The New Generation Of Introductory Games

If you’re really into board games, odds are you want to get lots of your friends into board games too. One of the main strategies towards this goal is to get them started with an “introductory game” like Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne. However, a lot of more experienced gamers tend to look down on these games. Is there a way to arrive at a compromise and suggest games that will get new players into the hobby while still allowing more entrenched people to have a blast?

What Makes A Good Introductory Game?

Let’s look at what the three games I mentioned above have in common.

The thing that immediately jumps out to me is all three games give the player a very small number of decisions. Carcassonne especially stands out in this aspect: All you get to choose from is where to place your tile and whether or not you want to jam a meeple on it. It gets more complex as the game develops, but by then you have a grasp on which plays are good and which are bad. Ticket to Ride gives you a small number of options and guidance through the Route cards. Catan is a little more complex but restricts what you can do through its resource system.

Additionally, none of the games have the complex engine building that punishes early mistakes and trip up new players. Complaints are occasionally leveled that poor settlement placement in Catan can ruin a player for the rest of the game, but it’s not hard to at least do an okay job when the best terrain hexes have bright red numbers on them. If you screw up early, it’s not going to stop you from being able to catch up through aggressive road placement or cutthroat trading.

All three games also use “roll-then-choose” luck, where players are able to make decisions after the element of random chance acts. (As opposed to “choose-then-roll” luck like in Risk.) Chance is important to make sure that more experienced players don’t always crush newbies, but allowing players to make choices afterwards makes their actions more meaningful.

In summary, good introductory games:

  • Give players a small number of decisions to make each turn.
  • Have catch-up mechanics or ways to compensate for bad starts.
  • Use a medium-heavy element of chance, preferably a “roll-then-choose” style.

What are some games that meet these criteria but have a little more excitement and fun value?

LIBERTALIA

Summary: The players are pirates raiding ships and dividing up booty. Players play pirate cards simultaneously, each of which has a different rank and special ability. Higher ranked pirates get first pick of the treasure. The catch is that each player has exactly the same hand of pirate cards, so everyone knows what everyone else could play.

Libertalia has a lot of things going for it as an introductory game. The base mechanics of the game are easy to explain, as most of the complexity is on the individual cards. This allows new players to understand the flow quickly and immediately jump into forming strategies. Additionally, because the game effectively “resets” between rounds, having a crummy round where your best pirates get killed doesn’t necessarily mean losing the entire game.

The best thing about Libertalia, however, is that it’s incredibly funny. The introductory games I mentioned above don’t stir up much emotion besides unbridled fury after some jerk ruins your perfect 25-point route in TTR. As an introduction to European-style strategy games, they’re also an introduction to the experience of quietly puzzling out your strategy. Libertalia rejects this approach, choosing instead to make players laugh uproariously as six brutes punch each other off the ship or six cabin boys swab the deck to a mirror sheen.

The downside of introducing Libertalia to new players is a substantial amount of choose-then-roll “luck”; someone can make the best play and still be ruined by what your opponents happened to pick. If your friends happen to not like this kind of thing, it may be wise to pick something else; however, I think the benefits of this game vastly outweigh the drawbacks.

HANABI

Summary: Players are fireworks manufacturers attempting to play fireworks numbered 1 through 5 in order for five different colors. Each player has a hand of firework cards, held opposite so everyone else can see what’s in their hand but the player can’t. The table as a collective gets “fuse tokens” that they can use to communicate to each other about what’s in their hands. At the end of the game, players are given a grade based on how many cards they were able to assemble on the table.

Non-gamers usually aren’t that familiar with co-op games, which are a fun and rewarding challenge that play much differently than their competitive counterparts. However, the vast majority are blisteringly hard and often lead to quarterbacking and/or hurt feelings, even including ones that are intended to be introductory like Forbidden Island.

Hanabi solves a lot of the genre’s obstacles for new players while being a great and elegant game in its own right. There’s no quarterbacking because players literally can’t talk without spending a token, and even then can only point out a few specific things. Even though getting a perfect score is really difficult, the scaled system allows players to feel good for doing just okay.

All the boxes I specified in the prologue get checked off as well. You have a fairly small amount of choices on your turn, and the ones you have are narrowed down by what cards the group needs to play next. There’s also room for you to make a couple (well, two) big mistakes without the game completely shutting down, allowing for a smoother learning curve. Finally, though the contents of each player’s hand is random, you know what everyone has before you decide what to do on your turn.

The kicker is that the card-based version of the game is about ten dollars, meaning that players who like it can pick it up for a miniscule financial investment.

TOKAIDO

Summary: Players are travellers crossing Japan, trying to have the most fulfilling vacation. The board is a straight line dotted with dozens of tourist stops; players may go as far as they like on their turn and land on whichever space they like. However, the player farthest in back always takes the next turn, meaning strategy is divided between snatching the best spaces for you and hanging behind to get more turns. There are about ten (optional) characters with their own starting money and powers.

Tokaido is a good introduction to the passive-aggressive genres of Eurogaming like worker placement. There’s no real engine-building (your only resource is money) and your choices are more short-term, both meaning that you don’t have to look multiple rounds ahead to make the best decision and that if you screw up it won’t punish you for very long. It’s a gorgeous game, too, with nice graphic design and really cute characters (and monkeys).

With new players especially, I recommend using the player powers. Many of them give you a bonus for going to one specific space or another, so it gives people more direction as to what to do at the start of the game when otherwise they might be confused. It also feels really good to be able to exploit your specific ability and get a huge bonus.

What do you think?

Though pretty much all of my articles are just a series of opinions, this one’s the seriesest of opinionsest. I’d love to hear from you about what game you think works well as an introduction to the world of strategy games. Also, if you think there are better criteria for introductory games than what I described, please elaborate! A concrete set of standards will make it easier to find more games that meet the definition.