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The Alea Treasure Chest: Expansions to make your favourite games even more awesome

In 2009, Alea released a Treasure Chest containing expansions for several games. Ystari offered something similar the same year with the Ystari Box. The Treasure Chest was issued to mark Alea's 10th anniversary, and this medium sized box appropriately contained ten expansions for half a dozen of Alea's games, namely Puerto Rico, San Juan, Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Witch's Brew, and Louis XIV. Rio Grande's English edition of the Treasure Chest went one better by including two mini expansions for The Princes of Florence as well.

I'm not a huge fan of the model of bundling together mini-expansions in this way, because most gamers will find that they only own a few of the games. In most cases this means that you're buying a product that includes items of little use to you personally. I suppose that in some cases this might entice completists to buy the base game, and publishers won't be complaining about that! The real disadvantage of this concept is that these mini-expansions are not readily available separately. Admittedly, because they're typically very small, it's hard to think of a better way to market them in a way that avoids the publisher making a loss on the whole project.

Fortunately, some of these mini-expansions are absolutely terrific, and despite their small size they really enhance the base game, and are well worth the effort it takes to acquire them. Plenty of gamers have bought the entire Treasure Chest in order to get just a couple of these expansions, and found the result more than worthwhile. If you're fortunate, you might find someone selling off the expansion that you need; on the other hand if you do buy the entire Treasure Chest yourself you can always offload some of the other expansions for GeekGold, cash, or in trades. So which ones are worth getting? In this article I'd like to introduce you to what many consider to be the best two expansions in the box, namely the expansions for San Juan and for Notre Dame - follow the links below to my reviews for more detailed descriptions and reflections about each of these.

San Juan and its Expansion

San Juan first appeared in 2004, and remains an outstanding, tried and true card game even by today's standards. Some eight years after its initial release, it continues to hold up well even in the midst of an increasingly crowded and strong field of card games. Its initial positive reception was undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that it was standing on the shoulders of the euro giant Puerto Rico. As a card game based on the BGG #1 at the time, there was never going to be any doubt that there was a ready market willing to lap up a card game version of what was arguably the most popular strategy game of the day. Of course, San Juan had to live up to the hype, and it did. Even though it's a much lighter game than Puerto Rico, the role selection mechanic made a smooth transition to a card game, and using cards as currency, goods, and as buildings proved to be a streamlined system that worked well. Sacrificing some of depth of its much-loved big brother came with the advantage of quick game-play, especially with two players, and it's no surprise that even today San Juan occupies the #9 position in the BGG chart of the top-ranked games from 2004.

San Juan expansion

The case for its excellence is only enhanced by the addition of the expansion cards from the Alea Treasure Chest. It's generally agreed that this is the best expansion in the box, and many gamers have reported buying the Treasure Chest simply for the San Juan expansion cards alone, and yet felt that their money was well spent. It includes two mini-expansions: new Events and new Buildings. These can be used separately or together, because both simply involve adding new cards to the deck. Whenever they are drawn, the six Events (Governor visit, General Amnesty, Free Build, Debt Relief, Earthquake, and Taxes) are added to the roles from which players can choose, and have one-time effects such as enabling an already used role to be used again, or giving all players a free build. But the real treasure here are the ten new Buildings (Office, Guard Room, Caritas, Park, Customs Office, Bank, Harbor, Goldsmith, Residence, and Cathedral), which offer new abilities and opportunities, giving players more options and possible strategies to explore.

While the Events are somewhat hit or miss, the new Buildings are a terrific addition to the game, giving you additional things to think about, and opening up new strategies. The Residence and Cathedral are particularly welcome, because these are 6-cost and 7-cost buildings that provide alternative ways of collecting big points at the game end. Having a larger pool of buildings enhances the already strong case for the game's replayability, and if anything has made the game even more balanced. As such, the new Buildings don't at all have the feeling of "more of the same", but give a very real sense that there's new territory to explore within the game landscape, and so they make the game feel fresh. San Juan has always been a strong performer in our home, and the replay value and freshness offered by including the expansion cards has only served to ensure that it will continue to be played many times in years to come. A must have for any San Juan fan!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love San Juan. And why I love it even more with the new expansion cards!

Notre Dame and its Expansion

Notre Dame is and remains an outstanding euro, and several years after graduating off the production line as part of the class of 2007, has to be considered one of the highest achievers of the light-medium games from that year, by typifying some of the best that the genre can offer. It doesn't quite have the depth of classics like Puerto Rico or Caylus, but compensates for this by being more accessible, and serves well as a somewhat lighter and quicker game that is both intuitive and elegant. Yet it's not to be underestimated or considered as a game of luck - far from it, because Notre Dame offers tense and interesting decisions that require you to manage risk and manipulate a very tight economy, and carefully construct long range plans for your point-scoring objectives. There's just the right balance between tactical choices and strategic options, and the card drafting keeps the game interactive without being overly confrontational, while the finite number of possibilities keep the game from bogging down with analysis paralysis.

Notre Dame expansion

It's not too heavy, and yet there's also not a sense that so much strategic fat has been trimmed from the design that the end result is muddied by excessive randomness or that game-play becomes a mere shuffling of cardboard and wood with no real flavour, as is the case with some euros we've seen over the years. In many respects I suppose it is an exercise in efficiency, as many euros are, but the random draw of the cards forces you to plan different paths each game, the draft mechanic adds elements of fun and indirect interaction, and the risk management associated with the rats adds tension, all of which prevent it from being categorized with the mundane or blase. In the final analysis, this is no ordinary cube-pushing euro, and while it doesn't pretend to compete with the heavier games in the genre and won't please everyone's tastes, it remains one of the more shining examples of how good a lighter and medium weight euro really can be.

There are those who have developed a strategic `system' in how they play the game, much of which revolves around maximizing the nine grey person cards, and the game can start to feel somewhat stale once you adopt such a system. The good news is that the small expansion of nine additional grey person cards from the Treasure Chest gives the game a complete makeover, without changing the core mechanics or feel. The new cards for Round A are the Manager, Scholar, and Nurse, for Round B the Spy, Gypsies, and Coachman, and for Round C the Host, Guard, and Advisor. These can be mixed with the original person cards, from which a random selection is drawn, thus forcing players to find new strategies in each game, because the usual and somewhat scripted paths to victory points won't always be available. As such, these new grey person cards are an absolute must have for any serious fan of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has always been well received at our game table, but the remarkable replayability created by these expansion cards only makes it better. It's amazing what swapping in and mixing nine different cards can do! The size of this mini-expansion may only be small, but its impact on the game is quite dramatic, without really changing the core of the game-play that Notre Dame players have come to love. Highly recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love Notre Dame. And why I love it even more with the new cards!

Join the discussion: What do you think of the Treasure Chest concept, and are there better ways to release mini-expansions like these? Which expansions do you consider to be the best in this box, and do you have any thoughts on the San Juan and Notre Dame expansion cards in particular?
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