Gateway games are, as the name suggests, ones seen as a good gateway back into the hobby. You see the good news is, while you were busy drinking, having babies, playing computer games, or living in a tepee, board games went and got great again.
We all grew up playing traditional card and board games, and most of us have fond memories, but we stopped playing them for a reason. Some were repetitive (Yahtzee), some excluding (Triv) and some simply too long – especially when you knew you’d lost two hours before you finished playing (Risk, Monopoly etc).
But now there are hundreds of great games available, from party to quick filler to longer family and strategy board games. They tend to be inclusive, keep everyone involved and have oodles of replayability. I’ve listed 25 of the best here, in the following categories (click them to go to that section):
- High street family board games
- Other family board games
- Party games
- Fillers (short games)
- Abstract games
To save a bit of work/word count I haven’t listed designers here (sorry!), but you will find player numbers and publication year in brackets on each. As far as I’m aware, all these games are currently in print and available in the UK; online I’d suggest BoardGameGuru or these should all be available on Amazon. Go on – give some of them a go!
These board games have come closest to transcending the space between hobbyists and the high street; games with a proven sales track record that see them sneaking into major retailers such as WHSmith and Waterstones (if only at Christmas).
Expect pretty simple rules and roughly one-hour of game play – and all have multiple expansions available to add variety to the base game later, if you feel the need.
- Ticket to Ride: This is my go-to game for playing with non-gamers, and with more than three million copies sold it’s not just me plugging it. Collect sets of coloured cards to play your trains onto to the board, to in turn complete your secret route objectives. Simple to play (ages eight and up) and can be pretty competitive, with blocking routes being a viable tactic. A true classic; see my Ticket to Ride review fro more details. (2-5, 2004)
- Settlers of Catan: If you like the idea of negotiating and collecting sets of goods, this classic should be checked out – it sure beats Monopoly! And having notched 25 million worldwide sales, you’ll be in good company. Players build roads, towns and cites by claiming and trading goods in an attempt to create the biggest empire. But once you’re out in front, who will trade with you…? (3-4: expandable to 6, 1995)
- Carcassonne: The king of tile laying games (building up a picture/board with square tiles). Players take it in turns to place a random tile onto an ever expanding landscape. The tiles include sections of rivers, roads, forests and castles, which are slowly completed for points. When you place a tile you can choose to place one of your limited pieces (meeples) onto a section of it; if/when the road, forest etc is completed, they’ll score and you get the meeple back to use again. See my Carcassonne review for more details. (2-5, 2000)
While these may be a little trickier to track down (simply meaning Amazon, rather than the high street), they’re all fantastic examples of family board games that knock the likes of Risk and Monopoly into a cocked hat.
- Small World: Check this out if you and your group have fond memories of Risk – you get a (fantasy) world map, armies, and you’re trying to conquer territory to win. But there’s more variety, more fun and a much shorter play time (under two hours) – as well as no player elimination. (2-5, 2009)
- Pandemic: Something new to many non-gamers is the co-operative board game. This pick has a great theme, as each player takes a role as a member of a science team trying to battle outbreaks of deadly global diseases. Each player moves their piece across the world map trying to keep the spread of these diseases in check and curing them – in about an hour. Each has a speciality (medic cures faster, dispatcher moves quicker etc), so you’ll have to work and win as a team. (2-4, 2008)
- Survive: Escape From Atlantis: This old Hasbro/Waddingtons title was a high street game in the eighties, but has been reprinted by Stronghold Games. Beautiful components make this classic come alive again, with the old gameplay in tact: get your citizens to safety as Atlantis sinks – while your opponents are eaten by sharks and octopuses! It lasts about an hour and is a great family game. (2-4, 1982/ 2012) Also see my Downfall of Pompeii review for a similar game.
- Augustus: How do you fancy bingo with a twist, with a Roman theme? You draw tiles from a bag, not balls, which help players complete their cards. But when one’s complete, instead of just shouting ‘house’ (or ‘Ave Caesar!’ in this case)you’ll score points and get other bonuses, until one player completes seven cards. It doesn’t add much, but it’s enough to elevate this to being a proper game – and it all plays out in less than half an hour. (2-6, 2013)
- Ra: This is the granddaddy of set collection auction games. Taking around an hour to play over three rounds, you’ll have just four bidding chits per round to try and gain the most points from the tiles on offer. But when do you start the next auction? Too soon and the others won’t be tempted to bid; too late and you may miss out on a great round. Don’t forget your poker face! See my Ra review for details. (2-5, 1999)
If you have a group of friends who you think may be up for a bit of board gaming, but may be worried about the nerdiness of it all, it might be best to introduce them to a few decent party games as a softener.
Yes, it’s fair to say we’ve moved on nicely since Trivial Pursuit made 95 per cent of us feel stoopid.
- Apples to Apples: Wonderfully simple stuff; the ‘active’ player draws and reads a ‘description’ card (ie, describe ‘shocking’), then each other player chooses one of their ‘thing’ cards from their hand to go with it (ie, ‘my first kiss’, or ‘lightning’, or ‘atomic bombs’). These are jumbled and given to the active player, who then reads them all out and gives a point to the one they liked most. (4-10, 1999)
- Cards Against Humanity: Apples to Apples, but for wrong people – really wrong. I doubt you’ll find another game where pretty much every round will result in a really offensive answer. But played in the right company, especially with added adult beverages, this is absolutely hilarious. A specific UK edition came out in 2013, which is worth finding if you’re in – well, the UK. (4-10, 2009)
- Dixit: Each player has a hand of cards with a beautifully surreal unique painting on. The ‘active’ player chooses a card and says a phrase/sentence describing it. Everyone else picks which of their cards best matches it, and all these cards (including the active player’s) are shuffled and placed face up. Everyone votes on which was the active player’s – but they get no points if either no one or everyone guesses correctly. Any ‘wrong’ votes go to the player placing that card. (3-6, 2008)
- Time’s Up! This charades-style game is played in pairs (or bigger teams). You’ve got 30 seconds to guess as many names as possible from a set of cards; the twist is in round 1 you can use any clues; in round 2 you can use just one word (plus sounds/gestures) and in round 3, no words. But while its getting harder, you’re getting more familiar with what’s in the deck. (4-18,1999)
- Telestrations: Chinese whispers meets Pictionary! Get your word, draw it in a time limit, pass it to the right. The receiver guesses what it is, and passes it right again – and the next person draws a picture based on the guessed word. Keep doing this until the pads return to the original person – then score based on correct answers, creativity and comedy value (not that the score matters). (4-8, 2009)
- Wits & Wagers: This is a fantastically inclusive trivia game, as you don’t need to know the answers as the questions. Ask a question, everyone writes an answer, then these are all placed face up on the board in order. Next, everyone bets on which they think is the right answer, with the closest answer then paying out at odds depending on their position from the middle (median) answer. (3-7, 2005)
- Liar’s Dice (Perudo): A good game to look out for in charity shops (often in a tin). A simple bluffing dice game, when everyone throws a set of dice and once and hides the results. Players then take it in turns guessing a certain amount of a number will be revealed – say, seven sixes. The next player either ups the bet (say, eight ones) or calls ‘liar – at which a count is done. Whoever was wrong loses a dice. (2-6, 1987)
- The Resistance: Don’t be put off by the nerdy looking sci-fi theme; this is a clever little social deduction game that plays much faster (30 mins) than its granddaddy, Werewolf. Everyone is secretly either supporting or trying to sabotage a series of missions; players discuss who goes on each mission, and those chosen can succeed or sabotage it. Can you find the spies? (5-10, 2009)
They can also be popped out at a party or flung in your bag for a trip, while being cheap enough to take a chance on.
- Love Letter: Just 16 cards and the simplest rules – draw one, then play one from your hand of two. It’s about eliminating your opponents, but as each round lasts five minutes, they’ll soon be back for revenge – and you can play as long as you like. See my Love Letter review for more. (2-4, 2012)
- Hanabi: A co-operative gave where all you need to do is play all your team’s cards in order, from 1-5, in five colours. Sounds easy? Well, everyone but you can see your cards and the amount (and format) of hints you can give is extremely limited. It’s a small box with just a pack of cards and some chits, but you may be up all night desperately trying to beat it! (2-5, 2010)
- Kakerlakenpoker Royal: The king of simple bluffing games is single deck of cards with pictures of all your favourite animals: stink bugs, cockroaches, rats and toads. Pick one of your cards, place it face down, push it to an opponents and say ‘Its a _____’. Did you lie, or tell the truth? They can call you out or pass it on, but in the end someone has to guess if you lied – and whoever fails gets the card. Get four of the same card and you lose – while everyone else wins! (2-6, 2012)
- Pickomino: A fun Yahtzee-style dice game where you take a numbered tile corresponding to the number you manage to roll (after re-rolls) each round. But your tiles are stacked – so if someone rolls the exact number of the tile you have on top of your stack, they can steal it! Or if you fail to roll better than a numbered tile available, you lose your top tile. Yahtzee plus nasty equals a lot of family fun. See my Pickomino review for more details. (2-7, 2005)
- Archaeology: The Card Game: This is a bit of a left-field choice, but it has worked well for me with new players. This small card game sees you pushing your luck as you try to collect sets of various artefacts. You want to collect four or more of a set to get maximum points, and there’s no hand limit, but who knows when a sandstorm will be drawn – meaning everyone must discard half the cards they’re yet to score? See my Archaeology review for details. (2-4, 2007)
- For Sale: This is a nice 20-minute card game that plays great with more players (I think it shines at five or six). In the first half you’re using one system (climbing bids, to the highest bidder) to bid for properties, while in the second half you’re using a different system (blind bids) to sell them for profit. Everyone gets something each round – but it could be a shack, or a cheque for £0! The house card art is cute and funny, helping make this a great filler. (3-6, 1997)
If you’d rather stick to themeless games, more along the lines of chess, draughts etc, here’s a few modern games that should appeal.
- Ingenious: On the surface this colour matching/dominoes style board game is deceptively simple; but its the scoring that gives the game its apt title. You want to score in all six colours – but the winner will be the player with highest score on their weakest colour. So you need to judge when to stop scoring big and start blocking other players into trouble. Each games tends to last less than an hour. See my Ingenious review for details. (1-4, 2004)
- Blokus: While pretty and colourful to look at, this is a full-on area control slug-fest played out with Tetris-style pieces on a large grid of squares. You need to expand your area while blocking the other players off, but this is tough as each piece is connected corner-to-corner, not end to end, making scuppering others really tricky. Nice and thinky, but games can be over in 20 minutes. (2-4, 2000 – the smaller ‘Blokus Duo’ is better for two players)
- Can’t Stop: Playing out in about half an hour, you take it in turns to roll four dice and make two pairs – giving two numbers from 2 to 12. Players advance up the scoring tracks of these numbers, with the hard pairs having shorter tracks. On each turn you are only allowed to advance up the first three numbers you roll – and if you can’t make any of those numbers, you lose all of that turn’s progress (ie, if you were going up tracks 2,5 and 11 and rolled 3,4,4,3, you would fail). Despite the games name, you can stop when you choose – but how far will you push your luck? Check out my Can’t Stop review for details. (2-4, 1980)
Disclaimer: Nowhere here do I say these are ‘the best’ gateway games – these are just the 25 I’ve chosen from a much bigger pool. If you’ve got others you think should be here, simply add them in ‘comments’ below – and then they will be here. Beats bitching about it!