Have you ever played a game where you think “I have played this enough, I understand it. I could do with something… more?” Then you, my friend, are probably looking for an expansion. We at Zatu love a board game expansion. Having new actions to our games, like in the Skullport expansion for Lords of Waterdeep, or just new tiles or cards to shuffle in, like in any Carcassonne expansion (including the Big Box), gives the game a completely new twist and injects some variety. After all, it’s the spice of life! But most expansions have a drawback. They need the base game to get you started.
But not all of them… In this post, we’re going to look at the games which have expansions, but those expansions can stand alone as their own game. Game on!
Queendomino is a rather a strange standalone in as far as it is meatier than the ‘base game’ Kingdomino – also a family favourite. Both share the common mechanical DNA of drafting and placing domino-like terrain tiles, using domino-like rules. Both find you creating a patchwork kingdom in which you are trying to build the biggest areas of chosen landscape types, and ensure that as many of these tiles also display scoring crowns. But with Kingdomino that is really the game in its totality. Queendomino offers a whole lot more.
There are knight meeples than can tax your kingdom to provide you with coins. This revenue can be used to buy buildings from the market which can then be placed on the new red terrain tiles, which are construction sites. Some buildings offer immediate bonuses, like more knights or towers (which can be placed to win the favour of the new queen meeple and raise more tax revenue). And there is even a dragon, which can be tasked to burn buildings in the market with a view to scuppering the plans of your rivals.
All of this adds greater depth: some strategic choices alongside the tactics, more player interaction and thus a longer play time. For me, it has added some freshness and re-engaged my eldest who was mostly all played out with Kingdomino. It has offered her a gateway to more crunchy euro games and offers the prospect of the same transition to her younger siblings. Combining the two sets simply offers a larger player count or the option to increase the size of the kingdom from 5x5 to 7x7.
I like all three options. I still enjoy Kingdomino on its own as it is a quick, lean filler with any group; Queendomino is a family go to and the combo, sometimes with the Age of Giants expansion too is a gorgeous sprawl of tiles and meeples which can happily while away a Sunday afternoon with my tribe in front of the fire.
Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale is a flip and write game that gave the genre a massive boost. Simply drawing a map based on the terrain cards that appear may not seem exciting, but the variability in the terrain cards, edicts and monsters makes it an instant love for me. Last year, Thunderworks Games kickstarted a sequel – Cartographers Heroes! The story is that your cartographer is now heading out into the world but there are worse monsters out there, including dragons and zombies. Because these dangers are greater, you need a hero! (Cue Bonnie Tyler.)
You have new cards and new maps to go with these new monsters and it just adds to the near infinite replayability. You can mix and match as you want, including the monsters from either game to the terrain cards, adding the heroes or ruins if you want them, playing on whichever map you like and matching up the edicts as you want. The only thing that doesn’t mix is the terrain but that’s fine. But of course, you don’t have to play Heroes with the original game. It is a fantastic standalone game and offers just as much replayability as the original.
Even when you run out of the 100 double-sided maps (because you had a big party and everyone played maybe?) you can print more off of the Thunderworks website. For a good recommendation, play with coloured pencils. You’ll be amazed to see the difference it makes to your game. It really doesn’t matter which one you get but my suggestion is always going to be BOTH!
The original Railroad Ink was an excellent mix of crunchy puzzly thinkiness and light-hearted mitigation of the luck of the dice. Each of the different boxes has its own mini expansion in it, but the core base game is the same. You roll the dice and draw each of the displayed road and/or rail networks onto your personal player board. Initially there was the Blazing Red version and the Deep Blue version. The red one had volcano and lava expansions and the blue edition had river expansions. These added extra scoring abilities and changed up the way you played.
In 2021, the Challenge standalone expansions were brought out. These came in two colours again. The Shining Yellow box came with two mini expansions that were based on deserts and sand. The Lush Green version had two forest-based expansions in the box. Not only that, but the Challenge versions came with some different rules, including the addition of Objectives cards. These really amped up the race element and increased the heads-up nature of the game. Now it really matters what your opponents were doing far more than just for end-game scoring.
The first to gain an objective such as joining together three exits or creating a loop of road/rail will get a sweet 4 points, with the second placed person only managing to snag two, and everyone else only gets a paltry single point for their effort. In a game where maximum scores are below 100, getting these objective points can really help. But only if you manage it not at the expense of the bigger picture, and therein lies the challenge. Pun absolutely intended.
“Standalone Expansion Games” – sounds like a contradiction in terms, right? Well, what if we called them “series games” or “volumes”? Expansions usually do what they say on the tin; expand another game. They add bits, boards, cards etc. to make the base game longer (or sometimes even more streamlined), more complex, or somehow different. But generally without making the original feel like another game altogether. But sometimes, games come along which are linked to a base game but can be played entirely on their own.
Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is one such game. It is based on the massive 2004 Days of Wonder hit, Ticket to Ride (USA), and goes off into the snowy peaks of Scandinavia, Finland and Estonia with its network building, hand managing, set collecting, euro-game wonderment.
You still have to collect routes and place your trains to connect up the cities shown on your ticket cards. You still have only a limited number of trains to use. And you still win by having satisfied the most routes by the end of the game. But in Nordic (like other regional expansions), there are tunnels and ferries to help you reach far flung places. Ad to use these, you will need to collect the wild, multicolour locomotive cards found scattered amongst the train cards.
Ticket to Ride USA is the grandaddy of gateway games. Like many, it was the game that really cemented me into our hobby, and I still love it. Anytime someone suggests a game, I’m down for some trains. I also have it digitally on my devices for away play. And where Nordic Countries reduces the size of the board, it increases the challenge by making it a much tighter, tenser game for 2-3 players. With fewer routes to nab, the possibility of blocking your opponent(s) goes from optional to essential.
I’ve always enjoyed science. Even as a child I can remember getting chemistry sets and electronics kits as presents. I also like racing games, so a racing game about scientists was always going to be a winner for me.
Steampunk Rally was a bit of a hit on Kickstarter a few years back. You each took the role of different scientists from throughout history and It had you cobbling together mad contraptions from cards you draft and powering them by using dice. You were racing your opponents all around Machu Pichu and whoever crossed the line first, sort of, was the winner. There was some story about an alien invasion but to be honest, I never really noticed it.
Mechanically, the game is sort of an engine builder, a favourite of mine. You start with your unique inventor with their unique starter cards, asymmetry is another favourite of mine. You’ll be drafting extra component cards or selling them for dice. Once you’re done drafting you can roll your dice and slot them into the various components of your invention to activate various abilities. Bits of your machine may fall off if you get too damaged and if you go too wild your entire machine may explode!
Anyway, enter Steampunk Rally Fusion. This box is one of my favourite approaches to an expansion. More variety of what you love from the base experience with some added extra tweaks and flourishes to keep things fresh. You get more track pieces, more scientists, more machine parts, and most excitingly, new extra powerful wild fusion dice!
You also get some really powerful special projects that can be developed to unlock some huge special abilities to give you the edge during the race. This fusion expansion can be played as a standalone game but everything can also be mixed in with the original game to make some truly wacky contraptions.
Steampunk Rally Fusion is a great expand-alone and you should definitely check it out if you like scientific history, engine building or those old Wacky Races cartoons!