A guide to gateway games: Great ways to get back into card and board games (Top 5, part 1)

This is the first half of a guide to gateway games, including a list of the ones that have worked best for me. Before I get into the games themselves, I should probably give ‘gateway game’ some kind of definition, as well as giving the post a bit of context.

A good gateway game does what it says on the tin: it serves as a gateway back into the hobby of board and/or card gaming for those scarred by the likes of Monopoly and terrible TV tie-ins given as lazy Christmas presents (and made by even lazier games companies).

These gateway games tend to have similar traits, while each being a very individual game: simple to teach, not too long (from 20 to 90 minutes), not too involving, mostly open and with quick turns. By ‘not too involving’ and ‘mostly open’ I mean they don’t tend to leave you having to think a great deal between turns (so everyone can still be sociable) and most of what you do and have is open for all to see (both so others can help, and to avoid things getting too cagey and intense).

Gateway games were really relevant to me in 2011, and I hope will continue to be in 2012. They’ve seen Zoe and me spread the board gaming love to both friends and family in a way that has been really rewarding socially – and long may that continue. With tighter purse strings, bigger families and less energy for big nights out, big nights in are definitely a winner.

So here are five games that have really help get people into playing games with us in the past few years, along with a short overview of each (plus sometimes a few other similar options) and why I think they’ve been so successful.

5) The Downfall of Pompeii

This game might not appeal to all groups, which is why I have it at number five, but when this one works it really works.

The Downfall of Pompeii is a great little board game that is split into two parts: first you populate Pompeii, before trying to get all your citizens out as the volcano erupts. The person to get the most of their citizens out wins.

I’ve reviewed Downfall of Pompeii here, so I won’t go into depth again. Instead, I’ll briefly list its gateway credentials. The game’s distinct sections can be taught as they happen, while one play lasts about 45 minutes. The first half of the game is play a card, take a card; the second half draw a tile, lay a tile, move citizens. You can’t plan, as what others do will heavily affect your turn, so you’re free to watch the chaos unfold.

So, why is it only for certain groups? Basically, it has a strong ‘take that’ element which doesn’t suit everyone. You’ll be trying to get other people’s citizens thrown into the volcano, so it can get a tiny bit bitchy! It’s all in good fun though, so the majority of people should enjoy it.

It’s not a game you’ll find on the high street and is currently out of print, but it is one you can find if you dig around a bit (I can probably give you a hand if you want to find one). However, equally good in the same way is a reprint of an old game called Survive: Escape From Atlantis, which you may be able to find easier. It also plays fast and fun, with the emphasis on ‘take that’ mechanics as you try and drown your opponents as you all flee the sinking city (good clean fun).

4) Alhambra

This is another game that meets all the gateway game criteria I mentioned above, but since I haven’t reviewed it yet I’ll give a brief overview of the way it plays here.

Alhambra sees each player building their own palace out of building tiles they’ll buy with money cards from their hand. Players take it in turns to take money cards from those face-up on the table, buy palace tiles from a central store or rearrange their palace. Both the palace tiles and money cards are in a variety of different colours.

There will always be a choice of four tiles to buy; these are on coloured spots in the central store, so you’ll need to have enough money of that colour to buy the tile (paying the exact amount for a tile gives you an extra go). Tiles can be arranged as you like following simple rules, with tiles having walls that need to match up as you expand.

There are three scoring rounds throughout the game, where the person with the most of a certain coloured tile will get points. In the latter scoring rounds, the person who has the second most (and then also third most in the final round) will also score some points. There are also points awarded for the longest joined-up wall you have in your Alhambra, adding an extra dimension to play.

The game flows quickly, with their being plenty of luck in what is available when it comes to your turn. Everyone’s Alhambra is open, so people can suggest different placements of tiles, while there is little to do between your turns as you have no idea what will happen to what’s available. This makes it zip along in a friendly, chatty manner and games run under an hour.

The only real downside is some slightly annoying colour clashes that can confuse players and be a real frustration for some. It can be easy to think you have the right cards to buy a tile, only to realise you’ve been matching your cards to the tile you want, not the colour of the space it is to be bought from; a silly oversight, but not a big enough issue to keep Alhambra from my list.

We introduced this to a couple of other gaming couples and one has already purchased it. Of all the people we play with, no one ever refuses a game either.

However, I think that by this time next year Alhambra’s place in my top five gateway games may have been usurped by Pergamon. Released in 2011, this board game also has a few more mechanisms in play than your average gateway game but again everything is on the table for all to see and help each other along. Turns are fast and play time is well under an hour, with plenty of luck thrown in.

3) Archaeology: The Card Game

Archaeology: The Card Game (from now just Archaeology) perhaps isn’t a gateway game as such; alongside the likes of Hey! That’s My Fish, Pickomino and For Sale it’s more a game that shows you can spend less than £10 on a small box game and get something really worth owning.

This game takes the simple principal of rummy (ie, set collection) and gives it a theme, some great ‘screw you’ mechanics (where you steal another player’s card, for example), loads of tension and a few other little tweaks to make it a whole new and more interesting beast. Check out my full review of Archaeology here.

Since getting this as a Christmas (2010) gift, two other couples we know that have been getting into the gaming hobby have also picked up copies of Archaeology. I think the lightness and non nerdy theme really help, as does the forced interaction and strong luck (and push your luck) elements. But even with all that, if you play well you still feel you get rewarded for doing so; a new player is unlikely to win their first game, but could certainly win their second.

Whether it’s a little trick taking card game such as Archaeology, a dice game such as Pickomino, a bidding card game such as For Sale or a tile laying game such as Hey! That’s My Fish, these cheap small box games have two other great traits: portability and ease of play.

This type of game is often called a ‘filler’, as they’re ideal for either the start or end of a game night – or for generally filling time when you’d otherwise be waiting. But they can also go to a party, on holiday, or over to a friend’s for the weekend. And best of all they can be taught while they’re being played, don’t overstay their welcome (maybe 20 minutes on average per game) and stand up to multiple repeat plays in a session, as well as over the years.

Board game review: Downfall of Pompeii

I originally posted this over at Board Game Geek in July 2011 and it proved to be the most popular review I did there. I’m reposting it here as I’m working on a post on gateway games, of which this has become one of my favourites.

The Downfall of Pompeii (from now on referred to as Pompeii) is a board game of two halves, moving from cards to tile placement as you first populate Pompeii with citizens and then get them the hell out of Dodge once the volcano begins to erupt. It easily plays in under an hour (if you’re not chatting and smack talking too much), can be taught as you play and scales really well from two to four players.

For a good video rules round up, see Timothy Pinkham’s short but sweet one here.

The Pompeii board is split into a city made up of 70 squares, plus the dreaded volcano. Taking up about half the squares inside the city are 11 numbered buildings and 13 unnumbered ones, each able to house between one (the outhouses of doom*) and seven citizens. Also in the box you’ll find a simple eight-page rulebook, a pack of cards, a bag of tiles and pieces in four colours (red, blue, yellow and… black – sorry green player!) and an ACTUAL VOLCANO! Well, a plastic one at least.

Putting the 50 to 60-card deck together is a little fiddly, but once done the game flies by. You get a hand of four cards each and a turn is as simply as play one, draw one, until the card phase of the game ends. The cards each have a number on them corresponding to one of the numbered buildings: at first you simply play a card and place one of your pieces (citizens) into the appropriate building.

After a while, you can also place ‘relatives’ – extra citizens in your colour you get as a bonus for playing your citizens into buildings that already have people inside (these can go into the unnumbered buildings or buildings of the same colour, many of which are in good locations).

While simple, there is plenty of good gaming techniques at work here. Certain building are closer to exits, or otherwise strategically advantageous, while holding a card until someone else has been into a building may let you play relatives – but you may miss your chance at a good spot. Or perhaps playing into a weaker building will be worth it, as the relatives you place afterwards will be in great areas.

You have no idea when this phase will end (a card is placed randomly, near-ish the bottom) and your very limited choice (four cards) can make things pretty tense. But, to lighten the mood, there are also ‘Omen’ cards allowing you to sacrifice other people’s citizens into the volcano. It’s hard to describe just how satisfying this can be.

Once the appropriate card is revealed, this phase of Pompeii abruptly ends and any remaining cards (and unplaced citizens) are put back in the box. Out comes the tile bag, and the real fun begins – run!

Volcano smoking, or monkey parping?

There are seven exits around the edge of the city and from now until the end of the game it’s your job to get your guys out, while doing your best to feed your opponents’ citizens to the lava. Harsh, but fair. Again, the concept is simple – pull a tile from the bag and place it on the board, killing any citizens that are summarily covered in lava or completely blocked for an exit (these are placed in the volcano for safe keeping…).

There are six different tile types, each with its own starting square in the city. The first tile of a type drawn is placed on its particular starting spot, with following ones of the same kind placed N,S,E or W of it; preferably wherever will cause the least hassle for you and the most mayhem for everyone else. After a total of six tiles have been placed in this way, each following draw also allows you to move two of your citizens.

It’s a delicate balance of keeping your guys far enough away from the lava to be safe, while making sure you don’t get cut off – you’ll more than likely find yourself giving up on a few stragglers, to ensure others will make it out alive. This continues until either everyone is out (or in the volcano), or the bag of tiles runs dry (any citizens still on the board if that happens are, you guessed it, plopped in the volcano. Whoever gets the most citizens out alive wins, while those of yours in the volcano will count against you if there’s a tie.

This is a simple game that moves effortlessly between two very different mechanics. Everything in the box is good (if not spectacular) quality, the rule book does its job and, apart from the slightly annoying card deck set up at the beginning, it sets up and packs down fast.

Pompeii’s simplicity and elegance lets you immediately get into the feel of the game, and while the central theme is ‘screw you’ it plays so light and fun that it hasn’t been an issue with any of our more gentle gaming friends. Its airy, light and comedic feel is one of the games major strengths – you don’t feel like you’re every move is an aggressive one, even though they pretty much are (a bit like Guillotine).

I play The Downfall of Pompeii because I need a light, fun game in my collection that actively encourages me to throw my friends kicking and screaming into a volcano – it has a level of satisfaction that’s hard to quantify. Yes, there’s luck in spades and you don’t have to be big or clever to catch on, but once in every session I want to pull out a game that doesn’t make my head hurt. I’m yet to find a more fun one than this that also has a bit of strategy, as well as a perfectly fitting theme.

The mechanics come so naturally to gamers (cards, tiles etc) that you can relax and let the lava/eruption-based banter take over while still enjoying a great gaming experience. And for non-gamers, it’s very easy to teach. I have no problem in whole-heartedly recommending this to anyone but the staunchest anti-luck gamer.

*This is our stupid name for the buildings, and should in no way be blamed on, or associated with, designer Klaus-Jurgen Wrede.