It's a question that we get asked all the time: “How can I get my friends who aren’t yet into tabletop gaming, and don’t know anything about modern board games, to play one? What games are good for introducing people to the hobby?”
Well, it turns out we’ve got some experience with this one. We’ve done whatever we can to get our “non-gamer” friends to join in the fun (and hopefully join in the hobby). Some of us here at Asmodee are even former non-gamers who were once upon a time reluctantly lured to the table only to discover a love for rolling dice, moving meeples, placing tiles, and carefully composing a great hand of cards.
One of the main reasons why people refuse to play board games is that they fear not being able to understand the rules. So the most important quality of a gateway game is one that is easy to learn and quick to play. That doesn’t mean gateway games can’t also be rich in strategy: strategic depth arises from the choices a game asks you to make among the options available, not necessarily the quantity of rules.
The second most important thing for a gateway game to have is lots of interpersonal interactions. Your non-gamer friends want to spend time with you, not sit silently near you not making eye contact. So when you’re debating what to play with friends who haven’t touched dice since they were ten years old, think of how you like interacting with them. Do you needle each other a lot and joke around? Do you share secrets and tell each other stories? Have you always been competitive? There’s no one gateway game for every person or every group. Different games are going to appeal to different people.
The following games are proven to win over even the most vocal opponents of board games. As different as they are, they can all be taught in less than five minutes. All facilitate smiles, laughter, playful glares, and friendly competition.
You’ll have an easier time getting your friends to the table with a few beautifully-illustrated cards than you will with numerous bowls of chits and lots of text. Splendor exemplifies this: its elegant card art and big, bright tokens can get even the most adamant non-gamers to let their guard down. More importantly, Splendor is a simple and intuitive set collection game that nevertheless has enough strategic depth to satisfy the most expert of players. It’s competitive without necessarily being brutal, and so well balanced that novices can beat their teacher if they’re clever enough.
Of course, the classic entry-level game of beautiful art is Dixit, which focuses more on exchanging stories and getting to know your fellow players than it does on victory points. It’s well known for being easy to learn, non-threatening, and adaptable to all ages. You can use it to introduce basic game mechanics to your friends and family before moving them on to more complex simultaneous placement or bluffing games. And given Dixit’s emphasis on improvisation and storytelling, it can even serve as a starting point along the path towards tabletop RPGs.
To lure console and app gamers into the tabletop hobby, you might turn to Loony Quest. People who grew up playing the video games of the late 80s and early 90s will instantly feel at home in its world of maze-like levels, diabolical animal bosses, and XP coins floating in the air. People accustomed to smartphone games will be used to tracing routes around or towards objects. Loony Quest has very simple rules that change slightly with every level, and while it is competitive, it's unlikely that anyone at your table will have a natural edge in this dexterity-based game. If someone does start to gain a substantial lead, there are plenty of ways to sabotage their efforts and level the playing field.
Bluffing Your Way Through
Able accommodate lots of players, designed to be quickly explained, and often featuring playful 3D components, party games can make excellent gateway games. Mafia de Cuba, for example, fits into a backpack or purse, takes less than half an hour per game, and can be played while waiting in line to get into the movies, or for your food at the pub. Sure, it’s a hidden role and bluffing game but, unlike others in that genre, Mafia de Cuba lets you choose your role. If you want to tell the truth through the whole session, play a Henchman or Orphan. If you think you’re a good liar, take some diamonds and become a Thief. If you enjoy investigation, play the Godfather.
Thematically similar but mechanically very different is Cash ’N Guns, instantly recognizable thanks to its black and orange foam firearms. In Mafia de Cuba, bluffing and deduction are most of the game. Cash ’n Guns has a bluffing component, but the game's heart really lies in the choices of who to aim at, whether to risk taking a bullet, and which loot to grab. The game’s clear narrative structure of the game also makes it easy to teach—simply guide new players through the rounds a step at a time, maybe even starting with a sample round. And while Cash ’n Guns involves the possibility of player elimination, in pratice eliminating someone else is hard to do. The game encourages you to focus on collecting loot rather than trying to take your opponents down.
For a less confrontational game that can handle up to eight players, try Citadels. This classic card game combines drafting and city building and enables bluffing without making it mandatory. Of course, Citadels can be quickly taught, but what makes it an ideal gateway game is the balance it strikes between player interactions and individual strategies. The goal is for you to create your own city, rather than thwart the ones others are building, but in every round you’ll be making choices that will directly effect everyone else at the table. Like Mafia de Cuba, Citadels can be highly portable (especially in the form of Citadels Classic). Or, with the upcoming Windrider edition, you can shape Citadels to the exact climate of your table by using certain combinations of characters and districts. It is a gateway game that can become more complex as your friends become more experienced gamers.
All Fun and Games
Whenever you're teaching a game, no matter what the game is or who is about to play, just focus on the fun and shared experience. The real victories of tabletop gaming don't come from earning the most points. They lie in spending time with your family and friends and sharing an activity you love.