10 Brand Extension Strategies for Tabletop Games

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.

Shared System

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).

Expansions

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.

Stand-Alone “Expansions”

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.

Shared World

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.”

Horizontal Branding

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.

Shared Philosophy

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.

Spinoffs

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.

Everything Now

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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31 Comments on “10 Brand Extension Strategies for Tabletop Games

  1. Thanks for another really interesting blog Jamey.

    I think the horizontal branding idea is particularly interesting when developing a tabletop game with planned linkages into other domains, eg into online games, lifestyle merchandise, comics, corporate events with gaming tables etc.

    I’m helping mentor a start-up games company (Physical Gaming) at the moment which has some interesting innovative ideas about building their brand by capitalising on the cross-over between their forthcoming KATAK tabletop game (which seeks to build on the success of their earlier award-winning ‘Four Elements’ game) and the online environment, together with a linked comic to help build story and engagement among their customer community.

    The challenge we’re working through at the moment is how to ensure different components of the brand complement the core tabletop KATAK game rather than compete with it, or distract the company’s attention from the core game. Their longer term plan is also to release additional content in form of expansions with new pieces representing different characters in the KATAK world in the future – the underlying game will be the same but with different coloured/shaped pieces that link to the comic story line and give a slightly different feel to playing the game.

  2. Hello,
    As a player, not designer or publisher, I can certainly agree about your point regarding “expansions” being confusing. Too frequently, I hear about a game that sounds inviting to me, only to spend too much time online trying to figure out whether I am looking for the original base version, OR a reprint/update of the base, OR an “expansion” for the base OR an “expansion” separate from the base, etc etc.
    Now that my gaming pub/cafe has closed -because of covid – I can’t just wander in there to talk to someone knowledgable.
    In your own backyard- this was true for me with “Viviculture” and “Tuscanny” which I thought sounded fun and might appeal to my husband who is not such a board gamer as I am- but does enjoy wine. :] It took almost too much research to figure out which was what, so that I nearly gave up. Maybe I am just reading the wrong board game sites. ???
    thanks for your blogs though; I do enjoy reading them.
    and I LOVE “Wingspan”.
    best regards, gloria

    1. Thanks Gloria! I appreciate the feedback about Viticulture and Tuscany. Our games follow the model I mention above: There is the core game (Viticulture), and each expansion expands the core game and has no overlap or dependency on other expansions. So if you get Viticulture and like it, you can add any combination of Tuscany, Moor Visitors, and Rhine Valley.

      1. Yes, thanks. I did come to understand that eventually, but even out of the starting gate, there was “Vivculture” and then, there was “Essential Viviculture”. It really was confusing trying to figure out what was what.
        (I ended up purchasing “Essential Viviculture”and “Tuscany” & we plan to begin playing this week!)
        -If we can stop playing “Wingspan” ;)
        (“Wingspan” which is what brought me into your world of games)
        g

  3. I just love and have a deep respect for Jamey and the people at SM Games. You guys are so honest and transparent with the public. Hands down the best board game company ever. Thanks for everything! Especially for Scythe, my all time favourite board game.

  4. I’ve always enjoyed the concept of a shared world across games and it was one of the reasons I looked into self-publishing. All of my games have been set in the same universe, they share a common enemy and give insights to different periods of time within a 10’000 year narrative that I’ve been writing over the last 5 years. It’s been amazing to see how many game ideas I’ve had inspired by that narrative, but equally how much the game designs inspire me to further explore different areas of the narrative.

    The other (unique?) strategy I use is my concept of black box white box. I design games for different audiences but you will always know if one of my games (e.g. The Isle of Cats) is in a white box, that it is designed for all gamers of all levels. If a game is in a black box (e.g. The City of Kings) it is designed for the more experienced gamer looking for heavier games. I’ve found this to be a very easy and powerful way of letting my community understand the audience of a newly announced game from simply seeing a box.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Frank! That’s awesome that you have such a huge narrative, and I like that you’re using the HABA strategy of distinguishing your game types by box color.

  5. Another interesting spinoff strategy is when two worlds merge to make a game. Small World of Warcraft has certainly got a lot of people excited!

  6. Perseverance: Castaway Chronicles by Mindclash Games may be pioneering a new concept. It’s a series of competitive / semi-cooperative games that can be played independently OR as a campaign.

  7. Very illuminating thoughts, Jamey. I agree brand extension can be exciting and creative (and the number of expansions on my shelf testify haha)!

    This may be a question for a larger article, but do you have any thoughts on what the line is between creative extension of a brand and what some fans call ‘milking’ a franchise?

        1. Yes, absolutely!

          Actually, perhaps I should have read this article before I wrote my comment below about proposing a Scythe The Card Game…

  8. Dominion is one of my favorite games. It now has over 12 expansions. The first expansion, Intrigue, also acted as a stand-alone (it came with the “base cards”). Every other expansion wasn’t playable without one of these first games–at least that’s how it was originally. One very clever thing that the company did was it started to sell these base cards by themselves. Then, if you wanted to play any expansion for Dominion, you could just buy it and the small inexpensive base card set. I find this a really genius solution, especially with so many different expansions that have been made so far.

  9. I agree with you that the Shared World concept is exciting and effective. As a fan of Architects and Paladins, I don’t think I’ve ever been a sure I want a forthcoming game as I am sure about Viscounts of the West Kingdom. (And of course I’ve been enjoying all the hints that another game in the Scythe universe is at least a possibility.)

      1. With all the beautiful Jacob Rozalski artwork and Game Design from Stonemaier Games, “Scythe The Card Game” would be so awesome!

        You discussed the various characteristics of LCGs in your recent Sunday Sitdown Video and your interest in developing your own Expandable Card Games.

        Scythe has the loyal fanbase already established, the 9 unique factions you have would give you a core set of say 2 plus 7 individual faction Expansion packs – like Marvel Champions or KeyForge, players could then just buy a faction they like the look of and jump right in and play a game in a game shop or cafe.

        And, if you do, please ask Automa Factory to make a Solo Player mode.

        I have both Arkham Horror LCG and Eldritch Horro the board game, which share the same universe and library of artwork – and I absolutely love both games and their different areas of focus – World / Strategy (Eldritch) and Specific Location / Tactical (AH LCG). Final Fantasy Games certainly knows how to get good mileage from their IP!

        A more portable Scythe, each Game or Encounter – played-in-60-minutes and taking up a much smaller area of space on the table would be so cool.

        Actually, you have already sold just a pack of cards – in a premium box – with the Encounter cards Expansion. The premium box actually could be a feature of the game – each faction has it’s own deck box when you buy it.

        So, Jamey, how about it?

        1. Sorry, I meant of course “Fantasy Flight Games” (and not (“Final Fantasy Games”)

          and “Horror”, not “Horro”

  10. Another way of brand extension is an adaptation of existing product. For example, Portal Games published Resistance for Polish market with branding of Neuroshima, their postapocalyptic universe (best known from Neuroshima Hex! and 51st State). Now they’re repeating it with Last Aurora so it seems working for them.
    You can even say that Love Letter was released this way, as AEG adapted it to their Tempest line after aquiring rights from Japan publisher. The line of course failed miserably apart from Love Letter, but this is what you get when “extended brand” is the main feature of your product. Much like failed universes from DC Warner or Universal.

  11. I really like the approach of Garphill games with the West Kingdom & Northsea trilogies, the common iconography & art styles really unify the games (&make me want to have them all…).
    I think the Century games are also a brilliant touch, three standalone games which can be mixed in any form to end up with 7! related games.
    Tabula games also does this brilliantly, with Icaion (engine building/pickup & deliver euro) & Mysthea (area control) combining to a totally different third game, Mysthea the Fall (cooperative tower defence).

    1. I’m glad you brought up the Century series, as that’s definitely a unique approach to brand extension! I didn’t know that about the Tabula series of games either–thanks for sharing. :)

      1. Always happy to share! It feels really great to receive a ‘free’ additional game when adding these games to your collection, it makes getting them all a must ;) For the Tabula series there is even a mini campaign you can do with the first two games influencing the coorperative game!
        I can imagine it will make the designing the joined games a lot harder though, as you will be restricted with components/iconography. Emerson Matsuuchi (designer of the Century series) mentions in The Board Game Book (vol.1) that he did not plan in advance to link all the games, which makes them being seamlessly interwoven even more of an achievement!

  12. This is a jam packed post Jamey, love it! Lots to divulge and remember for future campaigns (and even existing ones). Thanks for showing this, and sharing some of my info as well for FunDaMental Games!

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