[Originally published by www.tabletoptribe.com]
Reading most Gateway Games lists of the past few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Carcassonne, Catan or Ticket To Ride were the essential games to introduce to new gamers.
Whilst I wouldn’t knock them in this respect, there’s also something to be said for using a game that doesn’t involve varying degrees of urban and rural civil development. I could come up with a couple of dozen off the top of my head that would do just as well. So I will.
So these are my choices and alternatives to turn the most non-nerdy jocks, power execs and soccer mums into ardent meeple people and canny cube-rollers.
A word of warning though: whilst you might exclude the boredom of Monopoly from the usual tabletop experience, you can’t always eradicate the table-flipping rage too, so pick your games wisely for the uninitiated, and use this guide to help you tiptoe your way around likely offenders!
There’s few things in gaming more satisfying than watching a cherished grandma go gangsta another family member and ask them if they feel lucky. Punk.
Whilst some raise an eyebrow at the theme of Ca$h’n’Gun$, this is slapstick at its best. You can expect hammed up performances from budding Dirty Harrys, Godfathers and Scarfaces. It’s Reservoir Dogs meets The Three Stooges.
Alternative: Whilst not an obvious substitute, Sheriff of Nottingham has the same bluffing game play and hammy acting, but exchanges live rounds and blanks for contraband and legal produce. It’s a good choice if you feel that pointing guns at each other, no matter how caricatured, won’t go down well with the in-laws.
This game has been entertaining us for over 30 years now and it deserves a place on every family’s shelves, because nothing brings people together like trying to escape a sinking island, laden down with booty, when there are only a limited amount of boats.
Okay maybe not, but Survive: Escape From Atlantis! is colourful, easy to learn and can be enjoyed by old and young alike. Just don’t introduce it to anyone that will lose their temper when you make a whale overturn their boat or a shark bite their legs off.
Alternative: Survive: Space Attack! is essentially a reskin of the original but replaces the sinking island with a space station that’s breaking up, and swaps the whales, sharks and seas monsters for various hostile aliens. There are a couple of fun additional rules so pick this if your group likes its sci-fi, or you fancy a change from Atlantis.
3.) King of Tokyo
Every child dreams of stomping around a city as a huge monster like Godzilla or King Kong, generally smashing things up and fighting other monsters. If they’re honest with themselves, most adults wouldn’t mind getting in on the action too.
King of Tokyo lets your players live that dream, and with a really basic board (two locations), a simple deck of cards powered by energy cubes and a familiar Yahtzee dice mechanic, novice adult and kid players alike will take to this game like a giant ape smashing up a skyscraper.
Alternative: King of New York is pretty much identical, but adds some buildings to stomp on, some retaliatory army units to scrap with and a bigger city map to cause havoc on. This is your choice if you feel your players will find King of Tokyo too limited or if you’ve played it to death and want a small step up to the next level.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf is, as the title suggests, the ultimate way to play this bluffing party game of lycanthropic skulduggery (although honestly, any version of this classic game is good gateway material). The characterful artwork and the helpful app make this game a cinch to set up and get playing with a large group of wannabe gamers.
Unlike previous werewolf incarnations, the whole event happens over one round, so there’s no waiting around for the next game for those poor souls that have been devoured (or lynched).
Alternative: If your group is smaller (although it caters up to 13) and players don’t fancy eating or lynching folk, but want the same bluffing and hidden identity experience, then Mascarade might be right up their alley. This game is a great leveller: regardless of how many times you play, you literally have no idea who is who, or what’s going on most of the time!
5.) Age of War
Age of War pits players against each other as rival Damiyos in feudal Japan, rolling seven custom dice to gain control of a number of fortresses. The gameplay is simple: match the die faces to each line on the fortress card, so it’s simple to teach and learn.
However, as the available fortresses dwindle, players must turn on each other to stay in the running, producing some memorable moments of critical dice chucking.
Alternative: If you think your players might enjoy a cooperative experience with a little more depth (and horror!), Elder Sign uses exactly the same dice mechanic as Age of War but lets you add dice, change their faces after you roll, and gives you a better narrative reason to roll in the first place.
In Coup players take on the roles of rival billionaires, wielding their influence to bring down their opponents. With just two cards each, and only five types of card, it’s not too overwhelming for novices and seasoned poker bluffers will take to it easily. The included crib sheets mean no one need memorise even the limited card selection.
Once they’ve had a few games you can even introduce the expansion, Reformation, which adds one new character, some allegiance cards and a central bank, so it’s not too baffling an upgrade.
Alternative: Don’t be fooled by the cutesy title: Love Letter can be as cut-throat as Coup as you try to beat your rivals to the Princess's heart. There’s also Batman and Hobbit versions of this classic bluffing game, so you can try that if you think the standard edition might put off the teenage boys in your family!
7.) Forbidden Island
Drowning is never fun, but the rising water level in Forbidden Island makes for some desperate game play and truly entertaining co-operative game experiences.
It does sometimes feels more like a communal puzzle than a game, with players coordinating roles and strategies to extremes in order to keep their heads above water and make it off the Island with their treasures. But with engaging artwork, simple game mechanics, and intense cooperative action, the whole game marries with the theme beautifully.
Alternative: It’s cynical the way the designer tries to drown you in the first game and makes you die of thirst in the sequel. There’s enough different about Forbidden Desert to set it apart from Forbidden Island, but not so much baffling new stuff for novices or those looking for a step-up from the original.
Most folk like a good western, and in Bang! The Dice Game, you’re put in the shoes of either a Sheriff, one of his Deputies, an Outlaw or a Renegade, each with their own conditions for winning the game. Apart from the Sheriff identities remain hidden so you have to watch where you’re shooting!
The Yahtzee dice mechanic is familiar and simple and there’s not too many rules. Even if your players don’t like the Western theme, you could always try Bang! The Dice Game: The Walking Dead and cue the zombies instead!
Alternative: If your players prefer cards to dice then it’s tempting to suggest Bang! The Card Game, but the dice game is honestly better, so instead try Colt Express. Its colourful meeples and funky 3D carriages will endear it to many new players, and the game mechanics aren’t too complex either. It’s fast and fun. Draw!
9.) The Resistance
Set in the same world as Coup, The Resistance also relies on bluff in its game play, with the added spice of a dash of betrayal! Watch your group descend into joyful mistrust and hilarious suspicion as they try to figure out who are the snakes among the saints.
There are very few rules to explain in this classic, it caters for big groups, doesn’t last too long and has no elimination rules, so it’s usually a hit with new players of all ages and abilities. Sometimes the best poker faces are found on the folk you least expect to possess one!
Alternative: Will you be allied to Merlin, or to Mordred?
Avalon pretty much reskins The Resistance with an Arthurian theme and a few extra rules, so if you feel your group are more Knights of the Round Table than dystopian freedom fighters then this is the version for you.
Expect occasional Monty Python quotes. It’s inevitable.
If your group revels in events like Talk Like A Pirate Day, then there’s nothing like Jamaica for getting the rum and Yarrrs flowing around a table.
In essence it’s a race game, but it’s important not to finish too soon and end the game before you’ve accumulated enough doubloons to rival those of your opponents. The rules are simple, the artwork is engaging and after the first few rounds the game flows along at a merry pace. The last few turns with the dash to the finish really crank up the suspense and back-stabbing too!
(N.B. In a 6 player game you can run short of doubloons, so maybe stock up with some extras!)
Alternative: Black Fleet is like Merchants & Marauders for complete noobs. Control a pirate vessel and merchant ship, respectively trying to trade goods with the latter and use the former to raid your opponents’ latter… if you catch my drift? Plus there’s always the Royal Navy to coerce into killing your opponents for you. Yarrr!
11.) Zombie Dice
Be a zombie, eat brains and don’t get shotgunned. Simple!
Zombie Dice is has made an appearance on several of my “best” lists (like Halloween and Stocking-Stuffers), due to its light rules, equally light game play and widespread appeal, even for those apparently not rabid fans of the genre.
For all those reasons it makes it a great gateway game. The last two people I introduced it to bought copies the next day, including the School Bus expansion.
Alternative: Run, Fight or Die takes the dice rolling fun and dark humour of Zombie Dice, gives it a Yahtzee spin and then sprinkles some additional rules to flesh out the theme into a proper narrative. Plus it has lots and lots of little plastic zombies, which is always good.
This game could be called Bluffing Beermats, as the game’s components could easily double as drinks coasters, but it gets as tense as any poker match in a game of Skull.
The rules take barely a minute to explain, and as it’s all about bluff and push-your-luck, there’s no reason why novices can’t go toe-to-toe with the veteran. It’s tense too as you watch the discs flipped, count the flowers as they come and wait for the skull that spells a player’s doom for the round.
Alternative: Perudo, or Liar’s Dice exchanges beer mats for cups of dice, but the gameplay is in the same bluff and luck-pushing vein. If your players like their dice and you’re somewhere noisy dice shaking and rolling isn’t a problem, then Perudo is a good substitute. It also makes you feel like a pirate.
Who would have thought that global disease control for the CDC could be so enthralling and exciting? Apparently enough people to make this a fairly safe bet for relative gaming noobs, although for some the whole cooperative rather than competitive gaming experience is just not what they want, in which case they’d be missing out on a real nail-biter in the trepidation stakes.
Alternative: As good as the original is, I actually prefer Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and have had real success introducing it to new gamers. Whether they’re horror or Lovecraft fans, or just fancy a change from disease-chasing, this version is beautifully wrought and just as climatically exciting.
Dreading the family digging out a copy of Risk to play at Christmas? Try leading them down a different path to Area Control with Smallworld. The simple rules make this easy for for anyone to pick up and run with, and the quirky artwork makes the theme of global conquest fairly light-hearted.
What’s more, unlike Risk, the dice rolling is kept to a minimum so no one is going to lose their cool because the Dice Gods aren’t smiling on them.
Alternative: Another relatively light introduction to area control games is Mission: Red Planet. The steam punk look is fantastic, the rules are simple and yet there’s plenty of strategic depth (not to mention dastardly machinations) without recourse to those pesky random dice.
If bamboo cultivation and panda herding don’t sound like fun activities to pursue in a board game, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Takenoko is beautiful, light-hearted and yet has those passive aggressive tactics that you see with other eastern-themed Zen-like titles such as Tokaido (which almost made this list except my wife loathed it. So there.)
The rules aren’t quite as simple as many games on this list, but the five basic player actions are listed in picture form on one of the best memory aids-cum-playsheets that exists in a game. An instant hit.
Alternative: I couldn’t list Tokaido as a passive-aggressive, eastern alternative for the reason above (she wasn’t the only one by the way), so I decided upon Lotus for its similarly Zen-like qualities, along with its theme of eastern botany. This card game is simple to play and looks beautiful on the table. It’s a shame it only caters for four players.
Mind-bending horror and incurable insanity aren’t for everyone, but the last time I brought this to the table with some complete gaming novices they went out and bought it the next day. Along with both expansions.
Mansions of Madness isn’t an obvious choice for a gateway game, and there’s no way I’d have recommended the 1st Edition as such. But the app-driven 2nd Edition makes for a quick set-up and relatively few rules for a noob to learn, and the haunted house theme is one that’s familiar to most.
Alternative: Prefer your haunted house to be more B-Movie horror? Try Betrayal at House on the Hill. It starts off as co-operative as Mansions of Madness, but there’s a traitor in your midst. This factor might not appeal to all, and there’s no denying that the traitor mechanic can slow gameplay a little, but Betrayal still remains a gateway favourite for many.
*Quoted prices are recommended retail prices (RRP) only and do not represent the real world prices available in stores and online. Shop around for bargains!