What are some strategies that people have used to introduce novice players (kids or spouses...) to increasingly complex strategic gaming?

Ticket to Ride is a big hit at our house - we'd like to move along the continuum to Risk and then onward toward grand strategy - maybe not so far as Twilight Imperium, but into some more planning-centric and possibly backstabbing games.

7 Answers 7


In my experience, the order in which you introduce games is only of minor importance in comparison with understanding what kind of person you're dealing with and what games that type of person would like. So the key is introducing different types of games to identify the gaming personality type. Here are a few gaming personality types I've run across, and the progression that makes sense for them:

  1. Nature-born game lovers. My son is one of these. He had mastered the strategy of Sorry by the time he was 3 and by the time he was 4 wanted us to teach him every game we had in the house. He started learning the card game of bridge at age 5. Progression: Order doesn't matter for people like him except for games that require reading and truly complex games like Bridge. He was not a fluent reader until age 7 but some games (i.e. Settlers) could be played anyway by memorizing the pictures on the card. More important than complexity is how interesting the games are. Nature-born game lovers usually want to keep learning new games and they end up getting bored with games of limited complexity and/or limited variation.
  2. Socialites. You may think they hate games altogether but if you find social enough games ("party" games) they'll play. Examples: Charades, Pictionary, and many card games. It is interesting that many of these people end up playing hard card games (i.e. Bridge) just because it is easy to socialize around the games. But don't expect these kinds of people to ever play Chess, Go, or any other complicated game which limits socializing. Progression: Charades is a really nice one to start with. Kids will need the subject area(s) limited to things they know about. Most kids like to play the alphabet game on long car rides (find a word you can see that begins with letter "a", then "b", and so on). There are other games like this with no components but as they get older you can introduce kids to games like Clue or Squint. Pictionary and some other similar trivia games are simple to learn and play but require extensive world knowledge so are going to be more appropriate for high school age and up.
  3. Game haters. If you try a variety of different games on a person and he or she hates them all, then give up. Some people just don't care for games. At best, they may be willing to do 1 or 2 games they learned as a kid and that's it. Progression: If they truly hate all games, then nothing you introduce will matter. However, be sure to have them try several completely different types of games, in case they only like one specific type of game.
  4. Nature-born engineers. I have a friend who loves games but it was looking like his son was in "Game hater" category. I gifted them a copy of Settlers of Catan and we were all surprised that the son loved it after a history of getting bored with every other game tried. 2 months later, Eurorails become his favorite game. This kid loves building things so I'm guessing he would like other games too where you see a network of pieces growing over a board. Progression: Blokus is a good first one given how simple the rules are. Ticket to Ride is also fairly simple. Settlers and Eurorails are only slightly more complex. I'm not not sure if an empire-building game with economics such as Eclipse would eventually be appealing, as I don't know many people in this category.
  5. Ordinary people (that don't fall into any of these extremes). I have encountered a surprisingly small number of people who like games a little but not a lot. Most people I know fall into the first 3 categories. With ordinary folks, I find that if you push hard to get them to try many new games, or push games on them that take more than about 90 minutes to play, or ramp up complication too fast, then they end up not wanting to play at all. So just let them proceed at a leisurely pace, playing the games they really enjoy. Progression: I would start with very easy traditional games like tic-tac-toe, dots, hangman, checkers, simple card games. You may be able to get them more interested in playing a game to fill in time like waiting for food at a restaurant (which is why I mentioned the first 3 games).
  6. Word smithers. These people love word games and little else. Progression: This is far more age-dependent than any other category. For kids: Hangman, Boggle, Jotto, 25 words or less, Scrabble, might be a good progression. High school and older who already like crossword puzzles can jump right into scrabble.
  7. Strategy-only. These people don't see the point in playing games with random elements. They will play Checkers, Chess, Go, and possibly logic and hidden information games like Mastermind or Stratego. They may play them well - maybe even extremely well. But the vast majority of games hold little interest due to the luck element. Perhaps also in this category are people who tolerate modest amounts of luck so long as skill matters the most (Examples: Bridge and Poker). Progression: Tic-tac-toe, checkers, chess is a Western approach. Tic-tac-toe, Reversi (Othello), Go is an Eastern approach. Or a card track could look like solitaire, spades and/or hearts, bridge.
  8. Other. Like the nature-born engineer type I described above, there are certainly other people out there who enjoy only one very specific type of game. The path to discovery is to experiment with very different types of games, and not necessarily with simple ones first.

Certain games are popular because they work well for at least 3 out of first 7 of the above categories of people. For examples, Monopoly, Ticket to Ride, and Settlers of Catan all work well for 1, 2, and 4. I have played a ton of Settlers over the past decade because it offers a particularly good balance for people in these three categories. (Our kid learned it before he could read. First we played without development cards, then he just memorized the pictures on the cards.)

It is likely I missed some types of people - if I did, please mention them in the comments.

  • 1
    Do you consider ultra-competitors a subset of game lovers? My wife does not talk to me if I win by one point in TTR or Fresco or you name it that runs the score above a hundred. And our dance teacher seriously does not want to leave until she wins a round of Settlers or Power Grid (a great engineering game, not only because of the theme).
    – StasK
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 23:15
  • @StasK - In my experience, I've seen a wide range in (what you call) ultra-competitiveness among many different game player types. So it's not so much a type of player, as another variable independent of game player type. So I couldn't really figure out how to work that into my classification scheme. I did think of one more type to incorporate into my scheme: Strategy-only.
    – Joe Golton
    Commented Mar 4, 2012 at 19:43
  • That might also be another dimension. I am one of these guys who are reluctant to play the games of luck. I would consider Risk to be a game of luck, as I don't see deep strategies and transition from mid game to late game, which is often an important issue in many staged games. (Should I take new routes in TTR? Should I stop messing with aristocrats and buy off all the buildings in St Petersburg? Should I stop mixing browns and purples in Fresco, as there aren't any pieces left of these colors? Should I offer 70 euros for the only 7-capacity plant on the market in Power Grid?)
    – StasK
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 15:20
  • @StasK Do you think the #7 "Strategy-only" section I added adequately covers game players who dislike games of luck?
    – Joe Golton
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 15:25
  • That's a bit extreme. I have not come across very many strategy-only folks even among mathematician friends of mine, whom I have plenty. But then few people would fall squarely into a single category of yours -- I can associate myself with 1 and 4, with some elements of 2 and 7, and have nothing along 6, although I did play a fair share of Scrabble as a kid with my parents. Would you say that the game of bridge is strategy-only, given the hands? If the hands are pre-dealt at tournaments, it means that the remaining interactions of players must be purely strategic.
    – StasK
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:17

Technology has helped me convert/graduate more players than any other tool that I have used. Consider Dominion: this game is very easy to play online. You click on cards that are in bold and then you click "end turn". Notice that arbitrary button-pressing will probably never lead to a victory, but that the game mechanics can be easily learned since the computer will not let you do anything illegal. I taught my friend's young (12?) son to play in one 6-minute game on the isotropic reserved. Then when you transition to live play, you can say "remember when _ (you couldn't play two action cards because.../you couldn't build your settlement there/you couldn't claim that railway route", depending on which game you are playing.

I would also suggest using so-called "gateway games", such as Settlers, Ticket to Ride, and Dominion. Once socialites realize that there are other games besides pure luck games, true gamers can emerge! Settlers -> Cities and Knights -> (not sure what game has similar mechanics)

Ticket to Ride -> Steam/Railroad Tycoon

Dominion -> 7 wonders/Ascension. Never MtG. For the love of god... :)

Pirate's Cove -> Merchants and Maruaders

Carcasonne-> ??

I'm not sure what an intro "worker-placement" game would be, but eventually people should graduate to Agricola and Lancaster,

For co-op, Forbidden Island is popular (though this game struggles - like many co-op games - to answer the question "how is this different than paying all four characters by myself?")

  • 1
    A decent worker placement starter is Stone Age. Our family played it a dozen or so times (which is a lot, given that we have about 40 boxes), but never graduated to Agricola or Puerto Rico -- we played both of these twice at most. Two coop games that worked well for us were Shadows over Camelot (especially for our son) and Pandemics (especially for our daughter).
    – StasK
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 23:08
  • Thanks for that, @StasK. A friend has that game - guess it's time to check it out! Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 4:27

When I introduce friends of mine to games, I find that the most important thing is the time cost. People are unwilling to even try games that will take up hours of their lives. As far as I'm concerned, the number one gateway game is Dominion. Others have mentioned it already, but I'll give you a couple of reasons why I love to cajole non-gamer friends to try it:

  • It's quick - You can get a simple game in within 40 minutes (depending on the supply, obviously)
  • It's simple - A B C, play an Action, play a Buy, Clear up. Come on, an idiot can understand this game within a half-a-dozen turns
  • It's tactical - After the first game, if they're unsure about the hidden complexity of it, just point out how different everyone's deck is, and remind them that you all started with the same small deck, and used the same simple restrictions
  • It's nice - One of my biggest failings is that I hate getting brutal with other players (in ALL games). I play games to make friends, not add a number to some hypothetical win column. That's just me, but it's also true of first time players: they don't mind losing, but they don't want to feel victimised, and they don't want to feel like they suffered hugely because they didn't know how to defend against attacks. Since almost all interactions (as of the most recent expansions) affect ALL other players, there's no feeling of targeting or victimisation. (Compare Risk for example, in which all interactions are targeted and deliberate.)

Or, if your friends already enjoy charades, Pictionary, Cranium, etc, then you might try a different route: I have a category of games that I think of as good social gateway games. These are games that don't revolve around over-thinking strategy but in actual face-to-face interaction. Games in this category might include Shadow Hunters (and other Werewolves derivatives), or games like Dixit (conceptually similar to Balderdash and other standard fare, but a nice reminder that These Aren't Your Grampa's Games).

Finally, the benefit of cooperative games can't be overstated. I introduced a group of friends to Pandemic, which is a great game for increasing complexity. For the first couple of turns, I pretty much took everyone's turns for them, making sure to explain the reasoning you might consider before every action. After a couple of turns, I started "thinking out loud", suggesting that one or two actions seemed appealing and asking if anyone else had opinions, happily taking whatever decisions the others agreed on (even if I could see gaping logical flaws; learning isn't ALWAYS about winning ;D ). As you release your grip, the opinions come a lot more freely, and by the end, you'll have full-scale discourse about every turn. One thing to note: Pandemic and other cooperative games require a very gentle touch to teach. Accept that you won't win your first game with them, and that mistakes will be made. Over-ruling new players won't make them want to play again any time soon, even if the "team" won in the end!


I find the main factor that affects game introduction is the learning curve. Even if people enjoy playing new games, they generally don't enjoy actually learning them. The longer the interval between "Hey, would you like to play a new game?" and "Okay, we're ready to play.", the less likely any novice gamer is to stick around. Even if they do survive the initial training and make it to the game proper, you're still at a severe disadvantage; the only experience they have of this game so far is "This is so boring..." and now you actually have to fight against that. First impressions are not easy to counter.

The main reason the classic board games are so popular and have withstood the test of time isn't because they're particularly great games. It's because the rules are very easy to learn, and the games themselves are enjoyable enough to keep playing.

Add to that the fact that many of these games also share mechanics. Learn how to roll a six-sided die and move a little piece from one square to another, and you've mastered almost everything that Parker Brothers and Hasbro can throw at you. This makes the learning curve on future games that much easier.

So to bring this back around to the question in the opening post, you probably want to start with games that have as short a training period as possible. These will fall into two main categories:

  1. Games with easy rules
  2. Games that rely on previously-learned mechanics

Ticket To Ride is a good example of the first category. With the basic game, you can get new players up to speed on the rules in a matter of minutes. With any of the subsequent games, as long as everyone knows the main rules it only takes a few more minutes to explain what's new. In either case, the time between pulling out the game and getting new players to actually start playing is negligible; everybody's in the game proper well before their initial enthusiasm has a chance to fade.

Now, the jump from Ticket to Ride to Risk doesn't make a whole lot of sense; there is no practical overlap between game mechanics so you'd have to teach the Risk rules from scratch. The jump from Ticket to Ride to, say, Settlers of Catan would be much smoother. If they're well-versed in Ticket to Ride, then they've already got a good grasp on the following notions:

  • Collect cards for building stuff
  • Connect valuable points with roads
  • Stop other people from connecting valuable points with roads

Might not seem like all that much, but the more mechanics a new player already knows, the less time they have to spend figuring them out. And the less time they spend figuring stuff out, the sooner they get to actually have some fun.

So if you have a particular game in mind that you're looking to lead everyone toward, break it down and figure out games with overlapping mechanics which are easier to teach. If you're just trying to broaden your group's gaming horizons, introduce them to new games that are either easy to learn, or similar enough to stuff that they've already played. Either way, the more games everyone has under their belt, the easier it will be to pick up anything new.

  • Your basic point is borne out in my experience as a nature-born game lover. I once joined some old friends for a gaming session where I played 4 different games, each one new to me, and had a headache by the end (though I did end up buying one). Similarly, my first experience with Dominion, there was an entirely new set of cards with each new round, including newly introduced rules - again the headache. And I'm a guy who picks up games quickly. For those who are not fast-learning game lovers, I would imagine the principles you laid out to be even more helpful.
    – Joe Golton
    Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 23:33

Don't forget the most important thing about teaching new players games. Know the game, you're going to play, well!!! It is crucial that someone knows the rules well and can explain and answer questions fast to get some kind of flow. If you want to try a brand new game, pick it up the day before and read the rules. Maybe set the board and play around or watch someone else play it on youtube. This will make your gaming session so much better!


I've found Pandemic to be a great gateway game to get people interested in board games in general. Then, once they're hooked, games like Dominion and Agricola are good because can be started simple and then gradually increased in complexity by adding more bits of the game into the mix.


The new web-show TableTop is pretty much explicitly designed with this kind of thing in mind. As of this writing only one episode is out, covering Small World. Note that there is a little bit of cursing, but the F-bomb is bleeped, so you may want to consider pre-watching the show if you are considering using it to convince your kids to play...

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