A few months ago Adrian, a member of another club meeting at the British Legion, dropped into our club to try out modern board games. Dave A., Olly and I played with him Incan Gold, Carcassonne, Cartagena and Ticket to Ride. Since then I've been wondering which games would be suitable for a beginner whilst providing a good vista of the range of game types and mechanics. With other new players joining or dropping into the club, it's time I put a list together...
To make the gaming experience as enjoyable as possible to beginners, I've followed these criteria: simple rules, moderate play time, strong theme, relatively 'pure' mechanics (not only to better appreciate them but also to reduce the learning curve due to multiple interacting mechanics and aims), and no player elimination.
I'm not including push-your-luck, party, and individual bluffing games, as I can't think of any that would not be appropriate for beginners. For team bluffing games, see the social deduction category below.
Bidding is a core mechanic in many games, e.g. to distribute resources or to decide player order. The best pure auction game I know of is, hands down, Knizia's Modern Art. It has a variety of bidding types and it is very thematic. You really do get a feel how the art market can be manipulated to best suit the paintings you have for sale.
A simpler game is Dorra's real-estate themed For Sale. The first half of the game is the auction part, the second illustrates another common mechanic, simultaneous card selection.
There are plenty of elegant abstract connection games with simple rules, but for thematic flavour my recommendation is Wallace's La Strada. It also features an elegant mechanic of diminishing returns: the more players connect to the same place, the less it scores at the end.
Train games are the obvious domain of connection mechanics, and a good pure connection game for beginners is Delonge's TransEuropa or TransAmerica (US map), but not with the bland out-of-the-box rules, which lack a crucial aspect of any connection game worth its name: the ability to block other players. Fortunately, the official locomotive blockade rule overcomes that limitation in an elegant way.
A notch up in rule complexity, but still suitable for beginners, is Moon's Ticket to Ride. Once the base game has been introduced, every other version (Europe, Märklin, etc.) becomes easier.
The best and most thematic pure cooperative game (i.e. without any secret traitor) I know of is Leacock's Pandemic. It's a tense experience as you see those little buggers (the viruses) multiplying faster than rabbits, with your team running wildly across the world to prevent the worst (and often failing...).
This game should be on the school curriculum. Not only for the educational value (geography, disease spreading) but also for the skills it helps develop: clear communication, letting others speak, coming up with different solutions, arguing the benefits and disadvantages of each, making joint decisions, and being a team player even if you don't agree with the others.
Seyfarth's Puerto Rico is one of the best not-too-complex economic games, but it's still not easy for beginners to get their head around how the buildings and the rest work together. The game features an original 'Simon says' action selection mechanic that is relatively unique to this game.
I'll therefore suggest a simpler game, even more thematic than Puerto Rico, that has the added benefit of introducing the beginning player to a common action selection mechanic (worker placement): D'Orey's Vintage.
For me, the most fun and thematic pure race game is Riedesser's Ave Caesar. Do try to play the original edition, which has a more cut-throat race track than the modern edition.
I also recommend Snow Tails by the Lamont brothers, another very thematic race game, but it's not as fast paced (that's the point of a race, isn't it?) as Ave Caesar. Both games use the mechanic of all players having the same amount of 'fuel' to use throughout the race.
Social deduction games
These are team-based bluffing games, where players have to deduce who's on which team and prevent the other team from achieving their winning condition. Several games of this popular type have been published recently.
The granddaddy of them all is Plotkin's thematic Mafia (aka Werewolf), but given the criterion of avoiding player elimination, my suggestion is Eskridge's The Resistance. It has stable roles, i.e. each player has the same secret role throughout the game, which makes this kind of games far more interesting and challenging, in my opinion. A game with ever-changing roles can still be good chaotic fun, but there's more luck involved and less social deduction.
Over to you
The above list is just a start, pointing beginners to one or two good, easy to learn games that provide a taste for a whole class of games.
The list doesn't aim to be comprehensive. First, because I can only suggest games I own or have played at the club. Second, because my criteria are too restrictive and leave out many perfectly good beginner games. Third, because I'm sure I forgot some games that do fit the criteria. Fourth, because I left out many types of games, like area control games.
If you have any other suggestions for good games that have a theme, are easy to learn, and not long to play, let me know, especially if they feature a mechanic not used by the above games.