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The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

First and foremost, new cards, which (after a requisite period of drooling admiration over the new goodies) get shuffled into one’s existing Race card deck, and then stay there forever, permanently expanding the size of your draw pile. Let us set aside the fact that, after two such boosts, a Race deck starts becoming rather unweildy, requiring a multi-stage effort to shuffle, and forming a teetering skyscraper on the table. I’m more interested in the implications of increasing your deck size in a shared-draw game like Race.

Optimal play requires familiarity with all the cards in the deck and the ways they can work together, a feat any attentive player can manage after several plays with the game’s basic set. When you double or triple the size of that deck, though, this becomes much harder, and — at least for players with fallible memory, like me — familiarity transforms into mystery, having a much murkier idea of the all ways the growing stew of cards can interact. No doubt, having to change one’s focus away from strategic foresight and more towards tactical improvisation brings its own flavor of fun. But I do see it as a one-for-one trade-off, permanently sacrificing one style of play for another.

Beyond the cards, each expansion brings a bevy of new rules to the game, and a handful of pretty props to help you track and enact them. The first set is the gentlest, adding only some tokens representing of new ways to score points via the established in-game actions. When it was brand new, and I was still a young and idealistic would-be galactic conqueror, this welcome first expansion felt like a patch. It gave players more things to aim at, but didn’t fundamentally alter play strategies — and those new cards sure did smell good. Mm-mm.

The next two expansions, though, proved much hairier. Between them, Race sees a new, complex game mechanic (Takeovers), an entirely new kind of resource to gain and manage (Prestige), a more complicated way of starting the game (red versus blue Homeworld cards), and rules regarding a “super-action” that each player can fire off once during a game. So it’s not just the card stack that grows; the game’s own rulebook gets fatter as well.

Here the game climbs into one of its own Terraforming Robots and digs straight down, adding depth to the rules via the rather direct method of adding more rules. (And, yes, adding height to the game as well, piling up more and more cards to draw from.) Somewhere within all these new levels, I got lost. I found the game possessing a just-right complexity level when I first learned it, a delightful mental juggling act that felt appropriate to theme of managing an upstart star-spanning empire. Now, even when playing with only some of the new rules in place, all that complexity tips over into becoming a burden. It’s so much to keep in mind, all at once.

But if Race for the Galaxy has used the depth strategy for its expansions, then Dominion has gone for breadth, and I think it works better. The three Dominion expansions published so far introduce only new “kingdom cards”, the short stacks of cards carrying unique play effects, that players vie over to build the best personal decks. The second expansion also introduces a few props and tokens, but they are each tied specifically to the effects of certain cards, rather than adding new rules global to the entire game.

That’s the key difference between Dominion’s expansions and Race’s, actually. Even if you start a game with all four available Dominion boxes as well as the various promo cards primed and ready, the core rules of the game do not change. And one of those rules is: pick ten kingdom cards somehow — randomly is just fine — and lay their stacks out. Leave your umpteen other sets of kingdom cards back in their boxes and think on them no more, because they’re not in this game. Everything relevant to the game now in session is now in the middle of the table, shared among all the players, and face-up. From here on out it’s just a question of competing strategies.

In effect, all the Dominion expansions do is broaden the pool that the game’s (usually random) initial layout comes from, making it more likely that you’ll run into delightfully novel power combinations and force-multipliers among them. The rules overhead, the amount of things you’ve got to keep in mind while you play, doesn’t significantly increase. No matter how many add-ons you pile up, you need concern yourself with only a small slice of your whole card collection in any given game. At worst, you’ll encounter new classes of cards, such as the Seaside expansion’s Duration cards or Alchemy’s Potions. But so far these have felt like natural extensions to the core rules, rather than the bolted-on mechanics of, say, Race’s Takeovers.

Clearly, I find much more satisfaction in Dominion’s approach to widening its gameplay through expansion sets than Race’s efforts to deepen itself. But these sets are so tied to their respective games’ designs that I certainly can’t say that I’d always prefer an expansion set that took the breadth-first route. I just find it interesting that two games with similar appeal took up their shovels at around the same time and dug their expansions along different axes, with the result of a startling magnification of the games’ diverging qualities.

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