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How to Host a Game Night

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Concordia was our most-played game night game in 2016. There’s an open seat if you want to join us.

In February 2016 I started a weekly game night. I decided to start a weekly game night for a number of reasons:

  • Most of my gaming opportunities were over lunch breaks at work, but many of the games I most wanted to try were longer than could fit in a lunch hour.
  • At the monthly game night I usually attend, the group was rarely right for the kind of games I wanted to play.
  • There weren’t a lot of gaming opportunities that fit my schedule.

So I put a small game night together, and it has been running since. Since we’ve started, I think we’ve only taken one or two weeks off; there has always been at least one other person who comes, and sometimes as many as seven or eight have RSVPd.

My experience isn’t necessarily a blueprint for what you’ll want to do–everyone’s situation is unique, and my approach is less open to serendipity–but here are some things I’ve learned from running different groups that meet consistently (game night and various book clubs).

Schedule

As you probably know if you’ve ever tried to get a group of friends together to do anything, scheduling is difficult. Other people are either noncommittal or unavailable, and it can make any sort of forward planning hard. Here are a few ideas for scheduling your game night:

  • Survey the people you want to come. You probably won’t find just one night that works for everybody, but you’ll get a sense of when people might be available and can work from there. I also wouldn’t make a decision simply based on when the greatest number of people are available. You know your friends. Which of them are trustworthy and are likely to come if you start something? Planning around ten flaky people is worse than planning around two reliable ones. So choose based on who is actually likely to be there.
  • Choose a time that is generally free for you. It won’t matter if your friends are available if you aren’t. You want to choose a time that you can usually make it. If you usually have something scheduled on Tuesday nights but are off for a season, it’s probably better to avoid Tuesday nights if you can. My game night is Thursday nights at 8:00 because my wife is usually busy that night and starting at 8:00 gives me plenty of time to put the kids to bed and set up a game before people arrive.
  • Choose a frequency and maintain a consistent schedule. I’ve found that people will forget something is happening if it’s just a one-off. If others are committed to the idea of a game night, you can usually make it work as long as it’s consistent. If you’re consistent, others know that there’s something going on even if it hasn’t been communicated to them. It also lets them plan around it with their own schedules. It doesn’t have to be weekly. It can be biweekly, monthly, or even quarterly–as long as it’s consistent. It’s hard to form a habit and easy to break one. Make something that has the potential to be habit forming.
  • Realize that you won’t make everyone happy. It is impossible to please everyone, and you experience one of the great reliefs of event planning when you realize this fact. There will be times that don’t work for some people, and that’s that. As much as you want to accommodate everyone all the time, you will not be able to.

Location

Board gaming is in many ways easier to facilitate than other hobbies. All you need is a table. Most of the time you don’t need to rely on technology, and you can usually tailor the games you play to the environment.

  • Choose an environment well suited to your needs. If you plan to play heavy, complex games, you’ll want a place that allows players to maintain attention on the game and the explainer. If you’re into more raucous party games, a restaurant, pub, or other public space might be a better choice than in a house with sleeping children.
  • Keep the location consistent. As I said above, try to make the activity as habit forming as possible. Keeping a game night at the same time at the same location lets people know that you’re not likely to cancel or bow out.
  • Make sure the location has everything you need. If you’re playing a sprawling game like Railways of the World, do you have a big enough table available? If playing Wallenstein, do you have a structure sturdy enough for the cube tower to remain in place? If playing in your home on heirloom furniture, are coasters available?
  • Let players know the ground rules. In public places, this may not be as important as in your home. At my home game night, most of the participants have kids of their own, so they’re sensitive to the cardinal rule: “Don’t wake the children.” But make sure players know the rules. Are they allowed to raid your fridge for drinks and snacks? Which bathroom is intended for guests? Are they allowed to peruse your game collection?

Guests

A game night is only as good as the people who show up, but getting people to show up can be difficult. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering guests:

  • Plan for a core. As I mentioned above, plan your game night around who is most likely to come. You’ll likely be less disappointed when you get a flurry of cancellations at the last minute from flaky nonparticipants.
  • Be welcoming to more. I try to keep an open invitation policy. I host game night in my home, so I don’t have a public meetup, but if someone on the invitation list asks to bring a friend, the friend is welcome. I have invited people I’ve met through auctions and conversations on Board Game Geek, and someone who contacted me on Twitter joined us once. Obviously, it’s your game night, so your level of comfort with this may be different. While I’m generally an introvert, it’s easier to be welcoming to people in my own home, where I’m the host. So I’m not as bothered by new people joining me as some others might be.
  • Maintain communication with your guest list. On any given Thursday, I have between two and eight people at my house for game night, but my invitation list has more like fifteen names on it. I send out a weekly Google Calendar invitation so everyone knows what’s going on, and I plan around the RSVPs I receive. Maintaining communication lets people know that they’re still welcome even if they aren’t available that particular week. It can also draw people in who were on the fence once they see what might get played at the game night.

Snacks

There are various views on whether snacks are acceptable–either at the game table or at game night at all. My advice is simple: your games, you set the rules. I provide tea and cookies each week (tea because my wife and I always have tea on hand for ourselves; cookies because they’re cheap and tasty and don’t leave a residue). Others are welcome to bring snacks if they want, but they know what to expect if they don’t. I don’t mind when others bring snacks as long as they’re careful with them. I try to hold my game collection lightly…while also sleeving where I can.

For my book club, the club members know that we usually make elaborate treats to lure them to the discussion. I think as long as people know what to expect–what snacks will be available, what snacks are outlawed, whether they should bring snacks at all–you should be fine. If you can stomach the possibility of something going wrong, I would encourage offering snacks of some sort: if a rules explanation goes long or other players are taking a while to make their moves, snacks can ease the tension that builds up and make people more forgiving of each other.

Preparation

I think a good game night depends on the preparation you do beforehand. Here are some things I recommend:

  • Choose at least one game you want to play in advance. You can use a democratic process, “host’s choice,” or any other method, but I would at least have one game in mind that you want to play before people arrive. Deciding a game can take longer than playing a game (at least if your group is as indecisive or polite as mine is), so it’s better to take the guesswork out beforehand. I include what I want to play in my weekly invitation and solicit feedback, making a final decision based on the players who RSVP. Choosing a game to play in advance will also aid in the next two points.
  • Set up the game before your guests arrive. This isn’t strictly necessary, but if you want to play a long game with lots of bits and chits in specific places, rather than boring your guests, try to set it up beforehand. This also makes it more likely that sheer inertia will draw people to play the complex game you’ve been wanting to try.
  • Read the rulebook beforehand. This is the point I most want to stress. Do not wait until game night to learn the game. Reading the rulebook at the table is the worst. Know the game before you teach it to new people. I understand that, particularly with longer, more complex games, it might be necessary to consult the rulebook occasionally (especially if your group asks good questions). But if you aren’t ready to teach without the rulebook, it’s better to hold off for another opportunity to play. You’ll probably enjoy the experience more, and your guests almost definitely will.
  • Have other options ready. Sometimes more or fewer people will show up than you anticipated. Sometimes you’ll want to play something after the first game is finished. Whatever the case may be, try to keep other games handy so you don’t have to go on a search-and-rescue operation later. This also serves to create a more inviting atmosphere and gives guests who arrive early something to look at and anticipate.

Games

  • Know your audience, and choose games accordingly. If your audience likes casual party games, it’s best to keep Power Grid on the shelf. If your group likes long economic games, it’s probably not the right time to set up The Resistance. There’s something to be said for broadening others’ horizons, but it’s probably better to let them initiate that when they’re ready to branch out.
  • Be up front about the kinds of games you’ll be playing. On the other hand, there’s no shame in announcing the kinds of things you’ll be playing. I’ve told people to expect Euro games that won’t fit in an hour at my game night. This provides a natural way to avoid playing things that don’t fit the scheme. It also lets guests know what they can expect to play and what games they can offer to the group.
  • Let others know if and when to bring their games. In some situations, I’m the one who is expected to supply the games. In others, I’m not. If your guests are welcome or encouraged to bring their own games, let them know. If they aren’t likely to get to play what they bring, let them know that, too. The members of my group have let me know what they have available, and if they want to play it, it goes on the schedule.
  • The game is not as important as the experience. There have been game nights when, if you told me what we were going to play in advance, I probably would have stayed home (but I’m glad I didn’t). Similarly, there have been nights when I’ve played exactly what I wanted to and not enjoyed it much. Games are only as good as the people you’re enjoying them with. So keep a good attitude, and even if the vote doesn’t go your way, or the player count is wrong, or the game you wanted to play is still on the shelf, remember that time around the table is rarely wasted. And enjoy your company. Remember what a privilege it is to have friends and to have them want to take time from whatever else they’ve got going on and to spend time with you. You are fortunate–revel in that, even if the dice rolls don’t go your way or Cheeto dust now adorns your out-of-print favorite.

 

What about you? What advice do you have for running a game night?

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Joseph E. Pilkus III

    FarmerLenny,

    You have quite the comprehensive list. If you really know the folks who are coming to the event and have the game selected, you can always do something more thematic. Several months ago, my daughter and I hosted a couple and another friend. They all received hand written invitations and when they arrived, we had a full six courses available through the evening…all Game of Thrones inspired fare, including Arbor Island Wine and Dothraki Beef Steaks.

    Cheers,
    Joe

    • That’s so cool, and a great idea! I’ll have to keep that in mind. We do thematic snacks for book club sometimes, but I haven’t tried this for game night.

  2. Great article, I think I love reading about the game hobby even more than reading about individual games themselves. Just out of curiosity, do you have any statistics on how often you repeated titles, how many plays a yearly game group generated, and how many unique titles, etc? Just curious to compare to my own weekly game group we started up in January.

    • Hmmmm… I don’t have any statistics readily available, but we did play several games multiple times last year (Concordia, Navegador, Imperial, Ponzi Scheme, El Grande, Terraforming Mars, Through the Ages, Power Grid, and Amun-Re all come to mind). There are some members of the group who like to play a new game every time; others like to explore games deeply. So I try to allow some room for both of these philosophies. I think we played the same game two weeks in a row only twice (with Navegador and Ponzi Scheme). Most of the time there’s variety among a smaller circle of games. As for how many plays this group generated, it’s close to 52: we played most weeks, and most nights we played one game (although some nights we played more).

      I hope this helps! Good luck with your group!

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