Trials, Triumphs and Trivialities Article
Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #127:

Designing Strategy: Expansions & Variations

by Shannon Appelcline

July 17, 2003 - Back in January I started writing a series on strategy that has become increasingly irregular as the months wore on. My purpose in doing so has always been singular: I wanted to learn enough about strategy myself to feel like I could do a good job of expanding our existing web game, Galactic Emperor: Hegemony, into a new and different game which I've tentatively dubbed Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings.

I do indeed feel like I have all the underpinnings of strategy pretty well analyzed and discussed at this time, and I've actually got 6 pages of notes on the new GE game in my handy, red Skotos notebook. But, in writing this column, I'd actually skipped the one topic which was perhaps the most important to the entire effort: a discussion of how you take an existing game and make it into something new and interesting.

So now, at the far tail end of my series proper on strategy, I've decided to cover that topic in a bit of depth. The most general answer to the question of expanding an existing game is, however, very simple: you just change around some of the game elements that I've discussed to date in this column. To be more specific you muck with: components, gameplay, decision sets, randomness, activity, timing, victory, balance, or some of the other, lesser elements that I've talked about.

More specifically, there are a number of tacts which have already been taken by successful game publishers in the tabletop industry:

  • Components. Rebranding a Game.
  • Components. Changing the Playing Field.
  • Decision Sets. Modifying Options.
  • Decision Sets. Adding, Multiplaying, or Subtracting Options.
  • Decision Sets. Modifying or Adding Decision Sets.
  • Timing. Adding Phases.
  • Gameplay. Cutting to the Core.

I'm going to cover each of these in brief.

Components: Rebranding a Game

The simplest answer to creating a new version of a game, and the one most often taken by non-game-designers, is just to rebrand your game. And thus you get Disney Monopoly, Monopoly Pokemon, and my favorite Monopoly Junior Dig'n Dinos Game. (See here for a listing of just some of the many "Collector's" editions of Monopoly.) Or, if you prefer other classic family games, you get The Simpsons Clue, Scooby Doo Hasn't a Clue or even The Terminator Chutes & Ladders. (OK, I made the last one up.)

Now, personally, I find some of these "new games" fairly disgusting. The proliferation of Monopolys, which looks like it might be in the 100s, in particular seems to be a sign of marketing run amuck, shoving licensed products down the public's throat if they're good or not.

But, on the other hand, if not used to excess I can see this type of rebranding as a good thing. For example Stephen Yong is planning to create a Medieval warfare version of Space Federation and I have every confidence that it'll fit into a strategic game niche which we're not currently covering — and that it will provide genuine enjoyment to some people who are not currently involved with Stephen's turn-based space game.

I think the dividing line for me is really if the changes are more than just a facade. The Simpsons Clue, for example, looks like a carbon copy of the original. The "rooms" (now buildings) even seem to be laid out about the same on the board. If they'd instead really looked at their components, saw how they should be changed, rather than just copied, and then perhaps looked at other ways to make the game appropriate for the new setting, via some of the other categories I discuss below, I would have been much more impressed. (And I think Hasbro actually did this with one of their more recent branded properties, Risk: Lord of the Rings, which indeed does remake the map for Middle Earth, and even introduces some new rules, like a game-ending attempt to transit The One Ring in Mordor, where the shadows lie.)

In any case, rebranding a game by changing the components will often be the start of a successful new expansion or variation.

Components: Changing the Playing Field

Sometimes more abstract strategic games (think Othello or Chess or Backgammon) can't actually rebrand themselves — because there's no brand to change. When changing their environment these games are more likely to come up with some more obscure change to their gaming environment — which may have particularly notable changes on how the game plays.

Boggle, for example, is a word-finding game that's usually played on a grid of letters that's 4x4. An "advanced" version that the company sold for a while, alternatively marketed as Master Boggle and Boggle Deluxe, instead had a 5x5 grid.

Scrabble on the other hand tried to market a version of their game called "RSVP" starting in 1966 which was advertising as a "three-dimensional crossword game" and was played on a vertical grid. However, the rules were so changed and the grid did such a poor job of holding the little wooden cubes, that it soon disappeared into the dust motes of time.

I've played three-dimensional chess games (even one rebranded with a fantasy theme). Both Ultimate Stratego and Stratego 4 updated the classic war game by giving space for four different players. Even in abstract games, the opportunity to produce variants with minor changes to the components are notable.

Decision Sets: Modifying Options

Stepping away from components, decisions sets are the next very major area which are considered when trying to vary or expand an existing game. The simplest way to change these are to simply modify existing options, without really adding or removing any.

Take, for example, Apples to Apples. This is a card game wherein you're given adjectives ("Eldritch") and nouns ("Great Cthulhu") and then try and match them up. At any time you have 7 noun cards in your hand and you must try and match up the most appropriate one to the adjective that's currently being displayed.

Thus you could say that in a standard game you have a decision set 7 wide made up of all those nouns in your hand — which are the "options". The publisher's creation of an Apples to Apples Jr. game was very simple. They just used easier, more obvious words. Thus, you might still have your decision set of 7 cards, but now you have "Dog", "Baseball", and "Piano" rather than "The King in Yellow", "Ronald Reagan", and "Van Gogh's Sunflowers". Different options, and thus a very different game.

This tact of mixing in new options seems very common in creative and trivial board games out there. You can get booster packs of cards for Mindtrap, Trivial Pursuit, Taboo, Cranium and many other games. Even less mainstream games like Looney Lab's card games, tend to go this route; for example in their Chrononauts game you can pick up a booster pack Lost Identities which contains new characters to play (and thus new goals in the game).

Carcassonne did something similar with its Inns & Cathedrals supplement. In the regular game you tried to build up cities, roads, and fields. In the new supplement, some cities contained cathedrals and some roads contained inns. The existence of these structures added to the value of the core terrain type, but also increased the risk of failure. This didn't really change the number of options you had at any one time, but did change your response if this particular option (a cathedral or an inn) happened to be the one that was available when you played.

The basic idea behind most games which modify existing options seems to be that if you have some limited array of information in your game, you can produce expansions which add more of that information into the game. Going beyond cards, that might mean: more boards to play upon, more characters to interact with, more monsters to kill, or whatever else is important for your game.

Decisions Sets: Adding, Multiplaying or Subtracting Options

At some point you'll want to do more than just keep retreading the existing options in your decision sets. Enter: adding, multiplying, or subtracting options whole scale.

Adding Options: Some games manage to add options this without really changing the difficulty of the game. For example the short-lived Clue Master Detective is described as having "More suspects. More weapons. More locations." (and it does). Though technically you've made all of your figurings more complex, actually this addition of options just adds to the time factor in the game: it now takes longer to solve.

Klaus Teuber's The Seafarers of Catan game offers an example where new options do indeed change how difficult the game is to play, by increasing the size of the decision set. In the original The Settlers of Catan game you could build a small set of objects with your resources: cities, settlements, roads, and development cards. Seafarers adds one new building object — boats — and also expands the game out a bit based on the repercussions of that new option (e.g., you now had rules for exploration of the seas).

Multiplying Options: Reiner Knizia's Grand National Derby set of games takes a different tact by overloading the number of results implicit on each decision, and thus making those individual options increasingly more complex (as I've described elsewhere in this column, this effectively multiplies the size of a decision set by multiplying the considerations for each option).

In the original game you played number cards on horses to determine which won and which lost a race. The decision set was simple: you could play low cards or high cards depending on whether you wanted particular horses to win or lose.

In a new version of the game called Titan: The Arena each horse (now a monster) had a special power which could be used sometimes when you played a card on that monster. Now you had to add into your decision set whether you wanted to use a monster's special power or not.

In a new version of the game called Galaxy: The Dark Ages each card now had a special power too. So you had to decide to play low or high, and whether you wanted to use a monster's (now alien race's) special power, and whether you wanted to use a card's special power.

Stratego Legends used this same idea. In the original Stratego each piece was primarily defined by its number, 1-9, though a few numbers had special powers. In Legends almost every piece now had a fantastical power which could affect movement, combat, and more, thus multiplying the decision set when deciding whether to use (or sacrifice) any piece.

Subtracting Options: Theoretically you can subtract options too, though this is only likely to be of interest if you're creating a "Jr." version of your game. For example, Stratego Jr. uses a smaller playing field with fewer pieces, and thus less total decisions at any time.

Decision Sets: Modifying or Adding Decision Sets

As I move through this article I'm slowing moving into increasingly large changes to a game. Beyond just adding or subtracting options, you can make very large changes to the decision sets in your game, including: totally changing existing decision sets and adding new decision sets.

Modifying Decision Sets: In The Settlers of Catan there was a decision set about "which development card you should play". In The Cities & Knights of Catan that has been ripped out entirely and replaced with "which progress card you should play". These cards are different in and of themselves (thus, you have modified options), but they're also earned in different ways, and thus the decisions leading up to their acquisition are very different. (The same game also does quite a bit of "adding options" to the original Catan with other new systems that are included — for example giving you a few new things to build with your resources, such as upgraded towns, town walls, and activated knights.)

Adding Decision Sets: The Settlers of Catan, Historical Scenarios I: Alexander the Great offers a decent example of a totally new decision set being added into the game. Here, in the early phases of the game, an auction occurs every couple of rounds wherein each player gets to bid for new settlements or alternatively various game tokens. The auction doesn't exist in any of the other Settlers' games, and thus represents a totally new decision set not seen elsewhere.

Timing: Adding Phases

A somewhat similar technique to adding decision sets to a game is to add phases. It's sort of a new decision set that occurs at a specific time in the game (or within an individual round). You might insert a new phase into the start of the game, the end, place it before some specific action, or wherever. This technique doesn't seem to be used that much, though it was the basis of the two supplements Avalon Hill released for its Dune board game.

In Spice Harvest you play a special mini-game before the game proper to determine starting positions on Arrakis. In The Duel a dueling mini-game is introduced which is used if players ignore each others' threats or alternatively whenever a Worm comes up in the Spice deck.

This idea can be greatly expanded if one game actually becomes the "setup" for an additional game.

At one time The Settlers of Catan was intended as part of a three-part game, with the first game being about exploration, Catan being about settlement, and the third game being about warfare; each game would actually provide the background for the next.

I also intend to use this idea in a limited manner for Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings. I've long been saving the end-game maps for GE: Hegemony, which are often bombed-out messes (or more recently galaxies with many stars pushed around due to the magic of space stations). These maps will provide the backgrounds of the Merchant Kings games, set hundreds of years later in the GE timeline.

Gameplay: Cutting to the Core

Finally you can just go for broke and throw out most of your original game, but at the same time try to understand what ideas contributed to its core success, and replicate them.

For example in The Settlers of Catan I think it's fairly obvious that the core gameplay has to do with hexes which produce resources, collection of those resources via settlements built around the hex, and use of those resources to build various objects.

Klaus Teuber has produced three games which are not just Settlers expansions or clones, but rather totally new, though clearly related, games. The Starfarers of Catan is an SF board game where players are instead building colonies around planets. There are totally new rules for ship movement and for meeting with alien races, but at the same time the basic economic cycle remains recognizable. Likewise, The Settlers of the Stone Age adds in rules for tribe movement, exploration, movement requirements, and the desertification of Africa, while The Settlers of Nurnberg creates an economic system for producing goods and selling them.

Even further afield is The Setters of Catan Card Game. You now have cards which produce resources and appear next to cities, but there's a whole new infrastructure of buildings and locales which can be built around your cities, knights which can fight tournaments, and much more, which dramatically changes the feeling of the game.

And finally, I'd like to return one last time to Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings, that potential game which got me thinking on this path. I see the cores of Hegemony to be, quite simply: an environment which contains a scattering of a few hundred planets, regular production of limited resources, and a system whereby items move from planet to planet in slow real-time.

And that's what I'm using as the basis of my new game design. I have planets which can be production resources, factories, trading hubs, and banks; and I have trade goods moving from planet to planet, sometimes being translated into finished goods and sometimes being forwarded on to trade rings. I still have some issues I need to figure out, such as the methods to take over other planets, which I'm not entirely happy with, but I think I have a very solid core which adapts the great bits of Hegemony and at the same time creates a totally new game. And that, in my opinion, is the best type of expansion possible.


So, you want to write an expansion or variant to your existing board/strategy/web game? If you've got a great design already, I say kudos to you. It'll expose more people to your game, and also give your existing players more opportunities to play your great system in different ways.

If, on the other, you've got a mediocre game that's mainly being played due to your intense marketing efforts, I'd suggest instead that you go back to the game design board and produce a classic, because the world doesn't need another 100 Monopolies.

Expansions and variants can be good or bad, depending on the quality of the originating game.

And with that I'll see you in 14. Next week I'll be at GenCon. If you'd like to chat, feel free to stop by booth 2001, where we've been loaned a bit of space by the nice folks at Wizard's Attic — and leave a note if I'm not around.

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