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top 5 gateway games

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

What is a gateway game?

A gateway game is a game that can be taught to newbies to bring them into the hobby. As such, it should be simple enough that it doesn’t scare them away, yet meaty enough to hold their interest.  It should be relatively easy to teach, yet it should offer interesting choices.  It should take long enough to warrant the effort required to learn it, but it shouldn’t outstay its welcome.

There appears to be a general consensus among the gaming community that the top 3 gateway games are Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.  But what about the fourth and fifth?

The quest.

In The Universally Agreed Upon Top 5 Gateway Games, BGG user oeste asked the community what the fourth and fifth universally-accepted gateway games are.  Not surprisingly, there was no consensus.  I think at one point I commented something to the effect that trying to get consensus on a question like this was like attempting to herd cats, and left it at that.

But it’s an interesting question, no?

If one were to wade through the 5 pages of responses, one would see that the games that came up most often were Stone Age, Dominion, Forbidden Island, Ingenious, Pandemic, Blokus, Citadels, 7 Wonders, Small World, Bohnanza, Lost Cities, and Dixit.

One would also find a link to a geeklist entitled Which game deserves a seat as the fourth Great Gateway Game: Settlers, TTR, Carc, and ?  78 games are proposed in this list, and folks have been voting with their thumbs:  127 votes for Dominion, 99 votes for Pandemic, 95 votes for Bohnanza.  But thumbs, for a variety of reasons, aren’t necessarily the best measure of a game’s suitability as a gateway game.

The poll.

And if one were to continue with this adventure, one would eventually come across a BGG poll:  [POLLS] The Best Gateway Games – Round 1.  You can, of course, go through the various stages of the polling experience yourself, or you can cut to the chase and skip to the final results:

1 Ticket to Ride
2 Carcassonne
3 Settlers of Catan
4 Pandemic
5 Ticket to Ride: Europe
6 For Sale
7 Diamant / Incan Gold
8 Coloretto
9 No Thanks!
10 Hey, Thats My Fish!
11 Forbidden Island
12 PitchCar
13 Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries
14 Category 5 / 6 Nimmt!
15 Bohnanza
16 Lost Cities
17 TransAmerica
18 Blokus
19 Liar’s Dice
20 Can’t Stop

The Dominion Dilemma.

The first question I’m sure some of my readers will ask is “what the !@#$% happened to Dominion?”

It got booted in round four:  as Tony Ackroyd (the pollster) put it, ‘In case people are interested, Dominion suffered ejection because despite the high number of “Best” votes, it also had 8% votes for “Not a Gateway”.  Wits & Wagers suffered similarly, with 7% of its votes being “Not a Gateway”.’

It could of course be argued that 8% of respondents voting “not a gateway” shouldn’t be sufficient to knock it out of contention, but as I happen to agree with that sentiment I’ll let it stand.  As Mark Salzwedel put it, “Way too many special ability cards, tough to predict the game end until you’ve played several times, and deck building is not a newbie skill. It is short game, true, but a new player is likely to finish the game wondering what happened.”

Hey, he said it, not me.  :-)

The Fourth Gateway Game.

Based on the top twenty listed above, I’m content to add Pandemic as the Fourth Gateway Game.  It’s got a reasonable heft to it (with a weight of 2.3, it comes in just below Settlers’ 2.4), it’s got decent components, it’s challenging without being too challenging, and it gives players the opportunity to play against the game itself.

Some, I know, have argued that Forbidden Island (a lighter co-op by the same author) is a more accessible game, but I just don’t see it catching on as well with adults.  It’s a fine game, but I don’t believe it has the same kind of staying power.

So … I, for one, am ready to add Pandemic to the canonical list and rename the “Big Three” the “Big Four.”

But what about the fifth?

I have a hard time, somehow, including two TtR variants in the top five, so that lets out both TtR: Europe and TtR: Nordic Countries.

For Sale, Incan Gold, Coloretto, No Thanks, Hey Thats My Fish, Forbidden Island, Category 5, Lost Cities, TransAmerica, Liar’s Dice, and Can’t Stop are all good games, but they all seem too light.  I mean, yes, they’re a definite step up from party games, but I’m not sure they have quite enough heft to pull people into the hobby.

Pitch Car is a dexterity game.  I have nothing against dexterity games, but somehow it would seem out of place on a list like this.

I frankly don’t understand Bohnanza.  It’s one of my failings, I know, but I just can’t get my head around the game.

And Blokus is an abstract, begging the question….

Gateway to what? 

Good question — let’s step back a bit.

When introducing new players to the hobby, we are necessarily introducing them to our hobby, not the hobby as a whole.  I’m not going to teach people how to play role-playing games for the simple reason that I myself don’t play them.  I’m also not that likely to teach anyone how to play Risk, because I’m not very interested in that game at the moment.

We can’t, in other words, take ourselves and our preferences out of the equation.

Likewise, we can’t take “the newbie” and their preferences out of the equation, either.  No one is really a newbie when it comes to games — everyone has a gaming history, and it’s our job, if we’re going to teach them a new game, to find out what that history is.  Have they played Clue?  Monopoly?  Chess?  Hearts?  Pinochle?  Gin Rummy?  Scrabble?

What games have they played, and how do they feel about those games?  If they’ve played Monopoly and loved it, I might teach them Power Grid; if they’ve played Chess and hated it, I certainly wouldn’t teach them Hive.

In order for a game to be a good gateway game, in other words, it needs to be (a) a decent gateway game, (b) a game we’re interested in, and (c) a game that our friend might be interested in, too.

Choosing a game to teach someone, especially someone who’s just getting into gaming, is more an art than a science.  One size, in other words, does not fit all.

That being said, however….

I still feel that lists like these have merit.  Sure, everyone could and possibly should come up with their own “top 5 gateway games,” but a list at least gives folks a place to start.  Some games are, after all, better than others to teach to newbies, and while everyone’s situation is different, lists like these do serve a purpose.

So, what have we got so far?

  1. Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1995, weight of 2.4.
    The importance of Settlers to the modern gaming scene cannot be overstated: it single-handedly reinvented the industry. And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.
  2. Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
    A personal favorite, this game is extremely creative. You build a landscape by placing tiles, then inhabit that landscape by deploying your meeples.
  3. Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2004 weight of 1.9.
    My favorite game to teach to newbies, this one is always a hit. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn, and with a playing time of under an hour, you really can’t go wrong.
  4. Pandemic: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.3.
    An excellent game where players play against the game itself to try to eradicate diseases.  It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, and it’s a great couples game, too.  Not an easy game to win, but very satisfying when you can pull it off.

Do we even need a fifth?

Of course not, no. Absolutely not. (We don’t need 4, either.  Or, for that matter, 3.)  But I’d feel like a right proper git if I titled my post “top 5 gateway games” and then stopped at 4.

So what I’ll do is offer my own personal choice for the fifth game.

I doubt it’ll be a popular choice, but I’m going to go with Blokus.  Why?  It’s an abstract, and that makes it a little different from all the others.  And I like abstracts.  And I like Blokus.  And my friends like Blokus, too.

So no, it’s not as universal as the four listed above.  But it does have really cool, Tetris-shaped pieces, and it’s short, and it’s easy to explain, and it’s popular, and you can buy it at Target.

Without further ado, I therefore present:

  1. Blokus: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2000, weight of 1.8.
    An abstract strategy game with pieces that remind most people of Tetris. It’s a fun, lightweight introduction to abstracts, and it’s very colorful, too. Here’s a strategy tip: forget trying to block people out of your areas, and instead focus on flowing as smoothly as possible through their areas.

If Blokus ain’t your cup of tea, let me know what you’d suggest in the comments below.  :-)

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  1. December 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    In defense of Dominion – new players may not readily grasp what’s going on in the first game. But the same can be said of Carcassonne, particularly if you use the farm scoring, or Catan, where it’s easy to get left in the dust with bad rolls and poor initial placements. I’d argue that, though deck-building may not be a newbie skill, the game is fast enough with simple enough rules that it should at least be considered as a gateway game. I’ve had more success using that game with non-gamers than Catan, which is dropping off my own favorite gateway games list. That despite it being my own gateway.

    Blokus is not a bad choice, particularly as it is a highly strategic mass-market game. I’d also throw Thebes, Small World, and 7 Wonders into the mix.

  2. December 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    I can see both sides of the case for Dominion. I mean, on the one hand, it’s short — new players could easily play five or six games of Dominion in the time it takes to play just one game of Settlers. And in that number of games they should be able to get a pretty good idea as to what’s going on.

    On the other hand, seeing how all those cards can work together is not an easy thing for newbies to grasp. Even figuring out just exactly how their turn is supposed to go takes at least one game.

    I think one thing to keep in mind is that the mechanics in Settlers, while obviously unique, are somehow more familiar to the average person — you build something, you roll dice, you get resources, you trade. In Dominion, on the other hand, the mechanics themselves are somehow less intuitive, less instinctively familiar. Deck-building just isn’t a skill that has trickled down to the general populace (yet). :-)

  3. Clive
    December 5, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    I honestly think that Pergamon – a relatively new release – will sneak into the category of great gateway. And let’s not forget overlooked games like Niagara

  4. December 6, 2011 at 7:46 am

    I hadn’t heard of Pergamon, but it looks interesting — that bidding mechanism in particular looks fascinating. I’ll have to check it out.

    Thanks for posting — this one had flown under my radar. :-)

  5. December 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I would argue for Dominion as the fifth, despite never playing it. But its rapid fire popularity is reminiscent of both Settlers and TtR. Its probably the fourth, not just the fifth. But I would still put Pandemic in the top five as well.

  6. December 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I agree. I’m not convinced Dominion is easily accessible, but it’s phenomenal popularity would certainly seem to suggest otherwise…. :-)

  1. March 5, 2014 at 6:59 am

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