It must be tough to make a good expansion. The proof is that there are a lot of mediocre ones, especially today when we have fewer “games” and more “core sets.” An expansion is essentially an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second (or third or fourth) time. A couple of games have pulled it off, but if a game has multiple expansions, it’s typically a case of diminishing returns. Either they ramp up the complexity, or they add more new content than any one group could possibly need. Add enough stuff, and a game could collapse under the weight of its own franchise.
That was apparently the challenge that Richard Garfield faced when designing Power Up, the first expansion to the remarkable King of Tokyo. How do you expand a simple game without ruining it? King of Tokyo is especially easy to ruin, because so much of it is tied up in player interaction. Too many subsystems could squelch the trash-talking and grudge-holding.
Garfield’s approach was to err on the side of caution and create an expansion with a very light touch. Each monster now has a deck of eight “evolutions.” When a player rolls at least three hearts, they draw one of their evolutions and keep a secret hand of them. These square cards can be played at any time, for a permanent or temporary boost. Think of them as cards that don’t require energy for purchase. These evolutions are unique to each monster, and they are received as a bonus to whatever other effect the hearts have, even if the player is in Tokyo. To give the package a little more reason to exist, there is now a seventh monster called Pandakai. I suppose that means you could play with seven people, but the box doesn’t seem to think it’s a good idea because it still says it plays six.
Power Up is the sort of expansion that you can throw into every game. It adds one small rule to a very simple game, and the rest comes very naturally. I’ve introduced multiple new players to the expansion rules right off, and no one has had any problem digesting them. The best news is that the evolutions do nothing to get in the way of the dice-chucking. The game is just as interactive and intuitive as it was before. The difference is that hearts are now just a little more useful. This is nice for players with full health and players in Tokyo. If you roll a bunch of otherwise useless hearts, you might be tempted to keep them just to beef up a little. It’s a little like the extra uses for wool in Seafarers of Catan, a tweak that never seemed like a big deal until I played with it.
This expansion has displayed a cool quality of King of Tokyo that I had never appreciated, which is the game’s ability to be completely different based entirely on how the dice fall. I’ve played games that were bloodbaths with lots of attacking, and games that were tense games of high scores. It’s impossible to tell where the dice will take you, but with Power Up it’s now possible that you’ll end up with a game where everyone is flush with bizarre card effects. It’s not the kind of thing you can really effectively combo with (at least not intentionally), but it injects a level of chaos that the game could never really reach before. The game wears it well though. It’s also very possible that there will be games where the evolutions barely factor in, especially with fewer people. I found those sessions to be a bit of a letdown, but I suppose that’s a necessary trade-off to keep the game from being too much. The fact that the cards are hidden until they are played also gives just a little bit of tension and fun where it didn’t exist before. All of the effects mesh well with what’s already there.
My first response to Power Up was one that barely registered. It’s such a small addition that it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was affecting anything. But the extra uses for hearts kept it in play, and once we saw more games with the evolutions it became obvious that it’s the sort of expansion you never play without. The new cards provide a little additional thematic flavor as well, though unfortunately they aren’t illustrated. I have yet to see any notable themes among the different monsters, but that will likely emerge eventually.
The only issue I still have is the cost, which was honestly a bit of an issue with King of Tokyo as well. This one amounts almost entirely to a small deck of square cards for $20. It seems silly to complain about it, since the extra character adds a little bit of content too. But I would have liked some extra regular cards, just to pad that deck a little. I strongly feel that King of Tokyo is the best light game to come along in years, so I wish it and the expansion were priced in such a way that it could move copies at Target. No doubt it is being sold as cheaply as possible already. It’s just wishful thinking on my part.
If you already loved King of Tokyo, I have trouble seeing a reason why you wouldn’t want to pick this one up. It can be added from the first game, and taken out just as easily. It doesn’t always make its presence known, but even when it’s in the background it pulls you in with the promise of bonuses and extra powers. It’s entirely the expansion that King of Tokyo should get, one that compliments what made the game so great in the first place.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.