Top 5 Family-Friendly Gateway Games You Can Find in Waterloo Region
Ticket to Ride, Forbidden Island, and Mysterium are just a few popular titles that can open someone's eyes to a new kind of game that will make them want to play again and again.
Let's Discover 5 Family-Friendly Gateway Games to Get Friends and Family Hooked!
Ever since I became a parent 20 years ago, I discovered there were several family-run toy shops in Waterloo Region where you can find super fun and easy-to-learn family-friendly gateway games.
Sara recently gifted my family with the simple and hilarious card game Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza that she picked up at our favourite local game store, J&J Cards & Collectibles.
You can get the game rolling in seconds as it takes only a minute to learn, and you can play it anytime, any place. Her family was instantly hooked when they recently discovered it. Now we’re hooked too.
Some of my family’s favourite games over the years include Spot It!, Pictionary, Super Big Boggle, and the Monopoly Deal card game. Sara’s family loves UNO, Sushi Go!, Scrabble, and Azul.
On Episode 45 of Bonn Park, we had a fascinating conversation with Marc Quaglia, a board game specialist at J&J Cards & Collectibles in Waterloo.
So we recently asked Marc and fellow board game specialist Ian Voegtle at J&J’s to list their top 5 family-friendly gateway games that you can find right here in Waterloo Region.
First off, what defines a gateway game?
Marc: In many ways, games are a fundamental aspect of humanity. I know it sounds lofty, but that’s because it is.
Through games we all learn important lessons, like what it means to be part of a group, how we behave when we win, how to handle when we lose, and how we can craft stories together to help create meaning in our lives.
But sadly, most traditional games are less about community, and more about competition. Monopoly, for example, teaches us almost nothing about how to be good players, but instead that only one person can be lucky enough to win.
The game Risk teaches nothing about strategy, only that it’s important to eliminate other players from the game until only one person is having fun. We can go down the list: Stratego, Chess, Sorry, Parcheesi, and countless old designs are all about removing players from the game and victory is due to luck.
And these games are almost always slogs -- hours of people slowly losing until only one person stands victorious and everyone else is upset.
I think it is critical to point out that I have fond memories of playing Monopoly and Risk with my family. But it wasn’t the game, it was just an excuse to sit around with people I loved.
But what if you could do that and have fun at the same time?
Gateway games are games designed to be easy enough you can teach them in minutes, but fun enough that you’ll actually want to play them.
They’re often short and vibrant, full of meaningful decisions and ways to interact with other players, but without player-elimination, and usually with quick turns so you’re always engaged.
And they focus on fun for everyone, rather than just for the one person who is lucky enough to win.
Ian: Games that create an initial and ongoing interest in the hobby are considered gateway games. Each generation of game enthusiasts can be brought into the hobby by very different games.
Generally, games with simpler rules sets, no player elimination, shorter playtimes, and are great to play with friends and family are the most popular kinds of games that can be considered gateway games.
On with the show this is it! Marc and Ian’s Top 5 Family-Friendly Gateway Games starting with an easy party game to solve puzzles…
Marc: One of the many fantastic games by superstar designer Vlaada Chvatil, and easily his most accessible, Codenames may be the greatest game ever made for six to twelve players (the box claims it works for two to five players as well, but trust me when I say that the minimum number is six).
The joy in Codenames is the ease in getting it to the table and how everyone is involved at all times.
Players are divided into two teams: the Red Team, and the Blue Team. With a grid of 25 words visible to everyone, the Spy Masters (one for each team) will need to give their teammates clues to help them discover which words their team needs to win.
However, the catch is that the Spy Masters can only use a single word and a single number as a clue.
Pretend that you need to get your team to guess the words “Code,” “Honey,” and “Stiff” in order to win. I might say to my team “Coffee, three” in the hopes that my teammates link the idea of coffee to those three words: honey as a sweetener, stiff because of the caffeine perhaps, and code because programmers drink coffee like water.
But another person trying to find a link might say “Hex, three”, linking Hex colour code, the shape of a honeycomb, and the idea of a structure of hexes being very rigid.
Or perhaps “Mariah, three” because Mariah Carey has a song called “Honey” where she is a hacker but her performance is somewhat wooden.
The links you find will be unique to you, and the connections your teammates find as you are driven insane because you’re not allowed to clarify is incredibly fun, no matter if you win or lose.
Ian: Codenames is a team-based word/party game. The play area is made up of 25 cards in a 5x5 grid, each with a unique word printed on them.
Each team has one "Spymaster", the rest of the players are “field operatives”. The Spymasters use a “Key card” to give clues to their operatives.
The clues Spymasters can give must consist of only one word and one number (example: Animal, 3). Using the clue, that team will talk about which cards best match the word given, ideally up to the number given with the clue.
The trick to codenames is giving your team a clue that guides them to touch only the cards you want them to, while avoiding the opposing team's cards and the dreaded "assassin" space (which if touched by a team instantly loses them the game).
The Spymasters have the toughest job. They are responsible for coming up with clever connections between the words on the grid, and they must remain stone faced as their team talks themselves into, and out of, intelligent card selections.
Codenames is best played with more than four players, but Codenames Duet is another great option if you only have two players and want to work together.
Marc: Every year there is a “Game of the Year” award winner…the Spiel des Jahres (literally, “Game of the Year” in German, where the award is given at the largest board game convention on Earth: the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL in Essen, Germany). Codenames won in 2016, and Kingdomino won in 2017.
It is important to note that there are hundreds of board game awards, but all of them are meaningless except the Spiel des Jahres. It doesn’t tell you that a game is the greatest game ever, but it does say that the game is clever, fun, fast, colourful, and family-friendly, and Kingdomino is all of those in spades…and gosh is it ever fast!
A game of Kingdomino sees the two to four players selecting tiles with two different types of terrain: lakes, forests, caves, plains, grasslands, or swamps.
The goal of the game is to have large groups of connected terrain in your personal kingdom, so you’d like to have all your forests touching, all your lakes together, all your mines interconnected, and so on.
But, you have a strict limit on how far your kingdom can stretch, which means you will often have to decide a suboptimal placement for your tile now so that you can have a better placement later… but what if that perfect tile never shows up?
Critically, the game plays in 10-15 minutes, which means when you lose (and you will lose sometimes, no matter how good you are) you don’t really mind. The game was so short! Just rack up the tiles again, and play another round.
A friend of mine played the game 32 times back-to-back one holiday with his family just to determine their household’s Kingdomino champion. Just a quick, lovely, and fun game for the whole family.
Ian: If you have less than 30 minutes and want to play a game that everyone in the family can enjoy, Kingdomino is an easy one to bring to the table.
Players are each building their own kingdom using tiles with two sections, similar to Dominoes. The goal is to make the highest scoring 5x5 grid of terrain. This is accomplished by connecting similar terrains together in blocks.
It’s important to make sure each of those sections have the crown symbol in them, as your score for each different section is the total connected terrain multiplied by the number of crowns.
Once everyone is familiar with the rules a full game can often be played in around fifteen minutes, making Kingdomino a great choice if you have willing gamers with limited attention spans.
Ian: Carcassonne is one of those games I feel that everyone should have in their collection.
It is a streamlined marvel that feels almost too simple, until players get comfortable with deeper strategies and start employing devious tactics on one another.
The game is comprised of dozens of square tiles: each with roads, fields, and sections of buildings on them.
On your turn you simply take a tile from the stack and add it to the kingdom. Then, you must choose if you want to place one of your limited “meeple” pieces (tiny wooden people) on an unclaimed component.
You may claim roads, uncompleted buildings, or fields, but your meeples don’t return to you or score points until a road or building is completed.
Where Carcassonne gets really interesting is when players get aggressive. Laying tiles that make it more difficult for opponents to finish their buildings or connecting to large projects in an attempt to share or hijack points are some of the strategies that develop as time is invested in Carcassonne.
I’ve owned this game for over 20 years and still enjoy bringing it to the table, which I think is the best praise I can offer.
Marc: Despite the fact that I work at a game store, a big part of my job is actually talking people out of buying games.
I love games, and I own far too many, but I honestly and truly believe that a small selection of really good games is far better than spending a fortune on hundreds of games you will never play.
And with that in mind, there are exactly two games I think everyone should own… and Carcassonne is one of them.
Briefly, the game of Carcassonne sees the players creating a map with winding roads, crowded cities, lush farms, quiet cloisters, and rushing rivers. Players will claim parts of the map for themselves, but can also be passive-aggressive jerks and try to take away elements from other players.
The main reason I think everyone should own this game is that almost every game has a “sweet spot,” the number of players you really want to gather around the table to play.
Many people know that what a game claims it can play, and how many it can actually play are very different. But Carcassonne, which won the Spiel des Jahres way back in 2001, is equally good across its entire player count.
The number of people currently seated at your table: that is the exactly correct number of players. With two players it is a tight, strategic back-and-forth.
With the full five players it’s faster, more frantic, and yet still clever and deliberate. It rewards players for muscling in on their opponents, but also allows you to ignore everyone else and focus on your own goals.
There is no such thing as a perfect game, but if I had to recommend everyone get just one, it would be either Carcassonne or…
Marc: The second game I think everybody should own is the tiny, brilliant, and fast Sushi Go.
The game describes itself as a “Pick-and-Pass” game, but strictly speaking it’s a card draft: every player will begin the game with seven cards in their hand, pick one they wish to keep by putting it face down in front of themselves, and then pass the remaining cards to the player to their left. But everyone does this simultaneously, so nobody is left waiting for their turn.
Once everyone has passed their cards along, they then reveal the card they kept: you now know that Uncle Alex is collecting chopsticks, and that Cousin Fatima wants all the wasabi. But remember, you’re handing them your cards every turn, so if you don’t want Fatima to get more wasabi, maybe you’ll just hold onto that card this time.
But now you and Fatima are both collecting wasabi! So now Alex isn’t going to let you get more of it, so maybe you should just let Fatima collect her wasabi and instead focus on collecting nigiri which are useless alone but worth a bucket of points if you get them in pairs but what if Fatima decides to start collecting nigiri instead…AHHHHHHH!
Honestly, it’s such a quick, elegant little game that plays in 10-15 minutes that it’s hard not to find time for it before dinner, after breakfast, or just-one-game-before-bedtime. Again, no such thing as a game everyone will love, but I think everybody should give Sushi Go a try.
And if you like the small, inexpensive version, there’s Sushi Go Party which adds more types of cards to collect (including my favourite, “Tofu,” which scores a few points if you have one, lots if you have two, but negative points if you have to take three!), and plays with up to eight players.
Ian: Sushi Go! is a quick little card game about collecting combinations of cute, colourful, cartoon sushi.
For newer players Sushi Go! will introduce a card mechanic known as "drafting". Each round, players are dealt a hand of cards. From that hand, everyone chooses (drafts) one card for themselves and passes the rest of the hand to the left. This process repeats until no cards are left to pass.
As cards are chosen, players get to see what their opponents have placed in front of themselves. The fun comes from deciding if you draft a card that you need and are collecting, or to draft a card you know the player to the left needs.
The balance between upping your own score, and strategically keeping cards from your opponents makes Sushi Go! a blast.
Ian: Wingspan is the best recent example of a gateway game I can think of as it has captured the attention of millions and genuinely sparked new interest in the hobby.
With beautiful hand-drawn artwork and a fairly simple rule set, Wingspan continues to be one of the hottest games at J&J’s.
The basic premise of the game is that players are creating a collection of birds on their own environment board.
Each turn you will either play a bird from your hand of cards to one of the three biomes (forest, field, or marsh), or activate one of those biomes to get resources for future bird placement.
Where Wingspan gets interesting is when players activate biomes for resources, any birds in that environment get activated as well. Some birds have abilities that allow you to get bonus food, draw more cards…or one of many other unique and interesting powers.
Creating a board of birds that has powerful synergy with the actions you take is what makes Wingspan highly replayable, and a ton of fun.
Marc: When I was in university almost 25 years ago I was tasked with writing a review for the then-brand-new Halo 2 video game and a realization dawned on me: it didn’t matter what I said. I could say it was the best game ever, I could say it was the worst, but nobody cared.
Everyone was already decided on whether they were going to buy it or not.
Wingspan is a little like that. While nothing may ever dislodge the old classics from their vaunted positions of domination over board game sales, Wingspan has become something of a cultural phenomenon.
It sells by the dozens every month. There was a period of time when the waitlist for people wanting a copy was over seventy customers, and we have received and sold more copies of it since its release than almost any other title.
So, is it good? Honestly…it’s not bad. What it is, without a shadow of a doubt, is gorgeous. The artwork is jaw-dropping depictions of North American birds (hundreds of different birds, all with a little fact about them), there is a stupid but breathtaking little dice-rolling tray that looks like a birdhouse, and handfuls of eggs that look and feel (but do not taste) exactly like Mini Eggs.
It’s a bit too complicated for my tastes for how light it is, there is a great video of Mandy Patinkin trying to teach Wingspan to his wife that highlights some of the difficulty in explaining how to play it, and the end game scoring has a bit too much math for me.
But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Waterloo Region who are now playing board games because of this game. And that’s a pretty amazing thing for any game to achieve.
What iconic board game was a gateway game for both Marc and Ian?
Marc: The big gateway game for many of us was Settlers of Catan, now rebranded as just Catan. It was a revolution when I discovered it in university: a game that not only had no player elimination but also managed to have everyone engaged on every turn and almost always played in under ninety minutes?! It blew my tiny little mind, and I will be forever indebted to my friend who introduced it to me. Thanks Gabe!
But Catan is starting to show its age. The game is almost thirty years old at this point. And while it is still lightyears better than Monopoly or Risk and other awful games like those, game design has come a long way in that time.
Catan opened the door to games like Carcassonne and Munchkin, and those paved the way for me to dive into everything from light little games like Illusion and The Mind to massive sprawling monstrosities that nobody in their right mind should own like Twilight Imperium and Mega Civilizations (five to eighteen players over eight to twelve hours).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am still usually the guy who introduces people to new games, and as a result I still love a good gateway game. Seeing that moment when you see in somebody’s eyes that a strategy just clicks, or a person is laughing as they lose, or those moments we all sit around the table just digesting a brilliant move…a well-designed game is enchanting, and the ability to witness that magic is honestly really special.
Plus, it gives me an excuse to be a passive-aggressive jerk to my friends, and gives everyone that wonderful glow when they finally manage to beat me. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Ian: When Settlers of Catan first released and started getting popular, I wasn't playing as many board games as I was when I was young. My friends and I got into playing Catan regularly and it reignited my passion. After adding the Cities and Knights expansion, we were all hooked.
Over the years, I’ve continued enjoying many more complex games like Root, Everdell, and the co-operative epic: Sleeping Gods.
My comfort level for complexity in games has grown with each new game we bring to the table. Making time to learn and play new games every week or two has our friend groups constantly engaged and collecting (too many) board games.
So what gateway games inspired Ian and Marc’s passion for gaming?
Ian: When I was younger, my family introduced me to many games. The grandparents loved card games and played lots of Crockinole, Rummikub, and Checkers. At home we had Monopoly, Othello, Stratego, and many others.
When Hero Quest came out in 1989, I remember getting it for Christmas and playing it with anyone who would join me. Games like Hero Quest created an interest in things like Dungeons & Dragons, furthering my deep dive into gaming. All of these experiences could be considered my gateway games into the hobby; an interest that will last a lifetime.
Marc: My father taught me chess at a very young age, and I played competitively from Grade 3 up to about Grade 11. My family would play games of Risk and Monopoly on camping trips, and some of my most fond memories are of the sound of rain against the canvas of my parent’s tent-trailer as we sat at the tiny table rolling dice.
But my family didn’t like playing games as much as I did because, frankly, most of my family are extremely sore losers. But I loved sitting down with them and spending time together, so I learned very early on to lose specifically so they would play again.
What can I say, I was a weird kid who has, ostensibly, grown into a weird adult. But the big thing for me, years before I discovered Catan, was tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs). The best known is Dungeons & Dragons, even when I was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the minute I was old enough to read I bought the old Red Box and made friends who would come over every weekend to play in my basement.
We played D&D for years, as well as dozens of others (Rifts, Robotech, TMNT and Other Strangeness, Paranoia, etc). Games where you could craft stories, and nobody “lost” because the goal wasn’t winning or losing, but just playing together? Yes please!
That love of collective gaming, of being together and crafting stories with loved ones…that is still what drives me today.
Where can we find these amazing family-friendly gateway games in Waterloo Region?
There are several family-run toy and game shops in Waterloo Region, like Toy Tales in Cambridge, Hobby and Toy Central in Kitchener, and Toy Soup in St. Jacobs, but J&J Cards & Collectibles have the biggest selection of effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and intellectually rewarding games around. Hands down. So one more time, let’s hear from Ian and Marc…
Ian: Marc and I are always available to answer questions, offer suggestions, and show off the new releases in the board game section at J&J's Cards & Collectibles. If you aren't able to make it in, you can reach out on Facebook, Instagram, or throw us an email at email@example.com!
Marc: I have lofty, some might say overly ambitious, dreams when it comes to gaming. I think one of the greatest tragedies of modern life is the sentence “You’re too old to have fun anymore.”
What a catastrophe those words are. Hearing customers come into the store, look at the literally-thousands of games on our shelves, and say “So, are all these for kids?” breaks my heart.
Everyone should be allowed to have fun. Everyone is welcome in gaming, and there is a game for everyone.
And while I can’t guarantee that we have the perfect game for you at J&J Cards & Collectibles, I can promise you that we will try our absolute best to make sure you don’t walk out with a game you won’t enjoy, and hopefully a few that you will absolutely love for years to come.
Every time somebody asks me if we have Sorry or Clue, my answer is always “Sadly, yes.” Yeah, I’m trying to get a chuckle, but hopefully we can talk a little bit about what you really want from a game.