Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne. These games are modern classics of the board gaming hobby, and even if people haven’t played designer board games they’re probably familiar with those titles. These, among others including Pandemic and Dominion, are usually people’s go-to suggestions when they’re asked for ideas on which games someone new to the hobby should play. They’re all good recommendations; the games are light, have mechanics that are solid, easy to grasp, and engaging, and they all hit the new gamer sweet-spot playtime of 45 minutes-1 hour.
People who recommend the above titles are absolutely spot on, and I don’t foresee these games getting unseated from their spots as the most highly recommended gateway games for newcomers anytime in the near future. The thing is, I’m tired of hearing about them. We have such a diverse, amazing field of games to choose from I can’t help but think in some ways we’re short-changing people who are just starting by giving them all the same entry-level experience and regurgitating some of the same titles for the last decade. This is especially true considering the unprecedented expansion of the hobby within the last 5 years, and the innovation we’ve seen from independent designers who now have access to the industry through start-up game companies and crowd-funding sources.
This article is meant to provide some unconventional, non-traditional suggested entry-points for people looking to get into board gaming. I’ve come up with a list of 7 of my own recommendations, and turned to suggestions from the amazingly informative online board game communities for the final 3 suggestions. Be sure to check the links at the end of the article if you’re new and want some places for further suggestions!
In no particular order:
1. Escape– I’d normally hesitate to put a real-time game on a list for beginners since games like Space Cadets and XCOM are capable of overwhelming even long-time gamers. Escape, however, offers that frantically fun real-time element in a light game that is quick to pick up and play. Trapped in a temple, players work together against the clock to explore and ultimately escape the ruin lest they get shut in forever. I think the fact that it’s cooperative and only takes 10 minutes per game is icing on the cake for newcomers since it negates potentially scaring them off with intense competition or with something that tries to drag on. Escape on Amazon
2. Mystery of the Abbey– This older offering from Days of Wonder doesn’t get much press anymore, but it’s one I’ve kept in my collection because it’s a solid Clue replacement for people entering the hobby who are familiar with that game’s general flow. Players work together and against each other to uncover the cause of a sudden death at the abbey, moving through the board gathering clues and asking questions to see who can determine what happened to Brother Adelmo. Mystery of the Abbey is straightforward, doesn’t last overly long, and it has graphic elements that are neutral enough to not scare anyone off while still easing people into the idea of more intense or different themes. Plus, it’s pretty to look at. Mystery of the Abbey on Amazon
3. Quarriors– I barred myself from including the granddaddy of deck builders on this list (Dominion), but I still think that’s an extraordinarily important and entertaining mechanic to expose new gamers to. There are a lot of good deck builders out there to choose from, but Quarriors really manages to capture Dominion’s raw essence of expanding and strengthening your deck (in this case dice pool) while providing a lighter experience than some of the others I might recommend. It also has dice…lots of them…and who doesn’t love dice? The theme is, if I’m honest, pretty negligible to the experience of the game(like Dominion!), but everything still looks nice and the dice have good colors. Quarriors on Amazon
4. Takenoko– Antoine Bauza is one of my favorite designers, and I’d feel like this list would be missing something without at least one of his games included. In Takenoko each player is trying to complete objectives for points by expanding the bamboo garden in special patterns, using the royal gardener to grow various bamboo chutes to specific heights, or using the Panda to harvest different colors of bamboo to turn them in as sets. The game’s various quest and movement mechanics are simple enough for newcomers to grasp, but offer a lot of room for more strategic gameplay as players become more familiar with its elements and try to sabotage each other’s efforts. It’s also wonderfully themed and includes beautiful, vibrant art and cute little panda and gardener figures that come fully painted right out of the box! Takenoko on Amazon
5. Samurai Sword– I love games with traitor elements, but many of the big names in the genre like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, and even Shadows over Camelot are simply too long and complicated to introduce to a beginner. Smaller hidden role/deduction games scratch a similar itch, however, and of those I think Samurai Sword is one of the strongest. This improved version of Bang! sees 3-7 Players assume the roles of either the Shogun, Samurai who are allied with the Shogun, or Ninjas. The teams win based on the number of honor points they steal from opposing players; the trick is, the Shogun is the only identity known by everyone else, so it’s up to players to try and figure out which role other players are based on how they interact with the Shogun. Deception is king though, and you can’t take anyone’s actions at face value in case they’re simply trying to mislead and misdirect. The game has great player interaction and engagement, and the expansion adds even more considerations to puzzle your way through. Samurai Sword on Amazon
6. Formula D– You don’t have to be a fan of race cars to enjoy this push-your-luck dice rolling game that puts you in the seat of your own F-1 car. Formula D is extremely easy to learn, and a real blast to play as people strategize gear selection(dice size) for upcoming turns and straightaways to out-maneuver opponents. Single-lap games play in under an hour even with the advanced rules added(which in my opinion are mandatory to enjoy the game), and there are more optional rules to add more complexity and length should players like, or they can even flip the board over and play a high-octane street racing version of the game using racing characters with variable abilities. The game can seat a large number of players which is a plus I you’ve got a bigger group, and it does scale well with more people since each person’s turn goes by quickly. Formula D on Amazon
7. King of Tokyo– This may be pretty close to making the modern classics list for most people, but I felt obligated to include it because I’ve used it so much to introduce people to board gaming. This is a push-your-luck game where each player is a monster trying to dominate Tokyo either through acquiring victory points, or by just beating up everyone else’s monsters. Aided by power cards that are purchased from a central deck, players roll 6 dice during their turn to take various actions, and can re-roll any dice they don’t like up to 2 times. People in Tokyo can only attack people outside, and vice versa, so holding Tokyo and the rewards it gives is easier said than done. The game seats 6, is easily playable in 45 minutes or less, and is very easy to learn. Expansions add some new mechanics for depth, and if people really like KoT and are up for something similar but with a little added complexity, King of New York is now also out. King of Tokyo on Amazon
8. Splendor– This game won the Golden Geek Award for Best Family Game in 2014, and was nominated for game of the year. 2-4 players take on the role of Renaissance merchants trying acquire prestige points by purchasing shops, mines, and transportation. “Splendor is a game of chip-collecting and card development. It’s fun for all ages, and the mechanic of using chips to buy cards that then allow you to get…points is a great way to introduce someone to an engine-building mechanic.”- submitted by Joe Walters Splendor on Amazon
9. Machi Koro– “One of my new favorites is Machi Koro. It is a fairly simple game relying on die rolls to determine results from cards that the players purchase. Each number from 1 to 12 is represented on cards. Some of the cards give everybody money when the number is rolled, some of the cards give the person rolling a benefit alone, and some of the cards punish the Die roller by forcing them to pay every player that owns the card except themselves. The game is playable without the expansion, but I can see limitations to strategy. The addition of the expansion is supposed to greatly increase replay value. This game makes a great beginner game because of it’s simple rules, fast gameplay, and the ability to mess with your competitors. Who doesn’t like a game that you can play Mr. nice guy and win, or be a total jerk and win?” – submitted by Rob Gatheim Machi Koro on Amazon
10. Lords of Waterdeep– Last but not least, this is our token Worker Placement game on the list, though it’s certainly not the only one worthy of recommendation to newcomers. “This game takes a familiar theme (Dungeons and Dragons) and flips the roles around. Instead of playing the part of the adventurer, you play the part of recruiter of heros to complete your quests. It takes a simple, but fun, resource gathering style of play and adds warriors and wizards and corruption. In addition to the base game, Lords of Waterdeep has one of the best expansions of any game.”- submitted by Jason Bates Lords of Waterdeep on Amazon