Thought I’d make a list of beginner friendly games. Simple rules and on the cheaper end of the spectrum (generally $10-$25). I think the problem with too many of these lists is that they tend to recommend “gateway” games or games that people are supposed to use as a jumping-off point and get bored of once they start getting into “real” games so they sort of end up recommending a lot of bad games, without any sense of real curation (if they aren’t outright shills or Amazon affiliate link farms). They’re part of a board gaming culture where people regularly have monstrous collections of hundreds (if not thousands) of games, that on average end up getting played like once or twice, if at all. I think that mindset kinda sucks, so all the games that I’m recommending here are ones that I have personally played several times that I think you can get your money’s worth out of.
Don’t just take my word for it though. Look up reviews and discussions/comments on any given game (BoardGameGeek is a good source) and read the rules and see for yourself if it’s something that you’d enjoy (I understand this might be hard to gauge for newbies but it is a good habit to form if you decide to continue playing board games). Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a board game group, cafe, or even a public library that stocks board games, so you can try before you buy. If you can’t find a place, there’s always Tabletop Simulator, which is basically a universal board game piracy engine. Also, consider buying games from a local game store or specialized online retailer (like Miniature Market or Coolstuffinc) instead of just buying from Amazon or Target.
Santorini is a light strategy game where you take turns moving a dude then building a floor of a building. Get one of your dudes on top of a 3-story building to win, but your opponent can mess with your plans by finishing the building with a dome-shaped roof so you can’t stand on it. Made for 2 players but works really well with 3-4. The game can be spiced up by giving each player a unique power card, which the game includes an entire deck’s worth of. I love the way the 4-player team game makes use of these powers since you and your teammate can control your team’s pieces but only you can use your power, leading to all kinds of interesting scenarios.
Also consider: Patchwork, a Tetris-like strategy game about making quilts.
The Resistance: Avalon
The Resistance is a light Mafia-style game for 5-10 players but with less random flailing than Mafia. It’s a take on the classic “there are more good guys than bad guys but only the bad guys know who the other bad guys are so they can work together while the good guys scream at each other” social deduction formula but it gives players a few markers of concrete information they can anchor their thoughts to and make logical deductions (or abductions, if you prefer) from, while only taking like 15 minutes to play and doesn’t have any lynch mechanics so players don’t find themselves sitting out while everyone else has fun. There’s also a vanilla “The Resistance” but you can play that version of the game with Avalon. Basically, Avalon adds a handful of expansion modules that you can mix and match depending on what you’re feeling on any given game, and is overall a better value.
Also consider: Deception: Murder in Hong Kong and Secret Hitler, which are similar (and arguably better) games, though do note that they cost like twice as much. Crossfire, a pocket-sized social deduction game that’s played entirely with cards and a timer, so you can even play it while standing.
Codenames is a Minesweeper-style word game for 4+ players. Players split into two teams, each with a leader that takes turns giving their team clues on which words, from a grid of 25 of them (see picture), belong to their team, while the rest of their team tries to figure out what those words are. Uncover all your team’s words and you win, but if you mess up you could end up uncovering the other team’s words for them or uncover the Assassin, which causes your team to instantly lose. It’s a pretty flexible game that works with any number of players (except 1), and people can freely jump in and out in the middle of the game. There’s even a co-op mode if you don’t have the 4 players needed to form 2 teams. There’s also a version where the words are replaced with pictures and a dedicated cooperative version which is actually pretty challenging. Don’t bother with any of the themed versions (Marvel, Harry Potter, etc) or the 18+ version.
Also consider: Crosstalk, a similar game that has teams competing to guess words instead. Decrypto, another similar game where players attempt to “decode” the other team’s words. I’m personally not a fan but a lot of people prefer it to Codenames. Werewords, a word game with Mafia-style social deduction mechanics (my personal favorite).
Just One is a cooperative word game for 3-8 and the winner of the 2019 Spiel des Jahres (German Board Game of the Year) award. Players take turns being the guesser, where they’re assigned a word that they don’t know but everyone else does. The other players secretly write a one word clue that the guesser uses to figure out their word but if any of the clue-givers write the same thing, their clues get canceled out and the guesser has fewer clues to work with. A few times of this happening and people start writing less and less obvious clues until they start getting way too obtuse and start writing galaxy-brained shit like “bullwhip” to get the you to guess “California” (because Indiana is also a state) and then realize they have to dial it back a little. It’s a pretty funny and relaxed game.
A note on cooperative games in general: since they generally don’t benefit from human input providing additional layers of challenge (since all the players are playing against the game), they tend to have a much shorter lifespan than competitive games, especially when playing with the same group. In the case of Just One, you can increase the challenge by sourcing other word lists that aren’t specifically curated for this game (including from Codenames, above). If you want to go really difficult, you can fire up Wikipedia and start hitting the Random Article button to generate words.
The Mind is a simple cooperative card game for 2-4. All you’re doing is collectively playing your cards in order from lowest to highest. The catch is that you don’t know what’s in the other players’ hands and you aren’t allowed to communicate with each other about what cards you’ve got. If you play a card out of order (because you didn’t realize another player had a lower card in their hand) you all lose a life. Get to the end of the game without running out of lives to win. Most of the time you’re awkwardly gesturing at each other to figure out who should play a card next, but sometimes you get into The Zone, where you and the other players have figured each other out and are laying down cards rapid-fire. This game is definitely not for everyone though, and unlike Just One a lot of people tend to feel pressured to perform well to not piss off the other players, and also the game tends to fall flat when you have a player that isn’t good at reading social cues or body language, which unfortunately means this game isn’t for everyone, or maybe even most people. Also, my note on cooperative games above also applies here.
Also consider: 6 nimmt, another light card game, but not cooperative. Described by Meeplelikeus as “The Mind for people that didn’t at all like The Mind”. Fun fact: you can actually use 6 Nimmt cards to play The Mind if you know the rules for The Mind.
These games are in the ~$30 range. This is also where the games get a bit more complex, but are still generally manageable for newbies.
Dominion is a deck-building game, the first of its kind, and the best of its kind. You start with a small deck of piddly cards, and use those to buy better cards, which you use to buy even better cards, and so on. You win by accruing victory points, which also come in the form of cards that you buy, except they do nothing but clog up your deck. The central angst of the game is figuring out when to stop buying better cards and just start buying points. Get them too early and your engine screeches to a halt; go for them too late, and the game ends before you have enough to overtake your opponent. One of the notable things about Dominion is that it has a bunch of expansions that increase the combinatorial breadth of the game, enabling all kinds of weird card combos, so you can pick these expansions up as needed to keep the game fresh. It’s a game that grows with you as time goes on. Also note that this isn’t a trading card game. All the deck building happens within the game (and you take it apart when you end the game and pack it up).
Also consider: Heart of Crown, a similar game that puts more emphasis on tactical play and rewards going with the flow and being opportunistic, as opposed to the long-term decision-making rewarded by Dominion. Also has anime art for weebs. Trains (aka Dominion with a board) has players building tracks around a board and building a rail network, replacing Dominion’s “buy point cards” means of victory. The Quest for El Dorado is another deckbuilder that does away with points altogether and has players weighing their options between using their cards as money to buy better cards or using them to move along a race track to get closer to reaching the goal.
Exceed Fighting System
Exceed is a 2-player crossover fighting card game played that has each player controlling a character and that character’s deck of cards. Players take turns performing one action, like playing a card to Strike or performing various ancillary actions like moving. When you Strike, you play a card face-down, and your opponent plays a card of their own. Attacking in this game isn’t free and there’s always a chance that you can get blown out by an opponent’s attack that counters yours, so you play an attack that counters that, but then they might play a thing that counters that, and so on. Besides attacking, cards can also used as their Boosts, which either provide a powerful one-time effect or bump up your next attack’s stats. They can also be discarded to generate a resource called Force, which are used for things like moving or paying for boosts. This way, no card is truly dead in your hand. You just have to decide what you think is the best way to use of every card.
It’s a pretty rich game with a bonkers amount of content. There are a bunch of characters from all kinds of crossover stuff like Street Fighter and Shovel Knight, and they’re always making more. This game is my #1 favorite right now, and it scratches the TCG itch (while not actually being one), taking me back to when I used to play Yugioh. I’m not even into fighting games so I was surprised by how much I liked this. Downside is that it’s a fair bit more complex than the other games on this list and losing can feel bad/punishing for certain types of gamers (this game has stunlock mechanics). It can also get kinda difficult to figure out how to jump into the game. I actually wrote a buying guide to address this issue.
Also consider: Yomi, another card fighting game whose gameplay is almost purely bluffing/reads-based. Not as good as Exceed, in my opinion, and a lot of people find the gameplay to be completely inscrutable (“It’s random!”, “It’s just rock-paper-scissors!”, etc.) but some people prefer it to Exceed. Kamigami Battles, a deckbuilding game with combat mechanics. Supports playing with more than 2 people and doesn’t have as many feelbad mechanics.
Cockroach Poker Royal, a light bluffing card game. Pairs, a fun, modern take on Blackjack, though to be honest there isn’t much depth here or in Cockroach Poker but they’re not a bad time and something decent to pull out when you want to turn your brain off. Red7, another light card game that captures the feel of bluffing and anteing in Poker. I’ve personally played this one over 200 times, but a lot of people don’t “get” it. I recommend playing with 2 players only and using scoring rules before passing judgment.
Also want to mention card game systems like the Octo Deck, Banjo Deck, or the Everdeck (best value, imo). They’re like a standard Poker deck but with more ranks and/or suits (and sometimes other features like letters). There are a bunch of games that you could play with a poker deck if you just had more cards. Lost Cities for example would be perfectly playable with a standard poker deck if a standard poker deck had 5 suits instead of 4. There are all kinds of resources that list these games along with what cards you need, so you can pull them out of your Octo Deck or whatever, find the rules to the game online, and just start playing. Basically one of these decks gives you access to an instant game collection. It will almost always be an inferior experience compared to having the actual game (Lost Cities for example has a completely unnecessary board that is nonetheless helpful for organizing the game) but imo not that big a deal compared to how much money/space you’d be spending otherwise.