That First Step is a Doozy: Gateway Games

“Gateway game” is a slippery term. It can seem like a good thing, introducing new players to the wonderful world of tabletop gaming. But sometimes it becomes more of an excuse (“The mechanics were simple, but its a good gateway game.”) or downright insulting (“That game? No thanks. It’s really more of a gateway game.”) Of course, there are also the more illicit connotations of a gateway game, implying a certain addictive quality to the hobby has a whole.

So how should we define a gateway game? Is it a bad thing?

The most basic definition everyone can probably agree on is that gateway games are suited to introducing people to tabletop gaming, or more specifically to hobby gaming. A person who’s played Monopoly and Scrabble and Bridge may still be an eligible candidate for a gateway game before diving into something heavier.

So, question #1: Is a gateway game limited to an introductory level of play? Does a gateway game lose its value once players understand how to play it? If so, then we should be able to rent gateway games instead of own them, because they have a definite expiration date. However, if a game is good for introducing new players, but also offers additional depth for dozens or hundreds more plays, does it still qualify as a gateway game?

I would argue, yes, it should. Just because a game can take you far beyond the gateway, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered as an introductory game as well. In fact, these could be the best sort of gateway game, because they become sort of a yardstick for a person’s progress as a gamer.

Ticket to Ride is a good example. A new player will simply focus on building one link of a route at a time. As that player grows, they will start building in batches and trying to block. Later, they’ll strategize based on which groups of tickets they can get, and how best to hide their intentions until the last possible minute. Ticket to Ride is still simple enough to be a gateway game, but it can take a player far beyond that first time at the table.

Do certain mechanics lend themselves to gateway games, or exclude themselves, for that matter? Things like set collection and dice rolling are mechanics that almost everyone is familiar with from card games and simpler board games. But mechanics like worker placement, area control or drafting might be more intimidating for a first-time player, unless they are made very straightforward. Regardless, there is probably a limit of introducing one major or two minor mechanics in a gateway game.

In short, gateway games do have some inherent limitations in order to remain accessible to new gamers. At the same time, however, there’s no reason that more complexity can’t be baked into a design, just under the surface, for more experienced or repeat players to enjoy. It’s one of the great challenges of game design to find that sweet spot: minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. But it’s something every designer should strive for.