The thing about gateway games

Gateway games mustn‘t be too complex. They should be low on conflict. Gateway games ought to have an appealing theme. There‘s a kernel of truth to all those statements, but they can easily lead you down the wrong path, too. Today I‘d like to look at the ideas expressed there and figure out what they‘re actually about.

That seems reasonably straight-forward

1. Complexity of rules. It‘s not exactly news that complex games tend to come across as quite intimidating to inexperienced players. You might remember your own first tentative steps into the hobby, when the bulk of material and thick rulebooks you‘d see on other people‘s tables made it hard to imagine wanting to spend excessive amounts of free time on them. But as any veteran player knows, sometimes it‘s exactly that kind of complexity that draws you to a game. It‘s the challenge of clawing your way through a layered game and work out its nuances and really grasp it, that keeps you going. But that‘s not a trait that‘s unique to veteran players. No player type has a monopoly on ambition. Any challenge can hook a new player, as long as its goal is tangible and comprehensible. Something as vague as the promise of fun isn‘t enough to make a complex game more approachable. It‘s only when you can successfully communicate the kind of reward waiting for you at the end of it, will you be able to attract new players to the table.

Sure, complex rules require more of an effort to tackle. Not everyone has the time or inclination to deal with a complicated body of rules, full of unfamiliar concepts and mechanisms. Not to mention the number of games that, even after concluding the rules lecture, still require an undefined number of training games before you can even get close to the kind of experience, the game is supposed to deliver. Any game that only promises frustration and lack of progress – commonly euphemised as „not for everyone“ – only confirms people‘s reasons for staying away from this hobby. The most promising entry into the world of board games still relies on being successful.

Pax is Latin for peace, don’t you know?

2. Conflict in games. Let‘s not kid ourselves. A noticable number of people still cling to the belief that men seek and enjoy conflict, whereas everybody else prefers play to be less confrontational, more calm and generally of a care bear variety. If you‘re not playing with „one of the guys“, your gateway game should prioritize careful and at most indirect interaction. The idea that such preferences run along the lines of gender identity is patently absurd. Somewhat less absurd is the reason why many new gamers are wary of conflict-heavy games. Many invitations to a game night come across as a competition of intelligence, in which victory will determine the smartest player at the table. It‘s the kind of competition that few people would be eager to join, if they had to go up against experienced gamers. A good gateway game takes place in an environment, in which defeat does not reflect badly on the player. Games with a strong random element or luck tend to be work well. You get to focus on playing the game, as opposed to worrying about your rank at the end of the game.

But if you want to enjoy some competitive play even when joined by inexperienced players, you have to show them that it is a game you will be playing on equal footing. Too often it seems that prior experience gives players an edge that you don‘t stand a chance against. It shouldn‘t come as a surprise that a challenge feels far less entertaining, when you know, that you‘re fighting a losing battle.

A calm and uneventful time is sure to follow

3. The game‘s theme. Opinions differ on the matter of theme. Some believe that a good gateway game should come with a neutral or effectively non-descript theme. Others argue that a gateway game should be about the things that a potential new player is already familiar with or invested in. Nowadays I consider the advantage of a theme in all the things, it doesn‘t touch upon. Whether it‘s stereotypical nerd themes, juvenile power fantasies or a shallow handling of a historical past, none of those are attractive to people. That‘s not because such themes are in poor taste, but because they tend to suggest a very superficial and trivial experience. It‘s not that you‘re too mature or educated for these games, but at first glance the effort to get them played doesn‘t seem worth your while.

But theme is also about giving a vague impression of both the game‘s rules and core concept. A large number of symbols, numbers and colored-coded markings suggests a dense game with a steep learning curve. White sand beaches and and inviting ocean blues can seem less friendly, if they‘re covered in small arrows, squares or randomly placed icons. Even the box art can suggest a kind of experience that awaits you within. A cover depicting a bloodthirsty battle is a bad fit for a card-based majority game. Just as a box with cuddly woodland creatures does a bad job of preparing you for an opportunistic wargame.

Finding the right gateway game is no easy feat. You have to pay attention to its look to even get in on the table. The rules need to be challenging enough to promise an appealing experience. But they can‘t be so intimidating that you have to worry about being the butt of the joke for the rest of the evening. It also has to clearly communicate what to expect, if you‘re willing to put in the time to actually play it. Just like the genre of a film gives you a general direction of the kind of emotional experience that awaits, a well-chosen gateway game needs to make a similar promise.

The arguably most important quality of a well-chosen gateway game is group-dependent. Regardless of experience or strategic acumen, every player at the table needs to be sure of being able to play on the same level as the rest. That takes some social skills and empathy, which you are unlikely to find in a box. You have to learn it as you go.

2 thoughts on “The thing about gateway games

  1. I agree that many of the “rules” for choosing gateway games are misguided. To me, theme is very important to excite new players (which is why games based flimsily on intellectual properties sell well) – and if the feeling of playing the game corresponds to the theme, that might actually keep people playing (which the aforementioned games normally do not do well – say, Star Wars Carcassonne).
    Example: I once introduced a person to board gaming with the War of the Ring – long, complex, conflict-heavy. But she liked the theme, and the idea of pushing orc miniatures toward Minas Tirith was simply irresistible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gateway games tend to be a label we slap on simplistic and less challenging games. When in fact a great gateway game is simply a great game, that has the added bonus of being an easy sell to inexperienced players.

      Theme does a few things when it comes to gateway games. It suggests a certain style and attitude to players (cf. Game of Thrones the Board Game), but it can also help shorten the learning curve (cf. Battlestar Galactica).

      With something like War of the Ring, theme elevates the game into an experience you’re eager to revisit.

      Liked by 1 person

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