There’s a prime requirement for gateway games. It’s not that it should look cool, although that helps. It’s not that it should have a high production value, or many dedicated players or easy rules or a small footprint. All of these things help but there’s one thing that beats them all:
A great gateway game should feel familiar.
Familiarity carries with it a number of positive psychological assumptions: if it feels familiar then it will be easy to learn. If it feels familiar then I will enjoy, or at least tolerate, it. If it feels familiar then people in my vicinity will know it and help me if I need help. If it feels familiar then I’ll be good at it. And so on and so forth.
Note that it doesn’t have to be familiar or even look familiar, it just have to feel familiar. Note also that familiarity implies positive associations: pretty much everyone knows about Nazis but how many people feel familiar around Nazis? We recognize the flags, the movies, the gestures but we don’t feel familiar with them. Familiarity and recognition are two different (albeit related) things.
So how does one make a game feel familiar? The obvious answer is to build on something already known and liked. That something doesn’t have to bee XYZ-opoly anyone – just yesterday I played :Duco:, a brand new tile placement/pattern recognition game, that felt very familiar due to its elements: cards, graphical symbols reminiscent of early school year counting exercise, tile laying and simple numbers. It also had two pretty ingenious parts, from the aspect of familiarity: multi-matching shapes contain all the shapes in the game (multi-matching colors contain all the colors) and the placement of the normal and special shapes follows an easy recognizable pattern. (I’ll review the game once I’ve gotten some more plays in.)
Looking at Ticket to Ride the same way you can see that it contains many recognizable elements: trains, the map of the US (compare this to Underground which contains a map of the London subway and feels a lot less familiar to me as I don’t know the London U), the cards (reinforcing the train theme), set collecting etc. Compare this to Through the Desert, which is about as complex but contains an unknown desert and camels, neither of which evokes familiarity from a US/European audience and Through the Desert isn’t as a great gateway game as Ticket to Ride.
Familiarity works for non-gateway games as well: imagine a Through the Ages with a space/future them and the exactly same mechanics. Not hard to do but it wouldn’t be the same at all. As it stands now, TTA is Sid Meyer’s Civilization even though there’s nothing in its implementation that makes it Civilization (for example: TTA is mapless while Civ is highly dependent on its map). But the familiar elements from Civ exists in TTA: happiness, science production, wonders, population increases etc. Thus TTA engenders a feeling of familiarity in Civ players and has a ready audience amongst them. The converse is also true: Alpha Centauri[amazon template=f_textamazon&asin=B00001NTSO], Sid Meyer’s follow up to Civilization, was the same game but with an unfamiliar theme and it sold poorly.
Clubs, which is nothing like common card games, sells on the mass market based on its name and icons, which buyers will experience before its simplicity and gameplay.
So if you’re looking to create a gateway game, look at what your target audience will find familiar and extract the elements from it that will make your game feel familiar.