Sunday, December 18, 2011

Introductions to Games

As Christmas approaches, I will probably have several opportunities to play games with friends and family.  Most of these occasions will include people who do not normally play games, or people who only know a limited number of games.   In fact, these kinds of situations are not unusual for me, as the bi-monthly game night I host often attracts people who are there more for the social experience than to “learn every new Essen release.”  They could care less who the designer is or what kinds of game mechanics are used.  They simply want to have a good time with friends, both new and old.

That does not stop me, of course, from introducing new games to them, in an attempt to expose them to the wonderful wide world of our hobby.  My choices, however, tend to favor games with short rules and shorter playing times.   Following is a list of my favorite—and best-received—introductions to the hobby, my top “gateway games,” as they are often called.  I've organized them by type of game, as I have found that it is a good idea to have a few games of each type handy--something for everyone, if you will.

These can involve some great player interaction, and it is no mistake that two of the most popular games in Germany from the 90’s are:

Siedler von Catan/Settlers of Catan and Bohnanza - these two games have both spawned so many expansions and have been “gateways” for new German gamers for years, and they still have the same effect on those not familiar with the hobby.  Brilliant in their time, and proving to be timeless.

There’s something fun about allowing the players to build the game board during the course of the game.  Along with it’s puzzle aspect, it also guarantees a different look to the game each time, keeping it fresh and making it more fun to teach new people.

Carcassonne – this was my personal gateway game, and it is still one of my first choices when introducing people to modern games.  Simple with the right combination of strategy and luck to level the playing field, but also very interactive.

Alhambra – a game in which each player builds their own private Carcassonne, but there's more interaction than in many of the recent “each player has his/her own sandbox” games.  Here, the interaction occurs in getting the right buildings before the other players--and beating them in majorities-- both providing plenty of tension to hook someone into the hobby.

Eine Frage der Ähre/Heartland – this is one of my games, and it has been a hit with both the gamers and non-gamers to whom I have introduced it.  Players like the tense choices and timing aspects which give them multiple paths to victory, and the way the board develops 3-dimensionally is visually appealing.  It’s out of print now, so any interest from other pubishers is welcome! (I’m currently working on some variants as well, as I’d like to try some new things with it).

One of my favorite genres, as I enjoyed playing Empire Building type crayon rail games for a time.  It is fun to build track or travel places, and there is always a sense of accomplishment, whether you score enough points to win the game or not.

Zug um Zug/Ticket to Ride – along with Carcassone, one of my top two gateway games.  The rules could not be more simple, but there is still plenty of tension in making the choice between three options each turn, and the game moves along quickly.  The board looks great with the players’s train wagons filling up the connections between cities.

Elfenland – this one is more about planning a trip—something many non-gamers like doing.  It has a nice, friendly fantasy theme and art as well.

Durch die Wüste/Through the Desert – classic modern game with simple rules and turn angst of wanting to do more than what one is allowed to do each turn.  And it has pastel camels.

Transamerica – the quickest and easiest of all network-building games, works great with 6 players as well.

This became a staple mechanism used in German-style board games in the 90’s, and we still see it used quite frequently in new games coming out.

Manhatten – simple rules and has a nice 3-dimensional aspect, befitting of its theme.

El Grande – on the heavier side of the Gateway Game category, but still holds up as the standard for area majority games.

These are the types of games that involve luck, but give players enough information to know their odds, roughly.  These are also the games that incite plenty of groans and cheers, depending on which card turns up next or what the dice show.

Heck Meck am Bratwurmeck/Pickomino – probably my 3rd most-played gateway game, it really is the perfect risk-taking dice game.  It has a cute theme and even includes some nice interaction.

King of Tokyo -- another dice game, this newer title is destined to be a classic. It's basically "king of the hill" with the very colorful and fitting theme of Godzilla-like monsters wreaking havoc in Tokyo. Try to stay in Tokyo as long as possible without getting beat up too much by opponents, and try to knock down every other monster that dares to enter the city themselves.  Add to this the opportunity to upgrade your monster with special powers, and there are plenty of options for every die roll.

Diamant/Incan Gold – Great for a large group (up to 8) as a party-type risk-taking game.

Can’t Stop – a classic dice game—I have the old mountain-climbing version, which I prefer.

Although they aren’t new to gaming, there is a big trend these days for cooperative games, and they can also be great entrances to the hobby, as players come away with a sense of camaraderie, win or lose.

Pandemic (or Forbidden Island) – both of these are the best games in the cooperative genre, in my opinion.  I prefer the former, as it’s theme is fresh and engaging, but the latter is a nice back-up if there is less time or a shorter attention span of the potential players.

The Resistance – finally an alternative to Werewolf/Mafia that allows more strategic play: more information, more bluffing, more deduction = more fun!

Saboteur – a nice, compact card game of working together and trying to find out who the secret saboteurs are before they can wreck your plans.  Unless you are one of them, of course…

Scotland Yard – still a classic game of one player as the criminal trying to outsmart and escape the grasp of the others, who are racing against the clock to catch him/her.

Many people who normally don’t play games do enjoy those that allow players to bluff, while challenging the others to discover the truth.  It’s appealing because it keeps the focus on the other players rather than solely on the board and pieces, making it one of the most social of genres.  And social is a good goal for a gateway game.

Ohne Furcht und Adel/Citadels – a role-selection game of building up your own personal kingdom.

Pow Wow – a spiffed-up version of Indian Poker, in which you can see everyone else’s cards but your own!  Headbands and cards shaped like feathers make this an even funnier party game.

Bluff/Liar's Dice – it’s a dice game with bluffing, but there is enough information that one has to be clever about it, or else opponents will see right through you!

Heimlich & Co./Top Secret Spies – the classic game in which each player is assigned a secret identity (player color) and must try to score the most points in the color without revealing too soon what that color is.  This has spawned many other similar games, but this one is still the simplest and purest.

Like many experienced gamers, I have a love-hate relationship with this mechanism.  When I first started gaming, I enjoyed how quickly these types of games played, and the groans or cheers it brought when it was revealed how well each player guessed what his/her opponents would do.  After a slew of games in this genre, however, I’ve tired of the mechanism.  But I keep a few of them handy for quick introductions into the hobby, as they can still be addictive to those unfamiliar with the mechanism.

6 Nimmt! – a brilliant card game that handles up to 10 players, so it is perfect for larger groups and compact enough to bring to parties.

Die Mauer – this could have been a card game, but it was instead nicely produced with wooden castle wall pieces, gates and turrets that add to the experience and make this game look different than any other.  It’s out of print, and that is a shame, as many people to whom I’ve introduced it wanted to immediately purchase a copy. I have two.

Get Bit! - the game is standard blind bidding fare, but, just like with Die Mauer, the components make this game stand out.  Who knew that dismembering plastic robots could be this fun?

Adel Verpflichtet/Hoity Toity/By Hook or Crook – it uses a simple paper-rock-scissors mechanism, but adds the fresh theme of collecting—and steeling—antiques and exhibiting them for points.

This genre is somewhat limited, compared to others, but there are still several games that can widen a new gamer's horizons from the popular but outdated Clue/Cluedo.

Three of a Crime (Gauner Trio) - One of the simplest and quickest deduction games around, perfect to introduce children into the genre, but interesting enough for adults.  The game is out of print, although I find it often at Berlin flea markets and snatch up every copy I can.  The theme of a police line-up to identify the three perpetrators of the crime fits perfectly, as well.

Incognito: The Card Game - The original board game looked amazing and had some fresh ideas, including semi-partnership, but also had some major problems and very superficial solutions provided in the rules. The card game solves those problems while streamlining the game.  It doesn't look as good, but plays much better, and is ideal for taking along on trips.

Mr. Jack - A very nice addition to the genre that includes bluffing and successfully integrates board positioning with the standard element of "eliminate the possibilities until one can deduce who dunnit."

One of my least-favorite genres, this is not always the best type of gateway game, as you really need to play it two times in a row in order to learn the value of things (much like auction games).  Still, I have found a few that work well for newcomers:

I’m the Boss – a classic game of negotiating deals. I enjoyed this one the most of any other in the genre.

Lifeboats – the theme is a bit brutal, as the boats are sinking and players must vote to decide which survivors will be kicked out and left to the open seas.  The nice wooden boats and colorful board and pieces make it appealing, however.

This is a theme that is attractive to just about anyone, whether they be fans of Track and Field , NASCAR, or Fairy Tales.

Ave Caesar – simply the best racing game I have played, with simple rules and plenty of interaction through the blocking of opponents.  Great fun for 4-6 players, and my 4th most popular gateway game of all time.

Top Race – similar to Ave Caesar but with a money element added in--there is an auction for the race cars and payouts for their placings.  It is still simple enough for beginners, but with a little more to think about—and an auto-racing theme.

Verrückter Labyrinth/AMAZEing Labyrinth – a race to go through your own stack of artifact cards, by finding the artifacts in an ever-changing maze.

Hase & Igel – classic game that won the first Spiel des Jahres, it’s still quite fun and original, requiring players to move backwords in order to get the carrots required to move forwards.

Cartagena – a newer game taking the “move backwards in order to go forwards” idea and making it even simpler and more excessible.  It’s still a very strategic game, but requires less counting than its predecessor.

These are the types of games that have specific cards which, when combined, can be stronger than the cards themselves—or other card combinations.  This became popular with collectable card games such as Magic: The Gathering, and is becoming popular in modern board games.

Dominion – starting with a small deck of cards, you add to it over the course of the game. The catch: some cards help you "build an engine" that gives you the income needed to buy better cards, while the "victory point" cards have no other function and can handicap you if there are too many in your deck too early. Building up that engine efficiently and knowing the best time to start filling your deck with point cards is the key to winning the game.

7 Wonders – players draft cards to build up their own civilizations.  It's over so quickly, counting your final score actually takes longer than playing the game!  It can accommodate 7 players, but 3 or 4 provides a more strategic and interactive game.

San Juan – a card game version of a classic “gamer’s game” called Puerto Rico, this is a quicker and more accessible version to teach to newcomers to the hobby.  What separates this from the other games in this genre is the role selection (I chose the “Builder” this turn and every player can build a building, but I am the only one to receive the important Builder privilege).

Most people I know like to collect things.  These games are for them:

Aber bitte mit Sahne/Piece o’ Cake – 5 rounds of dividing a pie in which one player divides and the others choose slices.  Everyone enjoys this one, even when I’m not around to teach it to them.

Coloretto – another simple yet brilliant little card game.

Tutanchamum – up to 6 players travel along a path, and try to make sets out of the path pieces they take as they go.   

King Lui – making sets of food cards, with the leftovers going to the king.  But if you have more than the king at the end of the game, you don’t score that particular food--a subtle little card game.

Auctions are great ways to get players to interact, and they have a way of automatically balancing the games as well.

Traumfabrik/Dream Factory – the original, with real film stars and directors of the golden age of Hollywood, this is a fun exercise in filling up film roles through the auctioning of “contracts.”

Kuhhandel/You're Bluffing! – a classic card game of auctioning off animals, then bartering with opponents to make sets, with the option of bluffing, of course.

Razzia! – this card game version of the popular Ra! is still my favorite, as I prefer the Mafia theme (it’s more fun and makes more sense to shout “Razzia!” when enough police show up). 

Although many of us like a good theme, abstracts are often better gateway games, as they are required to have simple rules, since they have no theme upon which to hang them.

Qwirkle – a kind of Scrabble/crossword game with symbols and colors instead of letters, it won this year’s Spiel des Jahres because of it’s addictive gameplay.

Packeis am Pol/Hey, That’s My Fish! – yes, there is sort of a theme, but not really.  Great game, though, and the cute penguins do help sell it to newcomers.

Blokus – multi-player Tetris, although I prefer this with 4.

Rumis – 3-dimensional Tetris, with some nice twists and plenty of strategy.  Different boards add variability.

These games look great, set up on the table.  I often have one set up at the beginning of every game night, just to attract attention and give people something to play with until enough guests arrive for other games.

Bamboleo – a simple balancing game, but the best of its kind.

Pitchcar /Carabande– a racing game of flicking wooden “racecar” discs around a wooden track. The sections of track can be combined for different types of courses. I have both versions and all the expansions.

I listed some card games in other categories, but these don't fit anywhere else.  Card games are great gateways simply due to their portability, and usually their rules are also quick to teach.

Korsar/Loot – an original use of cards, as players play both merchant ships and the pirates that are trying to plunder them.  This was a favorite "closer" to my youth group game nights.

Geschenkt/No Thanks! – so simple yet so different than any other card game, it employs an interesting type of bidding (pay to pass on bad cards) and scoring.

These are the types of games you can pull out with people who say they do not like games, or for creative people who do not enjoy spending their free time doing mathematical exercises.

Apples to Apples – easy and funny, as long as you don’t overdo it.

Barbarossa – a great game about guessing other people’s clay sculptures, it innovated the “don’t make it to difficult or too easy” mechanism.

Dixit – borrowed this same mechanism and replaced the clay with a deck of fantastically illustrated cards. It's one of the few games in which the graphic design really is the game.

Freeze/Bühne Frei!– Improv comedy skits for average people. It’s loads of laughs and players noticeably improve in their skills during the course of the game.

Hossa/Singstar – a game of singing songs that include key words or topics, and everyone can sing along to share in the points!

Was n' Das? – using odd objects to describe something from a ten-item list, and the players who guess the correct answer the fastest score the most points.

Merry Christmas, and enjoy the gift of gaming with friends and family!  - Jeff

No comments: