Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Expansions

Last night we had an New Year's Gaming Eve here at Grubb Street, and had a very nice evening indeed, with a variety of games played, in particular expansions of games we already knew.

I asked the Lovely Bride for a Christmas for a game we could play together. Usually that is my job in the relationship, and we would end up with a nice European board game or something for Playstation 3 (we just finished the Indiana Jones Lego game after a year or two). I discovered that I should NOT leave the LB alone in a game store with such a directive, since she picked up THREE expansions - for Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, and Alhambra. Plus I had an expansion for Ticket to Ride that I hadn't cracked open yet, so this became a gaming session to play expansions.

Board game expansions are a little wonky, or rather wonkier than RPG expansions. How far do you go with it? Are you looking to create a new experience with well-known features? Are you seeking to extend the experience of the original game? Are you trying to correct weaknesses in the original? Are you trying to make a popular original (which would be one reason to do it in the first place) even more popular? It is sort of like movie sequels, and filled with many of the same perils.

So here's how we did:

Carcasonne: Princess and Dragon. The original Carcasonne is a tilebuilding game with a lot of quirky little rules in it (we tend to play the later Carcasonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which is set in prehistory and is a bit more streamlines). One of the challenges with Carcasonne is that it is like watching someone put together a jigsaw puzzle for most of it. Indeed, the game pulls people together as someone gets a city piece that he can't put anywhere, and people start lobbying for a particular play to help themselves. In addition, the original game had a problem with "mega-farms" - large, sprawling amounts of territory that will tip the game for one player.

The Princess and Dragon expansion is billed as taking the game into fantasy, but actually takes it more into randomness. New tiles bring into play and move around the Dragon piece, which takes pieces (meeples) off the board. The sudden swinginess introduced prevents someone from taking an early lead and holding it, but proceeded to carve a huge swath of empty cities, untended farms, and abandoned cloisters through the center of the map. We went through a phase where the time-honored strategies were suddenly blowing up in our faces, and quickly descended into a giggling mass of disaster. Result: It did make the game more fun by making it less serious. Your well-thought-out play can be overturned by a Dragon rampaging through your home.

Settlers of Catan: Traders and Barbarians. The original Settlers is a classic, the first to hit the beach in the new wave of European Boardgames, and remains an excellent game to teach people who has grown up on Candyland and Monopoly to show that board games don't have to be boring. It is nearly a perfect game in itself, the Platonic ideal, which makes it tough to expand. Traders and Barbarians is a bunch of individual expansions which could encourage repeated play, but the sheer number of them left the gang unwilling to experiment - after one "reminder game" to teach new people, we moved on to other activities. The addition of Fishermen, Camel caravans, and Barbarian raiders looks interesting, but it is toy box that will have to be sifted through.

Ticket to Ride: 1910 Edition. The original Ticket to Ride was brilliant and flawed. A train-building game that was easy to access, its small cards were difficult for the young and the old to shuffle, and its game play (determined through routes pre-selected on cards) tended to funnel everyone through the same corridor of the Mississippi valley, which made for frustrated play and nearly destroyed relationships. 1910 is a patch that works nicely - New decks of reasonably-sized cards, plus a 1910 deck of destination tickets, which concentrated on more east-west lines than north-south lines, making the valley of death less frustrating. Using both original and 1910 cards produces a much more random game where what tickets people had were not as clear.

Alhambra: First Expansion. The original Alhambra is another excellent core game involving tile-building a city, and buying those tiles with four different types of money cards. This expansion creeps around the edges, tweaking the game with small improvements that increase complexity without gumming things up too much. There is now a mechanic to interrupt the game to grab the city piece you really want. There are cards that let you change one type of money card to another. There are bonus cards that make you want one particular piece very, very much. And there are worker's tiles, which can increase in value depending on their adjacent tiles. We added ALL of these, and found that the original game stood up very well, and encouraged people to engage with the game when it was not their turn.

That's the lot of them, for the moment. In general, expansions, like the games themselves, vary in success. Carcasonne created a very different game, while Alhambra's deepened the play experience and Ticket to Ride's patched some issues. I don't make resolutions, but were I to make one to play more games, I would say that I was well on the way to keeping it.

More later.