What makes a board game a good introduction into the medium?
What was the first game that drew you into board games? Was it the first board game you played? If not, why that game? Why did that game draw you in when others didn’t?
We are living in a new era of board games. The landscape has expanded so far beyond Monopoly, Risk, Life, and Sorry. We are seeing completely new types of board games. Games designed to take over 6 hours with 1–2 hours of set up. Cooperative games where players work together or “Legacy” games where previous games impact future ones.
A six hour game with a lot of complexity would probably be a hard sell to someone who has never played a board game more advanced than Life. You would want to start them off with something not nearly as complicated. Something perhaps with a lower time commitment. On the flip side, though, you still want to show off what makes these new types of games fun and exciting and what drew you into the world of board games.
How do you introduce someone who has only played the likes of Sorry or Monopoly into this new paradigm of games?
The answer: gateway games.
In the same way that marijuana was labeled (rightly or wrongly) a gateway into other, harder drugs, so too do these games act as gateways into increasingly complex or lengthy board games.
When it comes down to it I believe that so called “gateway games” have three main aspects to them that help draw new players in while still preparing them to take on greater complexity later on.
The three aspects are Beginner’s luck, Simplicity of Gameplay, and Expanding Depth of Strategy.
In order to explore and better explain these phenomena, I want to look at the three games I consider to be the best examples of gateway games and champions of these aspects: Settler’s of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne.
Beginner’s luck: Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan (now more commonly known simply as Catan) is probably the best-known game of this new golden era of board games. It was one of the first euro-style games to become widely popular in the US and is one of the games most mentioned or seen in popular media.
If you want a much more in-depth view into how the game works go here but the short version is that players are settlers on the island of Catan and must trade resources and build settlements to score points to win.
The aspect I want to highlight in Catan as a gateway game is how common it is for a new player to win. I have played numerous games of Catan where someone has won on their first time playing. The key to this is that, while strategy still plays into the game enough for the player to feel like they are in control of their fate, luck still plays a very considerable part of the game. The main way you get resources is decided upon a dice roll and that can have a huge impact on whether someone wins or not. In this game luck is the ultimate evener of the playing field. A particularly lucky new player can easily find victory over the seasoned pro. A simple, beginner strategy can pave the way to victory if the dice decide to agree with the player.
The other “gateway game” aspects are still present in the game as well. The rules are not complicated and mostly make intuitive sense after a little time playing the game, and the while there is a significant aspect of luck Catan still has a lot of depth of strategy that you can dive into and explore. After all, competitive Catan is a real thing.
This game, though, of the three examples that I chose, has the most obvious aspect of luck, giving beginner’s a significant chance and ability to end up victorious. After all, it can be hard to enjoy a game that you have no chance of winning.
If a beginner feels like they are competitive and have a chance at victory then they are more likely to play again and thus Catan becomes a way to keep them coming back for more.
Simplicity of gameplay: Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is another game that, while not as common as Catan, is one of the more widely known board games in the field. It is also the second game that really brought me into the world of more complicated and in-depth board games.
Once again, you can get a deeper look into how the game is played here but the basic idea is that you are building train routes between cities to complete mission routes such as LA to New York or Vancouver to Montreal.
The aspect I wanted to highlight in Ticket to Ride is just how simple the game is to learn and play. On your turn you can do one of three things and each one feeds into each other. You can draw cards so you can play down trains. You play down trains so you can complete your missions, and you draw more missions when all of your previous missions are completed so you can get more points (and know where to put down trains and what cards to draw.)
Even compared to other “gateway games” the rules are ridiculously simple. My how-to article for Catan is over twice the word count as the one for Ticket to Ride. The rules are just not as complicated but instead of the game suffering for that it seems to draw strength from it instead. The strategy comes from what route are you gonna take, when is the best time to draw more missions, and if you can make it with the estimated amount of turns left. There’s still enough luck involved in the mission and train card draws to keep even the most advanced expert susceptible to an upset by a beginner player.
The game’s simplicity has made it the first game I turn to if someone hasn’t played these type of games before and wants to try it out. With a low complexity cost of entry it entices the player to engage more with the rules it does have and often makes for competitive and high-energy games at the end thus drawing the new player to want to play it again.
Expanding depth of strategy: Carcassonne
Carcassonne is another wildly popular board game that has cemented itself as good entry into the medium.
Carcassonne is a tile- and worker-placement game. Each turn you place a tile and you may place your meeples (workers) down on cities, roads, abbeys, or farmland shown on that tile to claim them for points. If a castle, road, or abbey gets completed before the end of the game, you immediately score those points and get the meeple working that place back to possibly reallocate on one of your future turns.
The game is not overly complicated and a simple strategy of simply placing tiles to expand your already claimed roads, cities, or abbeys with an occasional random farmer can find success and is a pretty safe bet for points. With this strategy you can ignore your opponents for the most part and still end up victor.
The thing that makes Carcassonne special is that it can also be played much more complexly with higher risks and rewards. Farmland can be incredibly lucrative but once you place a meeple as a farmer there is no chance of getting that farmer back to reallocate for the rest of the game. With clever tile and meeple positioning you can get a claim on a city or road that was previously only claimed by an opponent, getting a share of the points. There is a lot of thought and strategy that could go into meeple management so you never find yourself out of workers when placing tiles or making sure each meeple gets a certain amount of point return for each placement.
Carcassonne allows a player to slowly evolve their strategy and get introduced to playing with more complex plans and ideas. It allows, but does not force, this behavior. This gives it a low strategy cost of entry while leaving large amounts of room for expansion of your strategy. Another benefit this allows is that very experienced players (for instance, the person introducing the game to their friends) can play alongside beginner players and both types have a significant chance to win. This mix of skills levels makes it much easier for beginners to pick it up and have fun with it.
Carcassonne is an uncomplicated game and can easily function with a surface level simple strategy but it allows for much more complex strategies to flourish and evolve as players become more comfortable experimenting within the confines of the game. Thus these new players, in making the game more complicated for themselves, are training themselves to be able to handle games that are more complicated out of the box, making Carcassonne their gateway into more advanced games in the medium.
Each of these three games contain the featured aspects of the others. They are each simple, have enough luck so a beginner can win, and have an expanding depth of strategy associated with them.
By no means am I saying that these games are only good as introductory games. Ticket to Ride remains one of my top three games despite it’s appearance on this list and the other two remain common staples at board game nights everywhere.
There are of course other introductory games that have done a lot for the community. Games like Sushi Go, King of Tokyo, and even 7 Wonders can be great games to introduce people to the medium, depending on the person.
Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne all provide great gateways into the new world of board games for any newcomer who can pick up a card, tile, or pair of dice. That, in my opinion, is what makes them so special in the realm of board games. They are the games that helped formed and are still helping grow this wonderful community.