So what is a gateway game?
The BoardGameGeek glossary states:
Gateway Game: n. A game with simple rules that are easy to teach non-gamers in order to attract new players into boardgaming as a hobby.
There seems to be a distinction here between games that you can pull out to entertain and engage non-gamers, and those games which will make those people go home and independently take up gaming. Some of the games even on the top 10 have me scratching my head. Will Love Letter or King of Tokyo inspire a non-gamer to take up the hobby? Not sure. Perhaps they will take up more Love Letter or King of Tokyo. Will playing Ticket to Ride turn Aunt Sally into a Magic the Gathering fanatic in a few weeks? Possibly. Just as it is possible she will take up driving actual trains after completing a few tickets.
This doesn’t mean these aren’t great games, but do they satisfy the definition and mandate of a great gateway game?
Do they even exist?
Can’t most gamers cite a game that pulled them into the hobby? This is your gateway game. It may not be one that has universal appeal or would even pull another person into the hobby. A great gateway game would do this.
Are they just for new gamers?
No! We still enjoy these games, some even more than we initially did. I have so much appreciation for the simplicity and beauty of a game like Carcassonne. Can you imagine designing a game that perfect? That said, even after a few expansions our family burned out a little on Catan.
Are they a necessary evil or an integral part of everyone’s collection?
Yes! If you like introducing new people to the hobby then you need to have a few of them kicking around. Dropping Twilight Imperium or Diplomacy on your grandparents and cousins at a family gathering is quite possibly an act of cruelty (largely depending on whether you view the words “cruel” and “entertaining” as interchangeable).
If you want newcomers to become addicted to the hobby then you need to give them simple rules, easy mechanics, satisfying gameplay with the possibility of victory, and dice doused with transdermal amphetamines.
And what makes a good gateway game, anyway?
A game where a newcomer doesn’t feel dumb or defeated. Further than this, they feel a little smarter than they did when they started the day and they’ve received a little self-esteem bump for trying something new. Does your potential gateway game contain the following attributes?:
easy to learn, hard to master
limited actions, little/no waiting
luck-strategy balance depends on audience. Scales with player’s experience and desires
themes are audience appropriate (not a board drenched in bloody corpses, unless that’s what grandma’s into)
clear goals, obvious rules. Keep the binders of errata and subrules to a minimum.
no player elimination (or very little time between elimination & endgame like King of Tokyo)
are there expansions waiting at the store for your new gamer to grow into?
Let us know your gateway game experiences and any good advice you have for choosing a gateway game.