Like any niche hobby, getting started in board gaming can be a daunting prospect. There are so many differing opinions on what makes a good game, or what makes an appropriate game for someone new to the hobby. I do speak from personal experience here, as it has only been in the last 4 years that I have really started to explore board games and build my collection.
In the coming months, I am going to make a few suggestions for those starting out in the hobby. I will not be telling anyone what to buy, but will offer advice on building a starter collection that suits your individual tastes. These suggestions will be organised by category, in which I will make a few suggestions and identify my own personal choice. Today, we will begin with Gateway Games and Next Step Games.
Gateway game is a term used to describe any game which brings new people into the hobby. These games are relatively simple and can be explained easily, allowing new players to quickly grasp the core concepts of the game and get right to the fun. Here are some of the games I would suggest to fill this role in your budding collection:
The Settlers of Catan (Now just Catan) – the game that captured my interest right from the start. This is a modern classic and was largely responsible for kickstarting a lot of the renewed interest in board gaming when it was released in the 90s. The game is one of resource management and negotiation with a little bit of area control thrown in for fun. With relatively few pieces and intuitive rules, the game is very friendly to new players. It also has a number of expansions, so that you can build on your game, adding complexity later as you gain confidence. This is a staple in many collections but is seen as less of an essential than it used to be.
Carcassonne – a straightforward tile-laying game with simple, easily explained rules. Again, the keyword here really is ‘simple’, as you can’t get any more straightforward than ‘draw one, play one’. That’s right, you simply draw a tile and place it on the table. These tiles combine to make the board and you can put your tokens, the now-iconic Meeples, down to claim features such as castles, roads, fields and abbeys. Conceptually, this is a cool game for new players, as it introduces the concept of a game without a fixed board. Playing the game creates the board, and that’s something you don’t really see in any of the ‘classic’ mainstream titles. Like Catan, this is considered a classic, but also a bit long in the tooth with newer games out there, such as Isle of Skye. Another similarity to Catan is the expandability of Carcassonne. There are loads of expansions and alternate version of Carcassonne. The new Star Wars edition seems to be quite popular just now.
Ticket to Ride – a fun and engaging game of building rail routes across America. Incredibly accessible and beautifully produced, Ticket to Ride is a game of set collection, route planning and resource management. There’s something incredibly satisfying about putting down a line of 4, 5, 6 trains, linking up two distant cities and racking up a substantial stack of points. I like that although the board is so open, the actual gameplay is incredibly tight, with only three possible actions to be taken on a turn. The Ticket Cards do a fantastic job of giving focus to the game and encouraging more direct competition for routes. There are several versions of the game, including the original, a European one, a number of map packs, the new Rails and Sails edition and my personal favourite, the Scandinavian version, optimised for 2 to 3 players.
King of Tokyo – a lighthearted dice game that can be quite random, but has room for choice and strategy. King of Tokyo has a really cool theme, seeing the city of Tokyo overrun by squabbling monsters, each intent on controlling city and being the last monster standing. It’s a bit like Yahtzee with giant lizards, apes and cybernetic bunnies. Oh, and a huge praying mantis with chainsaws. Like every other game discussed thus far, there are expansions to and alternative versions of this game. The Power Up expansion is great addition that adds unique powers to each monster, just adding that extra little bit of detail and complexity. There is also the sequel, King of New York, which adds a number of new elements, upping the complexity to create a more involved, if slightly less streamlined experience. Again, really accessible, cool theme, great intro to modern board gaming.
For me, the obvious winner has to be Ticket to Ride. I think that two years ago I would have said Settlers of Catan, but I have had so much success with this game. One friend who had never been into tabletop games went into Stirling the morning after we played this and immediately purchased it. My game group enjoys this game. My partner enjoys this game. My parents and my in-laws all enjoy this game. It’s pretty much a guaranteed winner with new players and, crucially, I love it too.
Next Step Games
Once you’re hooked and you’ve grasped some of the basic concepts from a couple of gateway games, it’s time to try something a little more challenging. Perhaps your next step game will be a longer game, more abstract, or have more complex rules. There should not be a huge jump from gateway to next step, and some of my recommendations are games that others may describe as gateway games:
Dominion – the game that started the recent trend of Deck Building games is still going strong with new expansions such as the recent Empires. I think that deck building games in general should be in this category, with other titles such as The DC Comics Deck Building Game, Ascension, Legendary Encounters and Paperback all filling similar niches and following very similar structures. Deck building games are fascinating to me, as they are all about acquiring cards to create an engine that sustains itself and grows, all whilst building towards a specific goal. Usually, those are victory points. In Dominion these points actively inhibit your engine, filling your deck with otherwise useless cards, leaving you to find a balance between efficiency and score. I love these games.
Pandemic – oh look, it’s Pandemic! Of course it’s here, it’s everywhere! Seriously, there’s the original version, a multitude of expansions, the smash hit Pandemic Legacy, the Iberian edition, the Cthulhu edition and, soon, another season of Pandemic Legacy. Whatever edition you decide to get, Pandemic represents a fantastic cooperative experience. The game is challenging, but the cooperative nature of the game means that experienced players can walk new players through their first few turns. As an alternative, there are also the other cooperative games from the same designer, Matt Leacock. These are Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, both of which are slightly more accessible and thematically appropriate for the younger player. For most though, Pandemic should be a good fit.
Lords of Waterdeep – a nice introduction to the worker placement genre, this game is an absolute blast. Oh, sure, it says Dungeons & Dragons on the box, but the theme is pasted on at best and really, this is less a thematic fantasy experience and more an abstract, well balanced euro game. The main mechanism at work is the worker placement one, in which the player assigns worker tokens to specific spots on the map to perform specific actions. This could be to gather money, play cards, accept quests or, most commonly, acquire the coloured cubes required to complete most quests. Completing quests earns points and points are put towards victory. There is a small element of active competition as each space may only be used by one worker per turn. My favourite bit of this game is that you can construct buildings to open up more options for your workers and benefit from other players using your buildings. This is a great next step game as it introduces a lot of new mechanisms and has a bit more going on at once.
Smash Up – This is a simple card game that sees you with a small hand of cards, drawing a further two per turn and playing one Minion card and one Action. Minions are used to assign points to base cards which trigger when they reach a certain number of points. Once this target is reached and the base triggers, victory points are given to the players with the highest, second highest and third highest number of minion points assigned to the base. Action cards act as spells to buff your minions, hurt other players or create other effects. That’s all pretty straightforward. What’s really cool about Smash Up, though, is the way that decks are combined. Each player chooses two unique factions and combines the decks into one. How about playing as Robot Wizards or Ninja Dinosaurs? How about Zombie Aliens? There are eight factions in the core box and dozens in subsequent expansions, giving a huge number of options and, with them, a lot of replayability. This is not one of my absolute favourite card games, but it works very well as that next step, just after the gateway game.
This is a far closer call for me, with both Smash Up and Lords of Waterdeep fulfilling the role of next step game. I think that recently, I’ve gotten more entertainment out of playing Lords of Waterdeep with new players. It is a game in which you take on the role of one the lords vying for control of the city of Waterdeep. You do this by sending out agents to fulfil tasks including recruiting adventurers to work for you, accepting quests, constructing new buildings in the city, making money and engaging in shady shenanigans down by the docks. In terms of actual complexity, the game is on par with some of my gateway games, such as The Settlers of Catan, but it just looks more intimidating with the large board, several decks of cards, colour-coded cubes, factions and coin tokens, agent meeples and building tiles. Lords of Waterdeep brings in a lot of different mechanisms and it’s a great choice for expanding your experience after the gateway games. I have recently picked up the expansion to this and am really looking forward to giving it a go.