A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 2)

Below you’ll find the conclusion to my top five gateway board and card games, which includes my top two choices as well as several near misses that almost made the list.

It was pointed out to me that I may be using a few terms that are unfamiliar if you’ve not played many board and card games before – which must be particularly annoying if you’re looking to get into the hobby (sorry). If so, let me know what they are and I’ll put them together in a future glossary post (and answer any questions).

For now though, here are some more great board games that you should have no problem playing straight out of the box, even if your only previous experience is of basics such as Monopoly or Connect 4. They’re also a whole lot better, with a lot more fun on offer for everyone involved.

I should also note here that both my number one and two picks below are now available on iOS for your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch (they’re really good implementations too).Carcassonneis also available on Android. Playing in person is way better, but these apps can be a good, cheap way to try the games out before taking the plunge and getting them in their ‘proper’ format.

2) Carcassonne

In second spot is this classic tile laying game. I actually saw Carcassonne in Waterstones over Christmas, which was great news, although it seems to have disappeared again now (someone needs to tell them that, just like puppies, games aren’t just for Christmas!).

The game consists of a big pile of cardboard tiles (which are about two-inch square) and several sets of small wooden people (called ‘meeples’) in various colours, one for each player (the game plays equally well with two to five players). There is also a small board that acts purely as a scoring track.

Once each player has chosen a colour and taken their meeples, you stack all the tiles face down in piles away from the centre of the table. The starting tile is then placed in the middle of the table and the game begins.

Each tile has a combination of mediaeval roads, farmland, cloisters and castles that will be placed together to form a large map out from that starting tile, a bit like a jigsaw. Each player takes it in turns to flip over and then places a tile (as long as the sides match – road to road, farmland to farmland etc), before deciding whether to place one of their meeples on top of it to try and earn some points (the highest total score once all tiles have been placed wins).

Some meeples will stay on their tile throughout the game, scoring at the end, while others will be returned to you on the completion of a road, cloister or castle their tile was part of. As you have a finite number of meeples, managing them can be tricky. And as you gain experience, you’ll find cunning ways to gain points from castles, farms and roads other players thought they were going to keep to themselves.

Carcassonneplays in under an hour, has very quick turns and everything is out in the open. It works particularly well for new players as you’ve literally nothing to hide – you turn over a tile on your turn and anyone can chip in with ideas about where you should place it (or, once you start to get more cunning, where you can stick it!). New players will just enjoy learning the game, while more experienced players find a deep level of strategy keeps them coming back for more. It looks gorgeous too, while coming in at a great price point (less than £20).

As one of the most popular board games around (well, that isn’t routinely in WHSmith and ToysRus anyway),Carcassonne also comes in all kinds of different styles and there are various bits you can add later if you like it. There are also several variants, but I would certainly advise the standard set as a great starting point to any games collection.

1) Ticket to Ride

For me though, as for many others, Ticket to Ride is the classic gateway game. It just edges out Carcassonne as although I’ve had both games for a long time now, and really enjoy both, it is more often than not Ticket to Ride that hits the table.

The game features a large board showing a map of America with cities connected via coloured tracks; there are also bags of plastic trains and a whole bunch of cards. During the game, players will score points for completing the coloured tracks between the cities and by completing route cards they keep hidden from the other players; the player who ends with the most points wins.

Each player takes a set of plastic carriages in one colour, four random coloured carriage cards from the top of the draw pile and three route cards. They then choose which route cards to keep or discard (you must keep one, but can keep two or three if you like) before beginning the game.

Turns are simple; you either draw a couple of cards (there are five face up for you to choose from, or you can take blind from the draw pile) or place you plastic carriages on the map to claim whole routes between cities. Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave, you can draw more route cards.

A route can be between two cities quite close together, or on complete opposite sides of the map. The further you have to go, the more points you’ll get for completing that route before the game ends; but then again, if you don’t complete a route, you’ll instead be docked that number of points. There is also a bonus for the player who makes the longest unbroken route around the map.

To claim a track between two cities, you need to have collected the same amount of coloured carriage cards as there are tracks on the board; so you’re collecting sets, rummy style, to complete this objective.

The tricksy part is that other people are bound to want to go across some of the same areas as you, which can play havoc with your plans as once someone has claimed a route, it’s gone (although some cities have two tracks running between them, each of which can be taken by a separate player). And, of course, if you telegraph your plans, someone might just block you to spite you…

Ticket to Ride plays in under two hours and everyone will ‘get it’ by about the middle of their first play (if not sooner). It will set you back around £30, but the components are top quality and its well worth the investment. The original version plays best with four or five, although other maps (Switzerland, for example, which you can add for just over £20) play really well with two or three players (there is also now a six-player pairs map available).

Again, turns are fast and there is a certain element of ‘screw you’ – which is even better when you’re usually doing it by accident! There’s a bit of thinking between turns, but as your hopes can easily be dashed by the time it gets back to you, you’re normally better spending the time getting another drink, smack talking etc.

Close, but no cigar…

There are a few games that nearly made the list that I’ll briefly mention here, as they’re all a little different from the others and may suit particular tastes:

Settlers of Catan: This would actually be many people’s favourite gateway game, but it’s not on my list because it has fallen flat with my main group. The game heavily involves negotiation between players – if that’s something you think will work with your group, then this is a cracking game that is easy to learn and fun to play. If not, avoid; if people aren’t going to trade, it will drag for ages and you’ll wonder where the last three hours went.

Revolution: This simple game combines blind bidding with area control. Each player bids secretly on a board split into 16 sections; sections give influence in areas of the city; victory points; actions, and/or tokens to bid with in the next round. When everyone is ready, reveal the bids – the winner in each of the 16 section gets to do it. Once all the areas of the game board are fully influenced, the person with the most of their counters in each area gets bonus points and the game ends.

Ra: Auction and bidding games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you think it might be the genre for you I can’t recommend Ra highly enough. There are agonising decisions to make as the pile of booty gets bigger the more tiles are drawn from a bag; when will you call ‘Ra!’ to start the bidding on the tiles available? Too soon and you may be stuck with rubbish; too late and you may hand someone else a great set of tiles.

Thebes: If you love randomness, this is a really fun board game. As an Indiana Jones type, you’ll be scooting around Europe collecting knowledge from cities before heading off on digs to collect loot from ancient sites. When you get their, you’ll get more picks from the bag of that site the more knowledge you have – but there’s plenty of blank tiles to drive you nuts. Really good fun, but not one for deep strategists!

Ingenious and Blokus: These are games you may well have seen in the likes of John Lewis and WHSmith. Both are fantastic abstract games with clever rules and lovely tactile pieces. They are games I’m glad to have in my collection and that I’d recommend to anyone, but as gateway games abstract games don’t tend to fair so well – a good theme seems to trump nice coloured chunks every time. However, if you think abstract will work better than trains or archaeology, try these!

So there you have it – a top five blog post that went on for two blogs and ended up listing 15 board and card games. Hey, at least you can’t say you don’t get value for money here.

Even now, I’m reading back and wanting to add bits here and there – it’s so hard to do these games justice in a few paragraphs. That said, if you want more information on any of these games, feel free to drop me a line or comment below. Alternatively, head to Board Game Geek where you’ll find more information than you’ll know what to do with.

Also, if you have your own recommendations, please add them below. I could always do with a few more games….

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