The eurogame gateway trinity: what makes a good gateway game?

When it comes to being introduced to eurogames, or the board gaming hobby in general, just about everyone has the same story: they played some family games, maybe some video games, possibly even some tabletop RPGs, and then they played THE GAME, and it changed how they looked at board games forever.

It could have been any eurogame that introduced you to the genre, but there’s a really good chance that it was Settlers of CatanTicket to Ride, or Carcassonne. These three games form the eurogame gateway trinity, and they’ve been responsible for getting a huge number of people hooked on board games in general, and especially on eurogames.

gateway-trinity

But why these three? What is it about SettlersT2R, and Carcassonne that get people so impassioned about games? There are a lot of other games out there, but few—if any—of them have the cachet of these three.

Here’s why I think that is.

Ease of teaching

This is a big one. All three of these games are easy for an experienced or inexperienced gamer (or, for some people, an app tutorial) to teach. The rules are relatively simple, the goals are clearly set out, and the path from the beginning of the game to the end is pretty easy to visualize.

catan-overview

While some gamers—certainly including myself—love games that have complicated rules, they can be a big turnoff to people who aren’t yet totally hooked on the hobby. Being overwhelmed with complicated rules is a surefire way to lose interest. Can you imagine trying to teach Twilight Imperium or Mage Knight to someone who isn’t familiar with board games?

Obviously, there are some exceptions to this rule; explaining how fields work in Carcassonne can take a few tries, and it’s hard to visualize without seeing an entire finished board. Settlers has a few things that new players might forget about or not quite understand. But in general, these are games that are pretty easy to pick up.

And that’s important; if you have to spend 45 minutes learning the rules before you get to the fun part, you’re either not going to make it there, or you’re going to be bored and overwhelmed by the time you start playing, which will have a negative effect on your play experience. And that’s no way to get started.

Simple components

This is related to the ease of teaching and simple rulesets, but I think it’s important enough to be worth mentioning. Ticket to Ride has trains. And that’s it (unless you’re playing another version, like Europe, which has stations). Carcassonne only has meeple (again, unless you’re playing with an expansion). Settlers has a few more components, but it’s still a very limited number, and they’re easily distinguishable.

This eliminates a big source of mental energy expenditure that can detract from the enjoyment of the game itself. Again, there are plenty of experienced players that enjoy having lots of slightly different pieces with subtly different functions—like you’ll find in traditional minis games—but again, it’s not something that’s going to improve the experience for beginners.

catan-pieces

This is probably the reason that so many popular party games have very limited components; it removes another element that needs to be taught, and a potential source of confusion. No one’s going to wonder what all the different components in Sushi Go! do, because it’s just cards. Codenames, too, does without any components that players need to worry about.

It just makes everything easier, especially for new players. It lets you focus on the most fun part of the game: playing.

Relatively short play time

Of course, the length of any game is determined largely by the players; how committed they are to finishing the game, how familiar they are with the rules, whether they’re distracted by other things going on, whether they take breaks, and so on. But SettlersTicket to Ride, and Carcassonne can all be finished rather quickly. Finishing any of them in an hour isn’t out of the question, and experienced players can knock out a game in less than that.

A game with newer players is likely to take a bit longer, but each of these games can be finished before anyone gets bored. This again keeps the play experience positive. A four-hour game of Risk or a ten-hour game of Twilight Imperium (I’ve done it) isn’t going to endear anyone to the hobby. It’s just too much for someone new to the scene.

Shorter play times not only give beginners a taste of gaming, but also allow players to introduce multiple games in a single game night, giving a newcomer a taste of the variety that’s present in the world of board games.

Scalability of strategy

This might be the most important factor of all. When you first play one of these games, you probably aren’t going to have a good idea of which strategy to use. Should you go for mega-long routes or shorter ones in Ticket to Ride? Focus on getting bonus cards in Settlers? Try to infiltrate everyone else’s cities in Carcassonne? There’s no way to know the first time—maybe even the first few times—you play.

carcassonne-donut-city

But that’s not going to stop you from doing alright. You probably aren’t going to win your first few games, especially if you’re playing with experienced players. But even if you’re totally new to the game, there’s a good chance you won’t be repeatedly and totally blown out (and even if you do get destroyed, you won’t be eliminated from the game, which is going to really dampen the mood of a new player).

Similarly,

These games can be won with complicated strategies, but they’re also amenable to relatively simple ones. It’s the classic “easy to learn, difficult to master” thing. And that’s really addictive. After every game, you can pretty easily see how you could have played better, and you want to play again to put your new strategy into place.

And that’s what really gets people hooked on board games.

The gateway trinity still stands

Despite sounding a bit cultish, the “gateway trinity” of eurogames has been pretty consistent in bringing people to the hobby, and these three games—Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne—are unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon. The constant addition of expansions, appeal to both new and experienced players, and sheer fun of all three of them are difficult to replicate.

It’s also why all three of them won Spiel des Jahres awards. And it’s hard to argue with that.

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