I saw a question in a boardgame group about which games NEED expansions. After a little bit of thought, I came up with five that I think really need expansions to fix something that I perceive as a flaw in the base game by itself. But before I begin, let me say this. There are a lot of games that have expansions - anymore, it seems rare that a game doesn't. Sometimes, the game was designed that way and to keep costs down, features were left out on purpose to be sold later as an expansion. Sometimes an expansion is just that - an expansion of existing game stuff. Maps for Power Grid or Age of Steam, cards for Dominion and Thunderstone, different house cards for A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame, Kingdom Builder, Descent and Eldritch Horror expansions - these kinds of things are truly expansions that add new variations to existing play, with only minor alterations to the game. What I'm about to talk about isn't that. Rather, this is a few games that I think are just ok out of the box, but shine when you add an expansion (or three) that alter the game significantly.
This is a pretty simple game. Layout some track, place your disk on the track, and take turns flicking your disks around the track in a race to complete the course the fastest. Out of the box, the base game has a lot of track pieces and you can create a lot of different courses. So why is this on the list at all? An argument (a good argument) can be made that the game is fine out of the box. What do you get out of the expansions? The biggest thing that you get from the expansions are ramps and jumps. Secondly, the expansions also give you some different angles and the ability to create cross-overs. A couple minor obstacles like this really take Pitchcar from a fun race game to one where skill and shot selection REALLY matter. I don't think all the expansions are equally good and depending on your enthusiasm for the game, you can skip some that really amp up the game, but having lots of sets lets you create some really interesting tracks and features.
Lords of Waterdeep
First let me say that I think LoW is a fine worker placement game and I personally think the theme works ok. In fact, out of the box, this game is fine - it doesn't feel broken (except for maybe the guy that gets points for making buildings at the end of the game). It does feel a bit repetitive and limited in choices after a few plays though. Add in the expansion and suddenly this goes from a "not bad" game to a really good one. Why? The additional options that you now have. And not just new actions, but really powerful actions that are balanced by taking corruption counters. The more you have, the worse it will be for you at the end of the game. The more corrupt everyone is, the worse it is for everyone. It really feels like the expansion open up the game while adding only a slight bit of complexity. The additional quests and intrigue cards are nice too, but it is the other boards that really make this game shine.
This is a nice little game. I don't enjoy it with more than three players, because it feels really random - everything changes A LOT between your turns when there are more than a couple other players (I'd never play this with 5 or 6 players). Now lets jump to the Big Box version of Alhambra, which gives you all the expansions packed up in one set. Each expansion is really just a set of tiny expansions (so like 15-ish). A while back I ended up getting the Big Box in a math trade and we started playing through the expansions. Basically, we'd add two or three and then keep the ones we really liked for the next game. After a while, we found that there were a set that we really liked and always had to have. Some were less important when combined with other expansions, but some were "won't play without" kind of things. In the end, I think what I've found is that I like Alhambra more than I thought, but only with certain additions to the game. I'd certainly be willing to play with 4 or 5 players now as I think some of the expansions fix the flaws of the game at higher player counts. For those familiar with the game, I like: Vizier, Currency Exchange, City Gates, Change, and Thieves. I can take it or leave it on a few others - Diamonds, Characters, and Traveling Merchant. I've only played through 3 of the sets, so there might be more or those combos might change things. At any rate, if you have just played the base Alhambra and found it lacking, you might want to play again out of the Big Box. It doesn't make this a top ten game, but it does move it up a fair bit.
Ok, there are something like ten million expansions and variations on this game. Does that mean that it is somehow broken as just the original base game? Not really. It is a good little game and decent gateway game. Plus people like seeing the map they've created at the end of the game. So what is wrong with Carcassonne out of the box? Well, with just the base game, games not only get stale fairly quickly, with good players, the game gets mean. There is a whole lot of playing pieces just to screw someone. When you are only playing with two players, that's not horrible. When you are playing a four-player game and all your guys have been stranded, it becomes really un-fun. Here is where some of the expansions can help out. Your guys are stuck? The Dragon (from the Princess and the Dragon) can help you get your meeples back. If you think this is just another "jerk move" expanion, you aren't using it to its full potential. Traders (from Traders and Builders) incentivizes you to complete cities (whether you are there or not) in order to get the goods and score points in the end of the game (it also kind of helps keep MEGACASTLES from being too much of a thing). Inns and Cathedrals makes roads a better scoring option and the double meeple changes the ownership dynamic. The Phantom may seem like a gimmick (a cool looking little gimmick), but having the abilty to play two meeples makes your placement choices different. Bridges help you play tiles in places you couldn't before. And while it is true that adding all that in makes for a LOT of tiles, I think that's ok, because they fix the things that I don't like about the game. Plus, if you are playing with the Builder, players are likely going to try to get two tiles played each turn.
I have mentioned Viticulture a number of times in my other posts, I really like this game and it is a Top 10 for me - but only with the inclusion of things from the Tuscany expansion. Of course, I have a different perspective from that of a lot of folks that have tried this game because I was one of the original backers of the game on its first kickstarter and on the Collectors Edition Kickstarter. I suspect a lot of people that have played this game have only been exposed to the Essential Edition. So I'm going to start at the begining.
I first heard about Viticulture and backed it on Kickstarter, because I enjoy wine and wanted a game to fit the theme. It sounded decent enough, even though I knew nothing about the designers. Right before the game was actually shipped out, I got a chance to play it for the first time at the Geekway game convention and was actually taught by the designer - Jamey Stegmaier. What I found was a really fun and thematic game - exactly what I wanted! I was delighted. Then I played it 3-4 times more and was a little disenchanted. There were flaws. The games all felt the same out the gate: everyone rushed to get vineyard cards (and man could you get hosed by bad draws) and everyone rushed to get an extra worker. There was also a rush to build structures, so that you could plant your vineyard cards that required structures. In the original game, there was no big worker (and even in the first iteration of the big worker, it worked differently than it does now) and so you had to sacrifice to get early in the turn order so that you could get the actions you wanted early. Also, everyone was really building the same engine, which meant that getting lucky in the visitor cards draws made a lot of difference in how your engine performed and how you scored points.
First off, they introduced variable setups. Players get a Momma and a Poppa card and each indicates what workers, cards, and money a player starts with in the game. One card offers the player a choice of a free structure or money. The structure is nice, because not only are you saving money, but the action required to build it, but it may be something that doesn't really impact your game for a while (or does it?). At any rate, the variable setup and a worker that could go anywhere helps to alleviate a lot of the problems I mentioned - the start of each game is no longer the same.