From ‘Catan’ To ‘Pandemic,’ How Board Games Get Expansions

It used to be you would buy a board game like “Sorry” or “Monopoly” and just play it. But in the last twenty years, game companies have begun releasing expansions to their games, giving themselves new sources of profit and players new ways to enjoy their favorite games. We spoke with the creators of “Pandemic,” “7 Wonders,” and “Settlers of Catan” about why they expand their games and how they create the expansions.

Certain tabletop games have a history of additional products: “Axis & Allies” and other miniature war games have various scenarios for different countries or historic wars. There were a few exceptions, but board games have traditionally been one and done purchases. The idea of an expanding board game became prominent about 15 years ago with “Settlers of Catan.” The game of resource collecting on an island became hugely popular and Europe and spread to other countries like America. And a few years after its release came “SeaFarers,” and then another few years came “Cities and Knights.” Five years ago Mayfair released” Traders and Barbarians.” And just recently released was Explorers and Pirates.

“I never really actively sought out or intended to design expansions. All expansion ideas presented themselves as a result of game play. It’s almost as if the expansion ideas knocked at my door,” said Klaus Teuber, the designer of “Settlers of Catan.”

But how did the famous designer create the expansions? “When I first developed ’Catan’ there were already mobile knights, metropolises, and ships. I decided to reduce the game to a manageable core, i.e. developing the island with roads, settlements, and cities,” said Teuber. “After the initial success of ’Catan,’ I had a chance to revive the formerly discarded game elements. As a result, the ’Seafarers’ and ’Cities and Knights’ expansions came to life.”

Of course “Catan” is not the only game to be expanded upon. Repos production, publishers of card game “7 Wonders” have released two expansions: first “Leaders,” and then “Cities.” They recently released the “Wonderpack,” which gives players a few extra options about what civilization they want to play, but isn’t a full blown expansion. And there is more to come.

“We plan 7 expansions for ’7 wonders.’ All the ideas and the main concepts have been discussed,” said Thomas Provoost, General Manager of Repos Production. “We want to have all the expansions to fit well with the basic game. We will try to make it possible to play all of them without changing the feeling and the simplicity of the game.”

“Pandemic” is a cooperative game published by Z-Man Games where the players controls scientists dealing with a global plague. It has had an expansion called On the Brink and a second one, called “In the Lab” was recently announced to be published in August. Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic and its expansions, said, “Expansions can modify a game in a number of ways: they can extend it along pre-established lines, add new elements to the game, or they can change an underlying mechanism in a key way. ’Pandemic’s’ expansions offer a way for experienced players to keep the game fresh and challenging.”

A huge part of expansions is playtesting, to get it just right. Provoost said, “’The Wonder Pack’ took us 6 month of testing and development. It seems simple, but we always try to have fresh and good ideas.”

Teuber begins playtesting locally, and then expands. “I have always intensely playtested the expansions with my wife Claudia, my sons Guido and Benny, as well as with the editorial teams of our publishing partners. The feedback has helped me with refining and polishing the game mechanisms,” said Teuber. “Whenever I suspected that a game element needed more testing, I relied on external game testing groups to provide feedback, which also yielded good input.”

Leacock collaborated with Tom Lehmann for “Pandemic’s” expansions. Designing them were tricky. “As each expansion is added, more testing is required as the various challenge rules, role powers, and special event powers can all interact with each other in unexpected ways,” said Leacock. “It’s important to us that we catch and identify the edge cases and provide guidance so players have a clear idea whether they’ve saved the world or not. You don’t want the fate of humanity to hang on an unresolved rules question.”

And in this day and age feedback can come from more than just playtesting, it comes from the Internet. Teuber said, “I take a close look at feedback from ’Catan’ fans, especially players from our PlayCatan community. ’Catan’ players in this online community particularly like the explorers scenarios from the Seafarer expansion. This in turn has inspired and motivated me to develop the ’Explorers’ and ’Pirates’ expansion.”

Leacock agrees, though with a caveat. “We had heard from many in the community that they thought the Operations Expert was a bit underpowered and so we revised him in ’On The Brink’–and later, in the second edition of the game–to be a bit more powerful,” said Leacock. “We do tend to shy away from reading the message boards covering variants though to avoid any confusions over the origin of any given rules.”

As with any board game, there are financial concerns with producing expansions. “It only makes sense to do an expansion if the game is a success,” said Leacock. “In ’Pandemic’s’ case, I do not think an expansion was thought of until we saw the game as a success; our first print run sold out in 3 weeks.”

Robert Carty, VP of Sales at Mayfair, the publisher of “Catan,” said “We often weigh the sales patterns and volume against the financial risk of producing an expansion. If the costs are in line, and the product reasonably profitable, we go forward.”

For Provoost, it is still a question of whether the expansions are successful. “The sales of the game are still growing so it is difficult to say. The important fact of the expansion is that it makes the game still alive and active for gamers.”