There are some very big and complicated games out there. I remember seeing one, a few years ago, that, at first glance, looked like the entire Terracotta Army was playing Twister on the Giant’s Causeway. And I have seen games with rulebooks that would stop a bullet in a pistol duel. Games like these can be very intimidating to players who are not used to them.
‘Gateway’ games, however, are not like this.
These are games that are suitable for somebody new to the hobby. Gateway is a term used by experienced gamers, but not a pejorative way; just because a game is accessible and easy to pick up does not mean it cannot be enjoyable or challenging for an experienced gamer to play. Good gateway games are easy to learn, but difficult to master.
Catan, which I have already discussed, is the most successful gateway game of all time.
The next game that made it big though, after Catan, and the first huge game of the 21st century (unless you are one of those weird people who insists that the year 2000 was in the 20th century), was Carcassonne. This game was so huge, and is still so popular today, that I want to spend some time telling you all about it.
If you have never played Carcassonne, you need to know that it is all about laying tiles. If you are now imagining somebody redecorating a bathroom, please stop doing that. Imagine instead a game of Scrabble, except the tiles are bigger and made of cardboard, and instead of making words you are making a map of medieval France. Some of the tiles have roads on them, some have cities, and some have monasteries.
The other big difference between Carcassonne and Scrabble (and also, I suppose, about redecorating bathrooms) is in the way you score points. Carcassonne players have the option each turn to place a ‘meeple’ and claim a road, city, monastery, or field, which will score them points when completed.
The game is easy to learn, but there is a lot of strategy in deciding where best to place both the tiles and the meeples. Being able to spot high scoring moves is important, but you need to get the balance right between scoring points quickly (from roads, cities and monasteries) and storing them up for the end of the game (from farms). Also, you need to employ different tactics depending on the number of players. If there are three or more players, then it can be advantageous to collaborate with others on big features; two-player Carcassonne is a lot more cut-throat, with the emphasis on sabotaging your opponent’s plans, and stealing his fields with a sneakily placed farmer meeple.
A meeple, in case you are wondering, is a little wooden pawn in the shape of a person. The word meeple comes from ‘my people’.
Meeples are now very common in modern board games but Carcassonne was actually the first game to use them. Originally they were officially called ‘followers’ but players around the world started referring to them a meeples (an American, Alison Hansel, is believed to have been the first to do so) and the official Carcassonne rules now use the word in the manual.
Carcassonne was invented by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, from Arnsberg, Germany. He was an unknown 36-year-old game designer when he had the idea for the game while on holiday. A keen theological historian, Wrede had gone to the south of France because of his interest in the local history there, and he was inspired by the landscape and the magnificent architecture, to create a game of peace and growth.
When Wrede had finished designing and building a prototype, he sent photographs of it and copies of the rules to the games publishing company Hans im Glück. They saw its potential and asked Wrede to send them the prototype itself. It was published in 2000 and was an instant hit, winning the Spiel des Jahres the following year, before going on to sell millions of copies all around the world, and turning Wrede into a celebrity.
The man who took Carcassonne out of Germany and into the English-speaking world was a businessman and games enthusiast named Jay Tummelson, of Rio Grande games, the same man who had given the USA Settlers of Catan a few years earlier while he was working for Mayfair games.
Jay did not just import Carcassonne, he had it reprinted in the States. Rather than changing the artwork and adapting the rules for an American audience, he had it made with exactly the same components and artwork, the only change being the addition of an English translation of the rules. It was a huge hit, the first of many huge hits for Rio Grande Games.
One of the reasons Carcassonne is still popular today, and the reason it is the most played game in my collection, is that the game’s publishers have kept it current by regularly releasing a series of “expansions” for it. If you have never heard that word applied to a board game before, an expansion is a supplement to the main game (or “base game” to use the more usual terminology), sold separately. Expansions usually include new components, that are added to, or replace, the existing components, plus a set of new rules telling you how to use them.
Carcassonne expansions are those smaller boxes with the Carcassonne logo on them, that you might have seen in games stores, or online. They contain extra tiles, and other components, and a set of instructions telling you how to use them.
At the time of writing, not including mini-expansions and promotional items, there have been ten main Carcassonne expansions, all designed by Carcassonne’s original inventor Klaus-Juergen Wrede. They introduce new rules that force you to change your usual tactics: there are large meeples that count as double, animal meeples that score extra points, buildings, bridges, and new tiles that change the rules. Some expansions go in unexpected directions: there is a circus that moves around the board, a catapult that flicks tokens around, and a dragon that eats other meeples. Each little box of delights changes things just enough, so that it makes the game feel different, but also, reassuringly, the same.
So Carcassonne still has a massive cult following today. Just a few weeks ago my Twitter feed was full of reports about a new world record for the biggest ever game (it was in Sweden, and it took more than three days and ten thousand tiles). In the past few years I have also seen Carcassonne birthday cakes, quilts, and kitchen tiles. I have seen meeple cushions, fancy dress costumes, and mugs.
I have seen slogans on T-shirts:
- Power to the meeple
- Meeple are Meeple
- If you like it then you should have put a meeple on it
- I see red meeple
- Carcassonne: a city populated by thieves, knights, farmers and the worst civic planners outside of <insert city name here>
- Meeple Person
- Meeple Syrup
- Carcassonne players do it lying down in a field
I think the most extreme thing I have seen though, is the meme on the internet of people posting photos of themselves with their Carcassonne games and/or meeples in the actual city of Carcassonne in France. When I first heard about people going on these pilgrimages I thought they must be crazy, but when I realized what a spectacular and beautiful place Carcassonne actually is, I want to go there too. And if I am indeed going to go, one day, I might as well take my meeples with me, don’t you think? Of course! It would be crazy not to.
There are many other gateway games, that have appeared since Catan and Carcassonne, that have gone on to become classics.
Takenoko is a gorgeous-looking game: large hexagonal tiles create a Japanese water garden; tall bamboo plants grow there; a gardener wants to grow as much bamboo as possible, while an adorable panda wanders around eating the bamboo. I like to think that there is also a subplot, where the gardener actually wants to kill the panda, but that is not explicitly part of the game.
Another Japanese-themed game is Tokaido. This mellow game celebrates the beauty of the journey along the Eastern Sea Road. Fine meals, temple visits, seeing the sights, and meeting fellow travellers, are all ways to score points.
One of my favourite classic gateway games is Kingdom Builder. This is a brilliantly designed strategy game that involves building (well, placing) little wooden houses on a map of the countryside marked out in hexagons.
I also love The Downfall of Pompeii, which was actually from the creator of Carcassonne. You arrange your Roman citizens (represented by wooden cubes) on a map of Pompeii, then they run like the clappers when the volcano erupts. Much like Carcassonne, it is nice to look at and easy for kids to learn, but has lots of strategy to keep adults interested. The game comes with a little plastic volcano that you throw the people into if they do not escape quickly enough, which is oddly satisfying. Just typing this summary has made me want to play it again right now.
There are many more classic gateways that I am sure you would enjoy – Small World, Alhambra, Tobago, Zooloretto, Splendor, Abyss, 7 Wonders, King of Tokyo, …
In addition to these classics, the past few years have thrown up many more games that are destined, if there is any justice, to become classics in the future – The River, Bärenpark, Quadropolis, …
Photosynthesis is another great new strategy game. This one has you planting seeds, which turn into trees, then into taller trees. Players must try to grow their trees in such a way that they catch the sunlight and put their opponents in the shade. This game looks great when you play it, as it seems as though you have a forest of miniature trees in the middle of the table.
My favourite gateway game of the past few years though, has been Ethnos. I think this is a great game, and it has not had the attention it deserves. Perhaps the theme (high fantasy – elves, wizards, trolls, etc) has put people off? It is all about collecting sets of cards, and using them to place more of your counters on the map than your opponents. It is so much fun to play, and I do hope that as more people discover it, it starts to become more popular.
I would guess that most gamers, if you asked them, could point to one game which was “their” gateway game – the first modern game that they fell in love with; the game that inspired them throw themselves into the hobby and devote all of their free time and money to collecting boxes full of printed cardboard, wooden cubes, and tiny plastic models.
For me, that game was Ticket to Ride.
Ticket to Ride, a great American game, created by Alan R. Moon, who lives in New York state, was published in 2004, and was an instant success. It won the Spiel Des Jahres and sold millions of copies around the world. After years of German domination in the board game market, it was good to see the USA back on top. Ticket to Ride could not be any more American – the board is literally a map of the United States. After many years in the wilderness, Americans could finally hold their heads high again in the international gaming community.
But what’s that you say? Ticket to Ride creator Alan R Moon is actually British? Born in the city of Southampton on the south coast of England you say?
Yes, I am afraid so. Jolly bad luck, Americans. Young Alan may have moved to the States with his parents when he was five, but that is not going to stop me from claiming him for England. You American chaps will have to wait a little bit longer for your moment of glory. Don’t worry though, it will come.
In the meantime, hooray for England!
Ticket to Ride is a game of turn-of-the-century rail travel, with evocative artwork that brings to mind the adventures of Phileas Fogg. In the game you collect sets of cards and use them to claim train routes by placing little plastic trains in lines on the board.
It was the beauty of the board that first brought smile to my face, when I took it out of the box and unfolded it on my table. What made me fall in love with it though, is the way that it played – it is so well balanced. Nobody is waiting long for their turn, and everyone has fun little decisions to make all the time. It plays in about an hour, and everyone is having a good time all the way to the end.
And after a few games, it got even better – I started to realize that there was more strategy to the game than I had first thought. It was not just about rushing to finish routes, and blocking opponents: you can be more efficient by claiming longer routes rather than shorter routes, you can use probability to your advantage by choosing cards from the face down pile rather than the face up display, and you can play different strategies with different numbers of players, and at different times of the game, and in different parts of the board.
Like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride also has many add-on expansions available to buy, which introduce new rules and components, such as new cards, novelty trains, and dice. There have been several expansions, which introduce new boards (usually double-sided) based on new maps. Those expansions all require the base set, because you need the plastic trains and the train cards from the original box.
One unusual addition is an expansion called Alvin & Dexter which includes (I am honestly not making this up) a miniature alien and a miniature dinosaur who move around the board creating chaos and disrupting travel in whichever city they are in.
There are also some alternative versions of Ticket to Ride which do not need the base set because they are standalone games, including a version for just two or three players, a card game version, and a version for young children. By far the most popular alternative version however, is Ticket to Ride: Europe. This is a standalone game and comes with all the pieces and cards you need, and also has some rules variations, such as the use of stations, and the introduction of tunnels. Personally, I think that this is the best version of the game, and the one that I would recommend you buy.
That is all I want to say about gateway games for now, other than to point out that it is no coincidence that the term ‘gateway’ is often used in drug culture too. There is a good chance that if you do decide to start playing the gateway games that I describe here, you will soon find yourself addicted, craving more and more games. Before you know it, days and weeks will be lost to Twilight Imperium and Pandemic Legacy. Don’t worry though, you will thank me for it.