Gateway, Garden and Bridge Games

A few weeks ago, Ben talked about the differences between “gateway games" and “garden games", with his primary distinction being that gateway games are designed to “attract new gamers into boardgaming as a hobby” (Boardgamegeek Glossary), whereas garden games are “accessible to new players, yet also [provide] depth for repeated or more strategic play” (Marshalkowski). I’d like to take a moment to expand on these definitions, then offer a third class of games that I think bears some discussion.

In his survey of the Top 150 Best Gateway Games, Tony Ackroyd, a British denizen of BoardGameGeek, describes Gateways as “the kind of game that will open someone's eyes to a new kind of game and make them want to play again. The right choices will build the non-gamer's trust in your ability to select other games they will enjoy playing in the future.”

To put it another way, gateway games are meant to convert non-gamers into hobby gamers. Like a “gateway drug,” their primary intent is to get the user hooked on something they like, then encourage them to come back to their “dealer” and get something a little stronger. The game-dealer hopes that, once his non-gamer friends have their eyes opened to a world that exists beyond the shelves at Target, they will return to him to feed their new board game addiction. With a little cultivation, these users may even get a username on BGG and join the rest of us “enlightened” geeks in our merry patronage of Kickstarter, the Cult of the New, and all things board game-related.

NOTE: If you’re a non-gamer whose pusher friend is trying to introduce you to any of the games listed below, you’re essentially being fed the ludological equivalent of tobacco, alcohol, and Mary Jane (and no, ludology is not the science of growing Quaaludes).

Just... one more... rulebook... (Property of Paramount Pictures)

Just... one more... rulebook... (Property of Paramount Pictures)

There is a strange sort of “selfish-charity” that occurs when introducing Gateway games to non-gamer friends. On the one hand, many of those people would be happy to discover there is a world of board games with more depth than Risk, Apples-to-Apples, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders -- and those people will likely thank you for bringing them into the hobby (either by buying you the latest expansion of RftG or by finally sitting down to play Arkham Horror and Twilight Imperium with you).

On the other hand, there are lots of casual gamers (and family gamers and non-gamers) who are perfectly content playing Monopoly, Uno, and Rook -- or nothing at all -- and they will take offense to any earnest attempt to ingratiate them into your hobby. To such folk, your attempts to “enlighten” them are seen as transparent acts of self-indulgence.

Which brings us back to garden games. At first, Ben compares these games to “gateway+ games" -- the second drug in the gateway of gaming addiction: “Gateway+ games […] implies that there's some sort of prescribed process of being introduced to games. You graduate from one tier and start playing the next until you're ready for the tier after that. But gaming is so much more than that. Players should have room to explore and discover.” Garden games take the leash off the novice gamer by introducing simple rulesets and giving gamers the freedom to choose how they evolve as a gamer.

To put it another way, garden games provide new (and old) gamers opportunities for growth without overwhelming them, something that straddles the line between casual, gateway, and hardcore gaming while letting gamers choose how complex they want their game night to be. This is especially good since it opens up the opportunity for casual and hardcore gamers to play together and enjoy the same game.

Which brings me to my third category of gateway-alternatives: Bridge games.

Now I’m not talking about bridge cards (which, as every alpha gamer and granny bridge-player knows, are slimmer than poker cards). I’m talking about games that allow family gamers, social gamers, casual gamers, and non-gamers to interact with alpha gamers, euro gamers, strategy gamers, and hardcore gamers. These are NOT games that are designed to convert new players into hobby gamers. Rather, these are games that allow people to be exactly as they are (be they alpha gamers, casual gamers, or non-gamers).

I call these bridge games because they connect two different camps of gamers -- those that consider themselves true “gamers” and those who are not gamers in the lifestyle sense of the word but only play games on occasion (or, in some rare cases, not at all).

The Euro-Ameritrash Non-Agression Pact of 1998.

The Euro-Ameritrash Non-Agression Pact of 1998.

You could call these bridge games something else -- light-medium weight games, happy-mid games, beta games, truce/treaty games -- but the main point is that they connect people. Their intent is not to bring one camp over to other side, but is rather to give people a neutral place to meet and engage without alienating their gaming and non-gaming counterparts. Bridge games do not necessarily teach or encourage new gaming habits (though those may develop regardless). Instead, Bridge games offer a way for different kinds of gamers to stay engaged while playing something that might be defined as “belonging to the other camp.”

IN BRIDGE GAMES…

The rule sets are simple and game lengths are 45 minutes or less (+1 for the casual gamers), but the strategies are deep and offer limitless replayability (+1 for the hardcore gamers).

IN BRIDGE GAMES…

The theme is rich and there is a competitive component (+1 for the Ameritrash gamers), but the mechanics are clean, closely tied to the theme, and offer multiple paths to victory (+1 for Euro gamers).

The objective of a bridge game is to unite, not convert. And while gamers will inevitably grow and change as they play these games (and may even grow tired of playing particular Bridge games), a true Bridge game remains an attractive compromise between two camps of people that otherwise might not want to play a game together.

I’m a big fan of bridge games, primarily because my significant other is not fond of playing games (any kind of games). Her family is a little bit better, but the in-laws still lack the attention span to learn anything with more than 3 rules or that takes longer than 30 minutes to play.

My own family is a bit more open to gaming, but they are still primarily card players (Rook, Quiddler, Hand-and-Foot, and Liverpool Rummy being regular favorites), so I’ve had to temper my own style of gaming to accommodate those that might not otherwise want to sit down and play with me. Early in my gaming career, I introduced my family and extended family to several kinds of Gateway games, but I quickly learned that someone who steps beneath your arch does not necessarily want to step into your ludological garden, roll up their sleeves, and get their hands dirty. Sometimes they just want to say hello, then turn around, cross the bridge, and go back home to their own camp.

And that’s okay. That’s good. Gaming should be about uniting people in a fun activity (preferably something that everybody enjoys playing). True gaming should not be something that requires people to change who they are at their heart, nor should it be a selfish activity where one person is subjected to the tastes of another (be it for 20 minutes or for 8 hours).

Gateway, Garden, and Bridge games all seem to offer simple rules, serious depth, and surprising longevity, and for this reason I think many people view them as the same type of game. That’s not technically wrong – certainly games that belong in one category rightfully belong in all three -- but I insist that the ultimate goal of each category is still subtly different. All three attempt to introduce novice gamers to the hobby game market, but their objectives are, respectively, conversion, growth, and unity.

At Broomstick Monkey Games, our objective is unity and growth. We want to design games that can be enjoyed by all types of gamers (and non-gamers) and we want them to experience something that grows with them, something that evolves with their own unique tastes and tactics. Conversion is nice, but, at the end of the day, we aren’t pushing a drug or an addiction.

We are selling a shared experience -- a memory, a moment.

Take fun to a higher level.

Justin Call, President & CEO
Broomstick Monkey Games