In the board game hobby there is the idea of the gateway game, that I for one think is flawed. The idea stems from the also flawed war on drugs, where lighter drugs such as cigarettes and alcohol, are said to lead to harder drugs, which lead to even harder drugs, and the next thing you know you’re an addict. Similarly, in the board game industry, people think that lighter games are used to bring someone into the hobby, a gateway to the harder and more complex games that “real gamers” want to play.
Beyond the negative connotations with addiction, the gateway game is a concept that I feel hurts the industry as a whole. It paints the board game industry as a tree, with one trunk that leads to a wider variety of branches. It says that the only way into the hobby is through that trunk, which usually consists of the same 10 games, before getting into the games the “real gamers” want to play on a regular basis. It also creates the misconception that so-called gateway games are things you move on from, rather than being perfectly good games in their own right. Sometimes, those gateway games aren’t even the best the hobby has to offer. They’ve simply been called gateway games for so long that the label has stuck and while better, more interesting games might have replaced them for most players.
A lot of the reasons these gateway games are great introductions to the hobby, are of course valid. They’re often easier to learn and set up, take less time to teach, and don’t take as long to play. For some new players, that’s going to make it easier to get into a game, but we as humans are not monoliths. Not everyone needs an easier introduction.
I propose that what we think of as gateway games hurts the industry, and makes it harder for newer players to connect with seasoned veterans. I think it creates an expectation that it’s not possible to play a harder more complex game, without first having been exposed to simpler, more accessible affairs. We, as a community, should be welcoming new players based on their interests and what they actually want, rather than what we think they want.
So what does that look like? Here are several ways to bring someone new into your local game nights that don’t involve the idea of the gateway game. You’ll notice that each of these ways emphasizes the person, either you or your new friend, rather than the game itself. To me, that’s the key. The community and the friendship should come first, rather than trying to shoehorn them into a game that might not fit their interests.
- Let them pick their own
If I invite someone new over to play games, the first thing I’ll do is show them my collection and let them browse. To be fair, this is probably overwhelming because I have a literal room full of board games, but I still feel letting someone pick their own gateway is the best.
Allow them to browse, and while browsing you can pick out games that are fun that you love to talk about, and talk about them. The goal is to find something that speaks to the person you’re playing with. A game that someone picks for themselves is going to create a far better and more engaged experience.
- Connect with their other hobbies and interests through the game’s theme
In my opinion, the easiest way to get a new player into a game is to have them already into the theme based on their current hobbies and interests. The board game hobby is full of games that touch on just about every theme imaginable. Sure, colonialism and farming tend to stand out more than others, but that shiny new game that just happens to match your friends’ latest obsession is going to be far more of a hit than otherwise.
- The new hotness
Why should you pull out that 10 year old game you’ve played a hundred times and are sick of, when there are probably at least a few games in your collection that are still in shrink wrap? What better way to introduce someone to the hobby than by learning a game alongside them, and allowing them to help punch out and organize the pieces? Honestly, punching and organizing games is one of my favorite parts of getting a new game, and that exploration of the game from breaking the shrink to having it set up on the table is a great gateway for new players.
- The spectacle
Gateway games tend to be smaller, less complex affairs, but what if they weren’t? It doesn’t have to be that way. Love playing that several hundred dollar Kickstarter with hundreds of minis? Get it out for your new gamers! Sure, the sheer size and scale of one of those games might overwhelm some, but to others it will be exciting and new and different. It’s a statement that says “these aren’t your grandma’s board games” right off the bat.
- Your favorite game
Bring out your absolute favorite game. The game you know the best and are most passionate about. This is probably a game that you can set up, teach, and play all at the same time, while still having a blast doing it. Show your new friend the best of the hobby. Introduce it as your favorite game, and teach it with an enthusiasm that proves it to them.
- Let them cohost board game night
To a lot of board gamers, board game night is a ritual. You set the game up early, making sure everything is ready to go the moment everyone shows up. Not a moment is wasted that isn’t gaming. Invite your new friend over early, and include them in the set up and pre-gaming rituals. Sure, having everything ready to go for a new player might be beneficial to some, but helping set up the board and pieces, and getting a feel for the game even before it’s ready to be played can give them an ownership of the experience that a pre-set table could never hope to accomplish.
- The board game convention
Sink or swim. Convince your new friend to join you at your favorite board game convention. Geekway to the West is my favorite, and I’ve had several friends get into the hobby through the convention. Geekway has a massive library as well as an extensive Play and Win section full of the latest games to hit the shelves. My usual convention experience is playing largely new to me games, and learning the rules on the fly at the table with my friends. Everyone is on the same footing for these games, much like with the new hotness, which makes an even playing field for your new friend to acclimate themselves.