“Introducing Newcomers to Games: Theme & Mechanics.” The gist is that, while the turn sequence, player choices, interaction mechanics, and other systems of play are just as important in providing an entertaining game experience, often just getting new players to the table requires an enticing theme. “Do you want to play a game where you fly X-wings against TIE fighters?” sounds a lot better than “Do you want to play a starship miniatures game with maneuvers, special combat attacks, and upgraded ship abilities?” So I’ve perused my library shelves for board games I own or have played with interesting themes appealing to fans of certain genres. Most of these buck my past recommendations: they’re not necessarily the best games for introducing newcomers to gaming; few are kid-friendly; and the price points often soar past the $25 threshold a past “survey” indicated is the optimum cost of games to risk as gifts for non-gamers. Few of these are ideal starter games for newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby, so if you give them as gifts, expect to take the lead in introducing them to the rules through an actual game. I’ve listed them according to which fans might most enjoy each recommendation:
For the Pulp/Indiana Jones Fan: Forbidden Island. Gamewright, $19.99. This game combines pulp elements – a sinking island, four treasures to retrieve, adventurers with specialized expertise, fantastic locations – with innovative cooperative gameplay. The game components have some high production values, including great artwork. Newcomers to gaming might need a bit of coaching to grasp the concept of cooperative play, but the rules and player handouts do a good job outlining the turn sequence and player choices. The sinking island mechanics ramp up the tension and create an exciting and uncertain end game.
For the Original Star Trek Fan: Star Trek Panic. USAopoly, $39.95. This game offers some high production values enhancing its visual appeal: board, cards, tokens, and shield pieces, all topped off with a fantastic heavy cardstock Enterprise model as the centerpiece. The cooperative game plays much like its predecessor, Castle Panic (see below), with some delightfully customized rules and expansions to reflect the Star Trek setting, including Romulan, Klingon, and Tholian adversaries (even cloaked ships!), missions to achieve during the course of defending the ship, and character cards offering players special ways of manipulating the gameplay (much like the adventurer cards in Forbidden Island). While the cooperative format and mechanics governing enemies might seem daunting to some, I’d like to think the true Original Star Trek fan has the intelligence to grasp the game mechanics.
For the Medieval Fantasy Fan: Dungeon! Wizards of the Coast, $19.99. I’m not sure Tolkien or Game of Thrones fans would care much for this fare, but anyone slightly interested in what Dungeons & Dragons is all about might want to start with Dungeon! First published more than 40 years ago, the dungeon-delving game incorporates elements of D&D in a board game format, complete with character classes, monsters, treasures, and a great map-board to explore. (And for Tolkien and Game of Thrones fans Fantasy Flight Games publishes enough appropriately themed games to whet any fan’s appetite, though I haven’t played them; I think Game of Thrones fans are a perfect fit for Diplomacy, and look, there’s a variant available for Westeros....) Runner Up: Castle Panic. Fireside Games, $34.99. For those who enjoy fantasy elements but don’t like dungeon delving, Castle Panic incorporates goblins, orcs, and trolls with a tower siege scenario in which players work together to stem the tide of monsters.
For the Hard Sci-Fi Fan: Gravwell. Renegade Game Studios, $35. This award-winning game has some innovative mechanics. Players each control one ship seeking to escape the gravity well of a black hole that just pulled them into another dimension. Simultaneously played cards determine when and how far they can move each turn, yet movement direction depends on the the nearest ship in the spiral. While gameplay seems to depend on random elements, frequent play reveals some nuanced strategies for winning (though luck plays into it).
For the World War II Fan: Memoir ’44. Days of Wonder, $50. Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system makes this “battle game” more like a traditional board game than a miniatures wargame or chit-and-board wargame and thus a better choice for a World War II aficionado. High production values include a double-sided board (beachhead and countryside), terrain tiles, custom dice, richly-illustrated cards, and tons of plastic miniature soldiers, tanks, obstacles, and artillery. Gameplay might seem complex at first, but the full-color rulebook walks players through most attack situations. A scenario book details many battles to play from D-Day onward (and one can find more online), giving this game incredible replay value. Runner Up: Axis & Allies. Wizards of the Coast, $100. Wizards just released an “anniversary edition” of this classic board game with its huge map and tons of chits and plastic tokens. This is for the really hard-core World War II fans who don’t mind sitting down for hours (or days) to play through the entire war at the global level.
For the Ben Hur/Spartacus Fan: Chariot Race. Eagle-Gryphon Games, $29.99. Designer Matt Leacock departs from cooperative games (Pandemic, Forbidden Island) to create a distinctly non-cooperative chariot race game complete with caltrops, javelins, and ramming. Players manage their chariot team’s speed, health, and fortune to maneuver through the crowd of competitors and complete two laps around the course. The game uses a roll-and-keep die mechanic with custom dice, provides cards and markers to chart ever-changing charioteer stats, and cardboard figures and other markers for chariots and caltrops. An alternate board and different charioteer stat cards provide some advanced variation for experienced players.
For the Ancient History Fan: 7 Wonders. Asmodee, $49.99. Far more accessible and concise than Sid Meier’s Civilization, 7 Wonders uses an interesting mechanic where players select a card to play from a hand and then pass the remaining cards to their neighbor; it forces an interesting choice between playing something advantageous or playing something to deny another player. Build civilizations using basic and advanced resources, cultural advancements, commercial developments, and military might. It might take a few plays to appreciate all the nuances and different strategies; a game with a seasoned player can really help overcome some of the daunting aspects (primarily a preponderance of different cards to play).
Most of these recommendations work for adult newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby, but I’d venture to say most might work with kids interested in dabbling with games (okay, not Axis & Allies...). For gaming with children I’d recommend a few strategies – stripping down rules to the basics, practice sessions to demonstrate rules, playing with open card hands (Star Trek Panic and Castle Panic are great at this), shortening game times – along with others from my “Tips for Kid-Friendly Games” and “Grown-Up Games & Kids at Play” missives.
I’ve stuck with games currently available at your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) or online venues like Amazon. Most FLGS proprietors can place special orders, some even with a customer loyalty discount, without added shipping charges.
Looking for more gift ideas? Check out these Hobby Games Recce recommendations from holidays past: