Last month on The Eleven, I looked at Bait Games, short and simple games that can be used to bring people to the table that might not otherwise make it. This month, we’re going to take a look at games that can be used once they have been reeled in by the bait. These games are often called Gateway Games, because they open the door to the wider world of gaming while remaining accessible enough to be enjoyable to players of all skill levels. In recent years, there has been a movement to abandon the term Gateway Game in favor of Casual Game. Their argument is that people should be allowed to enjoy games for what they are, and not have to go deeper if they don’t want to. In short, you stop at the gateway, admire the view, then enjoy what you enjoy without further exploration. This is a fine concept, and I fully support people who just want to be casual. However, for purposes of this list, I’m going to stick with Gateway Games. I’m trying to introduce games that can be used to help usher a potential gamer into wanting to know a lot more. Without further ado, here we go.
Bohnanza was originally released in 1997, designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by AMIGO. Rio Grande Games publishes it in the US. This 2-7 game is all about bean farming, and the trading of beans in order to make the most money. There are a number of different types of beans in the deck, and you start the game with a hand of five. This hand may NOT be rearranged at any time during the game – the order it is dealt to you is the order it is in. On your turn, you must plant the first bean in your hand in one of your two bean fields. Each bean field can only hold one type of bean, so you must harvest if necessary. Then you may plant the second bean. After that, you draw the top two cards of the deck, reveal them, and start a trading phase. Anyone can trade with the active player with any beans from their hand for either of the two revealed or any beans from the active player’s hand. Once you’ve finished trading, you must plant any beans you got (even the two revealed from the deck if you still have them), and draw three cards to the back of your hand.
Harvesting involves removing all beans from one field and turning them in for an amount of money indicated on the card – a certain number of beans will get one coin, more will get two, and so on. Once the deck has been cycled through three times, the game ends. All players may harvest any remaining fields, and the player who has collected the most money wins.
Bohnanza seems extremely dull on the surface, but once you start playing, you’ll be amazed at how entertaining it is. You find all kinds of shrewd negotiation skills you didn’t even know you had, and you have to work to manage your hand to get useless beans out of the way. Bohnanza is a great introduction to trading, hand management, and unconventional play – the first thing you’re going to want to do is rearrange your hand, and you can’t. I’ve used this with gamers and non gamers alike to great success. If you’ve never played because of the theme, give it a try. It’s not nearly as dry as it seems.
Carcassonne is a 2000 release from Hans im Glück and designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede (Z-Man currently publishes the game in the US). It’s a tile-laying game where players are trying to build up a region in southern medieval France. On your turn, you draw a tile and place it somewhere on the map. Land features, like roads and cities, need to match up with each other between tiles. Once you’ve played your tile, you can place a follower (aka meeple) on one of the features of the tile – a road, a city, a monastery, or a field. You can’t place a meeple in a contiguous feature that already has a meeple. Once an area is complete, you score – one point per tile on a road; two points per tile and shield in a city; and one point per tile surrounding a monastery. Meeples in fields (farmers) don’t score until the end of the game, even if the field is completely surrounded.
Once all tiles have been placed, the game ends. Incomplete roads, cities, and monasteries score (though cities score one point per tile and shield instead of two). Farmers score three points per completed city touching their fields. The player with the most points is the winner.
Carcassonne has long been considered one of the classic gateway games. It is very simple to understand – you place a tile, then maybe place a meeple. Scoring is also generally easy to understand, though with new players I usually leave out the farmer scoring. This is a great game to play with new players, and definitely one of the best gateway games.
Coloretto is a 3-5 player card game published in 2003 by ABACUSSPIELE. It was designed by Michael Schacht and is published in the US by Rio Grande. The game is a simple color-based set collection game. On your turn, you either take a row or draw a card to place in a row. Each row can hold 1-3 cards, and you can’t take a row with no cards. When you take a row, you’ll organize the cards you take by color, and you’re out until everyone has taken a row. At this time, you set the rows up and start again. At the end of the full round (there’s a end-of-round card placed 15 cards from the bottom of the deck), you score your three sets with the most cards – 1 point for one card, 3 points for two, 6 points for three, 10 points for four, 15 points for five, and 21 for six plus. You then subtract the score from all other colors you got. So if you have four pink, four orange, three green, two blue, and a yellow, you score 10 + 10 + 6 – 3 – 1 = 22 points. You play as many rounds as you want (typically one per player), and the winner is the player with the most points.
Coloretto was the basis for Schacht’s later game, Zooloretto, which in itself is a really good gateway game. I tend to prefer Coloretto because of its simplicity – you’re just collecting cards, there’s no other added things to distract you (babies, limitations on animals, food stands, etc). Coloretto is very easy to pick up, it’s extremely portable, and it’s very fun. The digital implementation at Memoirs of a Board Gamers was one of the first online card games I found shortly after entering the hobby, and really works very well if you want to check it out for yourself.
Dice Town is a Wild West themed dice game from 2009. It was designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, and is published by Matagot/Asmodee. The game is for 2-5 players, and involves rolling poker dice – six-sided dice with 9-10-J-Q-K-A instead of 1-6. At the start of each round, all players will roll their dice in a special cup, then will look at what they rolled and decide what to keep. If you keep one, it’s free. For each additional die you keep, it costs $1 more. This money is paid to the stagecoach If you choose to keep nothing, it costs $1, also paid to the coach. Once everyone has chosen, reveal and pay up, then roll your remaining dice. When someone locks all five of their dice, every other player gets one more roll and must keep what they get (you don’t have to pay on the last roll).
Once the rolling is finished, you resolve. The player with the most 9s gets one gold nugget per 9 they have. The person with the most 10s robs the bank, with money from the stagecoach moved to the bank after this heist. The most Jacks draws one General Store card per Jack rolled, and keeps one. The most Queens steals one card per Queen rolled from another player, and keeps one. The most Kings gets the Sheriff badge, which means he decides who wins ties (bribes are encouraged) and gets five extra points if he still has it in the end. The player who has the best poker hand get the first card from the land line, plus one per Ace in that hand (with a maximum of three cards taken). Anyone who didn’t win anything this round gets to visit Doc Badluck, and can gain nuggets, money, cards, or protect land cards from being stolen.
The game ends either when all the land cards have been taken, or when all gold nuggets have been claimed. The player with the most points wins.
Dice Town is a great game that takes a familiar mechanism (poker) and turns it into a highly successful set collection game, where you are trying to be the best in order to gin certain benefits. There’s a lot of luck-pushing going on, and plenty of strategy to be found in what you’re rolling for. Because poker is so familiar to people, this becomes an ideal gateway game that can introduce people to a whole new set of gaming concepts.
Dominion first came out in 2008, and had an immediate impact on the hobby. The game (designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and published by Rio Grande Games) was the first of what has come to be known as the deckbuilding genre. Each player begins with a deck of 10 cards – 7 coppers (valued at one money) and 3 estates (valued at one point). You begin each turn with five cards in hand. On your turn, you follow an ABC format – Action, Buy, Cleanup. You may take one action by playing one of your cards. This may give you more actions, or more buys, or more money to spend, or more cards. When done with actions, you can buy one card (more if allowed by your actions). Bought cards can either be new action cards, victory point cards, or money. In the Cleanup, you discard all cards you played, all cards from your hand, and any cards you bought to your discard pile. You then draw a new hand of five. If your deck runs out, reshuffle the discards and keep drawing.
Once three piles are empty (completely bought out) or the last province (most valuable victory card) has been bought, the game ends. Players count up all points in their deck, with the player who has the most points winning.
Historically, Dominion represented a major shift in gaming. Deckbuilding had been around as a part of games before, particularly in CCGs like Magic: The Gathering, but this was the first time it became the WHOLE game. Since then, the mechanism has become very important in gaming, and pops up everywhere. However, most games try to add something to it, whereas Dominion keeps it pure. And so I think Dominion has to be included on a list of gateway games, particularly if you’re trying to get into DBGs.
King of Tokyo initially came out in 2011, designed by Richard Garfield and published by IELLO. In the game, 2-6 players are monsters that are fighting over control of Tokyo. On your turn, you will roll six custom dice. You have up to two rerolls, and may keep whatever dice you wish between rolls. After the third roll, your dice are all locked, and you resolve them. If you have three of a specific number (1, 2, or 3), you get that many points (1, 2, or 3), plus one for each additional identical number. Lightning bolts gain you energy cubes, which can later be spent on cards that give you special abilities. Hearts heal damage, though you cannot heal if you are in Tokyo. Claws attack other monsters – if you are not in Tokyo, you automatically attack whoever is, and if you are in Tokyo, you automatically attack everyone who is not. After being attacked, a monster in Tokyo can choose to flee, at which point the attacking monsters takes over. You get one point for going in, and one point for remaining there on your next turn. When a player reaches zero health, they are out. The game ends when all but one player have been eliminated, or when one player reaches 20 points.
I think King of Tokyo is a good gateway game specifically because it takes the Yahtzee mechanism of rolling and rerolling to a new level. In fact, I usually call the game “Godzilla Yahtzee”, which attracts people to want to try it. The game then introduces other concepts, like player interaction, victory points, and resource management. There’s decisions to be made, and different strategies to pursue as you try to become the ultimate King of Tokyo. The sequel, King of New York, expands upon this system and adds more to think about, but I think King of Tokyo as it is can be called a great gateway game.
Lords of Waterdeep is a 2012 game designed by Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson. It was published by Wizards of the Coast, and is set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. In the game, 2-5 players are collecting resources to try to complete quests. It’s a worker placement game where players take turns placing a worker on the board, resolving it, then possibly completing a quest by turning in the required resources. Different actions you can take include collecting cubes or money, getting new quests, collecting or playing intrigue cards (which give you a small advantage or mess with others), or constructing buildings which can later be used. After eight rounds, the game ends, and the player who was collected the most points is the winner.
There are several games that could be considered as good gateway worker placement games. I chose this one because I think it does a great job keeping things simple while still providing multiple paths to victory. There’s a lot of luck in the quests and buildings that come out, but it tends to balance out well. Each player also has a secret objective that helps them get going in the beginning. Plus, with the D&D theme, the game brings in people who wouldn’t normally try this type of thing. So I say it’s probably the ultimate gateway worker placement game.
Forbidden Island came out in 2010, designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright. This cooperative game has 2-4 players trying to collect treasures around an island that is sinking below their feet. On your turn, you have four actions – you can move, you can shore up a sinking tile (flip it to its non flooded side), give cards to another player on your space, or turn in four identical treasure cards in the right place to pick up a treasure. Once all four treasures have been collected, all players must make it back to the helicopter and someone must play a helicopter card to win. After every turn, new tiles go underwater, and if a tile that is already underwater sinks again, it is removed. Additionally, Waters Rise cards come out every now and then, which increases the number of tiles that sink every turn. If the water level gets too high, or if anyone for some reason has no way to get back to the helicopter, or if a treasure becomes unrecoverable because its associated tiles have disappeared, the game ends in defeat.
Forbidden Island is basically a rethemed and simpler version of Leacock’s 2008 cooperative classic, Pandemic. And that’s a game I also think is a good gateway game, I just think this one is better for a wider range of people. It’s playable by all ages, and provides lots of challenge while still introducing cooperative concepts. Plus, the components are fabulous. So you can see Forbidden Island as the gateway, then Pandemic or Forbidden Desert as the next step.
The Settlers of Catan is the classic gateway game, and the one that got countless people (including me) into the hobby. Originally released in 1995, this Klaus Teuber design was published in the US by Mayfair Games, becoming the first Eurogame to achieve wide success in the States. 3-4 players are settling the island of Catan, building settlements, cities, and roads all the while. On your turn, you roll two dice, and anyone who has a settlement bordering a terrain type that contains that number collects some resources. Rolling a 7 means you get to move the robber and steal stuff. After collecting resources, you can spend some to build, and can even try to trade with your fellow players to get what you need. The first player to reach ten points is the winner.
Catan has a great reputation, though it has fallen out of favor with a lot of people over the years, including me. I haven’t played it in a few years, more because the dice hate me than any problems with the mechanics (whatever numbers I am not on are practically guaranteed to earn more resources than anything else). I do still respect it as a great way to get people into the hobby – there’s more choice than in something like Monopoly, and it’s got great interaction through trading and blocking. I still recommend it as an excellent game to introduce someone to Euros.
Splendor is the most recent game on this list. Published in 2014 by Space Cowbys, this Marc André design was a nominee for the Spiel des Jahres this year. In the game, 2-4 players are attempting to collect gems and trade them in for tools that will make future purchases cheaper. On your turn, you can either collect three gems of different colors or two gems of the same color. You can instead choose to reserve a card to buy later (which also gains you a wild) or spend the necessary gems to purchase a card. Each card that you buy goes in front of you and gives you a specific gem discount on future purchases. So if you have two rubies in front of you, you’ll be able to spend two fewer red gems when buying a card that has gems. Some cards also have points, and you can gain three-point nobles if you meet certain conditions on your tableau. The game ends after someone has reached 15 points, and the player with the most points is the winner.
I was disappointed that Splendor did not win the Spiel des Jahres this year because I think it’s one of the most pure gateway games to come around in a long time. The mechanics are extremely easy to understand, and the game really flies once everyone gets their head around what they are doing. The set collection aspect of the game works really well, and it has some great bits (the gems are high quality poker chips). Definitely a good one to introduce to new players.
We’ll close out this list with the ultimate gateway game, Ticket to Ride. Originally published in 2004, this Alan R. Moon design from Days of Wonder took the world by storm and has shown no signs of slowing down. It’s a rummy style train game where players are trying to complete routes by placing trains between cities. On your turn, there are three possible actions, and you can do one: draw 1-2 new cards, claim a leg between cities, or take new tickets to gain new routes. Legs are claimed by discarding a number of identically colored cards that match spaces on the board. Each leg gains you points, and completed tickets score at the end of the game (with incomplete tickets actually counting as negative points). The game ends when one player gets down to two or fewer trains, at which point everyone gets another turn. The player who accumulates the most points from legs and tickets is the winner.
Ticket to Ride is a classic because it is sooo easy to teach and has sooo much strategy. You can try to go for a lot of short tickets or a few long tickets. You can choose to spread out all over the map, or you can choose to concentrate in one area. You can play your own game, or you can try to figure out what others are doing and try to block them. This is my choice for the greatest gateway game, an opinion that I know is shared by many people.
Of course, this is just a small sampling of the gateway games out there. Your mileage may vary, and you may find that other games work just as well, if not better. Please tell me some of the games you like to use to introduce new players to the hobby. Next time, we’ll be looking at where to go next. Thanks for reading!