Ease Mates Into Better Board And Card Games

It's Christmas. You're friends and family are together for that special time of the year to give, receive and eat. Once all the presents have been passed around and the food consumed, someone recommends you pull out Monopoly or Scrabble to pass the time. You sigh, knowing there's a whole other world of board and card games your relatives are oblivious to. Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to gently introduce them to this fabulous alternate universe?

Image: Catan.

It's no good telling people about these games — no, if you want to get someone hooked, you're going to have to dive right in. Don't worry, you can do this without scaring people off, you just need the right games in the correct order.

1. Getting Started: Settlers Of Catan

Many of you will probably recognise Settlers Of Catan in the lead image. Designed by Klaus Teuber and released over one and a half decades ago, it has since become a staple in the homes of even the slightly ambitious board game player. If you believe cardboard and wood to be relics of another generation, you can grab it online for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. There's even a Microsoft Surface version, which you can view clip of here.

Thanks to its widespread fame, Catan is the first game I recommend bringing out when everyone's in the mood for dice (or cards, if you have this add-on) and tokens. Catan has a way of tapping into the same compulsive undercurrents as Sim City and FarmVille. Who doesn't like building towns, roads and haggling over the value of sheep and iron? The concepts of the game are easy to understand and aren't rooted in science fiction or fantasy. If you own the expansions, keep them out for the first few games as people adjust to the rules.

Settlers Of Catan is available at Milsims for $48, or Games Paradise for $51.95.

2. Moving On: Munchkin

Steve Jackson's Munchkin is as straightforward as it gets. No board, just cards — and two decks at that. Players take turns kicking in doors, searching for treasure, fighting monsters (with or without the aid of their companions) and forming shaky, ad-hoc alliances to gang up on the player with the most equipment and highest level.

The witty card names are one thing, but it's the excellent, approachable art by John Kovalic that keeps the mood casual, even though you're playing a super-condensed and lightweight version of Dungeons and Dragons, minus the dungeon master.

Enjoyment of Munchkin and perhaps the core to its gameplay is the wheeling and dealing that occurs between players — something never outlined in hard ink in the rulebook. Balance is naturally kept as players do almost anything they can to target and bring down players close to winning the game. You can interact at almost any time to swing things in the favour of the parties you like most. It's this free and loose gameplay that keeps things interesting... and allows you to alter your allegiances at the drop of a hat.

Munchkin not only has loads of expansions available, but different themed versions, from Cthulhu to vampires, ninjas and Star Wars. I find vanilla Munchkin is the best, but if you know a subtype (say vamps for the Twilight fanatics) that will go down well with your friends, don't be afraid to pick it up.

Munchkin is available at Milsims for $28.50, or Games Paradise for $37.95.

3. Death Comes To All: Last Night On Earth

Zombies. You think their time has passed and yet, movies, books and games that pillage the genre continue to do well. With JMS' interpretation of World War Z on the horizon, now's as good a time as any to show your friends exactly what being in a undead apocalypse is like, and Last Night On Earth will do exactly that.

Some may recommend Zombies!!! from Twilight Creations as their walking dead game of choice, but I found the difficulty of the expansions off-putting and the gameplay lacking depth. Definitely a solid concept, but Last Night On Earth will see play again and again, its rules are easier to understand and well, someone with a brain, not a set of pre-defined reactions, gets to play the zombies.

LNOE hooks into all the stereotypes. Players can select their hero of choice, from the bat-swinging jock to the cop with the only firearm. There's the mysterious outsider — nicknamed by our playing group as "Soup Can Sam" in honour of Psych's James Roday — and the priest whose faith is a tangible force that can combat the damned.

The game benefits from being closer to a traditional board game than some of the other recommendations here. At the start, one or two players take control of the zombies (though I've found having just one player provides a more consistent zombie threat and means the survivors won't always be privy to your plans), while the others pick from a pool of survivors. A scenario is chosen to provide either the zombies or survivors with a goal and time limit and the board is constructed from five pieces, taken from a larger pool, so play is somewhat randomised between games.

It's then a matter of getting the job done before you're eaten alive or the survivors escape. Special cards give the survivors options, and come in the form of weapons, action denial and healing. The zombie player's cards are more potent and can completely wreck a survivor's day. The zombie player also gets cards constantly, so it's important they cultivate their hand for the final stand-off.

The game naturally creates a pumping narrative, thanks to the real photos of the survivors and their imagined quirks, generated entirely by the player's imaginations, based on the survivors' assortment of grimaces. It's cheesy, but not overly so, and enjoyment is equal parts gameplay and engaging in wild tales — how did Billy die in the church, or why Sheriff Anderson can't seem to fire his gun without dropping it constantly.

Last Night On Earth is available at Milsims for $60, or Games Paradise for $69.95.

4. Up A Notch: Dominion

From blasting zombies to managing a fictitious kingdom, Dominion is another game that is almost entirely card-based. The objective is to amass victory points, which are purchased using copper, silver and gold coin cards. To get these cards, you need to build a deck of actions that allows you to do more with your turn. These actions are purchased from a common pool in the centre of the playing area. The thing is, you don't build your deck before the game... you do it as you play.

This introduces a dynamic where you must decide when to stop building your deck to enhance your purchasing power and start buying victory points. Because the game ends when the largest source of victory points is consumed, if you don't make the shift fast enough, you'll find yourself on the bottom rung of the scoring ladder.

The issue with victory points is that they don't do anything until the game ends, so they're dead cards while the game is in progress. Some cards do provide both actions and victory points, but sacrifice power for versatility.

The twelve card piles players can collectively build their decks from is either randomised at the game's start, or pre-selected based on suggestions in the manual. Obviously, different cards give access to different combos, so analysing what's available and sticking to a strategy will often see you come out in front.

Dominion is actually an easy game to understand and you could even debut it to your friends ahead of Catan. But, I feel that they'll better appreciate it subtleties once they have the above games under their belts.

If, however, your mates prefer Uno to Monopoly, then this would be the perfect introductory game.

Dominion is available at Milsims for $52.50, or Games Paradise for $57.95.

5. The Holy Space Grail: Race For The Galaxy

Our final entry is the fantastic Race For The Galaxy by designer Thomas Lehmann. It's sci-fi and the learning curve is excessively steep but, once you have your friends hooked, you can look forward to many, many days of play as you explore every combination of cards and the various victory conditions.

The game shares many elements with the equally popular San Juan. Considering Lehmann helped with its creation, it's not surprising. Given the San Juan is itself a well-designed game, its influence is very welcome.

Essentially, there's just one deck with a few support cards. Each round, players select from a set of "phases" that determine what activities will occur during that round. These are chosen in secret and revealed simultaneously. Players who picked a phase get a special bonus, such as drawing extra cards or buying cards for less, while those who didn't still get to engage in the activity, just without a bonus. In this way, it becomes important to figure out what phases your opponents will play, and leverage that to maximise your card drawing/playing.

The game relies heavily on symbols that, at first glance, will make weaker gamers ill. It's almost like learning another language. But, once you pick it up, reading cards becomes a simple affair and the consistency of design and usage of symbols means that you don't have to read reams of rules text every time you play a card. You can just look at it and understand exactly how it's meant to function. From there, you can start building elaborate card combos to power a point or draw "engine" — a repeatable set of actions that gains you lots of cards or points.

Like Dominion, it relies on victory points to determine the winner, but they can be gained and produced in many ways, and figuring out those alternate paths is half the fun. I've left RFTG last because it is the most alienating to the average person — not only is it sci-fi, but it's not an easy game to learn.

That said, it is by far the most rewarding. Seeing that glimmer of understanding in someone's eyes as the rules click in will provide you with all the warm fuzziness you could need this Christmas.

Race For The Galaxy is available at Milsims for $37.50, or Games Paradise for $54.95.

The Game Of Life Is For Losers

There's nothing quite as bonding as cracking out your favourite board game and engaging in some friendly competition. But you don't need to be limited by the classics. They are good for a reason, but with so many choices of deeper games that reward you handsomely for mastering their nooks and crannies, you'd be mad not to pick one or two up and convince your friends and family that there's more to the world of board and card games than collecting $200 or snagging a triple-word score.


    Munchkin is the best game on this list, but if you're going to play with more than 5 people for Munchkin I would recommend picking up the Star Munchkin with it's two expansions, it's the least complex with some really great sci-fi puns/jokes

      I prefer a mix of as many expansions as you can find.

    Personally I hate Munchkin. It's far too random. Catan as well, if you get a bad run with the dice early on you can get knocked out quite quickly.

    I've actually found that Dominion and Carcassonne are perfectly good gateway games on their own. They have simple mechanics and are easy to pick up but have a lot of depth and the etrategic element is more prevalent than the random element. Same goes for Ticket to Ride.

    What I struggle with is finding good games that can be played with 6-8 or more people. I've got a big game collection but my group of friends don't like to break up into two groups, and a lot of my games top out at 4-6 players. Recently we've been doing Shadow Over Camelot with its expansion, but don't want to get sick of it.

      I hear complaints often enough about Catan being too random... but mostly from people who have only played once or twice. Smart opening placements mean that if you suffer from bad rolls then so will everybody else, and the right starting resources can give you a bit of a boost with a road or development card in turn 1.

      Alternately you can play with the Event Card modifier (available in the Traders & Barbarians box if you can't find it on its own) - the dice are replaced with a deck of cards numbered according to the statistical distributions, so you always know how often each number will come up before the deck needs to be reshuffled (with a margin of error - five cards are supposed to be moved to the discard pile after a reshuffle). The event cards also have additional actions that might award free resources to struggling players.

      Munchkin however is pretty random, though in my experience it's generally the person in second who usually wins because everybody expends all their cards stopping the lead player and can't do anything the turn after!

        Amongst my friends, it is well known that I am cursed with bad rolls.
        Every game, I will pick clever settlement placements, and my friends will pick spaces that don't cover the numbers I do, then sit back and watch as nobody rolls a 5, 8 or 9 for 37 rolls (that exact scenario has happened)

        Catan's other flaws, I would say, is its low skill ceiling and slow late game.
        Dominion is excellent, but there is very little inter-player interaction.

        And the holy grail is surely Puerto Rico

        I played Catan every lunchtime at work for about six months. We got to the point that we were getting through three rounds in an hour or so. You could generally tell who was going to win or lose in the first ten rounds or so, just from the rolls erly on. In fact we actually made it a rule that the robber doesn't move until everyone has their second settlement or a city out, because you could absolutely destroy one player with an early 7 roll if the 7 didn't come up again for five or six turns.

        And sure, good placement makes a difference, but there's usually only so many good spots on the board, so if you roll badly when determining starting player there's a good chance the best spots will be gone early on.

        The entire game is won or lost based on your starting position and the platform you build for yourself in the early game. It's almost entirely down to the dice, not your strategy. Compare against something like Caracassonne, which is very random as well, but with clever use of what you're given you can still be competitive with sub-standard tiles drawn, and a single tile rarely makes a difference to the outcome of the game, where a single roll in Catan can.

    I've always found Catan a great way to lose friends :P

    Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are my two most successful "gateway" board games.

    Once they're hooked, I bust out Pirate's Cove.

    Generally on this, www.gateplay.com is a great website for researching accessible gateway games.

      I dunno, they list Arkham Horror as being accessible? You need to print out a flow chart to be able to play it and have it make sense...

        Arkham Horror is definitely not a gateway game. :) Elder Sign is a dice-based "compacted" version of AH, but it's gotten so-so reviews from the sites I've read: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/100423/elder-sign

        Still, if you need your Lovecraft fill, you could do worse.

          If the manual wasn't such a confusing mess or your Keeper was experienced in the game then Mansions of Madness I think is better than Arkham Horror as an accessible Lovecraft game, though it's definitely not a baby steps one. It's fairly easy to understand if you're not relying on the stuff printed with it, at least.

        Well, they have Arkham Horror on their site but they do not say it is accessible. They have it at level 3, which is their most advanced level and state on level 3: "If you've played these games, you're ready for anything!"

        For "accessible" look at the level 1 games.

    I've never played any of these types of games but I'm 99% sure I'm getting Carcassonne for Christmas.
    I'm scared though, because if I love it there's a million and one different expansions I'll be coveting!

      Lady Strange! get the big box Carcassonne, which includes all the expansions!
      you wont regret it! at least me and my friends didnt!

        *almost* all the explansions :p

        Carcassonne is like the 007 of board games and I think is currently up to the third edition of the 'complete' Big Box

          explansions.. hehe.. damned new laptop keyboard! >.<

      I think Inns and Cathedrals is the best expansion. But the base game is so good you won't "need" them for a very very long time.

        Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders are the two must-haves really. Also the King & Scout mini-expansion can be picked up for like $5-10 so it's worth it for the extra tiles. Those three make the game vastly more interesting with some crazy new tiles that break cities up in interesting ways to enable invasions and the builder is probably the most strategically useful thing in the game as well. Plus the inns make roads less of a pain to draw. Also just having extra tiles improves the game a lot I find, less of a mad rush and a single mistake isn't as costly.

    Dust Tactics. It isn't a gateway board game, but it is awesome - get on it.

    Any love for the geometric or spatial games like 4player Pentago? I just played Six last night too.

    It's like "The Hipster's Guide to Board Games". Except these are so popular amongst board gamers that hipsters probably hate them now...

    Anyone here play Citadel? That game is an excellent and compelling for board game newbs.

    Citadel is pretty great. I was totally impressed by its design, but then I was introduced to Dominion which is even better, IMHO.

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