While the term ‘Spin-Off’ might inherently sound like a lesser version of its source material, movies such as Creed (Rocky) and Logan (X-Men), TV shows such as The Mandalorian (Star Wars) and Better Call Saul (Breaking Bad), books including The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Hobbit) and the Wax and Wayne Series (Mistborn), and video games including Super Mario Bros (Donkey Kong) and Super Smash Bros (Nintendo) would beg to differ.
The world of board games is also rife with spin-offs, whether a publisher is milking the cash cow of a popular IP or a designer is exploring their clever concept from another angle, or both! Our consumerist society lives and dies by a constant blend of nostalgia and novelty. The benefit of a great spin-off game is that often it can end up being even better than the source that inspired it!
In celebration of our upcoming publication, Trailblazers—which is itself a spin-off of the critically acclaimed Pipeline—we’ll explore my Top 10 Spin-Off Games and how they iterate on their parent designs. And be sure to stick around for the end where I’ll reveal new juicy info and images on Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney!
7 Wonders Duel
7 Wonders is a card drafting, civilization building game that took the gaming world by storm in 2010. It went on to win dozens of nominations and awards including the coveted Kennerspiel Des Jahres. Players love how quick and crunchy the decisions are as well as the various strategies one can pursue from crushing military to crafty science.
Five years later, the designer of 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza) teamed up with another prolific creator (Bruno Cathala) to bring us a 2-player dueling version of his classic in 7 Wonders Duel. Duel takes the core civ-building formula and turns the experience into a more tense, cut-throat, and interactive competition. It’s why I haven’t played regular 7 Wonders in years. While one player threatens to end the game immediately with a military victory, the other might be sneaking their way to a sudden science win. Every card you draft from the pyramid display opens up another opportunity for your opponent. And the expansions to this one add even more juicy layers to the strategy.
Staying on the topic of 2-player versions of beloved concepts, Blitzkrieg is a 2 player Paolo Mori design that shares much in common with his older 3-5 player game, Dogs of War. Both games explore an interesting combination of worker placement tug-of-war where you’ll commit your piece to a region to pull a region marker in your direction, and the space you place your piece on top of will often grant an immediate bonus.
Dogs of War remains one of my favorite games, but it really only works with 4 or 5 players. Blitzkrieg manages to offer me a similar tension of dangling carrots and shifting momentum in a lightning fast 20 minutes that only requires one more player. That’s why both of these games ended up right next to each other on my most recent Top 50 Games of All Time post. We’ll see if 2022’s Caesar—the spin-off of this spin-off—manages to also reach such lofty heights, but so far it’s looking very promising.
L.A.M.A Dice is a 2021 release that is based on the popular card game L.A.M.A., yet it hasn’t officially made its way to North America yet. Hopefully that will change soon, as we’ve found L.A.M.A. Dice to be a hoot at the table. This is a particularly surprising redemption story for L.A.M.A. considering my initial impressions of the card game weren’t too enthusiastic. I’ll be sharing my full thoughts on this game soon, but here’s a teaser for now:
While L.A.M.A. Dice plays out similarly to L.A.M.A. the card game, it also has some key differences that make it the more lively, loud, and laugh-inducing game of the two. Where the card game is more about quiet, subtle, and private hand management, the dice game is about clackety rolls, foolish decisions, public humiliations, and occasionally glorious triumphs. While there is of course a big old dollop of luck to the game of L.A.M.A., the dice game transforms that luck into a collective experience of laughs, groans, and cheers. And because it comes in at a breezy 20 minutes, that means that you can get in, have a colorful little riot, get out, and be on to the next game in the blink of an eye.
One cannot discuss board game spin-offs without discussing the legendary duo of A Feast for Odin and Patchwork. The legend goes that while esteemed designer Uwe Rosenberg was crafting and polishing his magnum opus—the dense and sprawling polyomino worker placement game A Feast for Odin—he began to toy with a smaller 2-player design that focuses solely on the polyominoes.
In this case, the spin-off ended up releasing a whole two years before its source material, but the end result was the same. We got two excellent games from a master chef who went on to craft many more polyomino designs. While Patchwork and A Feast for Odin cater to very different crowds, you never know if these two might be the gateway drug for polyomino lovers into the realm of heavy Euro games.
Pandemic is an industry phenomenon that likewise has a cornucopia of spin-off titles thanks to its monstrous popularity and approachability as a cooperative game. While many Pandemic spin-offs would be great options for this list, I opted for my favorite of the bunch. This one features the opportunity to develop rail lines for faster travel plus a preventative buffer action of distributing water.
2 new actions, a different board, and a few rules tweaks doesn’t seem like it would make a big difference. Yet Pandemic: Iberia is the best version of any Pandemic spinoff or copy-cat that I’ve ever played. The stakes are raised, the strategy is deepened, the tension is thickened, and our love for Pandemic is rekindled.
Schotten Totten 2
I see many folks point to Battle Line / Schotten Totten as their favorite 2-player game and/or favorite Knizia design of all time. Who can blame them? This clever 2-player card game of forming poker sets across a battle line is ripe with tough choices, narrow defeats, and tight victories.
So what does a sequel to this masterpiece possibly have to offer? Surprisingly, a lot. Schotten Totten 2 approaches this tactical card game with a few interesting wrinkles that dramatically change the overall experience. Both players have asymmetric objectives and abilities as one defends their wall while the other tries to break through. Furthermore, each section of the wall features a unique formation requirement to keep you on your toes. This one continues to grow on me with more plays, which is why it’s absolutely worthy of this list.
Here we have another spin-off that seemingly split it’s fanbase right down the middle as to which one they prefer. But more than anything, I typically hear that fans of Brass are happy to play either Lancashire (the original) or Birmingham (the spin-off), and that’s the mark of a great spin-off based on a solid classic.
Birmingham offers a few twists to the Brass gameplay including a new scout action to obtain wild cards, several new industry types, and an additional commodity—the ever precious beer. It seems that folks who like more flexibility opt for Birmingham while those who glutton for punishment prefer Lancashire, but you really can’t go wrong either way.
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea is perhaps the only spin-off on this list where many fans claim that it makes the original game obsolete in their collection. That’s only because Mission Deep Sea possesses a more elegant mission structure that provides infinitely more possibilities. This is another one I’ll be discussing further soon (in an upcoming first-impressions post), but since you’re here I might as well spoil my conclusion:
Much more than The Quest for Planet Nine, Mission Deep Sea feels like a game I can endlessly revisit (even after beating all the missions) because I’ll never see the same combination of objective cards. Essentially, you can astutely consider Mission Deep Sea the Toy Story 2, the Spider-man 2, or the Shrek 2 of card games. It takes a bona-fide classic and does it even better.
Yellow & Yangtze
Tigris & Euphrates is one of my favorite games of all time thanks to abyss of layered strategy and brilliant interactions that exist in its box. While T&E has existed as a holy grail game for decades now, Reiner Knizia boldly decided to create a sister design to it only a few short years ago.
While I consider the original to be a perfect experience, it seems as though every T&E complaint that someone might have regarding luck of the draw, value of the tiles, usefulness of leaders in the late game, brutality of the conflicts, etc., has been considered and addressed in one way or another here in Yellow & Yangtze. Between the low-key enormous shift to hexagon spaces (from squares) and the shocking addition of yellow tiles (providing wild points), there’s an entirely new pool of possibilities to explore. It’s so brilliantly distinct that I consistently have a commitment crisis just deciding which of these two favorites I should play next.
Tournament at Avalon
Some designs just understand how to embrace chaos and capture its essence within a ruleset that still manages to make you feel strategically clever. Tournament at Camelot is one such design, and this trick-taking card game is further improved upon with the spin-off: Tournament at Avalon. I haven’t even played the original game, but I understand enough to know that what Avalon adds to experience is something I couldn’t live without. These improvements include more strategic flexibility for when you can play your wild cards plus even wackier powers that help make the most of this zany premise. Check out my full review of this spin-off here.
- Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
- Pandemic Legacy
- Ra: The Dice Game
- The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples
- Undaunted: North Africa
- Curious Cargo
Trailblazers—An Exciting New Spin-off
During my Most Anticipated Games of 2022 post, I shared how Trailblazers is to Pipeline as Patchwork is to A Feast for Odin. Some might cry that I’m doing Curious Cargo a disservice by not including it in this comparison, as it is technically another spin-off of Pipeline that is even exclusively a 2-player game (similar to Patchwork). That said, designer Ryan Courtney approached the design of Trailblazers in a dramatically different way from how he designed Curious Cargo. So let’s explore a little bit more of what makes Trailblazers unique from its windy pipe siblings.
From day one, Ryan has approached the creation of Trailblazers with two priorities in mind:
- Make the game rules as simple and approachable as possible (contrast this to Curious Cargo which was intended to cram as much brain-burning, decision-making complexity into a small-box as possible)
- Develop compelling solo modes to make this a solo-friendly game as much as it is a family-friendly game
These two design goals have been like a guiding North Star through the entire development of Trailblazers. We’ll save the discussion of that second priority for next month, but for now let’s explore what makes Trailblazers approachable for anyone yet satisfying for everyone.
Many folks will point to the spatial puzzle aspect of Pipeline and Curious Cargo (the windy pipe domino tiles) as their favorite element of those designs. That’s because there is something inherently satisfying about finding and fitting the perfect tiles together to establish an elaborate network of routes. Pipeline utilizes this puzzle to fit into a larger economic challenge where the spatial puzzle aspect simply becomes: “build your pipes as long as possible to help you refine oil.” Curious Cargo cranks the spatial brutality up to eleven by giving you less flexibility in your tile options and more demands in what exactly needs to connect to where in order to ship and receive cargo of the curious kind.
Trailblazers features the same type of domino tiles (albeit these are cards, not tiles, and trails, not pipes or conveyer belts), yet this time the game steps completely out of the way and gives you a wide open field of endless possibilities. Gone are the economic considerations and shipping demands. Cast aside are the brain-melting conversions and pesky rules restrictions. Here, you’ll simply be drafting two cards from a hand of options and arranging and layering them however you’d like.
The other side of the coin that really gives Trailblazers a distinct flavor is the objective of the game: to construct loops that start and end at a campsite of the matching trail color. Like I mentioned previously, Pipeline asks its players to build long networks, Curious Cargo demands that they establish very specific and deliberate connections, but Trailblazers simply requests that your adventurous routes return back to their square camp card eventually. Yet between that time period of now and eventually (or more specifically, before the end of the game), you can blaze your trails however you’d like.
It seems almost too loose and free to be interesting, but the tension of the game is quickly uncovered when you must decide how far you wish to push your luck. How long and elaborate and winding are you going to make your trail before you focus on connecting it back to camp? How many loops are you going to invest your precious turns in before the final round of the game sneaks up on you and demands you complete them all? A loop that is 99% complete is a loop that will score zero points at the end of the game.
Yet this push-your-luck pillar of Trailblazers is exactly why a game with rules as simple as “draft two cards and place them however you want” is still satisfying for more ambitious and experienced spatial puzzlers. I consider myself a relative veteran, having played Ryan’s spatial puzzlers—including Trailblazers—many times. Yet I’ve managed to lose the game to complete newcomers because I flew too close to the sun and got burned by my lofty ambitions while my opponents played smarter and safer. And for a game that is over in the blink of an eye—usually about 30 minutes—I’m able to laugh at my failures rather than painfully regret my poor decisions or resent a stroke of bad luck.
That’s the beauty of Trailblazers for me. It provides all the juicy spatial puzzling and brain-burning strategy that Ryan Courtney fans (such as myself) have come to love, yet it’s also a game that I can introduce to anybody and not completely crush them at thanks to its press-your-luck simplicity. For a hobbyist who still can’t get enough of Pipeline (and its zesty new expansion) and Curious Cargo, Trailblazers is absolutely my kind of spin-off game.
Want to follow Trailblazers all the way to its Q2 Kickstarter launch? Be sure to subscribe to the Bitewing Games newsletter where we’ll continue to reveal more art, components, and details over the coming weeks.
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.