Saturday, September 14, 2013

Readers Ask - Expansions as Scaffolding?

In the first Readers Ask segment ever on Most Dangerous Game Design, Max responds to the question "Are expansions a form of scaffolding?" as a followup to Monday's post discussion of easing new players into boardgames though choice scaffolding.  

In response to Monday's post on scaffolding choice for the ease of teaching new players, commenter Kenny asked (well, stated): "I suppose the expansions are also a form of scaffolding."  This question is actually more complicated than it seems - perfect material for a Friday minipost!

There are two opposite cases to consider to illustrate the role of expansions in scaffolding player learning.  The first is releasing an expansion to an already established game.  Here we're going to use Settlers of Catan.  The second case is releasing an expansion to a game that nobody has played yet.  For this, kickstarted games are a perfect example.

1. Expansions to Established Games
When Kenny mentioned expansions, he was discussing the Cities and Knights expansion of Catan.  Catan is the most clear cut example of using expansions to ease players into new mechanics.  And it does a fairly good job - but ONLY because before release there were tons base Catan players out there.  This meant that at first the only players being exposed to Cities and Knights were the players who were already.  For a time things were were golden and Cities and Knights was functioning as an amazing stepping stone to scaffold players from base Catan to expanded Catan (indeed, a much superior game).  Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and eventually it got to the point where the market was saturated enough with Cities and Knights expansion that new players ceased to be introduced to the base Catan and then only after they were comfortable moved on to C&K.  No, instead new players were introduced to expanded Catan during their first experience (since many veterans didn't want to play the base anymore), and this surely drove away some would-be settlers due to the increased complexity of the game.  With every year that passes this undoubtedly happens more and more.

"What the heck is that yellow thing?" *BRAIN EXPLODES* --New player learning Cities and Knights (dramatization)

At their best, expansions can serve as a scaffold for already experienced players into more complex gameplay, but only if the base game has many players (is established) and only for a time (until the market becomes saturated by the expansion. 

2. Expansions that Come With New Games
On the other side of the establishedness spectrum from Settlers are brand new kickstarter games.  Before kickstarter the industry only released expansions to successful games (because why else would you spend money printing an expansion?).  With the advent of crowdfunding, many games offer "expansions" that arrive with the base version of the game.  Now, these expansions could offer a scaffolded experience, if the players choose to first learn the base game and only later introduce the expansion elements.  Of course, players rarely do this.  In my experience gamers rarely if ever follow "first play instructions," so how do you think they will respond to being told that they shouldn't immediately play the expansion they just paid money for or received as a special reward?  Not well.

To be fair, most people wouldn't call an expansion that comes as part of the base game an expansion at all...

As Tiltfactor prepares to kickstart its first game we've had to avoid the temptation of adding more complex game elements to the base game via stretch goal expansions or tier rewards.  On the one hand it's extremely appealing... we save on shipping and it seems like a cool reward to give our backers.  On the other hand, if it pushes a well rounded system into the "too complex" range, then the expansion actually could hurt more than it could help the game.

I cannot tell you how many games in my (shared) collection have had their expansions mixed in and are effectively no longer playable as the base game.  When new players pick up these games they don't see a scaffolded experience into higher gameplay, they see a wall of complexity.  In the end, the safest way to scaffold is through base game mechanics and instructions.  Want to add an expansion? By all means do it, just be sure it: (a) adds content over mechanics, (b) already has an established player base, or (c) has a target audience that can handle the added complexity (unlike many gateway games).  

If you really want to add an expansion that adds complexity for your veterans without chasing away newbies, look no further than Dominion for an example.  As with most design elements, Dominion does a fantastic job with its expansions.  Even if you're a new player playing with 5 expansions, you're still only really going to be exposed to 10 different types of cards (plus or minus a few), and while the expansion cards might be slightly more complex than the base cards, many of them are very comparable.

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