Through the Gateway and Beyond
You love games, you have quite the collection, or maybe you are just starting out. Either way there is that standstill of required decision: you know you want to add some more titles, but which ones to start with? Where to go from where you are in your game collecting?
And how can you get your friends to like games as much as you do?
The things to consider are what kind of gamers you and your friends are. The second is to look at which games that you and the people you play with enjoy.
I want to spend a few moments on what are commonly called “gateway games” and to talk about what makes a good gateway game. If you are at all in-touch with any quantity of the board gaming hobby then you likely have heard the term “gateway game” before. It more or less translates to: “A game that is really great at showing people who do not play many board games, that board games can be really fun and a fantastic way to spend time with friends and family, and even to make friends out of strangers.” Quite the mouthful.
So what makes a game a “gateway game”? I will answer that by reverse-engineering for you some of the most famous and popular gateway games.
Catan is a classic. I could not tell you how often I have been asked, after telling people I like board games and work at a game store “Oh, you like games; have you heard of Catan?”
While the answer to that is a gentle “Yes, I have heard of Catan.” Something must be said of its ubiquity. In Catan you permanently settle in spots to harvest resources, then you trade and convert resources to settle more locations, upgrade your settlements into cities, or craft developments for powerful strategic advantages.
Notable features include:
These major elements of Catan keep it interesting and one that players are happy to introduce new players to as well as making it enjoyable for people who have only played lighter games (such as Sorry, or Uno) and for people who tend to prefer heavier hobby games.
Read more about Catan and see reviews at:
Carcassonne is another great example of a gateway game. (As the rest of the games featured here will be, at least according to this writer.) Carcassonne is a tile-laying game where you one square at a time establish the countryside of provincial France and field your workers as either knights, farmers, highwaymen or abbots to score you points and ultimately win the game. Elements which make this a great gateway game include:
Carcassonne feels like a jigsaw puzzle, where you have tons of places to fit each piece you have over the course of the game. It is light enough to allow chatter while playing; and yet grabbing enough to allow you to think about each move and weigh your options should you want to.
Read more about Carcassonee and see reviews at:
3) Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride fights hard to be the most famous or ‘best’ gateway game, and for many people it is. With a box that says “Over a Million Sold!” you can be sure that Alan R. Moon did something correctly to make this game so popular. After a brief overview we will take a look at a breakdown of some of those things which have led to TtR’s massive success.
In Ticket to Ride you begin with two Tickets which task you to play “connect the dots” between two particular cities as you stare down a map of some part of the world (the base game has you playing on the continental U.S.) The way you connect those dots is by building train car routes, the way you build those routes is by collecting and spending coloured cards, because every line is colour-coded only cards of those colours (or the elusive wild locomotives) can be used to connect them.
Analysing what makes this a gateway game we can see such things as:
Ticket to Ride will just about always be a shelf staple, and I have no doubt that the people who happily collected the different map packs, versions, and expansions of this game will be playing them for decades to come.
Read more about Ticket to Ride and see reviews at:
Splendor is one of those games where before you play it you have to take a second to examine the pieces because they are quite simply put: stunning. The gameplay is simple, but puts high-quality production values to good use. In Splendor you spend your turn either taking gorgeous and weighty poker chips representing gems of various sorts (two of one color, or three of different colors, or reserving a purchase/hire of a mine, gem carver, or trade route (which earns you one wild-colored gold poker chip), or you spend your turn making a purchase either from your reserve or from the market itself. This is called an engine-builder game because you assemble small elements to make powerful combos. Those mines, carvers, and routes, (all represented by cards) in turn discount all future purchases you make. The most expensive ones are also worth points, get enough of them and attract nobles to your court for an additional 3 points. Rack up to 15 points and the game ends, highest point count is the winner. So what makes this game tick?
It is no wonder that this game holds its own in the board game world, Splendor also capitalises on a psychological effect app creators use so much. Have you ever played an app where you organise confections, or use your garden to repel the undead, or fled from bat-like monkey things as you sprinted through an ancient structure? If you have, you probably had a round end before you wanted it to. This type of timing in games makes you want to play again and again. It is not trickery, it is strategic timing on the part of the designers. To make a game last just long enough to make you want more is a great way to make a game hook new players and develop a love for board games.
Read more about Splendor or see reviews at:
5) Machi Koro
Machi Koro is another engine builder like Splendor, and every turn you roll two 6-sided dice (one in the early game) to see what produces for you and also for other players; this is similar to Catan (the more games you familiarize yourself with, the more mechanics you will recognise in games.)
In Machi Koro your goal is to construct the best small town possible, this is done by being the first player to construct 4 landmarks. You can build these in any order, and each one that you build will give you a permanent ability/bonus. The easiest to build is the train station which gives you the ability to roll the second die each turn. Without it you will not be able to trigger the abilities of the luxurious higher number buildings. (Such as ones which trigger on rolls of 8)
On the turn in which you are not building those landmarks you are building buildings which either serve to combo with the ones you already have, take money from other players, or make even more money. Money is the only resource so how much each player has is really all you have to take care of. Our breakdown sees these gateway marks:
Machi Koro is light, fun, approachable, and all around a great option for a gateway game to show others (or yourself) how fun board games can be. This is not one which has infinite replayability like games like Chess have, but variants and expansions have been made which keep the experience fresh.
Read more about Machi Koro or see reviews at:
6) Sushi Go
Sushi Go is a classic example of what a drafting game is, one of the best, and certainly one of the most approachable ones. In drafting games you have a selection of things to pick from, take one of them and pass it to the next player, you take the rejects from the player before you and take one. This usually continues until all the things are gone. In Sushi Go those “things” are cards and your reason for drafting them is to get points. Some of them need to be paired (or trio-ed) to get points, but when you accomplish that you get loads of points. All of the cards are adorned with kawaii-style faces and are very well done at that. Play is simultaneous so no one takes turns. It is very important to pay attention to what is being taken so that you don’t get yourself hunting the same cards another player is going after and make both of you suffer. There are a lot of subtle and nuanced decisions in drafting, Sushi Go does not present the exception. Here are reasons why I have picked it to stand out as as great gateway game:
Sushi Go is an amazing way to learn how to draft or to teach new players to do so. It is light enough to leave you wanting more which, granted, can be good or bad, but in a gateway game that is a desirable quality. Sushi Go Party is my personal recommendation for how to play this game, that box version, while less portable, has tons of alternate ways to play right in the box, as well as a great way to keep score (instead of needing pencil and paper). Either way you can’t hardly go wrong with this one.
See more about them or read reviews at:
Bringing it all together
I am sure you can start to see very common threads that run between these games (which are not even close to all of the gateway games available).
If you were to set out to make your own gateway game you would want a pretty game, one with simple turns or simultaneous play, with a variety of different mechanics in a gripping thematic integration. Gateway games often have one or more expansions because they are designed to make players happily want more to do with them, and expansions are a safe way to diversify what you already know. You would want it to be quick, so that no one loses interest, and you want few rules so it can be taught in only moments. Light player interaction either as a cooperation (like trading offers) or competition. And you definitely want clearly defined goals right from the start of the game. These elements when combined make gateway games what they are. So if you are an aspiring designer, these areas serve as a few guidelines as to what you should look to make your new smash hit centered around. Or much more likely if you are looking to get the people you love to like the hobby that you love, if you are on the outside looking in, or if you want an effortless way to make strangers into friends then go for games with these elements.
We looked at 6 great introductory gateway games; but you are not supposed to stay standing in gateways, move past the threshold. Gateway games are great at their job because they either simply introduce key mechanics, or offer a smorgasbord of gameplay mechanics which allows players to find out which ones they like and don’t like and can serve to be a “you are here” map.
Knowing where you are is good if you know where it is you are trying to get to, and how you need to get there, in fact it is the first step. What is the second? Well it can be to go to your friendly local game store and ask for recommendations, it could be to join groups online which discuss games and such, (Game HQ has a facebook page, and so does BoardGameGeek) also you can follow game reviewers like those at Tom Vasal’s The Dice Tower.
I don’t plan for this to be the last or only such blog post in this style, but merely the first. In future we will talk about great step-up games (Games which are a very good transition from gateway games, a good “if you liked this, you should love this”.) As well as specialised posts about some games, how to modify and upgrade your collection/make it your own. In-depth looks at various categories of games, and much much more. There is also an handy tool I plan to introduce soon which will help even more in that regard. Stay tuned for more about this great hobby.