When you’re first discovering the world of tabletop gaming, you will likely run into one of two problems: either difficulty in finding these new designer games, or discovering a good place to get them but getting overwhelmed with the number of choices. I remember discovering the board game section at my first real hobby gaming store. “There are so many!” I said at the time, “some of these HAVE to be great. But which ones?” Fortunately for you, I went through that experience and now I can help you skip the confusion.
So which board games should you buy first? Let’s start with what I like to call The Big Three.
The big three are games that almost every gamer will have in their collection–Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Dominion. These aren’t necessarily the favorite games of any collector, but they’re excellent starting points for many reasons. They’re easy to teach; almost universally enjoyable; and they introduce new players to many of the gaming world’s staple elements. These are the first three games I teach to anyone who visits my house; they go over well almost 100% of the time.
Ticket to Ride
A Spiel des Jahres winner (that’s a prestigious German board game award. Think of it as the Academy Awards for board games), has sold over a million copies, and with good reason. It takes a familiar concept (Rummy, you know, where you collect sets of cards/tiles–we call this “set collection”), spices it up with a colorful, accessible theme, and removes a significant chunk of the “luck” element involved in random tile/card draws of the more familiar mass-market Rummy games. It sets up a simple action structure, both introducing the concept of having strategic choices as well as the concept of an “action” being something you perform on your turn. The rules are very simple, so it’s easy and not overwhelming to teach. And yet the game is fun and exciting as players compete for limited track space. The game takes less than an hour, and everyone gets to play the whole time. This is the perfect gateway game that remains enjoyable for many a hardcore gamer.
The quintessential cooperative game. People unfamiliar with the hobby gaming world are absolutely blown away by the concept of a game in which the players work together as a team, against the board. If you aren’t familiar with Pandemic, that sentence may have blown your mind. Yes, in Pandemic you do not compete with the other players. You have to team up and communicate and work together, and it’s not just a puzzle to solve. It’s very challenging, exciting, and fun.
The great thing about Pandemic is that since it’s cooperative, the new players will be able to freely ask questions; they won’t need to worry about giving away their strategies; they won’t feel like it is impossible to win against the experienced gamer. This one is a little bit more complex than Ticket to Ride, but a lot of the tricky stuff can be handled by a single experienced player, or at least the person who has the rulebook at hand. The game introduces the idea of wooden cubes abstractly representing something; of planning out a strategy but adjusting on the fly as the board develops; and of each player having their own unique powers. This is also a great way to help players learn to lose; since you lose as a team (and you will lose), you can practice being good sports, and no one has the weight of being last place all alone on their shoulders.
The surprisingly accessible card game exploding into the mass market, chasing down Settlers of Catan in popularity. The trick with this one is that it looks, and sounds, intimidating. Seeing all those stacks of cards, and hearing the name “Dominion”? It seems like it would be some crazy complicated game of war and conquering. But it’s not. It’s actually a brilliantly designed card game that is not nearly as complex as it sounds.
The key facet of Dominion that makes it work is that every single card can be broken down into a few specific elements that are very clearly defined. The core currency is money; everything centers around getting more of that. Whether by simply buying better money, or getting cards that give you money, or that let you draw more cards into your hand, you don’t have to worry about building up your attack, defense, wheat, sheep, and gold. It’s all just money; money to buy cards that make it easier to get more money. Once you get the basic turn structure (1 action, 1 buy, cleanup) down, and get familiar with the keywords (+X Card, +X Action, Buy, Gain, Trash, etc.), it’s pretty easy to look at each card and figure out how it will help you.
The core Dominion game keeps it pretty straightforward, but once you get the hang of it, each expansion introduces new and exciting concepts, still built on the original framework, that move the game forward. The game stays fun and fresh each time you play, with a different mix of ten cards each time. The game introduces the concept of “deck-building,” teaches a huge amount of game terminology (that is useful beyond just Dominion), introduces the idea of a set turn structure that can be modified by playing cards, and gives players a whole lot of choice with a pretty clear goal.
So there you have it, the big three. Again, these are by no means the #1 games on everyone’s list (although Dominion is pretty high up on mine). They are definitely highly rated games that are a great place to start and appeal to a wide audience.
When you want to start going beyond these three, you will have to try games and figure out what styles you enjoy. There are a lot of great games out there that have a narrower appeal, and choosing the right games will help you to continue to enjoy the hobby. For help on finding and picking out new games to try and buy, you’ll have to check out our next article.
As a final note, these three games are not the only basic, wide-audience games out there. I just chose them for simplicity’s sake; it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the number of choices out there. If you have gamer friends, definitely listen to their recommendations. And if you are looking for a few more ideas, try these:
A tile-laying game reminiscent of Dominoes in which you build up cities and roads.
Another tile laying game that involves frantically directing the flow of lava from a volcano away from your village and towards the other players. Does a good job of starting simple and gradually stepping up the complexity of the game.
A lighthearted game featuring a gardener, a bamboo garden, and a very hungry panda. This game is a great example of how beautiful board games can be.
The recommendations can be endless; if you have any questions, or are confused about any point, or would like more personal recommendations, leave a comment, shoot me a Twitter message, comment on Facebook, or send an e-mail to my contact address at the top right of this blog. Happy gaming!