4 June 2020 | 31 Comments
I have the good fortune of chatting with author, publisher, and gamer Todd Sattersten from time to time about the parallels between book publishing and game publishing. He recently contacted me after watching a Dice Tower video featuring a ranking of all Pandemic-brand products, noting that, “I think it is really important how a publisher and an industry communicates. You want it easy for customers to know what to do and how to make decisions.”
I thought the topic was interesting on a few different levels, namely that (a) there are a variety of brand extension strategies within the tabletop space and (b) while many of those strategies are successful, they can also result in confusion on the consumer level (e.g., when they’re faced with 15 different Pandemic games).
While I’ll focus on tabletop games today, I think many of the following strategies are used in other entertainment industries as well.
Pandemic is the classic example of this. There are over a dozen different versions of Pandemic, most of them using variations on the same card-driven system. Some are about the spread of disease, but a few (e.g., Reign of Cthulhu, Fall of Rome, and Rising Tide) diverge from that theme.
I think this speaks to the strength and simplicity of the core system that Matt Leacock designed. I think it’s great that Z-Man has moved away from slight variations to Pandemic games that feel new and fresh. While it is a daunting array of choices for someone who has only played core Pandemic, the themes and mechanisms of the more recent versions are fairly distinct. Plus, there are some people who love the system so much that they own many different versions of Pandemic (like my coworker Joe).
Different Intellectual Properties (IP)
In its heyday, Love Letter was a great example of this. Love Letter offers a very simple system with excellent profit margins and low MSRPs, which makes it quite appealing for brands like Batman, Marvel, and Star Wars. My personal favorite is The Hobbit–I wish I owned it, but one of the problems with IPs is that they come with limitations and expirations, and it is no longer in print. Legendary is another example of this (Alien, Predator, Firefly, etc).
This category of IP games is kind of a subcategory to the “shared system” approach–if you know how to play one version of Love Letter, you know how to play all of them (with very slight differences).
This is probably the most common brand extension strategy. We use it for almost all of our games, most notably Scythe and Wingspan (and the recent Pie in the Sky expansion for My Little Scythe), and a shortlist of other brands that use it are Terraforming Mars, Everdell, Smash Up, and Dominion.
An expansion does what the name suggests–it expands the original game. So if you like the game, instead of buying a whole new game, you can just take something you already enjoy and add something else to it. Expansions avoid component redundancy–that’s why Tuscany is $30, while Viticulture is $60. I also greatly prefer for expansions to be independent of each other so customers don’t have to worry that expansion C won’t work with expansions A and B. That does result in a design challenge for expansion (just as expansions create a product design challenge for boxes and inserts).
I delve into the topic of expansions in this video. Also, in the modern era we’re seeing some games like Mansions of Madness offer digital expansions, which is a really clever strategy.
Ticket to Ride fits into a few different categories, but one that it has seemed to pursue the most is the concept of stand alone “expansions.” That is, many versions of Ticket to Ride can be played by themselves, but they also offer some components (like maps) that can be used with other versions of Ticket to Ride.
I personally think that this is a great strategy…but confusing nomenclature. It’s great that I can buy Ticket to Ride: Europe and have a complete game out of the box. But by calling it an “expansion” (which may stem more from consumers than Days of Wonder itself), it’s resulted in multitudes of consumers who think that any expansion for any game could potentially be stand-alone. Expansions expand the core game and require the core game. Anything else is its own thing–a sequel, if you will.
This is one of the most exciting developments in modern gaming, in my opinion. I love that companies like Thunderworks (Roll Player), Garphill (Raiders of the North Sea), Red Raven (Near & Far), and Level 99 (BattleCON) have created completely different games in the same world with the same aesthetic.
I think this approach does a great job at engaging people who care about theme and worldbuilding. It also helps lower the barrier to entry–as I note in this post, each of these brands offer “familiar iconography, rulebooks, and themes spread across completely different games. If you’ve played one of their games, it’s going to be easy to pick up another one.”
Some brands use the IP they created to move beyond the examples I’ve mentioned above. Greater Than Games has done this with their Sentinels of the Multiverse brand. Beyond the core game (which has plenty of expansions), there’s also the tactical miniatures game Sentinels Tactics, an RPG, a line of comic books, and even plush toys. I think this deep and diverse dive is great when you have a significant number of devoted fans who want to explore the world in a variety of different ways.
Wes Woodbury–who currently has a new game on Kickstarter–has taken a unique approach to this strategy. He designed and funded a game called Legends of Novus and then followed it up with a small DnD adventure in that world. He then created something called Deck-O-Dice, a component that can be used in games like Legends of Novus but also role-playing games. That campaign included a minigame called DieMinions, and now his current campaign (DIE in the Dungeon) also uses some of these elements/components.
HABA is a company that makes completely different games that are geared towards families and kids, all in distinctive yellow boxes. It’s very easy to spot a HABA game in a store, and if I buy a HABA game, I know it’s going to be accessible to a variety of age ranges even if I know nothing else about the game. Another twist on this is the “Tiny Epic” series of games from Gamelyn–completely different games, different worlds, different systems–but each of them pack deep medium-weight strategy games into a small box.
This category is a little more difficult to define, as there are a number of different approaches to spinoffs. I think the nice thing about these games is that they extend a brand both to people who already enjoy the original and those who were interested in the original but didn’t quite feel that it applied to them:
- Kids/family versions: My Little Scythe is a family version of Scythe. Games like this offer streamined rules and gameplay, shorter playtime, and often a very different aesthetic than the original.
- Duel versions: 7 Wonders is a highly acclaimed game that had one weak spot: It didn’t have a good 2-player variant. So the designer teamed up a with a friend to offer a completely different game that still feels like the original. If you mostly play games with your partner or roommate, this style of game can be a great choice in terms of gameplay and budget.
- Anniversary editions: I explored this in a recent blog post, so I won’t say much here, but the basic idea is to offer the same game with much nicer components (and sometimes all expansions compiled together).
- Dice or card versions: There are some games that depend heavily on a specific component (like cards), and eventually they offer a dice version of the game. One of my favorites in this category is Sushi Roll (spinoff from Sushi Go).
- Roll-and-write: This genre of games is bursting with innovation, aided by low manufacturing costs and MSRPs. A few publishers have created roll-and-write versions of other games, like Imperial Settlers Roll & Write.
- Legacy: Legacy games feature permanent changes that can’t be undone (writing on cards, stickering the board, etc). While a few legacy games (like Charterstone) are original properties, most legacy games start with a popular core game (like Pandemic, Risk, Clank) that people are already familiar with.
LCGs and CCGs
Living card games and collectible card games take a brand (like Arkham Horror or Magic) and expand it through a series of cards (and sometimes dice) that you can use to draft or create custom decks. They’re typically focused on 2 players, and the competitive versions often feature tournament play. Here’s a recent video I made that dives deep into the pros, cons, and considerations for LCGs.
I’ve heard Isaac Childress say that his intention with Gloomhaven was to entirely avoid the idea of expansions and brand extensions–he wanted to offer everything in one giant box up front. While he did eventually delve into a number of the strategies I mentioned above with an expansion, mass market version, and sequel, I applaud the initial intent. If you get it right, it’s awesome; if not, you end up with a very expensive product that sits in a warehouse. Isaac got it right. :)
I will note that if you’re working on your first game/product, you don’t need to choose the lifetime strategy for that game. You can brainstorm and dream, of course, but it’s okay to learn as you go. I’ve heard Keith from Thunderworks talk about this in terms of the Roll Player universe–he found that it really resonated with people, so he focused on expanding that game and that universe. That wasn’t his plan when he started Thunderworks, and that’s fine. I’ve learned and pivoted the same way with Stonemaier Games.
I’m sure there are categories and better examples that I missed, as well as a much deeper dive into the pros and cons of these strategies. So I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What appeals to you as a consumer? What did I miss?
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