Sunday, 29 May 2011

When More is Less

Lots of popular board and card games have expansions. Financially they are a no-brainer and help keep board game designers housed and fed. Generally, however, I am not a big fan of expansions for two reasons. The first is entirely arbitrary and something I am willing to admit I'm in the minority on: I like new things. I would much rather spend time learning a new game, playing it once or twice and then moving on to the next one than playing the same game repeatedly and honing my abilities. While I like to win, I far prefer experiencing new game mechanics, trying to figure out why they work, where they could be improved and why so few games have good ones.

The second reason is that expansions make games worse. Dominion is an excellent game for what it is: simple to explain, enough depth to play repeatedly, and a short game time. Whether you like it depends on your thoughts on player interaction and car shuffling, but its fundamentals are sound (for the record, I do enjoy Dominion). So what about its expansions? Intrigue allows for up to six players and I am in full support of allowing for more than four players, so it gets a tick. The rest are, from a design point of view, bad.

One of the principles of good design, including game design, is to keep things as simple as possible. Snap is a simple card game but it's also a bad game, so let me clarify. Simple in this context means having the minimum number of additional game mechanics required to support the core game mechanic and provide enough depth that there is not a winning strategy. I'm going to assume, given how popular and critically well received Dominion is, that it meets this goal. If it didn't, somewhere on the internet would be a page which said "do this and you will always win" and nobody would be playing it any more. While there is more art that science to figuring out the balance of mechanics versus simplicity, I imagine most designers would err on the side of having one too many mechanics (more complicated than it needs to be) than one too few (degenerate game with a winning strategy).

The extension of this argument is that adding extra game mechanics actively degrades the quality of the game. If the expansion makes the game better then it suggests there was something broken with it in the first place, in which case it is more patch than expansion. If the expansion doesn't make the game better, then what is the point?