15 Surprisingly Easy Board Games, Heavy Games that are Easier to Learn and Play than Expected

Some board games can seem intimidating, with a thick rulebook, lots of components, or too many things to learn all at once. Sometimes though a boardgame will surprise you by looking complicated when in reality it isn’t.

That’s what I’m going to be tackling in this article, board games that are much easier than expected. I’m talking about games that are quicker to learn, simpler to play or overall surprising in how approachable they are compared to what their first impression might be.

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First, we looked at surprisingly complex games and now we are looking at surprisingly easy games!

A few weeks back I posted an article where I talked about board games that surprised me by being much more than I expected.  The other day I saw a post on Facebook that was pretty much the opposite of that. Dan Walker wrote:

Looking for suggestions for games that seem heavier than they actually are.

Below I’m going to list a number of games that surprised me by being much more approachable than they first appeared to be. These are games that either intimidated me or other players that I know but that ended up being much easier to both play and understand than expected. 

Board games that were much easier than expected:

Anachrony – Anacrony is one of the most overwhelming and intimidating games I own. It’s also a huge table hog. Along with being physically intimidating, one of the main concepts of the game, the fact that you can send resources to yourself from the future, sounds like it’s going to be mechanically clunky.

What Anachrony does to help with this is to feature a very slow build-up of viable player options, especially at the start of the game. Players begin with limited resources at their disposal which forces everyone’s initial actions to be to build up those resources. This limits the decision tree at the beginning of the game, with new options only being added once you’ve started to build your engine.

Every time I teach this game players stop me, usually after the second or third turn, to point out that this game is “not as bad as I expected it to be.”

Raiders of the North Sea – This is a worker placement game based on Vikings raiding that features three different tracks running around the edges of the board, hands of cards with Vikings and all different sorts of icons on them,  and all kinds of spots on the board filled with piles of different wooden resources.  When looking at it all spread out on the table Raiders of the North Sea can be overwhelming to new players.
Once you start playing through you immediately see just how simple it really is. Each turn players place a meeple onto the board and do an action, and then take a meeple off of the board and do another action. To make things even easier, at the start you only have the lowest level meeple and no raiding party available so your options are limited. It’s only after you’ve got a crew, some provisions and a few higher-level Vikings that the full set of in-game options present themselves. 

For more information on this game check out my full Raiders of the North Sea review.

Orleans – Orleans is one of my favourite games of all time but it has been known to intimidate people. A big part of the intimidation factor of Orleans is the amount of work that goes into setting this game up. The number of round follower tiles you have to stack, the piles of goods, and seeding the main board with goods, can make the game look a little daunting. Along with this is the fact that everyone also has their own player board filled with worker placement spots, not to mention the beneficial deeds board.

The thing is that Orleans is another game where your starting stuff severely limits your actions. You don’t start with any monks, scholars or knights, so you don’t even have to consider the spots that use those follower types. Similarly, the beneficial deeds board is mainly used to thin down your bag, something you not only don’t want to do at the start of the game but that you mechanically can’t.

Even once the game ramps up, you are always limited by which followers you draw so that you never have all of the options open to you at once. By limiting your choices each round Orleans greatly reduces the cognitive load required to play it.

Tzolk’in The Mayan Calendar – When compared to the other games on this list I can’t tell you what exact secret the Tzolk’in designers used to make their game sing as well as it does. This game just works, and for some reason, people pick it up quickly. I think the fact that part of this game is playing to see what will happen is a large part of what makes Tzolk’in as approachable as it is. While playing you often put your worker on a gear planning on getting one thing but then things change and you decide instead to get something else. This can be due to someone else taking the thing you wanted, or finding that you don’t need a worker back right away so you can just leave it on the gear for another round, or maybe two and see what you end up with. 

Everyone in Tzolk’in starts off with some basic goals, like feeding your workers, but then can branch out and try other things. Whatever the secret is, whenever I teach this game to new players they always point out that it was much easier than they expected.

Brass Lancashire – This brilliant game from Martin Wallace is amazing for a number of reasons, one of which is how quickly you can teach it. In Brass, each round players are only going to take two actions and those actions are going to be limited to and dictated by what cards players have in their hands.  Added to this each of the actions are straightforward and make sense within the theme of the game.

It’s not the mechanics that make Brass a heavy game, it’s learning how best to use them that creates the weight. While you may not figure out a winning strategy the first time you play this meaty game you will grasp how to do everything quickly and easily. This is the perfect example of a heavy game that’s quick to learn and difficult to master.

Pulsar 2849 – Pulsar is another board game that scares players watching it be set up. There’s a huge round board covered in stars and multi-coloured pathways. Then you add all kinds of sideboards. These sideboards get piles of tokens, chips and counters placed on them. Then there’s the big multi-level tech tree covered in all kinds of seemingly non-sensical icons. All of this is more than enough to worry someone new to the game. Pulsar does what many of the games on this list do to make them more approachable and that’s limiting options. Each turn you are only going to get to do at most three actions.  In addition, many actions require your ship to be at specific spots on the board, so the first turn every player will want to take a move action. Added to this the numbers that come up on the dice are further going to limit what’s available to each player.

Now I do have to admit that Pulsar doesn’t do a ton to make explaining the game easier, as the first thing you need to do is draft some dice, but it’s great for playing to see what happens and explaining possible actions as they come up. This is one of those games where I strongly recommend just diving in right away and then offering to restart the game after turn two, once everyone understands all of the possible actions.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game – I have to count myself as one of the many people who have found themselves intimidated by the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Like the full Role Playing Game that this card game is based on, this game has a huge rulebook. Okay maybe it’s not as big as the full Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook, but it’s the biggest board game rulebook I own. That right there will scare some people away. What makes the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game rulebook so big is the fact that there is tournament support for this game. Since those tournaments have prize support, the rules need to be as clear and unambiguous as possible. Once you actually sit down and play, you will find that the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game plays quickly and easily. That big rulebook is just there for when you run into something out of the ordinary during play. When you do need to look something up that huge rulebook has a great index and works great as reference material.

Agricola – Agricola is going to follow the trend here by being a rather complex game with lots of options that only presents you with a small subset of them at a time. This makes the game much easier to learn and much more approachable than its reputation. This game only has a few worker placement spots available at the start of the game. Each season only a few new spots are added, slowly increasing the complexity as the game goes on. Another aspect of Agricola that makes it more approachable are the optional rules. For new players, there’s the Family Game that removes the minor improvements and occupation cards. While these are great for adding variety and asymmetry to the game, removing them greatly reduces the learning curve and also presents all players with the same options right from the start.
Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion – One game you would never find on this list is the original Gloomhaven. If anything, Gloomhaven could have been on our list of surprisingly complex games as, when compared to other dungeon-crawling RPG style games, it’s very complicated. On the other hand, we now have Jaws of the Lion, a standalone Gloomhaven game.  Jaws of the Lion was designed from the ground up to be a much more approachable entry point to the Gloomhaven system. As you can read in our Gloomhaven Jaws of the Lion review and comparison to the original, it does a great job of doing this. Jaws of the Lion’s system of onboarding new players, by very slowly and deliberately presenting new rules and mechanics through a series of five tutorial-style scenarios, is brilliant. It’s something I hope we will see more of in more scenario-based games like this.

El Grande – El Grande makes this list due to its intimidation factor. I have met a number of players that are intimidated by this true classic area majority game and I think that’s mainly due to its age and reputation. It has a very old school “I’m a super heavy Eurogame” look that I think is very misleading. I have found, in practice, that it only takes a round or two before everyone at the table picks up exactly what El Grande is about. Similar to other heavier games on this list, the players may not immediately pick up the best way to play to win but they will get the mechanics quickly. 

The other thing that causes people to be worried is that all modern versions of this game come with a number of expansions and if you don’t have those sorted out separately just seeing all the stuff in the box is enough to scare anyone.

Power Grid – A long time favourite game of mine is Power Grid. Back when I first got into hobby gaming, Power Grid was rumoured to be one of the most intimidating and heavy games out there. The huge map, all the connections with prices all over them, the resource market, and the piles of money, all look like far too much to keep track of. 

The thing is Power Grid, similar to most games on this list, limits your actions at the start of the game. This is done through a combination of how the power plant action works and the way the economy scales up as you play. Players start the game with only enough money to buy a plant fuel it and maybe put one station on the board. It isn’t until much later in the game that players will be building a series of buildings and worrying about the rising price of fuel. 

In true engine building fashion, the decision space in Power Grid grows as the game goes on.

Steam Rails to Riches – There was a time when train games, in general, scared people. Before there was Ticket to Ride, a very solid gateway train game, most train games were heavy crayon rail games and 18xx style stock market games. Steam is a game that, to me, sits right in the middle of the weight scale of those games.

Steam eases players into route building and pick up and deliver mechanics by having much fewer options than it’s bigger 18xx siblings and keeps things simple with players only having to worry about their own routes. The game also has an auction free mode that makes it easier to learn and play than the Age of Steam games that it is based on. 

While I still wouldn’t consider Steam a gateway game, it is a great stepping stone to heavier train games as well as being a really solid rail system on its own.

Honourable Mentions, Games that were somewhat easier than expected but not quite easy enough:

These games almost made my list but each has one or more reasons that keep them from being quite easy enough to play and learn to be on the main list.

Concordia – I was very tempted to put Concordia on the main list above. Each turn you play one card and do the action on that card and that’s it. Each individual action is pretty simple too. 

The problem with Concordia is the scoring. The scoring in this game is so opaque that the rules even suggest you stop your first game partway through and hold a special scoring round just so that everyone is on the same page. I’ve seen people think they were doing awesome in this game only to get frustrated at the end due to not grasping how the scoring system works.

Teotihuacan City of Gods – I’ve seen a number of people claim that Teotihuacan is much easier to learn than it appears. Yes, I agree it looks very intimidating and yes the actual gameplay is simpler than you might expect when looking at that board but there’s a problem I’ve found with this game. What keeps this game off the main list is the fiddliness.  So many things in Teotihuacan trigger off of other things and are easy to forget. Every time I play this game I hear things like, “Oh wait, remember when I got stone last turn, I forgot I had this technology that means I get an extra one.” It’s not often that I think a board game would actually be better as a digital version but Teotihuacan would be one of them, just because the software would keep track of all of these little interactions.

Keyflower – Keyflower scares people when I bring it out, there’s no doubt about that. New mechanics like hiding different coloured meeple behind your screen, trying to value different tiles, realizing that some tiles aren’t worth anything unless you set up an engine to use them, and the iconography on each of the tiles, can be very overwhelming.

Once you start playing Keyflower, I find people pick it up quickly. That said there are two things that keep it off this list for me. The first is how the bidding and outbidding other players works with the meeples, especially when trying to use a tile, and the second concerns the Winter tiles. Right at the start of the game players are handed a number of Winter tiles and they are meant to use those to plan for end game scoring, four rounds later. That decision is pretty much impossible without knowing how the whole game works first. 

Keyflower is a game that I don’t think anyone will fully grasp the first time they play, it takes playing through a full game and seeing that final scoring before you understand how everything works.

Now that you’ve seen a number of games that surprised me by being easier to play or to learn than I expected, I would love to know what games fall into this category for you. What game surprised you by being easy? Lets us know in the comments!

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4 Responses

  1. What about chess? It’s not only a complicated game adults enjoy but also great fun for young children! Just check Story Time Chess, Chess Solitaire, No Stress Chess and Maksim Aksanov Chess Puzzles book (net-boss org/chess-puzzles-for-kids-by-maksim-aksanov).

    1. Hey Don,

      While I do think Chess is a great game for teaching children I don’t think it’s easier to learn than expected.

      Maybe that’s just me though as my dad taught me to play at a very young age and I’ve been playing my whole life. As I kid I also had a game called Smess “The Ninny’s Chess Game” which I loved.

      What I will do is share this short list of games on our podcast, in case others want to check them out.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Moe T

    2. Makism Aksanov’s book is exactly what I was looking for. The best book for learning chess with kids ever! Did the job

    3. Thank you Don for sharing the link, I have already read several chess books for children and this one is definitely the best so far!

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