Gateway Games of Christmas 2017

Every Christmas, I make the long journey back to Leeds to spend time with my family. We’ve never really been a gaming family. We sometimes played Cluedo on holiday, but it wasn’t something to look forward to- it was just a convenient way to make time pass in a tent. Over the last year, however, they’ve felt more and more obliged to try and understand what I do with my free time, so this was the first year that people were really interested in trying new games. I had a really good time, so thought I’d write up a blog post covering the games I taught people.

Deep Sea Adventure

This was the one I was most excited to show people. A few months ago, I found myself playing a trivia game in a pub which had roll and move as the core mechanic. The game was a total mess, but people were really into the dice rolling. I’m not sure how ironic the other players’ excitement was, but it made me think about how little roll and move is used as a mechanic in modern games. A colleague and I later tried to make our own take on a classic roll and move game, but it turns out Deep Sea Adventure already did it pretty much perfectly.

The thing that really drew me to the game was how easy it is to teach. Generally, I’m not a fan of learning the rules to a game as you play- I feel I can’t expect people to enjoy making decisions when they don’t understand the consequences of the decision their making. However, the simplicity of Deep Sea Adventure makes it perfect for this approach. In many ways, the joy of the game is in seeing how the shared air mechanic quickly becomes a threat, and explaining the mechanic too much at the beginning could easily give away the surprise.

One thing that surprised me about this game is how well the randomised scoring works. I’m usually opposed to it, but getting a treasure worth 0 points actually feels like a really good story.

Ticket To Ride

It took a little bit of effort to get this to the table, but I’m glad we did. I always find it difficult to pitch the game to new players- building trains just doesn’t seem that exciting. However, once people get going, the game flows and paces itself perfectly.

Teaching the game isn’t always easy. People seem surprised by how little you can do on each turn- they often want to pick up cards then build, or build multiple routes at once. I also find people struggle to follow the first action choice you explain without the context of the second- it’s hard to care about collecting cards until you know how they build routes, but building the routes is confusing until you know how to collect cards. Fortunately, it’s a short explanation, and it’s quite difficult for players to put themselves at a significant disadvantage in the first few rounds if they don’t fully grasp the rules.

I think my favourite thing about the game is the way it provides players with short to medium term goals. Even if you don’t win the game, completing your own ticket cards is still satisfying. It means experienced players and new players can play together, and the inevitable score gap isn’t as disheartening.

Love Letter

This was another big hit! People were a little confused at first, but got into it after one round. The first few turns can be a little bit weird, because there’s no obvious strategy in some situations. For example, a player started the game with the princess and the guard- they couldn’t play the princess, so had to just play the guard and pick a random player/role combination. Once we’d played a few rounds, we learned to read moves like that, but as a first impression of the game, it confused some newer players a bit.

One thing I particularly like about this game is the theme. Often, I hear people talk about how themes in game create immersion, but I personally find mechanics do this far more effectively. To me, theme is far more important for guiding players’ intuition, and Love Letter does this incredibly well. Tying the objective and mechanics into the storyline of getting your letter to the princess helps the players remember them, so they get into the flow of it far more quickly.

Carcassonne

I still have no idea how to explain this game well. I remember being completely mystified the first time I played, but really enjoying my second game. Luckily, my family were willing to play two games, and enjoyed the second game far more.

I decided to try something drastic with the teaching this time, and leave out the farmer rules for the first game. I did this because new players often struggle to picture the scoring for farms before they’ve seen a complete gameboard. Overall, it was reasonably successful, but did severely disadvantage one player who drew very few city tiles. They would have had a few opportunities to score highly with farmers, so their score was fairly low.

One thing that surprised me about this game was how nice my family were to each other- they seemed to quickly develop an understanding that if you didn’t have anywhere good to place your tile, the next best thing was to help someone else. I guess a big part of it is because the art is so good- people enjoyed seeing a complete, intricate map more than they wanted to have the highest score.

Forbidden Island

I was hesitant to bring this out, but I’m glad I did.. I’m a huge fan of co-operative games, which unfortunately makes me a bit of a quarterback. In many ways, I think it’s unavoidable, since success often depends on passing cards as part of a multi-turn plan. There’s an argument that you should leave players to their own devices, and let them decide their own turns, but that seems patronising, and means they’ll miss out on a huge part of what the game has to offer.

The approach I took was to stay fairly quiet early on, but as the game went on, give more advice. When I saw we could win in three turns, I didn’t hold back on the details of my idea, which involved three entire turns. I left the decision of whether we should try my risky plan or play it safer with the other players, which worked pretty well- they seemed to enjoy the overarching story of the game slightly more than the details of each individual move.

Tsuro

This is probably my favourite gateway game. It’s incredibly easy to setup and teach the game, and it creates a natural storyline as the game goes on. It’s surprisingly competitive for a gateway game, but in a way that feels satisfying, even to the loser. A big part of this is the game’s fast play time- losing first is sad, but you’re likely to only be out for five minutes, and it’s fun to watch the rest of the game and root against the player who caused your demise.

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