Do you remember a time when you thought playing board games meant a choice between a never-ending game of Monopoly, or playing Cluedo for the millionth time?
For so many people, memories of these old school games have put them off the idea of playing games as an adult. We’ve all got friends who don’t see the appeal, or who are daunted by the idea of learning a bunch of rules. For others, they might have played party games and enjoyed them, but never ventured beyond the classics like Articulate and Cranium.
That’s where you come in. We’ve put together a list of five gateway games, to introduce your novice friends to the wonderful and varied world of board games.
Codenames is easy to learn and quick to play, with games lasting around 25 minutes. Making it an ideal gateway game. A grid of 20 cards is laid out, with each card showing a single word, or a wacky picture if you’re playing the pictures version.
You need four people to play, split up into pairs - a red team and a blue team. You each take it in turns to give clues - or codes - to your partner. The clue-givers have a secret card which marks out which cards are ‘theirs’ (marked as either red or blue on the grid). Meanwhile some cards will be neutral and one card is marked as the dreaded assassin! Clue-givers will try to get their partner to guess as many of their team’s cards as possible, and the first team to guess all their cards without accidentally guessing the assassin, wins! Guess the assassin and it’s game over.
The simple layout makes this game super accessible to newbies, and the short play-time means it’s never overwhelming. The co-operative element is great for people who’ve avoided games for decades after a particularly confrontational game of Risk.
From experience, it’s much better for people who’ve previously played the game to take the first turn being clue-givers. This gives novices the chance to pick up the game and the tactics by the time it’s their turn to give clues.
If Codenames looks simple, Mysterium *looks* overwhelming and complicated. But have no fear! Despite having lots of cards and components, the game-play is really straightforward and a brilliant gateway game.
The premise is that there has been a murder that needs solving. One player takes on the role of the ghost, while all other players will be mediums. The ghost sits themself behind a screen with a huge stack of picture cards. The ghost uses these cards as clues to give to the other players to help them guess a culprit, a room and a weapon.
At this point, perhaps this sounds similar to Cluedo. But this game is much richer. Players work together to help each other decipher what their clues might mean. And players can use tokens to place bets on whether or not their peers’ guesses are correct. So you have a vested interest in everyone’s progress, not just your own.
In the second phase of the game, all that lovely team-work ends and it’s every meeple for themself. All players who successfully guessed their culprit, location and weapon will place their cards grouped together in the middle, then the ghost will give out one set of final clues to whittle it down to just one set. Players vote in secret for which one they think is correct.
The beautiful artwork in Mysterium makes it very engaging; generating lots of discussion about what the pictures show and what the clues might mean. The mix of cooperation and competition is a nice mechanic that gives it wide appeal to both the pacifists and glory-seekers in your group. If you’re playing with rookies, it’s best to appoint someone more experienced as the ghost. This role has a lot to do, and could be overwhelming to someone who’s not played many games.
Camel Up is hilarious. You’ll spend the game watching wooden camels race around the board, piling up, overtaking each other or getting knocked back - all determined by the colorful dice that pop out of the dice pyramid. Your job is to try to predict which camel will be in the lead in each round, and which ones will come in first and last place when the race ends.
Camel Up makes you feel like you have a genius strategy, when really it’s so unpredictable that a decent amount of luck is involved. This element is great for new players, because it means they have just as much a shot of winning as more seasoned board gamers. Plus, for those feeling less confident in making guesses and placing bets, they can still be part of the game, and still gain coins (points) by rolling the dice. The dice-rolling pyramid will be quite a novelty to people unaccustomed to board games; making an otherwise straightforward part of the game much more fun.
Quacks of Quedlinburg is a joyous game. It may well seem complex when you’re setting up the game, but as soon as the game gets going players quickly get the hang of it - even if they never quite learn how to pronounce the word Quedlinburg! None of us can.
Each person has a pot on their player board, and a drawstring bag full of colourful tokens with different numbers on them. These tokens are the ingredients for your potion. The aim of Quacks is to pull ingredients out of your bag at random to make the best potion, without exploding your pot. If you pull out too many of the wrong kind of token - the cursed white-coloured cherry bombs - then your potion is ruined for that turn.
Quacks will make you laugh, a lot. The mix of anticipation when pulling mysterious tokens out of your bag, pushing your luck, and the frustration of not getting the tokens you want, is a recipe for a great game. You’re trying to beat your opponents, but only by creating the best potion you can, and not by screwing over other players. It’s funny to see the risk-takers among you not knowing when to stop. The trickiest thing about this game is learning what each token does, but this is made easier by little cardboard explainers that sit in the middle throughout the game. And you can deliberately choose easier combinations for people who’ve never played before.
If high energy games like Camel Up and Quacks feel a bit over the top, Azul is the antidote to that. Players take it in turns to place gorgeous tiles on their board, in a bid to get the highest-scoring combination of tiles. You’ll spend time sussing out how best to score points for having tiles next to each other, for completing a full set of one pattern of tile, and for getting complete rows or columns. There’s a competitive factor here, in that as well as picking up the tiles *you* need, you also want to stop your opponents from picking up the ones that they need.
This is a great game for people unfamiliar with board games, because the rules are simple, turns move swiftly, and there’s a light strategy to it. There’s enough strategy for new players to feel invested in planning their next move, without feeling like more experienced players have an unfair advantage. The tile designs make the game a delight to look at.
These are just some of the more accessible games on offer that we recommend to share the joy of board games with those who are uninitiated. A final tip from us is to teach the rules using an online tutorial video, to avoid the hurdle of wading through a long rulebook.
What are your recommendations? And what were the first games you played that introduced you to the world of board games? Let us know!
Editors note: This blog was originally published on 19/03/2020. Updated on 18/08/2021 to improve the information available.