Before I go into what I think are the best gateway games, I should answer the question: What is a gateway game? Basically, they’re games considered ideal for helping non-gamers understand what a hobby game is. To be ideal to make this transition they need to be relatively short (say 90 minutes max) and simple to play – so are also normally family games too. But they need to have elements (mechanisms) from more complex games, to best demonstrate why we love these modern games.
This still leaves an incredibly broad range of games. So the next step is to identify which of these games will best appeal to your intended audience. Maybe they like traditional card games, a particular theme, or be wowed by a visual factor. Or you see them as a type of gamer: competitive, thoughtful or theatrical. The idea is to give those tainted by poor high street game experiences (hello Monopoly) a glimpse into our fantastic hobby.
Below you’ll find 10 games I’ve had (or seen) great success with and that many list as games that got them into the hobby. I largely chose big names as they’re in print. I’ve also given quite a few alternatives. And I’m at the end of the social medias/email to answer specific queries.
The best gateway games – board games
Ticket to Ride (Released 2004, 2-5 players, 60-90 minutes, age 8+)
My number one gateway game. The theme is accessible and while the board is a little grey, it soon radiates colour as you place the chunky plastic pieces. The mechanisms are immediately familiar: collect cards in colour sets to complete routes. But the way people play evolves over time as they learn the intricacies – essential for a game’s longevity. Plus, it has a bunch of expansion maps available for added replay value.
See also – Thurn and Taxis: Slightly trickier and a small step up. But it has similar mechanism (collect cards and lay routes), making a nice follow up purchase.
Carcassonne (Released 2000, 2-5 players, 60 minutes, age 8+)
The cute square cardboard tiles give this game immediate table appeal, while the rural theme is accessible. The basic rule couldn’t be simpler: draw a random tile and place it. But the subtlety of scoring soon starts to emerge, revealing what is actually quite a cutthroat and tactically clever game. Once again, its success have seen a number of expansions and spin-offs hit the shelves. So fans can easily give the game a new lease of life when required.
See also – Kingdomino: This has a very similar look to Carcassonne, just replacing squares with dominoes. And you build your own kingdoms, rather than a shared one. But clever tile taking rules make it still feel competitive.
Downfall of Pompeii (Released 2004, 2-4 players, 60 mins, age 8+)
I’ve relegated the ‘big’ name to the ‘see also’ section, as Pompeii is one of my favourites. This theme is uncommon in games, but universally well known. It has simple rules and familiar concepts. But is a great choice for players with a bit of a mean streak. The early game sees you placing pieces together to expand your population. But then its every player for themselves and the knives come out, as you try and lead your own people to safety.
See also – Catan: This can be a great gateway game, but requires conversation. Things move along nicely if players trade goods. But if they don’t, it can drag. So if you think you’ll have a chatty, interactive table it can be a great choice.
Stone Age (Released 2008, 2-4 players, 90 minutes, age 10+)
Worker placement and action selection games are a staple of the hobby board game market. And this is a great introductory example. The theme is light and the components high quality. While the rules are straightforward and the element of luck with the dice can be a nice leveller – especially as there are strong ways to mitigate it.
See also – Lords of Waterdeep: This introductory worker placement game is great for fantasy RPG fans, as it is set in the D&D universe.
Abstract and co-operative games
Azul (released 2017, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, age 8+)
This beautifully crafted abstract game also benefits from very simple rules. But let the gorgeous, tactile pieces lull you – this is a set collection game with a difference and a harsh mean streak. Again, it benefits from emergent game play. Once you’ve got the basics down, you start to see how you can really make the game’s limitations work to your advantage. Or more specifically, how you can ruin your opponent’s plans.
See also – Ingenious: Another classic abstract game which is a little bit dominoes, a little bit colour matching and a lot clever. Short, tight and highly competitive.
Patchwork (released 2014, 2 players, 20-30 minutes, ages 8+)
In the best gateway games, two-player only titles are often sought by couples. Looking to get your better half into the hobby? Try something light, good looking and made for two. Patchwork perfectly fits the bill. The rules are super simple and based around the Tetris puzzle concept we all know. So again, the same mantras we keep returning to apply – short, approachable, competitive and with emergent strategies.
See also – Jaipur: Another two-player only title, it is also light on rules, theme and play time. It has card play with a clever twist, plus highly competitive set collection.
Forbidden Island (released 2010, 1-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 8+)
The last decade has seen a huge rise in popularity for co-operative board games. Some may know one-versus-all title Scotland Yard (a solid pick too), but here you all work together against the game. Forbidden Island is a great introduction to the genre, with gorgeous components and lightness of touch that hide a really tough game to beat. So if you think your friends will like to work together, look no further.
See also – Exit, The Game: The huge popularity of escape rooms has seen a slew of board games that mimic the experience. The Exit series is the most popular and for good reason. Just remember, these are ‘one and done’ games. Once you’ve played it once, that’s that.
The best gateway games – card, dice and party games
For Sale (Released 1997, 3-6 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+)
Card games are a great gateway choice because so many people are familiar with the basics. Fir Sale uses lovely cartoon artwork to hide a highly competitive betting mechanism, with a good dose of push-your-luck and reading opponents thrown in. It pivots at halfway, feeling like two games in one – but they gel brilliantly. And it feels like a proper traditional card game, so you should be able to lure anyone in for a game.
See also – 6 Nimmt (traditional card game), Sushi Go (very light card drafting), Love Letter (fast and fun take-that game). And see my previous posts on great small box card games.
Codenames (Released 2015, 2-8 players, 30-60 mins, ages 6+)
If you like word games, this series has taken the genre by storm. You’re trying to group words and give a single word clue that describes them. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, made tougher by big penalties for failed attempts. The basic game is for two teams, so 4-8 players. But there is also now a two-player version (Duet), a visual version (Pictures) and a slew of themed editions (Disney, Marvel etc).
See also – Dixit (creative word game), Junk Art (dexterity/balancing), Wits and Wagers (quiz show) and Ice Cool (flicking game). There are so many great modern party games to choose from if you’re looking for the best gateway games!
Can’t Stop (Released 1980, 2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 6+)
Who doesn’t love rolling some dice? Can’t stop is simplicity itself, with players taking turns to push their luck to try and complete three rows of the board first. The easier the number to roll, the more successes you need to complete it. But it is also easy to bust – and lose all your progress that turn. Simple, elegant, addictive and interactive.
See also – For a game that knocks Yahtzee into a cocked hat, check out That’s Pretty Clever. Or take a look at King of Tokyo for a cartoony monster dice battle game.