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Monday, April 22, 2024

Why Not a Catapult?: The Total Depravity of Board Game Expansions

by | published Tuesday, August 29, 2023
A catapult launching a soccer ball at a dinosaurish creature with an icy spine--all done with Clip Art images.

Ever since (The Settlers of) Catan and Carcassonne‘s meteoric rise to popularity, it feels inevitable for popular titles to get expansion(s). Even today, mega-hits like Dune: Imperium and Ark Nova‘s forums are being flooded from day one: “Where’s the expansion?!”

Consumers never stop to ask what they would really want in an expansion: most will buy it because it’s “more” of the game they “love” so much, even if it’s a title they played exactly one time. I’m no different: I own each and every expansion for Race for the Galaxy, and yet every time I sit down to play it, I never reach for any expansion because the base game is near-perfection. 

So it only makes sense that publishers will occasionally release unhinged, unwanted, and unbalanced garbage for a popular title and call it the “new grand adventure for [GAME]”. But today, I wanted to explore some of the absolute strangest expansion content out there. I didn’t sink to the depths of BoardGameGeek to try to find the most bizarre game and laugh at its equally off-the-wall expansion; rather, I sought out the strangest expansions for the most popular titles and try to figure out what on Earth these folks were thinking (besides, y’know, money).

Box cover for Ticket to Ride game.

Ticket to Ride

Days of Wonder is one of the most popular publishers for family-weight to gateway games. Their titles are often riddled with numerous expansions. However, their track record is usually pretty solid: Memoir ’44‘s expansions all rate higher than the base game, Small World‘s expansions are all roughly the same rating as the base game, and even titles with fewer expansions like Five Tribes have phenomenal track records for well-loved expansion content. 

Then there’s Ticket to Ride. Don’t know what it is? Politely, check elsewhere. Everyone has covered it, everyone has opinions. 

Graphic for Ticket to Ride: Stay at Home print-and-play edition

You may not be able to tell because of what is in stock on Asmodee’s shop or what your FLGS sells, but Ticket to Ride has released expansions outside of just map packs and larger cards. First, there was the print-and-play map Ticket to Ride: Stay at Home, released in the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Instead of traveling around the world, players were instead creating routes from the Fridge to Dad’s Chair. While not revolutionary or that weird, it’s just a really charming map that I wanted to call-out. Even though board game sales spiked during the Pandemic, few publishers stepped up to provide these little bonuses for their players, and it should be recognized.

Cover of Ticket to Ride: Dice expansion

All the love aside, let’s talk about the two really weird expansions for Ticket to Ride. The first one I wanted to focus on is Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion. Have you ever sat down to play a game of Ticket to Ride and found yourself thinking: “Gee, I sure love this random card draw, but it’s still too predictable!” Then I have the expansion for you! Throw out those pesky train cards and roll dice to see how long of a route you can place! Forget having to plan out the pacing of the trains, or which routes to prioritize! Thinking is so mid-’90s, just roll the dice and place some trains!

Seriously though, some people seem to think that replacing the train cards with these dice affects the pace in a great way: routes are placed nearly every turn, and the longer routes aren’t as difficult to get, so the play of the game is more focused on direct player interaction with the route choices. However, nearly all of the risk and reward of the larger routes is gone. More importantly for people that have played the game a ton, the ability to control the pace of the game is entirely shattered, as nearly each and every turn requires more trains to get placed. This cuts out sandbagging when you have some great connections and continuously drawing destinations. 

Overall, it’s not the worst idea ever, but both users on BGG as well as Days of Wonder don’t feel it’s worth exploring again, as it was never printed outside of its original run. If you want to try it out for yourself, you could get custom dice made cheaper than it would be to purchase the original copies of these bad boys.

The even weirder expansion I want to talk about next is Alvin & Dexter – A Ticket to Ride Monster Expansion

Box cover for Ticket to Ride: Alvin & Dexter Monster Expansion

It is a very small box with two plastic minis: A T-Rex and a flying saucer. With this expansion, players can discard one (or two) wild locomotive cards, and they can move the monster up to three (or six) cities away from its current location. If they move a monster more than any other player, then they’ll pick up an endgame bonus for their role as monster minder. When a monster is in a city, then no routes can be built into or out of that city. If the monster is sitting in a city at the end of the game, then any Destination Tickets that moves through or ends at that city loses half of its value.

Having not played this expansion, and being a confrontational player, I like the idea of this. The idea of having to sacrifice crucial cards to block other players is a great trade off! The only downside I can personally see to this is the wild locomotive cards being the currency. There aren’t many, and the luck of the draw could really mess with who can move the monsters. Plus, if you are playing with stabby people, the amount of down turns to make movements could really slow the game down. It would take two turns to get a monster to move: one to pick up a wild locomotive card, and the second to get it to move. If this happens all game, I could see this adding 10-15 minutes onto the game, which, at that point, why play it over other titles?

Finally, sure, I like the idea of this, but there does not seem to be an audience for this product. Most board game players are non-confrontational, especially those who are the audience for a game like this. I know plenty of players that play Ticket to Ride quite kindly, purposefully talking about routes and things. I know not every expansion is meant for everyone, but a cutthroat Ticket to Ride one really makes no sense to me. 

Carcassonne

Cover of Carcassonne base game

If you were to check Asmodee’s website at all of the Carcassonne expansions, you would see “Big Box” Expansions of 1 – 6, and 8 – 10. However, Expansion 7 is noticeably gone. In fact, it’s so gone that it was never reprinted after its initial run in 2008. It is the notorious expansion that took Carcasssonne, a thinky, tile-laying game, and turned it into a dexterity game, by literally including a friggin’ catapult.

Meet Carcassonne: Expansion 7 – The Catapult.

Cover for Carcassonne: the Catapult Expansion

On the surface, it doesn’t really change a ton about the formula of Carcassonne: draw a tile, place a tile, place a meeple, score. However, if a player draws one of the 12 new catapult tiles, then the Faire has come to town and it’s time to party, baby. The players will then ALL participate in a catapult round where everyone will fling one of the four catapult chits onto/around the game board, as chosen by the placing player. Here’s a breakdown of the four different chit options:

Knockout: If this chit hits any meeples or causes a meeple to fall onto another meeple, they are all removed from the board.

Seduction: If this chit lands on the played tiles, the player may then remove the nearest opponent’s meeple and replace it with one of their own.

Target Hurling: Get your chit the closest to the most recently placed Faire tile. Closest gets 5 points.

Catch: Catapult the chit at your neighbor. If they catch it, they get 5 points. If they don’t, you get 5 points.

Ok. Hear me out. I think, if this is played sparingly and with the right people, this could be a lot of fun. Heck, I’m even such a Carcassonne weirdo I’d use this expansion in a mega-game with all other expansions and enjoy my time just fine. I don’t think Carcassonne is the pinnacle of strategy: I love the game, but the best player does not always win due to the randomness of the tile draw. And that’s great! Again, it’s still in my top 20. However, I don’t think this expansion sounds that far outside the realm of Carcassonne. This is not adding dexterity to a 6 hour long wargame or anything.

With that said though, I think a few crucial changes could really do wonders here. For one, I think the point swings are even too much for a funny little expansion like this. Being able to lose a Farmer that’s worth 20 points due to a lucky shot seems a bit excessive. I think even leaving out Farmers could fix this. Second, the catapult (by all accounts) needs to be better. By its own design, it appears it is trying to fling pieces upwards instead of outwards, which makes absolutely no sense in this context. Finally, the players need to be flinging smaller, denser items, not big chunks of cardboard.

Is this the best Carcassonne expansion? No. Is any Carcassonne expansion good? I don’t know, I don’t have $100(!) to find out which one’s the best. But is this quite possibly the strangest mass-market expansion? I’d say so.

(The Settlers of) Catan

Box cover for Catan.

The continued dilution of the Catan brand is, honestly, quite impressive. It’s hard to think that the expansion content of the series has gone from some of the most renowned expansions, to just some real odd ducks. Catan Studios has been focused on releasing numerous different scenarios for the base game. These vary from small little decks of cards for spice, new maps or map tiles, etc. However, the one that strikes me the oddest is CATAN: Soccer Fever Scenario.

Box cover for Catan: Soccer Fever Scenario

Releasing this year(!), the Soccer Fever Scenario brings the game of soccer (don’t sue me, Europeans) to the island of Catan. Each time a Settlement or City is built, a soccer match occurs. The two competing players will be flicking a small, cardboard soccer ball towards a goal that is located on a sideboard away from the main board. Most goals wins. The winner gets to move up a separate scoring track and will score Victory Points at the end of the game based on how far they moved up the points track. 

In my opinion, this feels like the most cynical of the products released. I feel that this was designed from the ground up to be a widely appealing expansion to one of the most popular games ever just to make some quick money. If you love soccer and kind of like Catan, then you probably would enjoy this. However, if you enjoy Catan more than the game of soccer, then you’re effectively taking the game and reducing its entirety down to a flicking game, since the leader of the scoring track gets 3 Victory Points at the end of the game. 

I don’t have much more to add about Soccer Fever, but I mainly wanted to bring it up as proof that the depravity of expansion content has not stopped, or even really slowed down.

So what are the weirdest expansions you’ve ever seen? Have you played any of the weird ones I’ve listed? Let us know!

Author

  • Bailey D

    Bailey is a long-time board gamer, short-time writer. She’s been playing board games all her life, “hobby” board games for a decade, and “crusty grognard cardboard war simulators” for the last two or three years. When she’s not obsessing over the next indie 18xx release, she can often be found refreshing online games stores and publishers’ sites for new releases. Her top games include Age of Steam, Power Grid, the COIN Series, and Camel Up.

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