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Graphic illustration of elements from tabletop gaming Illustration: Ollie Hoff for Polygon

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Crowdfunding is killing board game expansions

When a game and its nine expansions all ship on the same day, how does anything get fixed?

Crowdfunding has changed the world of tabletop gaming. Platforms like Kickstarter were originally a vehicle for creatives to bring innovative and radical ideas to life. Over time, however, the churn of new campaigns has become primarily a marketing framework for design studios to push mounds of plastic and cardboard at ever-increasing price points. Publishers are taking in millions of dollars, gamers’ shelves are reaching a breaking point, but it’s the games themselves that suffer. The biggest victim of all? Board game expansions.

In the before times — not pre-COVID, mind you, but pre-crowdfunding — a board game would come out, players would react and give feedback, and then the publisher would follow suit with an expansion if demand warranted. This was a lengthy process, and some games would not see new content for a couple of years. The industry was slower then, and keeping up was more like drinking from a faucet than a firehose. That delay between initial product and follow-up extension gave the design team ample time and energy to craft something meaningful and inclusive of players’ feedback.

Anna and her bear, Mische, patrol the factories and monuments along the sideboard in Scythe.
Scythe, by Stonemaier Games, is a bit of a rarity these days. Originally funded on Kickstarter, the final expansion was created for retail.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

There’s no such thing as a perfect board game, same as there are no perfect video games. The number of hours and players needed to test a game are beyond the capabilities of most publishers, who mainly work with volunteers. When a title actually hits the market and finds its way onto a couple of thousand new tables, inevitably, unidentified rough spots and issues will be discovered. Errata gets published, and subtle new rules or alterations get feathered in.

This has been handled fairly well the past few decades. Fantasy Flight Games, for instance, has been known to include cards with errata inside feature-rich expansions. It’s also shown a track record of massaging the weaker points of its designs, such as adding the Cylon Fleet board in the Exodus expansion for Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game. This was a sideboard which gave exposed Cylon characters more options on their turn, as well as increasing the regularity of space battles between the fleets. Both of these adaptations smoothed the tempo of play and kept players more engaged during quieter moments.

Boomer looks out from the cover art for Battlestar Galactica’s vital Exodus expansion. Image: Fantasy Flight Games

Another example of responsive design is with the excellent King of Tokyo expansion, Power Up! This addition to the popular Kaiju dice-roller added asymmetric player powers to each of the combatants, providing for new flavor and personality in the design. Besides increased characterization, this also fixed an issue where rolling hearts on your dice could often be underwhelming. With the addition of the Power Up! expansion, you can now spend hearts to acquire new abilities and explore entirely new gameplay mechanisms. What was once a wasted in-game resource is now a sought-after way to experience new content.

This is how it’s supposed to work: A game is released and it isn’t perfect, then designers put their heads down and release an expansion, nudging the game that much closer toward excellence. But this virtuous cycle has been occurring less and less in the era of crowdfunding.

As Kickstarter has come to dominate the hobby, the status quo is now to launch a full line of products right from the get-go. CMON’s campaign for Bloodborne: The Board Game raised more than $4 million in 2019. A big part of the draw was the source material, of course. Fans of Bloodborne want very little from life other than more Bloodborne, and CMON got their attention with an over-the-top bundle. The highest tier for that campaign included nine full-fledged expansions in addition to the hefty $100 base game. When finished products started shipping to backers earlier this year, social media was dominated not by stories or praise for gameplay, but vanity shots of boxes stacked to towering heights.

Concept art of Bloodborne: The Board Game
An early render of Bloodborne: The Board Game used during the crowdfunding campaign.
Image: CMON

Reacting to feedback and naturally allowing a game to mature over time is a lost methodology. Bloodborne: The Board Game attempted to condense this life cycle and respond to player feedback mid-campaign instead of post-release. This is how the included player-vs-player mode came about. It was not part of the initial vision for the game, or the pitch to backers. But many of those backers requested it, so the design team scurried to make it happen. The result, unfortunately, was an underdeveloped addition to the game that is clunky at best, and broken at worst. The system suffers greatly because there is no incentive to attack, so players spend a great deal of time running away, extending the length of play.

This PvP mode was a late stretch goal — something added to the crowdfunding campaign to spur on additional investment. It wasn’t carefully considered, or informed by backers who had actually played the game, and it wasn’t intended to refine the overall experience. It was all about offering more content with the goal to bring in more money.

Another clear-cut example is Awaken Realms’ Aliens-inspired title, Nemesis. The base game is a fantastic sci-fi horror board game, but much of the expansion content feels sloppy and flawed. The primary bonus material for backers of the project was an expansion titled Aftermath. This is a clever idea, allowing participants to immediately play a follow-up mission whose setup is influenced by the preceding playthrough, but the requirements are horrendous. Very few players have the stamina or will to play two three-hour games back-to-back.

So this expansion sits unused, a tremendous waste of cardboard and developer hours. Now that it has made its way into the wild and seen thousands of new playtesters, most would agree that Nemesis needs tightening and a shorter playtime — entirely the opposite of what backers were given.

All of this excess content is developed and paid for and very little of it is being used. What’s more disturbing is that this approach has become normal, which has caused all sorts of additional problems. Crowdfunded games are no longer expected to eventually arrive in stores as retail products. Making matters worse, many of the expansions they come with include additional exclusive miniatures, so backers are pressured into grabbing more stuff than they can make use of in a reasonable amount of time. When it all arrives, sometimes years later, only then do backers realize they also need to add a new wing to their homes to store it all.

Now, what if the game has issues, such as Bloodborne: The Board Game’s PvP mode? Since years’ worth of content was pumped out in one fell swoop, backers may not be interested in tossing even more money and (and storage space) at a project in an attempt to fund the solution. Sometimes we see success stories such as the sci-fi adventure game Xia: Legends of a Drift System receiving an essential expansion on Kickstarter a couple of years after its initial release, but other times backers are left in no-man’s land and just struggling for air beneath all those boxes.

Developing expansion content in this new era of crowdfunding is difficult. Instead of reflecting on the design and trying to execute on a refined vision, the design team is worried about expanding the breadth of content with the goal of pulling in more funding. The vast majority of people backing these massive games will never play with even half of the included material. Regularly, the extra content is unwieldy and suffers from lack of attention to detail.

Now we’re stuck in this awful cycle. It isn’t conducive to making informed decisions, so many of us toss a couple hundred dollars at a game and hope for the best. Once the campaign ends, it’s often painfully obvious that publishers are already heading in the opposite direction and focused on their next project. We’re left in the dust with an occasional update for the next year or two.

The alternative is simply not to back these games. Maybe you keep your resolve and you wait until the game properly releases through retail channels. You do this, and then you realize the game is actually something special, something you want more of. By then, it’s too late. None of those dozens of expansions make it to retail, and your only option is to hope for a second crowdfunding campaign, which may or may not arrive, or sell a kidney and submit to scalpers on eBay.

While crowdfunding is a wonderful resource for board game development, it’s also become quite the poisonous instrument to the industry. It has influenced every single publisher in one way or another. The slow death of the traditional board game expansion is perhaps its biggest crime, and one which will continue to affect the way we purchase and consume board game releases for the foreseeable future.