Chances are, if you know one type of game, this is it. You buy a box in a shop, and that box contains the rules, board, counters, cards etc for you to play the game. Done. From Mousetrap and Kerplunk through Monopoly and Cluedo to the Game of Life, this is what games of our childhood (showing my age) almost all looked like.
So, you’ve bought that stand-alone game above, and you like it – you’ve probably played it a lot of times, and you still enjoy it, but maybe it has the potential for more. Perhaps one aspect of the game gets a bit repetitive, perhaps the game is tied into a popular book or TV franchise, but some elements are left out: this is where the expansion comes in.
As it states in bold type on the back of the box, this is not a stand-alone game. If you buy this box by itself, you won’t be able to do a lot with it. However, combined with the original game you will find added options for the game, designed to increase replayability, or allow you to take the game in whole new directions.
Once a minor strand in gaming, expansions are now so common that many games are designed with the assumption that expansions will follow, leading to massive core game boxes with space for the expansion, or even key game elements being left out of the original to encourage customers to buy the next one.
Just in case you weren’t confused enough, there are also stand-alone expansions or, depending on your perspective, inter-compatible games. A good example of this is Dominion, a game in which players buy various cards to see them on the way to amassing “victory points” for their ultimate triumph. After the original “Dominion” there have been many expansions, most of which can only be played combined with the original game. However the first expansion “Dominion Intrigue” re-prints the core cards from Dominion which are needed in every game, meaning that subsequent expansions can be played with either Dominion or with Intrigue (or both) but not in isolation without either.
Collectible games, as the name perhaps suggests, need to be collected, rather than simply bought. In the gaming world, the towering leviathan which dominates the landscape is Magic: The Gathering, but for those unfamiliar with that game, a good comparison can be made with the Football sticker albums many of us collected as children (again, possibly, showing my age). There may be some kind of “starter” element, but by and large, the components for these games will be acquired by purchasing randomised packs, which will always contain “some cards” (or dice etc) for the game, but the specific distribution of which will vary.
Games with this distribution structure often have differing rarities, meaning that players will often end up with large quantities of the more common components, whilst trying to track down the rarer ones. They are also often used by games with an ongoing, evolving set of components – As I don’t play Magic, I’ll avoiding guessing at how it works, and take Dice Masters as an example.
Living Card Game
Increasingly, there seems to have been a move amongst many sections of the gaming community, away from the collectible structure, in search of something more predictable. Sure, nothing beats the thrill of opening a booster and getting “that card,” but far more often, you’ll draw needless duplicates, and the cost of keeping with the game is unpredictable at best, particularly if you’re slightly OCD and feel the need complete any set once started.
It was against this background that formats like the Living Card Game grew up. Living Card Game is a copyright term, owned by Fantasy Flight Games, although the concept can be found more broadly.
In Living Card Game (LCG), players will start out with a core set, which will give them the basic cards they need to start playing the game. For Lord of the Rings, this will give you a small selection of Middle Earth’s Finest heroes, along with a limited selection of equipment to help them on their way, and a few basic quests for them to undertake. For A Game Of Thrones or the Call of Cthulhu (and no doubt Netrunner, Star Wars, Warhammer etc) you will have the core cards needed to build a deck for one of the games main factions, and fight a fairly even battle against an opponent building with the same card-pool.
The difference comes with expansions. Each month (or so) Fantasy Flight will release a new expansion, giving you new cards for the various factions (and a new quest for Lord of the Rings). The change from the collectible format, is that wherever you buy “pack X” it will contain exactly the same cards, typically a full play-set (3 copies) of each of the cards included. Inevitably, decks built with dozens of monthly add-on packs will tend to become more powerful than something scrounged from a single starter-set, but the idea is that, provided each player has a similar-sized card-pool, then games should still be balanced.
As noted above, the LCG terminology is trademarked, but the concept isn’t and there are a growing number of games where the addition of content on a regular (monthly, quarterly) basis is the norm, but those add-on packs are all standardised in their content, avoiding the trawl to find the “rares”
Interestingly, with the proliferation of expansions and ongoing distribution formats, it is increasingly the case (in a way it never seemed to be in the 1980s) that when you buy a new game, what you have out of the box isn’t the complete package: sure it’s playable in some format or other, but almost bafflingly for people who are only familiar with the traditional method of distributing games, the assumption is that you’ll be buying extra products, there almost isn’t even an intention to make them a fully-rounded experience out-of-the-box.
An example of this can be seen in the Game of Thrones Card LCG, which is about to be re-launched for a second edition. The first edition of the game featured four factions – Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Targaryen, with “deluxe expansions” being required later if you wanted to play as House Greyjoy or house Martell. The second edition will feature all six of these factions, along with house Tyrell and the Night’s Watch – it doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that you’ll struggle to make a legal deck (previously 60 cards) for any one faction out of a core set without bringing in cards from other factions / buying extra packs. (Lots more to follow on game of thrones second edition when it arrives in the UK this summer).