What Are Gateway Games?
Gateway games aren’t an official distinction that publishers slap on their games, but it’s a term that has cemented itself in the tabletop community, describing games that are simple, accessible, and fun for “non-gamers,” while being complex and interesting enough to keep them coming back for more. When a non-gamer has played a gateway game enough times, they will likely be eager to see what other games can provide a similar experience.
Indeed, like any drug or addictive substance, they will come back craving more, and you, the shameless peddler that you are, will continue to feed their appetite until they’re a regular at your table, requesting to take a run to your local game shop whenever there’s a spare moment.
There are many ways to define a gateway game, and if you look online for similar lists, you’ll probably find many that have different criteria and varying choices. Here is how we define a gateway game:
- Gateway Games Are Easy to Learn: This is the biggest one. One of the biggest problems with a lot of heavier modern board games is that they are loaded with rules. You might spend 30 minutes explaining complex rules from a 20-page rulebook that has its own index — this kind of heavy gaming appeals to a lot of people, but for goodness’ sake, it’s not for your friends and family who have only ever played Clue and Sorry. A good gateway game should take ten minutes or less to explain to new players.
- Gateway Games Are Easy to Bring to the Table: Another big turnoff to non-gamers is the game length. While this varies for everyone, we would say that most people start to get wary when games exceed two hours. The best gateway games are ones that provide ample strategic depth without taking eons to play. Sure, maybe once they’re into it you can dress up as world leaders and play an epic game of Through the Ages for six hours, but in the meantime, it’s best to find games that are between 30 and 90 minutes long.
- Gateway Games Are Strategic: One of the biggest differentiators between “mass market games” and “modern board games” is their strategic depth. Many of the games that most Americans are familiar with are stacked with luck, or poorly designed with “friendship ending” mechanics. While plenty of modern board games have a fair share of luck, most of them, at the end of the day, are won through strategy. A good gateway game is one that provides a sense of satisfaction from strategic depth. You want a game where you feel like victory is earned — this feels good for the winner and fair for the losers.
- Gateway Games Are Affordable: The last thing you want to do is have a fun game night, essentially showing your friends and family that there are really cool, fun games out there that go far beyond the toy aisle games they grew up with — only to reveal a $100+ price tag. A good gateway game usually costs $40 or less. You want people to feel like they can go to the store and start their own collection!
With that being said, let’s take a look at some of our favorite gateway games.
BGR’s Favorite Gateway Games
The most recent release on this list, Kingdomino (2016) has already cemented itself as a strong go-to gateway game among the board gaming community. Its easy-to-learn but hard-to-master rules, affordable price tag, short play time, and pretty aesthetics all combine into a potent combination that makes this one a must-have for anyone who wants a good game to introduce to friends and family who haven’t yet swallowed the red pill and gone down the rabbit hole of board games. This game has risen to popularity so quickly that it already has its own exclusive version on Target shelves. Not bad for a cute little eurogame!
The Game in a Nutshell
Kingdomino is a clever little tile-placing game, where players use “dominos” with varying terrains to build a 5×5 grid around their castle. You can create lakes, fields, plains, mines, and more, and the more similar terrain you combine together, the more points you get. Kingdomino has a clever system for choosing the next domino you’ll place, which allows players to strategically pick tiles that will enhance their kingdom, or maybe snatch ones that other players need. It’s extremely simple, and at the same time, strategically rewarding.
Why We Love It
- It can be played in 15 minutes: Kingdomino has an extremely short play-time, making this an easy game to just pull out and play. Because it’s strategically satisfying, it’s also not uncommon for both players to want to play multiple rounds. In fact, the rulebook even stipulates playing three rounds in succession and then adding up all your points is a fun way to play.
- It’s Extremely Easy to Learn: Kingdomino can be taught in two minutes or less. That’s a huge boon for non-gamers. Indeed, this game has shot to high levels of popularity due to how easy and quick the learning and teaching process is. It’s almost unparalleled in this regard, at least, for a game of its depth.
- It’s a Great “Background” Game: One thing that I love about Kingdomino is how easily it facilitates background activity, like music or a movie. I’ve watched many films casually with a friend while playing Kinddomino — it’s the kind of game that’s engaging enough to challenge you, but you can still redirect your attention to other things. Whether you’re watching your favorite show, movie, or just having a good heart-to-heart conversation, Kingdomino can be played at any time.
- It’s Affordable: Kingdomino can routinely be found for $20 or less. This makes it easy for an interested party to get their own copy, and best of all, there are actually advantages to having multiple copies — you can combine them together to increase the player count (which is 4 by default), or to be able to make bigger boards, which requires more strategy.
7 Wonders is slightly more complex than a lot of the games on this list, but once you get things going, it’s almost always a hit. 7 Wonders is a great choice for people who aren’t shy about learning a game that’s slightly more complex than usual. If you have faith in their rule comprehension skills, 7 Wonders can be a huge hit. 7 Wonders just slightly toes the line of being too heavy for non-gamers, but we’ve had enough success introducing it to new players that we can confidently recommend it. Its massive retail success, multiple expansions, and widespread popularity seem to support this idea.
The Game in a Nutshell
7 Wonders is a card game where you build an ancient civilization, playing a bunch of cards into your play area that represent different categories, such as science, culture, military, and more. You’ll have to put a strong emphasis on certain categories to win, while still having a healthy balance of the others. What sets 7 Wonders apart is its unique card drafting mechanism, where you pick cards from hands that are passed around the table, meaning your card selection changes every turn.
Why We Love It
- 20 Minute Rounds: Like Kingdomino above, a full game of 7 Wonders can routinely be played in less than thirty minutes, making the game conducive to several consecutive plays. And indeed, the game gives you so many options that most players are eager to do it again after their first game ends. It’s uncommon to just play one round of 7 Wonders, but it’s also an option if you have a limited amount of time. Win-win.
- Tactical “On-the-Fly” Decisions: 7 Wonders isn’t a game that accommodates long-term planning very well because most of your options are spontaneous. Your hand changes every turn, and you just have to pick the best from what you have. This is good for newcomers because it eases the burden of feeling like they have to make a long-term plan. It’s highly tactical, but not intimidating.
- High Player Count: 7 Wonders is particularly valuable for people who have a lot of potential gaming friends or relatives. It supports up to seven players (eight with expansions), making this the best option by far for those who feel restricted by the typical four player count of other games.
Some people just love conflict games — there’s nothing that’s more satisfying for some people than crushing their enemies, but popular mass market games of this variety are hit and miss for gamers, who are often turned off by strong elements of luck (a la Risk), or the very unfun aspect of being the player who is eliminated early. Small World is a gateway game for the competitive gamer, an experience that provides conquest and area control, but with the flair of modern board games, which means increased strategy, decreased luck, and an experience that feels fair and balanced, but competitive nonetheless.
The Game in a Nutshell
Small World is an area control conquest game — with the caveat that you’re playing in a “small world” that can’t fit the myriad fantasy races that inhabit it. Each player starts off as one race and claims as much territory as they can, but it won’t be long before the passage of time marks said race extinct, forcing you to choose a new one. Each race is also coupled with a unique randomized power that’s different every game. In other words, this is a conquest game where your abilities change significantly three or four times each session.
Why We Love It
- Aggressive, But Fair: Small World is an aggressive game where you’re actively vying to control as much territory as possible, not unlike Risk. Controlling the board is more of a priority than eliminating your enemies, because no player can be truly eliminated in Small World. If one race is eradicated, the player just comes back the next game with a new one. This provides a competitive and aggressive experience that still feels fair and balanced.
- Endlessly Replayable: The genius of Small World is that every race has its own unique ability, but they’re also randomly paired with an extra ability, so at any given moment you’ll have two unique powers that combo with each other in different ways, and there are so many combinations that it’s different every single game. You’ll have Dragon Master Wizards in one game, and Seafaring Wizards in the next. It’s a well-designed mechanic which ensures that you’ll never be bored playing Small World, even if it’s your hundredth game.
- Charming and Whimsical: Small World is a game that takes its theme and pushes the dial to 11. It’s unabashedly relentless in its creativity, and because of that, the game carries a fantastical, outlandish charm. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and part of the fun is laughing at the outright nonsense that the game provides. What other game can you name where the Wealthy Skeletons wage war against the Flying Amazons?
Sheriff of Nottingham
Modern board games come in many forms, and not all of them need to be strategic, tactical affairs that take place on a cardboard map. Many casual audiences are more interested in playing their opponents than they are playing with pieces, and that’s why games like Poker are so popular. Do you want a good game that’s based on bluffing and reading your opponents, but you’re sick of losing money at the table every week? Sheriff of Nottingham is for you.
The Game in a Nutshell
In Sheriff of Nottingham, each player plays the role of a merchant who is trying to sneak their valuable goods past the titular sheriff of Nottingham, who’s ever watchful of contraband. Players have to stuff a sealed envelope with goods that they intend to bring to market, but they have to declare said goods to the sheriff, who is played by someone at the table (rotating clockwise every round). The sheriff can call them out on lying and check their envelope, or let them through if they suspect they’re telling the truth. Players who are caught in a lie are punished, while the sheriff incurs a penalty if he incorrectly calls someone out who was actually telling the truth. The result is a fun and engaging experience where every player is trying to read each other and bluff accordingly.
Why We Love It
- Bluffing Galore: This is a game that is entirely focused on reading the players at your table. There is no strategy except for how well you can read your opponents, and similarly, how well you can fool them. The whole point of the game is catching other people in their lies, or being deceptive enough that you aren’t caught yourself, so if this kind of thing is your friends’ cup of tea, it’s a game that’s absolutely worth bringing to the table.
- Short and Sweet: Sheriff of Nottingham can be played extremely quickly taught in minutes, and it’s highly flexible in terms of how long you can choose to keep going. The official rules mandate that you should play until everybody has played the role of the sheriff twice, but there’s really no reason why you have to strictly adhere to this, or cut it short if you need to. This makes Sheriff of Nottingham an excellent party game, but it’s one that still engages you, makes you think, and encourages fun interaction.
- Exquisite Interaction: The other thing that’s fun with Sheriff, aside from the bluffing alone, is the overall level of creative interaction it provides for the table. The game stipulates that you can cut deals with the sheriff if you want him (or her) to turn a blind eye to your goods. This creates hilarious scenarios — some silver-tongued players will have fun using their speech skills to persuade the sheriff, while others will make it a game of revenge and aggression, bribing the sheriff with coin to check another player’s bag. There are endless possibilities, and you’ll surely see some hidden personalities in your group emerge — and who wouldn’t want that?
Pandemic is the great granddaddy of cooperative games, and it still remains a staple of its genre, if not the go-to example, even after all these years. Pandemic is a game about collectively preventing deadly contagions from wiping out humanity, and it’s only soared more and more in popularity as the years have gone by, becoming recognizable to even non-gamers in mass retail stores where many modern board games still are not sold. Additionally, Pandemic Legacy made waves in the board gaming community, being voted one of the best games of all time and ushering in a new phenomenon known as “legacy games,” but that’s an article for another day.
The Game in a Nutshell
Released at a time where cooperative games were rare or nigh-unfindable, Pandemic introduced the unique idea of working together to stop a shared threat — fighting disease worldwide was a perfect thematic vehicle for this, and so Pandemic was born.
Each player in Pandemic chooses a role (various scientists and health experts in the world’s many health organizations), and turn by turn, they move across the globe, squashing disease as it crops up and attempting to find a cure. A card deck determines how the diseases spread, and if they accumulate too much in certain areas, outbreaks will occur which severely multiply the damage. The game ends in two ways — if the diseases are cured, or they grow so powerful that they can’t be stopped. It’s an shared win or a shared loss, nothing in between.
Why We Love It
- It’s Cooperative: Let’s just directly address the biggest talking point of Pandemic — it’s cooperative, and that carries a lot of advantages. First of all, this makes the game very friendly for people who would get skewered in a competitive game. This is a problem for many gamers — having friends and family who want to play games, but who don’t have the same aptitude, creating a situation where they either consistently lose or to where their opponents dumb down their strategy. This is a concern for no one when you play Pandemic. It allows each player to be as independent as they want. Experienced players can make their own calls, while less confident players can rely on the advice and strategy of their peers. It’s a refreshing experience, and it’s a great way to introduce players to strategic feeling without feeling the burden of competition. This, of course, also makes Pandemic a great choice for children.
- It’s As Easy or Hard As You Want it to Be: Every cooperative game faces the unique challenge of having to challenge its players sufficiently. Cooperative games, if designed poorly, can be either blisteringly difficult or exceedingly easy. Pandemic, fortunately, is neither. The base game proposes enough of a challenge unto itself, but if you end up mastering your strategy, there are plenty of ways that you can make the game harder — or easier, if you keep getting creamed. If competition is a sour spot in your game group, Pandemic is a wonderful opportunity to work together at whatever challenge level is best for you.
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride has soared high upwards in popularity in the last several years, and at this point it’s just as ubiquitous as other gateway game kingpins, such as Catan and Pandemic, which speaks to its potential as a highly accessible, easy-to-learn game. Ticket to Ride is available in just about every store that sells board games, and it has spawned a sizable collection of variant versions with different maps and challenges.
The Game in a Nutshell
In Ticket to Ride, two to five players compete to build railway routes across the country. Their options are determined by the cards they hold in their hand, and they must make tactical decisions as to which routes they want to expand, which direction they want to go, and what cities they want to connect.
Drawing cards and laying down your train tracks is basically the gist of Ticket to Ride, but players will be surprised to find how many strategic choices there are to be made, despite the relative simplicity of its rules.
Why We Love It
- Easy to Learn and Quick to Play: Accessible is a word that comes to mind when we think of Ticket to Ride. The game is exceedingly easy to teach to new players, and a single game can be finished in thirty minutes to an hour. With modern board games, one of the major difficulties is often getting games to the table, when players know they will have to endure a lengthy rules explanation, hours at a table, and a hot mess of components. This is not the case with Ticket to Ride, which can be taught and played within a perfectly reasonable amount of time.
- Light Strategy: At first, Ticket to Ride seems like a fairly straightforward game. But the more you play it, the more strategic options you’ll begin to see. Every game will teach a new player how they could have adapted to outdo their opponents. There are multiple scoring factors — the longer your routes are, the more points you get. But there are also bonus points for the longest railway, and each player has personal objectives that award bonuses if they connect specific cities. This seems simple at first, but after a few games, you’ll start to see how it can get deep — tactical choices such as blocking your opponents will come to light. It’s not the deepest game in the world, but for players that come from a background of luck-based games, Ticket to Ride spoonfeeds strategic options to newcomers in just the right dose.
Carcassonne is one of the oldest games on this list, dating all the way back to 2000. Despite that, it seems to be more popular than ever, with ten(!) expansions that expand the game in myriad ways, sharing shelf space in major retailers alongside the other big boys. Carcassonne is elegant to the core, and one of the easiest games on this entire list to pick up and play at any moment’s notice.
The Game in a Nutshell
In Carcassonne, players take turns placing tiles onto a giant medieval map that’s shared among everyone. Each tile adds something to the French countryside, such as roads, fields, or castles. However, every piece is only part of a bigger whole — which means that players are always adding to something on the map when they place their tile. You might make a road longer, increase the size of a castle, and so on. Throughout the game you can claim certain unfinished regions, and if you finish them by sealing them off (for example, completing a castle or connecting a road to two different destinations), you get points based off the size of the territory.
But be careful! If you’re too careless in claiming unfinished projects, you might not end up drawing the tiles you need to finish them. And so Carcassonne goes — players build a countryside together, and yet they must compete among each other to claim the most sizable pieces of land and property.
Why We Love It
- Pick Up and Play: Like a few other games on this list, one big draw to Carcassonne is that you can take the game off your shelf, teach it to a new player, and finish a game within the span of thirty minutes. Teaching Carcassonne takes minutes at worst, and games finish pretty quickly. Again, we have to stress that accessibility is a huge factor when you’re introducing games to people, so the easier it is to bring a game to the table, the better.
- Exceedingly Simple, Yet Surprisingly Deep: There’s more strategy to Carcassonne than you’d think. A perfect gateway game is one that can be as strategically deep as possible without compromising simplicity, and Carcassonne was one of the first modern games to walk this line with near perfection. There are plenty of meaningful choices in Carcassonne — clever ways to block your opponents, strategic long-cons to snag the “largest field” bonus, choosing between instant gratification or long-term reward, and more.
- Relaxing “Background” Game: We listed this as a pro for Kingdomino, but this doesn’t have to be exclusive to one game. In short, Carcassonne is an excellent “turn your brain off” game, where you can kind of passively play it while other distractions are present. Want to turn on a TV show or movie but you don’t have the attention span to just sit and watch? Want to have a meaningful conversation without having to rack your brain with tactical decisions? Carcassonne is perfect.
For many people, Catan is the undisputed king of gateway games, and, honestly? It’s a hard claim to dispute. It’s impossible to acknowledge the rise of modern tabletop gaming into the mainstream without Catan being mentioned in the same breath. It almost singlehandedly opened up the world of strategic gaming to countless players, and its reign has not waned one bit — Catan is as popular as it’s ever been, and shows no signs of slowing down. A name that’s familiar to many people who don’t even play board games, Catan is iconic, well-known, and the game that has brought more people into the hobby than perhaps any other in existence.
The Game in a Nutshell
If you haven’t yet somehow crossed through the Catan gateway, what you need to know is that it’s a game about building and trading. Players start with a couple of settlements on a map that’s laced with various resources — and as they collect said resources, they can build out further and further, increasing their production and reach, and trading with other players to do so in the process.
Each hex produces resources if a specific number is rolled on the dice, so it’s prudent to settle on “fertile” areas which have numbers that are more likely to be rolled. It’s hard to get everything you need by yourself, so be prepared to trade with your opponents — but don’t get on their bad side, or they might just decide to work against you instead.
Why We Love It
- Familiar, But Fresh: Catan resonates among new players because it has a lot of elements that made classic Americana games so famous. You’ve got a map on which you claim territory, like in Risk. You’ve got the luck of the dice, like in Sorry. You’ve got cutthroat competitiveness and opportunistic trading, like in Monopoly. You’ve got your own hand of cards and some deduction, like in Clue. Catan has so many elements that feel familiar to casual board game players, but they’re all implemented in a way that’s better, more fair, more strategic, and more fun. That’s why we call it familiar, but fresh — it shares much in common with the old classics, but executes them far more elegantly in one single package that keeps people coming back.
- Exquisite Interaction: For a lot of people, board games are meant to be *fun*, not grueling and punishing mental exercises, so they might be turned off to “multiplayer solitaire” games where you make highly tactical choices to maximize your game while mostly ignoring other players. Interaction is a core component to Catan, because you’ll need to trade with other players to make your civilization thrive. With this comes the ups and the downs — the diplomatic relationships, and the cutthroat “take that” elements. Catan can be as civil or as aggressive as your group wants, which can make for some fun and memorable game nights.
- Strategy to Luck Ratio: Most seasoned board game enthusiasts scoff at games where luck can have an impact on the final victory. But the truth is, luck in games isn’t always terrible and there’s a time and place for it. Catan hits that balance admirably — resource collection is based on dice rolls, but you can choose to settle on locations where your probabilities are improved. This is good for new players — a game that’s 100% tactical can be mentally taxing, and most of the “classics” are filled to the brim with luck. So, a game that’s well-balanced in both luck and skill is a nice transition game for those who want to dive deeper into the hobby.
Which Gateway Game Will You Play?
Ultimately, “gateway game” is an unofficial term that’s been coined by hobbyists to describe highly accessible games, and you really don’t have to pass through one to get into board games. But, if you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of tabletop gaming, or you have friends or family you’d like to introduce to the hobby, it’s really hard to go wrong with these choices.
We hope this list is helpful for you in determining which is right for your group. Do you want something that’s quick and easy to play in less than thirty minutes, or a more meaty experience that pits your table against each other in a friendly rivalry? Do you want to nix competition altogether and go for a cooperative experience, or would you rather bluff your way to victory without having to bet chips and money? Whatever you want, there’s something here for everyone. We urge you to try out these games, and to let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!