Expansion Design, with a Case Study
Post by: Grant Rodiek
Today, I shall be discussing two things very near and dear to my heart and related such that pairing them in a single article just made sense. Today, we shall discuss expansion design and use the impending Livestocked and Loaded as a case study.
For those curious, Livestocked and Loaded is art complete. The final file preparations are taking place and we're perusing the rules and cards for final edits, typos, and clarity. It shall be sent to the printer shortly.
Expansions, Generally Speaking
I'm a massive fan of game expansions for many reasons. For publishers, they offer an additional revenue source for an existing product and fan base that is less risky than creating an entirely new game. Expansions give fans so inclined additional content and mechanics at a (typically) lower price point. Finally, expansions provide designers a reasonable opportunity to expand an experience they love with meaningful, substantive additions.
A good expansion should not alter the core experience of the base game. If your game has a 5 step turn structure, you shouldn't re-arrange the steps or add a 6th without a really good reason. Remember, players will need to learn the expansion. Don't make them unwind and re-learn the base game as well!
A good expansion should offer new strategies and experiences to the players. New paths should be revealed to players. A good expansion does more than just offer more stuff. Adding new Action cards alone isn't sufficient. Keep in mind that you shouldn't use an expansion to add in the kitchen sink. If it was removed from the base game because it wasn't good enough or didn't fit, be sure to run that same check past it during the expansion.
A good expansion should fill in gaps, holes, or resolve minor issues with the original game. Ideally, your game didn't ship with dead ends and gross imbalance. The expansion isn't a patch, but a smoother.
A good expansion should bring people back to the base game, liven it up, and make them fall in love again. Typically, a small percentage of the people who bought the base game will purchase the base game. Let's say 20-40%. That means you can, with reasonable safety, assume those who buy your expansion really enjoy your base game, or like it enough that they think it'll be great with one more twist.
A good expansion integrates as smoothly into the base game as possible. People shouldn't be scratching their heads as they figure out how to snap the new module into the original game. Just because you're dealing with experienced players doesn't mean you should set accessibility and a smooth learning curve aside.
Some of my favorite expansions include Kaispeicher for The Speicherstadt, the X-Wing Miniatures ships, Memoir '44's expansions, and Summoner Wars. I own others, but I haven't played them, or not enough, to list them.
Now, let's apply these things to my design of Livestocked and Loaded.
I was originally fairly apprehensive about creating the expansion. I knew I could create one and that the base game could support it, but we didn't begin our Kickstarter with an expansion in mind. Now that the expansion is almost finished, I'm really glad it exists. I really enjoy the layers it adds to the original experience and it'll be launched to a game that has sold pretty dang well for a new, tiny publisher.
When I began work on L&L, I set out to use Weather and Livestock as primary components, purely because they are rich reservoirs of content and mechanical inspiration. They also fit some of my mechanical goals for the game.
Weather: I made the assumption that by the time people received the expansion, they would need some new spice to liven up the experience. Weather could serve as this spice, just like it does for farmers in real life. However, unlike real weather, I deliberately set out to make the Weather present more of an opportunity (most often) than an unexpected penalty.
My friend, Cole Medeiros, designed Gubs: A Game of Wit and Luck, published by Gamewright. Event cards are a big part of that experience. They are drawn and, more often than not, they greatly alter the state of the game. While they work for Gubs, I didn't want to introduce more chaos into Farmageddon. There are 10 Weather cards in the expansion. Every game, you randomly select 5 and seed them approximately evenly throughout the Crop deck. When drawn, they present an opportunity or something to shift the game.
- One card lets every player draw an Action card. Then, in order, the players must play them if possible.
- Another card lets every player immediately fertilize and harvest any crops in front of them.
Livestock: Farmageddon is a very tactical game. You're rarely planning more than 2 turns in advance, though careful management of your Actions and Crop cards will be the element that mitigates the luck and leads you to victory. I saw an opportunity to introduce more strategy and long-term planning to the game without sacrificing what makes the original fun.
There are now four animals, which are played in the center near the unclaimed fields. They are worth $5, $10, $15, and $20 respectively, which makes the $20 animal the single most valuable card in the game (Wary Squash is worth $15).
To interact with the animals, I added a new activity players can take on their turns: feeding. Any planted crop a player controls can be fed to one of the four animals. The crop is then destroyed and one of 6 feed cards are played to the fed animal. This makes the Sassy Wheat crop far more valuable. It will now be a great Fertilizer and a great Feed crop!
When fed, all of the animals, except the $20 animal, offer a powerful ability. These help you mitigate luck and pursue new strategies. The abilities are:
- Draw 2 Crop cards
- You may play a 3rd Action card during the current turn
- You may discard any number of your Action cards face down into your Harvest pile. They are worth $1 at the end of the game.
In the base game, players should always play two Action cards per turn. If you aren't using them, you are missing out on the fun and you'll let your opponents run wild. However, there are some cases where one might have excess cards. Now, you can feed an animal to dump those cards for bonus points. I've seen someone use that ability brilliantly to win the game.
The Feed cards will slowly add up to the animals over the course of the game. The player with the most feed cards on an animal will win it and its points at the end of the game. This means players need to carefully balance opportunities in planting and livestock. It adds quite a bit to the experience.
Naturally, as the game has added a new feature (livestock), I knew it would need new Action cards to take advantage of this. I began the game with 6 Action cards, but ultimately whittled this down to 3 Cards.
- The Blue Ribbon: This can be played to any animal to permanently increase its value by $5. This is a very powerful card.
- The Corgalohts: This lets you move an opponent's Feed OR remove a feed of yours from an animal. This is useful for obvious reasons. But, if you don't have any feed, you can't feed animals. You can use this card to remove a feed from an animal that is a lost cause, re-feed, get to use the bonus ability, and vie for another animal.
- Farmer's Market: This card exists to let you mitigate the luck of the draw of Action cards. If you're pursuing a crop-focused strategy, you don't need a Corgalohts, for example. With Farmer's Market, you draw 4 Action cards, pick one, and discard the rest. This has the side effect of letting you get rid of cards you don't want in play.
Some Challenges with L&L
Remember when I said you shouldn't alter the core experience with your expansion? Originally, the Animal related Action cards and Weather cards were unique decks. There were also new choices and turn choices related to using them. A friend of mine and long-term Farmageddon tester said "NO." He reminded me that the game had a nice rhythm of draw crops, do stuff, draw Actions to end. This was a good reminder. As a result, the Actions are now just Actions and the Weather cards are a part of the Crop deck.
Balancing the power of the abilities with the value of the Animals was a big problem that was thankfully easy to solve. Early on, all four animals had really good abilities. My testers noted that it always made the best sense to just feed the most valuable animal. To spice things up, I made it such that the least valuable animal had the best ability. Furthermore, the most valuable animal had no ability. Want to win that Cow? Go ahead. You won't get any bonuses on the way.
I've learned a great deal since I created Farmageddon. One of which is creating more systematic cards with fewer exceptions. At times, it was challenging to introduce Weather cards, new FrankenCrops, Animals, and new Action cards that played nice with everything in the original. Were I to do it all over, there are definitely some terms and cards I'd revise to work better. Don't worry -- we already have an FAQ prepped for the 1 or 2 cases that may cause confusion. Otherwise, we've worked really hard to make this smooth and clear.
Finally, as you read above, the game had 6 Action cards at one point. Originally, all of the cards had incredibly narrow, focused utility. I had forgotten that one of the things that makes Farmageddon fun is how so many of the Action cards pair well with each other or have varying utility in different situations. By refining and massaging the cards, I added 3 cards that all need to be in the game and really make it better.
What do you think makes a good expansion? What are some of your favorites? Any questions on the Farmageddon expansion, Livestocked and Loaded?