The Eleven: Essential Expansions

Expansions are the lifeblood of the gaming industry.  If a game comes out that is successful, you can bet there will be expansions.  Just like movie sequels, it’s usually more profitable to make an expansion to an already popular game than to make a new game.  If that sounds cynical, I don’t mean it to be – expansions can often breathe new life into older games.  I like expansions, though I don’t usually go out of my way to get them unless I think it’s really essential to the game.  With that, here are 11 expansions that I think are essential.

image by BGG user zefquaavius
image by BGG user zefquaavius

7 Wonders was a big hit when it first came out in 2010.  Designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Repos Productions, it is a 3-7 player drafting game where each player is trying to build up their own civilization.  In each of three ages, players will choose one card from a hand, play it, then pass the rest to their neighbor.  The game is all about getting points, and there are a lot of ways to get them – science cards can be stacked for exponential points, prestige cards are just worth points, merchant cards can get you extra points for money, military strength can earn you victories (or lose points for you), and guilds can give you all sorts of other scoring opportunities.

One problem I have had with 7 Wonders is that, when you get your first hand of cards, you have no direction.  Do you go for science or prestige cards?  Or would you be better off trying a military strategy?  The wonders themselves give you a little bit of a goal, but it’s pretty much just trying to build something and see what sticks.  And that’s where the Leaders expansion comes in.  You draft a hand of four leaders at the beginning of each game, then play one at the beginning of each age.  These leaders can give you a goal – you know what you need to make them effective, so you can be looking for those things as soon as you can.  The expansion took 7 Wonders from a pretty good game to a great game for me.  I have played Cities (the second expansion) a couple of times and like it too, though I’m not sure it takes the game to the next level like Leaders did for me.  I have not played Babel (the third expansion), though I heard that one is pretty great too.  But for me, right now, Leaders is an essential expansion.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Carcassonne has long been a classic gateway game.  Originally published in 2000, this Klaus-Jürgen Wrede tile laying game is a masterpiece of simplicity.  On your turn, you draw a tile and place it, making sure to line up features with already placed tiles.  You then add a follower (meeple) to the tile if you want to in order to score points (which you won’t actually receive until the feature you place it on is completed).  At the end of the game, you gain points for incomplete features as well as farmers, and the player who scored the most wins.

Carcassonne is famous for having lots of expansions, some sillier than others (like The Catapult).  But the first expansion, Inns & Cathedrals, is my choice for the essential expansion.  The first thing it did was add some new tiles that added different shapes to the existing features, as well as inns and cathedrals that give opportunities for scoring more points (or zero if left incomplete).  There are also some scoring tiles to help people know who had passed 50 (this really should have been in the base game).  It also included the big meeple, which counts as two meeples for tiebreaking purposes, as well as a sixth set of meeples for a sixth player (I’d recommend against playing Carcassonne with that many, but it is nice to have a new color).  Inns & Cathedrals is an example of an expansion that enhances a game without changing it much at all.  Many expansions will add new mechanisms or seek to change the game in some way, but I&C just made Carcassonne more without changing anything.  I never play without it, and that’s why it’s on this list.

image by BGG user Eeeville
image by BGG user Eeeville

Cosmic Encounter was first published in 1977, designed by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka.  The game had asymmetric alien powers, and was hugely influential for its time.  In the game, you are trying to be the first to land colonies on five foreign planets.  On your turn, you find out who you’re attacking, then you send ships.  You and your opponent can ask for allies, and then you choose combat cards to play.  There are various rewards and penalties based on who wins.  Over the years, several editions have released – the original came out from Eon, with Mayfair publishing it in 1991 and Avalon Hill publishing it in 2000.  Fans of the series rejoiced when, in 2008, Fantasy Flight released their version of the game, including 50 aliens as well as pieces for 5 players.

In 2010, the first Fantasy Flight expansion came out: Cosmic Incursion.  The game added 20 new aliens, including some reprints of old aliens and some new ones.  The game also included a reward deck, which gives cards you can draw when acting as a defensive ally rather than taking ships or cards from the cosmic deck.  These cards include negative attack cards, crooked deal cards that affect compensation from negotiations, a second morph card, kickers that can multiply your combat value, rifts that can get ships out of the warp or blow other player ships into the warp, as well as new attacks, reinforcements, and artifacts.  This really enhances the game by giving you some slightly different advantages.  There are other expansions (Cosmic Conflict, Cosmic Storm, and Cosmic Dominion) that add more aliens and mechanisms, as well as increase the player count.  But I think six is the perfect number of players for this game, and Cosmic Incursion adds just enough that I consider it to be the essential expansion for the series.

Prosperity - image by BGG user gf1024
Prosperity – image by BGG user gf1024

Dominion was first released in 2008, and really launched the deck-building genre of games.  Designed by Donald X. Vaccarino, Dominion was a game all about try to gain points by purchasing cards that make your deck stronger.  On your turn, you can play an action card if you have one.  This can give you more cards, more actions, more buys, more money to spend, or have other effects.  You then buy a card from the available kingdom cards – money, actions, or points.  Finally, you discard everything and draw a new hand, reshuffling your deck if need be.  One all Provinces (the highest point card) have been taken, or three kingdom card stacks are empty, the game ends and the player who has collected the most points is the winner.

Soon after its release, expansions started appearing.  First it was Intrigue and Seaside in 2009, then Alchemy and Prosperity in 2010.  And it’s Dominion: Prosperity that I’m naming as my essential expansion for the series.  Every expansion adds something different to the Dominion experience, and what Prosperity did was that it greatly increased the available money, as well as introduce some very powerful (and expensive) cards to the system.  It doesn’t really add new mechanisms, which tended to bog down several of the other expansions, so it’s really the most pure title in the series to come out since the base game.  More expansions were released (Cornucopia, Hinterlands, Guilds, and Dark Ages), and another is on the way (Adventures), but I agree with many people who think Prosperity is the best of them all.

image by BGG user karel_danek
image by BGG user karel_danek

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know how much I love Galaxy Trucker.  Vlaada Chvátil’s 2007 masterpiece is my favorite board game of all time (and just behind Cribbage as my favorite game).  The game is played over three rounds, and in each round, there is a building phase and a flight phase.  In the building phase, players are scrambling to find useful parts that will build their ship and give them the highest probability of making it through the flight phase alive.  In the flight phase, you could find planets with goods, abandoned space ships or space stations with added bonuses, or even open space where you can really crank your engines.  However, you could also find asteroids, pirates, slavers, smugglers, combat zones, or other nasty things.  In the end, anyone who has made money can be considered a winner, but the person who has made the most is more of a winner.

Galaxy Trucker by itself is pretty complete, and doesn’t need much.  However, in 2008, we got The Big Expansion, which added new ship classes, new aliens with special abilities, new ship components, and new adventure cards.  Also included were pieces for a fifth player, 24 evil machinations cards (which gave players the opportunity to mess with their opponents) and the Rough Roads expansion (which consists of 25 really nasty events).  In all, it was mostly several modules that can be included or not, depending on how you feel.  I see it as an advanced expansion – once you’ve gotten pretty good at the base game, you can pull out the expansion and start suffering again.  I wouldn’t play any part of this expansion with new payers.  In 2012, we got Another Big Expansion, which added even more, but I think if you just want one expansion, the first one is the one to get.

image by BGG user raviv
image by BGG user raviv

Dungeons & Dragons made a big splash in the board game world with the 2012 release of Lords of Waterdeep.  This Peter Lee/Rodney Thompson design is a light worker placement game where players are trying to accomplish quests around the city of Waterdeep.  Each player is assigned a secret lord at the start of the game, then goes about the business of placing agents around Waterdeep to collect people (cubes), money, buidlings, intrigue cards, more quests, and so on.  At the end of your turn, if you have the resources to complete a quest, you can turn them in and gain the reward – points, cubes, money, intrigue cards, and other benefits.  After eight rounds, the game ends and players count up their final points to determine the winner.

Lords of Waterdeep alone is a great gateway game – it has a theme that will bring in role players, and is simple enough that anyone can pick it up fairly easily.  The first expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport, came out in 2013 and added some more content that made the game more advanced.  It features two modules: Undermountain and Skullport.  Undermountain adds some bigger quests and a new board with spaces that can be quite beneficial.  Skullport introduces corruption, which is collected when you take some of the more powerful actions in the game and ends up costing you points in the end.  The interesting thing is that the more corruption gets taken, the more points each one ends up costing you.  This single mechanism just made the game so much better for me – I enjoyed it in its pure form, but the expansion really makes the game a lot better, and I can’t imagine not playing with it again.  So Scoundrels of Skullport, I think, is an essential expansion.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Cooperative games where not new in 2008 when Pandemic came out.  However, they definitely weren’t as commonplace, and Pandemic really opened the floodgates of possibility for the genre.  Designed by Matt Leacock, this game is all about trying to rid the world of disease before it wipes out humanity.  On your turn, you can do four actions.  These can be spent on moving around the world, treating a disease (which removes a cube from the board), discovering a cure (turning in five of the same color card), building a research station, or giving cards to someone in your current city.  Once done, several new cities are infected.  You have to watch out for Epidemics, which can cause diseases to progress much more quickly.  If a city has too much disease, it will outbreak.  If you have too many outbreaks, you lose.  If you run out of cubes in a color, you lose.  If the draw deck runs out, you lose.  But if you manage to find the cure for all four diseases, you win!

Pandemic by itself is pretty tough.  Add in the On the Brink expansion (2009), and it gets even tougher.  This expansion added three new modules that could be used in the basic game: Virulent Strain makes certain diseases even more deadly, Mutation adds a fifth disease that acts differently than the original four, and the Bio-Terrorist makes one player into a bad guy actually trying to help the disease win.  In addition, there are new events and new roles, as well as rules for five players.  I can do without the five players, but my favorite thing in the expansion is the new roles.  Each player in the game has a different special ability, and there were only five in the original set (I think the most recent edition has seven).  OTB adds seven more roles, as well as petri dishes to store all your cubes.  It’s a great expansion, and I never play Pandemic without at least all the new roles.

image by BGG user Surya
image by BGG user Surya

Race for the Galaxy originally came out in 2007, but designer Tom Lehmann had been working on it as the Puerto Rico card game long before that.  In the game, players are trying to build up a galactic economy.  In each round, players will choose from one of five roles.  The roles selected indicate what will be done in that round, and the selecting player gets a small bonus.  For Explore, players get to draw two cards and keep one, with the selector either drawing three/keeping two OR drawing five extra cards.  For Develop, players may build a Development card from their hand, paying for it with a number of cards (also from their hand).  The selector here gets a one card discount.  For Settle, players play a World from their hand, paying for it in the same way.  The selector here gets to draw a card after playing the world.  For Consume, players can turn in goods for VPs, with the selector either selling a good for cards or gaining double VPs.  For Produce, goods are produced on all worlds that can, with the selector producing on one windfall world.  When one player has 12 cards in front of them, or when the VP chips run out, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.

The Gathering Storm was the first expansion, published in 2008.  This expansion added new cards, which are always welcome.  It also added goals – “first” goals that are claimed by the first person to meet the goal’s condition, and “most” goals that change hands whenever someone takes the lead in that condition.  “First” goals are worth 3 points, “most” goals are worth 5.  These add some strategy right at the beginning, which is something I really appreciate.  It also added a solitaire variant, introducing a robot player and dice for that robot.  It’s really hard, but for people who like solitaire variants, it’s a really good one.  The game also added a fifth player to the system, and while I often bash that as a bad thing, the simultaneous play makes it not so bad here.  Of the other expansions, I’ve played The Brink of War, and found it to be pretty bad.  I’ve heard not great things about Rebel vs. Imperium, and downright terrible things about the most recent expansion Alien Artifacts (which started a new arc and was incompatible with the first expansion set).  Another expansion, Xeno Invasion, is another new arc and is due out later this year.  But for my money, I think The Gathering Storm is the only worthwhile expansion of the bunch, and is also essential to the experience.

image by BGG user echdareez
image by BGG user echdareez

Shadow Hunters is a 2005 game from designer Yasutaka Ikeda.  It’s a social deduction game where players are either a Hunter, a Shadow, or a Neutral character.  Each player gets a random role at the start that they keep secret.  On your turn, you roll a die to determine where you go, and that space determines what you can do.  This might be to steal equipment, heal or damage a character, or draw a card.  You might draw from the white deck (which usually gives you righteous equipment), the black deck (which often allows you to attack someone), or the hermit deck (which allows you to find out some information from your opponents).  At the end of your turn, you can attack someone in your zone if you wish.  As the game progresses, you can reveal your character, which gives you a special benefit but also tells everyone who you are.  The Hunters win if all the Shadows die.  The Shadows win if all the Hunters die.  And each Neutral has its own individual win condition – in the base game, it is surviving to the end, being the first to die, killing off a third character, or gaining five equipment cards.

The cleverly titled Shadow Hunters Expansion Kit came out in 2006 and added ten new roles to the game.  Added to the ten from the base game, this really increases the replay value.  There are now six Hunters, six Shadows, and eight possible Neutrals.  I always recommend playing this game with the expansion, even for new players.  Unfortunately for me, I have the first edition of Z-Man’s version and was too slow to get the expansion.  In 2011, they produced a second edition that included the expansion and stopped selling the expansion separately.  I’m still on the hunt for those ten cards – anyone have a spare set they want to send me?

Sinister Dexter
Sinister Dexter

Ticket to Ride is a classic from Alan R. Moon that was first published in 2004.  It’s a game all about building train routes to complete preset goals, aka tickets.  On your turn, you can choose to draw two train cards, either from the face up array or from the face down draw pile, or some combination of both.  You can also turn in train cards to place some trains on a link between two cities.  The number of trains and the needed color is indicated on the board.  You can also choose to draw new tickets.  These show two cities, usually some distance apart.  If you successfully connect them using your trains, you will gain the indicated number of points at the end of the game.  However, if you fail, you will lose the indicated number of points.  The game continue until someone has two or fewer trains.  At this point, everyone gets a final turn, and then the player with the high score wins.

The USA 1910 expansion came out in 2006 and fixed what I see as the biggest problem in the original – it replaced all of the tiny cards with normal human sized ones.  It also includes new tickets to go along with some new modules, which you can play separately or throw into one big mega game (which is the way I usually play).  However, the bigger cards are really the reason to get this expansion.  Looking at all the games on this list, this one is the MOST essential.  I never play Ticket to Ride without it.  Later TTR versions (Europe, Märklin) switched to the bigger cards, but for the original, you need 1910.

image by BGG user aaronseeber
image by BGG user aaronseeber

TransAmerica, by Franz-Benno Delonge, first came out in 2001, and was followed by TransEuropa in 2005.  The two games are exactly the same, just with different maps.  This is another train game, though it is even simpler than Ticket to Ride.  Each player gets a hand of five cities, each from a different region on the board.  On your turn, you simply place 1-2 sticks on the edges of the triangles that make up the map.  If you’re crossing mountains or water, you can only place one stick, but any other type of terrain allows you to use two sticks.  No sticks belong to anyone, so if someone else connects a city you need, all the better for you.  As soon as someone has connected all five of their cities, the round ends.  Players count how many more moves they needed to get to their destination and reduce their score accordingly (everyone starts with 13 points).  Another round is played, and the game continues until someone hits zero points.  The player with the most points is the winner.

The Vexation expansion came out in 2007, and is compatible with both TransAmerica and TransEuropa.  This is probably the most basic expansion on this list because all it consisted of was 18 colored sticks, three per player.  These sticks are available to you and you alone, and when you place them on the board, you are the only one that can use that route.  So whereas the original had sticks that could be used by all players, this expansion now allows for blocking.  It’s brilliant, and I think it’s the way to play.  The basic game is fine, but Vexation takes it totally to the next level.  Since playing with Vexation the first time, I have played without it, and missed it terribly.  So, here it is on the list.


So how do you feel about expansions?  Do you have some favorites apart from the ones I have listed?  Let me know, and thanks for reading!

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