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?


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.


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.


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.





Ghost Of A Chance

The question of whether luck is appropriate in board games is a subject of frequent debate. Those in favor say that chance adds more variability to the game, and strategy arises from being dealt a poor situation and being able to respond to it successfully. Detractors say that any game where it’s possible to lose despite being a better player is a bad one.

I mostly stand in the former camp, but for this essay, indulge me as I become that irritating person from your least favorite college class who has to be devil’s advocate for everything. In my opinion, the way designers discuss chance makes assumptions about players – about human beings – that aren’t true. Specifically, I’m talking about how “chance” is referred to as a single lump, ignoring that people treat different mechanisms for delivering chance differently.

The Medium Is The Message

A number of my college professors liked talking about Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who raised the idea that the way in which a message is delivered is more important than the message’s actual content. My opinions aren’t as extreme as McLuhan’s, but I do agree that changing the way in which information is delivered will have significant effects on its reception. It’s why you’re not supposed to break up with someone by text.

I want to spend most of this article discussing this concept in terms of chance, but similar effects can be seen in many aspects of game design. For example, let’s say you have two choices, A and B, where A gives you more of a certain kind of resource. Now let’s say we have two situations:

Situation 1: If you pick A, you lose three victory points.

Situation 2: If you pick B, you get three victory points.

People who haven’t developed the cold, calculating logic that strategy game veterans eventually get will stay away from option A more often in the first situation, even though the net loss of points is exactly the same. Losing points signals that you’re not “supposed” to do that action.

Let’s look at three common ways games use chance and the way we percieve them as players.


Among more serious players, games with dice in them have developed a reputation of being too random to be fun. The few exceptions, including Castles of Burgundy and Roll For The Galaxy, give you a large number of ways to manipulate your rolls, meaning that there’s only a few situations where a bad roll can screw you over. Rather than argue about whether dice being “more random” is true or not, let’s look at some of the reasons this stereotype exists.

  • Existing dice games: A majority of dice games, whether standalone or adaptations of a more complex existing property, are frequently very simple and luck-based. Of note is the dozens of reheated Zombie Dice press-your-luck games in weird containers picking up dust at your local game store.
  • No card counting: Let’s say you have a deck of 30 cards, with 5 copies of the numbers 1 through 6 in it. If you draw a 4, you then have a slightly smaller chance of drawing a 4 on the next turn. However, if you roll a six-sided die instead, you have just as much chance of rolling a 4, maybe more if the die isn’t balanced well. There’s simply no way to predict how fortune will unfold.
  • Feel: Rolling dice just isn’t as classy as drawing cards. It’s loud, messy, and them bones frequently roll off the table or end up tilted on a stray coaster or piece of terrain. Don’t even get me started on electronic dice.


Cards are cheap to produce, easy to fit in a box, and people loooooove them. That said, if we look at our 1-6 deck up above, there really isn’t a significant difference between drawing from than and rolling dice. So why do entrenched gamers tolerate luck more when it comes to drawing cards?

  • System complexity: There’s only so much information that can be fit on a die. Decks of cards can be packed with details, and can be edited more easily (deckbuilding, etc.)
  • Card counting: As mentioned under the dice section, if one card is drawn from a deck, it makes it that less likely for that card to show up again. Even though the actual difference is fairly low until you’ve gone through a lot of the deck, the way the probability changes is more in line with the “feel” of the audience.
  • Hidden information: Excluding the use of screens, if you roll some dice, everyone gets to see the result. Cards allow you the use of hidden hands, letting your bluff your way even through a run of bad luck.

SIMULTANEOUS ACTIONS (aka Rock-Paper-Scissors)

This one’s tricky because it frequently isn’t categorized as an element of luck at all. A lot of games claim that because acting simultaneously opens up the opportunity to read your opponent and pick a counter, very little chance is actually involved. This may be true in some cases, but there’s no way someone can win a six-player game of Libertalia and claim with a straight face that it was all skill, baby.

  • Doesn’t feel like luck: That said, simultaneous actions certainly don’t feel like rolling dice or drawing cards because you have 100% control over what action you pick. This applies double for when you get a good outcome because it makes you feel like a smart person who can read minds.
  • Symmetry: Simultaneous action also prevents complaints that a player dealt a bad hand has no chance of winning. When the only “random” factor is what actions players choose, it allows complete symmetry at the start of the game.


The way I wrote this article may make it seem like I think that, in all cases, simultaneous actions>cards>dice. What I’m trying to get through, however, is that these are the ways that entrenched gamers – and I sincerely hope that any game designer is fairly entrenched – view these mechanisms of chance. As you design your game, look at it through two different lenses: How luck actually works in the game, and how luck appears to the players. This way, you’ll be able to (depending on your goals) sneak variance into a game that doesn’t want it too obviously or make a more strategic game exciting to even casual players. It’s another tool in a toolbox that always needs to be growing.