Gateway games is a phrase used to describe games that are generally considered to be good for playing with people who haven't experienced many modern board games. So-called because they offer a 'gateway' through to a variety of other games - often more complicated games - the games that are commonly grouped in this category have fairly simple rules and accessible themes.
The Gateway Game - Common Names
There are a handful of titles that often come up in discussions about gateway games. As far as I can tell, the top three seem to be Carcassonne, Catan and Ticket to Ride. These games are often cited as being the first modern board games that many people experience before learning about a much wider variety of games. They share a few qualities that make them so accessible:
- Victory conditions are clear.
- Actions are limited to a few simple choices.
- Interactive without other players being able to tear down what you've done.
- Pleasant aesthetics and nice components.
Those three games also have the advantage of time, having been around for longer than many other popular modern board games. Every now and then, a new board game will come out and be flagged as a great gateway game. Takenoko; Century: Spice Road; even 2018's Spiel des Jahres winner, Azul. All of these games share those qualities listed above.
Problems With This Idea
However, I have two main issues with the popular idea of gateway games as I've described it so far:
- Branding a title as a 'gateway game' runs the risk of devaluing it in the eyes of people who are beyond that 'gateway' stage.
- It's too exclusive. That idea of gateway games might prevent us playing other, awesome games with our friends and family.
I have no issues with the idea that some games are generally better at introducing people to modern games than others. I do think that some lend themselves to this very well, and it's always helpful to have a few games in your collection that you could happily bring out with a wide range of people.
However, I don't like the language. Branding some games as 'gateway games' suggests that you should move on from them once you get more 'serious' about the hobby. Even calling them 'casual' games leans towards this attitude. The thing is, you could be passionate about playing board games and yet never play something more complicated than Ticket to Ride (which is a very solid, strategic game). If this is the case, more power to you. Play what you enjoy and don't feel the pressure to move on from the games you love.
My other issue is that thinking that you have to play a certain type of 'gateway game' with people who don't play as often as you is really limiting. In reality, you should be thinking about what kinds of games the people you're playing with might enjoy. For example, I recently had a great time playing Yamatai with a couple of friends who have minimal experience of modern, designer board games. But I knew it would work because I knew that the theme would resonate with them (one of them has parents living in Japan) and I was confident that they would have the patience to learn the rules and start to grasp strategy.
Thankfully, I was right. The game went down a treat and two hours of teaching and playing flew by. The thing is, Yamatai would never be recommended as a standard gateway game. It's no Twilight Imperium, but it's still rated 2.9/5 on BoardGameGeek for complexity, with a few moving parts and some tricky mechanics. I certainly wouldn't play Yamatai with everyone, but for this couple it was perfect.
Qualities to look out for and what to avoid
For a game to be a hit with people who haven't played many modern games, it needs a hook. The hook could be a few different things.
- Theme. Yamatai was a hit with my friends because of their links to Japan. Games based on intellectual properties could also have good thematic hooks, like if you introduced a Marvel fan to Thanos Rising. If your friends like a certain movie genre or period of history, chances are there's a game for them.
- The look of the game.. Takenoko is one of my most played games simply because pretty much everyone loves the way it looks, from the box to the components. Azul is another fantastic 'gateway game' because the tiles are so good to look at any play with.
- Mechanics. This might be because of their simplicity (Carcassonne is a great example - simply lay a tile and maybe add a meeple) or because they link to some other experience your friends may have had. Deck-building games work well with people who have played trading card games, for example.
Alongside the hook, I do think there are some qualities that make some games better for newer players than others. Those four bullet points in the first section of this article are good guidelines, though they're flexible. For me, the most helpful quality is a clear win condition. You can still have success with games that have multiple paths to victory, but in my experience they take a lot more effort to teach. A clear win condition helps players to grasp the strategy much more quickly, as it's obvious what they're aiming for.
In addition, games that have good player aids or clear actions are really good. Yamatai was made easier for me to teach because the player mats are so good at taking you through your turn. Similarly, I think Scythe is much more accessible than it might otherwise be because the player mats make it obvious what you can do. Equally, a game like Catan is such a success because turn structure is simple and logical: roll, collect resources, build and trade.
Even without these qualities, I think a game can be a hit with less experienced players if the hook is compelling enough. However, these other attributes to tend to make the whole experience more enjoyable for you as a teacher and for the other players.
Enjoying Lighter Games
I want to end this ramble about gateway games by touching on my other criticism of the term: the fact that it devalues lighter games and makes them seem less appropriate for people who consider board gaming their hobby. The reality is, the board game industry is remarkable in its diversity. There are so many different kinds of games out there and so many different players who enjoy them. There is plenty of room for people to play and enjoy whatever they want.
You could have a collection of dozens of games built up over several years and love playing lighter, faster games of the sort that are often dubbed 'gateway games.' Or you might get a buzz from spending a few hours playing a heavy Euro game. Both attitudes are great! I guess I'm not happy with 'gateway game' as a term because it seems to devalue the experiences of a group of players who enjoy playing those lighter games.
While I tend to prefer games that are a bit heavier - I suppose you'd call them mid-weight - I love the fact that I own games like Takenoko and Catan. I can play them with almost anyone and still enjoy playing them myself. This hobby is about entertainment, so find what you enjoy and play it as much as you like.
Editors note: This post was originally published on October 19th, 2018. Updated on June 29th, 2022 to improve the information available.