It’s understandable that some investigators are more fun, and get played more often, than others (Diana and Lily have featured in 13 games each), and the wealth of content gives us good future-proofing.
That said, I think this would be a good point for FFG to call it a day – already some of the small card-decks are near-impossible to shuffle, and finding specific cards is a real trial. We’ve not only exhausted all of FFG’s established investigator line-up, but Eldritch now has 3 characters who weren’t around for last year’s Investigators of Arkham Horror book, (Sefina Rousseau, Calvin Wright, Daniela Reyes) and Daniela currently appears in Eldritch only, and no other game. The fact that the most recent expansion contained Personal Missions for all the investigators released to date would make backwards compatibility really clunky for any future expansions.
Whilst I think Eldritch feels like it has reached a natural end, I do need to note that Elder Sign also looks like it has essentially exhausted the investigator pool (the most recent expansion featured 6 of the 7 investigators who just joined Eldritch Horror, and Daniela is now the only one not available.)
Will FFG really discontinue 2 profitable games at once? They do seem to be getting a lot of mileage out of Terrinoth and Rokugan (and, of course Star Wars and Lord of the Rings remain popular), but the Arkham line still looks like it’s a big part of their business.
I don’t want to sound like the dog in the manger here, and I can see people wondering why I couldn’t just stop buying things, and be happy for FFG to keep producing them for others. I guess that there are a number of reasons: for one thing, if they make more expansions, the chances are there that there will still be some elements that are good, along with bad elements, or aspects that make the game feel bloated – knowing when to call time in that environment is tricky.
More than that, if the designers are continuing to work in a cluttered, cramped design space, it suggests that they aren’t occupied elsewhere, making something new and better – I’m not 100% where there’s a space right now for another Arkham game, but I’d love to see FFG turn their energies to something like Middle Earth Quest 2nd Edition – app-supported and fully co-op.
Descending into madness
Some games I haven’t started expanding, but I know my own past well enough to be aware that if I do, I need to go in with a plan to avoid overspending and bloating the collection.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd Edition) is a good example of this – I think that a little more content would really make it shine. Too much would be a monster not worthy of the hours.
Ideally, I’d get Shadows of Nerekhall, but it’s been out of stock/print for a fair while. Instead then, I’ve ended up not getting anything else for the game and, to be honest, it hasn’t been played in months.
Part of me wonders whether our slightly underwhelming experience with this game (it’s “fine” but not much beyond that), is due to a lack of variety that an expansion would fix. Equally, it could just be the sheer range of alternative games that this needs to fight for table-time. Mansions of Madness does app-driven better, Massive Darkness is lighter and quicker. Gloomhaven is probably better for tactical dungeon-crawling, and Shadows of Brimstone does long-term character progression and customisation.
The recent announcement of a Terrinoth card game has revived my interest in Descent and Runebound, so maybe these will get played again soon, but there’s no guarantee.
Chicken or the Egg?
I’ve talked in the past (although not for a while) about Firefly – a game dripping with theme that somehow never quite feels compelling (and takes a really long time) – we don’t really own any expansions (just a small deck of cards) and I often wonder whether it should be moved on (it hasn’t be played since summer 2016) or expanded – the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion in particular gets good reviews for increasing the player interaction (others expand the
game-length, sorry, board, or add in new ships and crew). Is this not worth spending money on because it doesn’t get played? Or not getting played because it needs expansions?
Right now I’m reluctant to throw good money after bad, my wife is too fond of the Firefly theme to get rid of it, and nobody’s actually that keen to play it (it’s not great with only 2 players, and mustering the time with a bigger group is challenging.) that basically leads us to an impasse, which is probably the real reason it’s still sat there.
Having looked at games of various sizes, I haven’t yet talked about the one game that prompted me to start writing this article! However, as we’re already at 2000 words, I think it’s time to split off into a separate place.
I’ll be back shortly with a retrospective on the biggest game in my collection. Lord of the Rings the card game. For now though, just a few general thoughts:
I think it’s definitely going to be the case going forward that more and more games have more and more bits available, and that the scope to expand them is far greater that the time or money I have available.
I’m still a big fan of the concept of board game expansions – done well they can really enhance a game, and make for a much better gameplay experience, either in terms of fixing things for an individual session, or simply making sure that today’s game doesn’t feel like a re-hash of yesterday’s. The challenge is to work out when an expansion offers real value for money, and when it just becomes an unnecessary money-sink.