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Expansion Exhaustion: The Mental Cost of “More”

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I used to suffer from an acute case of “completion-itis.” And FOMO. If I loved a game (and sometimes even if I didn’t, but thought that something out there could make me love it), I had to have everything associated with that game. Every expansion, collector’s edition, or promo had to be mine. “All in” was my motto. It was an addiction. Not only was this behavior fiscally questionable, it was mentally exhausting. 

(Note that I said “fiscally questionable,” not “fiscally irresponsible.” The difference being that, while I had the money to engage in this behavior, I often questioned whether the money would be better spent on other things like, say, my old age. Had it been fiscally irresponsible, in that I did not have the money to spend without sacrificing on necessities, that would have presented a whole host of other problems. So while I don’t recommend engaging in this behavior at all for reasons I’ll explain below, there is a difference in the severity of the problem if it moves from questionable to irresponsible. Anyway…) 

I’ve since mostly recovered from my completion-itis. I said mostly. There are still some things that light me up and send me chasing after them, but they are far fewer these days and I’m better equipped to resist. Exactly how I overcame this problem is a post for another day, but a big part of it was realizing just how mentally exhausting this behavior was. And when I realized that the exhaustion was tainting my whole enjoyment of the hobby? Well, that was a big push toward stopping it. 

Board games are supposed to be fun. Fun to play, fun to own, and fun to research. But my completion-itis moved things from “fun” to “anxiety provoking.” It’s mentally exhausting to never feel like a game is “done” and to always be chasing extra pieces or better editions. Completion-itis made things less about playing and more about the endless chase for “more.” And once I had the “more,” there was a lot of space in my brain taken up with exactly how to manage all of that “more.” Plus, there was the FOMO tied to the question, of “What if there’s yet more later? Am I done, or do I have to keep checking?” It all made me tired, and tired isn’t fun. 

I finally sat down and articulated exactly why this behavior wore me out, and why it was taking away from my enjoyment of games. Here’s what I know: 

“More” often turned off the fun.

Many expansions (in my experience) are game wreckers. Some add bloat and not much else. Some take simple games and turn them into complicated monsters. Others feel rushed together in order to capitalize on the hype surrounding a successful game. And others feel like they weren’t tested enough and ruin the balance of an otherwise fine game. There are exceptions, of course, a rare few expansions that make a game substantially better. (Scoundrels of Skullport for Lords of Waterdeep comes to mind.) And some manage to add just enough to freshen the game without going overboard. But on the whole, expansions tended to make the games I loved less fun, not more. That, right there, was a big enough reason to stop chasing them. I’m in this hobby for fun, not to have games I already love wrecked by poor expansions. 

Storage was a problem

I have a finite amount of space, and it isn’t huge. Expansions always brought up the storage problem. Do I keep the boxes? Cram everything in the base box? Cobble together a storage solution, if I can’t get it in the base box? And where will all these boxes go on my shelves if I can’t find a way to get rid of them? There’s only so much shelf Tetris and repackaging you can do before it starts to wear on you and you find yourself asking, “Am I playing games, or am I an inventory clerk?”

Playing often became a problem.

When a game is already pushing the limits of sensible table space and things to manage, expansions often make things worse. More card decks, boards, and counters on the table often meant that I was hunting for something to extend my table. Not to mention the increased fiddliness and set up time of the game itself. Many expansions took games that “worked” and turned them into wonky, difficult to play monsters. You know there’s a problem when you don’t even want to play with the thing.

Tracking release dates was a pain

It was hard enough to know when an expansion might be coming in the days before Kickstarter, but once so many things moved to KS, finding out when expansions were coming got harder. Not only was I subscribing to the games themselves on BoardGameGeek, I was also subscribing to publishers’ newsletters and social media to stay in the loop. That added up to a lot of emails and notifications to wade through. And even then I still managed to miss a few expansions which led to me getting frustrated and desperately trying to hunt down a copy before it was too late. Because…

Expansions are sometimes limited releases (even if they aren’t explicitly billed as such)

Some publishers just don’t keep expansions in print for long. This means you buy it immediately, or never see it again. (Expansion for Stone Age, I’m looking at you.) This stinks, especially when there aren’t many reviews out yet to inform your purchase (or you miss the release somehow). Normal people will simply skip it, but someone in the grip of completion-itis will feel pressured to buy or miss out. That pressure creates a suck on your psyche. 

Promos are just a logistical nightmare

Promo chasing was worse than expansion chasing due to their even more limited quantities. If you can’t get to a convention where the promo is sold/gifted, attend the event where the promo is given out (think Tabletop Day promotions), or buy the magazine issue that included the promo, you’re looking at tracking it down on the aftermarket for inflated prices, plus shipping. Not only is it expensive, sometimes you’re left trying to sort the legitimate sellers from the scammers when it’s not available on a reputable site like the BGG Store. It’s tiresome and, often, so not worth it because (and this is the ultimate lesson) the vast majority of promos just aren’t worth that kind of effort or outlay.

Learning new rules can take the fun out of a game

One of the best things about gaming for me is getting comfortable with a game. I love it when I know a game inside out and can just drop it on the table and play without referencing the rules. Those are great for weeknights and tired days. Of course I like learning new games, too, but I never really enjoyed learning the rules to most expansions. It felt somehow like going backward. “Oh, here’s the game I know so well, but now let me dig out the rulebook again and re-learn it.” Sure, some expansions add only a rule or two, but expansions that changed the whole game wrecked my comfortable groove. They turned reliable games into games that would have to wait until I had time and brainpower to relearn them.  

Sorting components is aggravating

While some expansions are great about labeling components, many aren’t. If you want to remove the expansion content to teach someone the base game, it can be a pain. Particularly in the absence of a well thought out storage solution. Modular expansions are often the worst. If you play a game with all the modules and then want to remove all but one, you have to dig through everything until you’ve eliminated what you didn’t want. Again, some creators are better at handling this than others, but the bad ones make it hard to love expansions after a while. 

“More” sometimes costs as much as the base game (or a new game). 

Okay, this one may not be so much mentally exhausting as financially exhausting, but when you see enough overpriced expansions/promos and try to figure out how to afford just one more, your brain gets tired. Too many expansions these days cost only a few dollars less than the base game, and they include far less content. And if whatever you’re searching for is only available on the aftermarket, it’s even worse. That’s just painful to swallow and it was one of the things that conquered my completion-itis. I’m a value shopper and too many expansions don’t give good value for the price. 

“More” doesn’t get played that often, which ends up being a regret

Whether it’s because the expansion wrecked/over-complicated the base game, the set up became a pain, or I didn’t have the time/inclination to learn the new rules, many expansions ended up hardly being played at all. That’s a huge waste of money and leads to a lot of regret. And regret is mentally exhausting. Every time I looked at the game box, I thought, “I shouldn’t have spent the money on that.”

This leads to a related problem which is this: On game night I’d almost always to prefer to play either an entirely new game, or an old favorite. But an old favorite with an expansion presents a wrinkle. I likely can’t play it without a rules review, so it’s like playing a new game in many ways. But if I’m going to invest the time, I’d really rather play something new. It’s not fun to spend fifteen minutes in front of your game shelf debating what to do. Lessen the regret of the expansion purchase, or just play something new and potentially awesome?

Collector’s editions and big boxes are largely not worth it

In all but a few cases, the retail version of a game will be just fine. Yes, it might not have some promos or blinged out components, but the game itself plays fine. But… Someone with completion-itis has to have the collector’s edition. It often costs more and requires more storage space than a regular game, adding to the mental load of acquiring and owning it. And don’t forget the FOMO of “limited” editions. Get it now before it’s gone makes me tired, especially when there’s very little information other than, “Here it is. We’re not going to give you any play-throughs or detailed pictures because we know know you’ll buy it anyway.” 

Worse, if you buy the collector’s edition after owning the base game, you add to the mental load by asking, “Now what do I do with my retail version?” If you want to sell it, you have to jump through the hoops to auction it, or list it for sale and ship it somewhere. Plus you’ll have to deal with the lost money in the process, because few games fully recoup their purchase price. 

Big boxes present a similar problem. They live up to their names by requiring insane amounts of storage space. While some offer good storage solutions, some do not, leaving you to sort through all the stuff to play the game you want. And ultimately you’ll probably find that you only play with one or two (or none) of the add-ons with any regularity, leaving you wondering why you needed all the extra stuff.

Maybe I’m unique in suffering from these problems. Perhaps I’m too much of an over-thinker and  everyone else is thinking, “This lady is just bonkers.” It’s possible, I’ll admit. But I suspect that there are other people out there who feel mentally exhausted by completion-itis for one reason or another, and maybe it’s helpful for me to articulate my problems with the disease. Or not. Who knows? But what I do know is that, for me, there’s a high mental cost to expanding games that makes the habit worthy of ditching. 

(Photo by Cris Saur)

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. Wow! You just hit the nail on the head! You could have been reading my mind! Often for me, buying the expansion means I will never play the game again for just the reasons you mentioned. There are a few, though, that are well thought out and fit seamlessly into the base game, e.g. Lords of Waterdeep, Raiders of the North Sea and Champ ions of Midgard. Expansions to my lightweight games rarely get played because my friends/spouse are happy with the game “just the way it is” and don’t want to learn new rules! I could go on and on but you went right down the list of my pet peeves when it comes to expansions (and, yes, I am a bit of a completist, too)! Thanks for the great article.

    • Jennifer Derrick

      Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my thoughts. (I feared I might be the only one who was a little bit crazy about this stuff! Nice to know we’re a tribe of at least two.)

  2. That makes at least three of us! I haven’t gone nearly as far down the expansion path as many people have, but I’ve bought a few, and none of them makes me feel as excited about the games to which they apply as I was before them. (Well, except for maybe Terraforming Mars: Prelude, because that speeds up the game and makes it more likely to be played.) Viticulture in particular…I keep wanting to bring it to the table again, but the expansion literally scares me away from playing it. So nothing at all strange about your thoughts here, IMHO.

  3. I’ve come to a similar viewpoint recently. I’ve never chased promos, but have been bad at buying expansions since they seem hard to get after their initial printing…I might want it next year! Oh, that FOMO. And games I want to unload…well, I don’t want to sell the base game and be stuck with expansions, but buyers haven’t wanted the complete package at a steal either. I did decide a couple months ago to back way off on both game purchases / trades and expansion purchases. We’ll see how it’s going this time next year! Thanks for the post!

    • Jennifer Derrick

      I’m with you on the backing off. Even though I’ve really pared down, I still have so much. I’m trying really hard to limit myself. Really hard… Sometimes failing…

  4. Very good points all around! I wish I had read this about 3 days ago as I’ve recently purchased at least 3 expansions to games I have played only once or none at all. I told myself I couldn’t pass on the low price, but chances are it never gets played. So not much of a deal after all.

  5. There are a couple of games where expansions, for my tastes, make the game so much better and are must-gets — Dixit and Lord of the Rings LCG for instance. There are a couple of games that have expansions that add a little more depth without much added complexity, and those stay mixed in permanently — Pandemic the Cure and Downforce.

    But… admittedly… the vast majority of the games sit forlornly in the box, properly sorted, bagged, labelled, and ignored. “Next time, buddy. Next time…”

  6. This hits home so much. I started my game collection with Carcasonne, which is an amazing game. However, I tried to hunt down the newest expansions and add them all to the game. That easily extended the game time with about an hour which just made the game a lot less enjoyable and it got to the table a lot less.

    After some time I finally got the second edition, because I didn’t see a reason to only have the first version if it isn’t gonna be supported. Now I have a lot of fun playing it again and see that the expansions don’t always make the game any better.

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