Guide: Starter Games

I’m new to board games! What games should I buy?

So to begin with, folks ask me this question a lot; and I find it difficult to answer, as it’s just so subjective. There is no set list of games that every player should buy or own. But, in light of the caronavirus/COVID-19 situation, and a newfound public interest in board games, I thought I’d compile a list of my top ten recommendations for newer gamers, along with three honorable mentions. Most of these are just personal (read: subjective) recommendations, though I did try to pick games that are readily available from larger retailers like Amazon, Target, or Walmart. I will say that every game on this list has proven itself over and over again for us.

It surprises me even now as I write it, but “Lotus” is probably my number one game recommendation for newer players. It’s a pretty simple set collection game, where players are contributing petals to flowers in the middle of the table. When a flower is completed, players will earn points and special powers. What makes this game truly shine is that’s so easy to pick up, play, and teach; but once you learn the ropes, there is a surprising amount of depth to be found here. Admittedly, “Lotus” can get pretty competitive- so keep that in mind. Personally I’ve always preferred to view it as meditative experience, perfect for a quiet evening with friends and family.

For my part, “Splendor” is a default game recommendation to new players, as it’s arguably the title that got me back in to tabletop gaming. It’s a quick engine building game, that most beginners will pick up easily. It has also provided an incredibly consistent experience for us. I will admit that the price might feel high for what’s in the box, but the component quality more than makes up for it. If you’d like to learn more about “Splendor,” I posted a review a while back.

“Codenames” is one of those games that tends to get a bad rap amongst avid tabletop gamers. A lot of those criticisms are pretty baseless, but one of them does bear a little merit- it just works better as a group activity. Enter “Codenames Duet,” a fully cooperative version of the game. In this title you will lay out 25 cards with assorted words. Two teams will provide word association clues to one another in order to select certain cards. There’s no easy way to explain this game fully, so I’ll just stop at saying it’s a fun and challenging experience. Also, the “Duet” mechanisms can be found in “Codenames: Harry Potter,” which happens to be the version we have in our collection.

In “Dragonwood” you’ll use poker hands and roll lovely ruby red dice to defeat silly monsters. The artwork is adorable, and there’s some stuff thrown in to sow a little chaos into the mix. It’s been a winner for us, and is probably the single most played title on our shelf. Part of what makes it so easy to get to the table is the fact that it uses mechanisms most folks are already familiar with. It’s also very quick, as most games tend to finish in under twenty minutes. Want to know more? Check out our review.

“Kingdomino” is a tile placement game in which you will build a lovely little five by five kingdom. You’ll be trying to match up land types, then you’ll score points based on the size of each area in your kingdom. There’s some added depth to be found in an interesting turn order mechanism. The game is beautiful and well made. It’s also very affordable, and can help teach children to apply multiplication.

“Azul” hit the scene a couple of years ago, and left and indelible mark on the way we think about table top gaming. “Azul” is a set making game, In which players will select all tiles of a single color from groups of tiles around the table. Any tiles they do not select to get added to the center pool. As the game progresses, players will also be able to select all tiles of a specific color from the center pool. This creates an interesting balancing act between progressing your own sets versus helping opposing players too much. At the time of writing, there are three different versions of this game available on the market, and they are fairly similar. For what it’s worth, I own “Azul: Summer Pavilions,” but I’d still recommend the original “Azul” before either of the newer versions, as it’s a cleaner experience, and more widely available.

From Bezier Games

In “One Night Werewolf” players will take on secret roles of various townsfolk, and werewolves. The game begins with a night phase, when all players will close their eyes. They will be given instructions, which they will then immediately complete. This will be followed by the day phase, when players will try to determine who is a werewolf, and who is not. The appeal of the “One Night” series is incredibly difficult to convey on paper. Some folks will read this description and pass it by, but that would be a mistake. This is a very reasonably priced game that will provide you and your family hours of fun.

Token Opinion has already dropped a review of this one, so I’m not going to labor over a description. Deck building games are some of our favorite, and “Hogwarts Battle” is one of the most approachable titles in the genre; teaching you new mechanisms and rules with each successive game. For this reason, Hogwarts battle is one of the best intro titles to modern tabletop gaming. But unfortunately, this comes at a cost- if you’re not a fan of Harry Potter, you may not enjoy “Hogwarts Battle” all that much. This is hardly unique to this title, however. Many deck builders are somewhat theme reliant; and if the theme doesn’t appeal to you, they can become a tough sell.

A little over ten years ago, “Pandemic” by Matt Leacock hit the board game scene like a shock-wave, as one of the first big cooperative titles. In “Pandemic,” you and up to four of your friends will fight to save the world from four viruses. These manifest as cubes on cities; but one city can only have three cubes, and after that it will spawn cubes on all adjacent cities. The tricky part of this recommendation is that “Pandemic” is not just one game, it’s now an entire family of games; leading to some confusion for gamers, and probably more than a few headaches for Z-Man. For what it’s worth, we own “Pandemic: Iberia,” which is my preferred version of the game. That said, I only recommend the original version, pictured in the art above.

From iello

Have you ever asked yourself “I’d like to play ‘Yahtzee,’ but it just doesn’t have enough giant monsters in it. Why don’t they make a game for me?” Take heart! They do in fact make a game just for you: it’s called “King of Tokyo,” and it’s pretty darn good. This is a dice combat game, we’re players will roll dice to attack one another, earn points, or buy special abilities. The game is fast and exciting, with enough “I can’t believe you rolled that” moments to make this game fun for most ages.

Honorable Mentions

I love “Jamaica,” it’s one of my favorite games. If “Splendor” is the game that got me back in to this hobby, “Jamaica” is the game that kept me going. But the original game has some balancing issues, which I wrote about in our review. As a result, I’d recommend buying the expansion “Jamaica: The Crew” right along with it. However, this conflicts with my theory that beginners ought to avoid expansions… So, I’d advise steering clear of this title until you’re sure this hobby is for you. When you’re ready, I’d suggest ordering both “Jamaica” and “The Crew!”

“Hanabi” is a fantastic cooperative title, with an impressive amount of depth for a game with such simple mechanisms. Up until recently, I would have considered it an absolute shoe-in for a list like this. However, after hearing it panned by a fellow critic that I have the upmost respect for, I realized that no one had ever taught him how to play it; he had to learn from the manual. Again, the game itself is simple enough; but understanding the nuance of play, the importance of communication, double and even triple clues… These are things you can’t easily put into a set of rules, and not understanding that nuance could make this game a very rough experience. So, I have to recommend finding a teacher for the this one. But hey, if you find yourself in the greater Denver metro area, I’m almost always up for a game (you know, when there’s not a pandemic going on).

The last game I want to mention is “Fox in the Forest,” and I’ve saved it til last because I think it’s very special. I had a lot of doubts about “Fox” when it first came out, primarily because it’s a two player trick taking game. I’m glad to report that it’s quite good. But trick taking games usually require more than two players, they also tend to be really (haha) tricky; and this game includes a few cards with special abilities to boot. Summed up, you have a game with a lot of depth, and an especially mean learning curve. I just don’t see this a starter game, which makes this game tough to recommend to folks who are brand new to table top gaming. But as I said before, you will find something very special in this box.

There is a sequel titled “Fox in the Forest Duet,” which is cooperative; and I suspect this might be the perfect way to introduce all of these mechanism to new players. It’s also getting good feedback from other critics; but I haven’t played it yet, leaving me reticent to recommend it.

Well, there you go: ten games I’d recommend to any new table top gamer. I sincerely hope you found this article helpful. Alternately, maybe you’ve noticed that I’m missing a game or two! Feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and starter games in the comments below!

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