Game Night

I would now like to suggest, if I may, a few ideas to help you host a successful game night. The reason I want to do this is not, as one early reviewer of this book wrote (in German, but it still hurts), to make up the page count, but rather it is because a podcaster and website owner I know once said that this was the number one request that he received from listeners and readers.

There are some people who organize board game nights (or afternoons or evenings) in pubs, coffee shops, village halls and libraries. Often these are arranged over the internet (perhaps using Facebook, or with an open invitation to any gamers in the area. I have been along to one or two of these myself, and had a great time, but if one did not already exist in my area I don’t think I would actually want to create one; if I didn’t enjoy it I would be in the awkward position of wanting to leave my own group.

There are also specialist board game shops that encourage customers to try the games on the premises with other customers, and I think that sounds like fun. Sadly, there isn’t one of these in, or near, my home town.

I am going to focus, therefore, on talking about how to plan, and get the most out of, a game session at home, with friends.


Choosing the Games

You can suggest to your guests that everyone should bring a game, and you can play them all over the course of the evening. However, if you do this, and your friends are not into the hobby, there is a chance you might end up playing Cluedo, Risk, and Hungry Hippos all night.

Let’s assume that you are providing the games yourself, shall we?

What sort of games your friends might like? You should be aware that some people will be put off by certain themes; fantasy, horror and science fiction in particular can be divisive. If you friends are experienced gamers you can choose whatever suits the mood, but if they are really new to the hobby you might be better off starting with some of the great ‘party games’ that have been invented in recent years, like Telestrations, Codewords, Decrypto, Spyfall, or The Resistance, followed by a gateway game like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or Pandemic.

It is crucial, but easily overlooked, that you should make sure that the games you have chosen are suitable for the number of players you have invited.  Obviously, if a game only supports four players then it is no good if there are going to be five of you. Sometimes though, expansions can allow an extra player, so that might be worth looking into. However, with inexperienced gamers, you should probably only play with an expansion if the players are at least familiar with the base game.

There are other games that need a minimum number of players (e.g. The Resistance needs five or more). It will say on the game box if this is the case, or you can easily look up the game you are considering on the internet.

Be aware also, that sometimes a game can technically be played with a certain number of players, but actually it works much better with a different number.  The website BoardGameGeek can help you if you are not sure.


Buying The Games

If you are lucky enough to have a specialist game shop nearby, please go there.  It is good for the hobby that these shops exist, so do support them if you can. Also, the staff are likely to be enthusiastic and able to help you choose. If there isn’t a game shop near to you, many of them do sell via mail order on the internet.

If money is an issue for you, there are some games that you could actually make for yourself for free. Werewolf, Coup, Love Letter, The Resistance, and Cockroach Poker can easily be homemade (tip – use a computer to make the artwork look nice, print on ordinary paper, then laminate, or pop into a transparent sleeve along with an ordinary playing card for weight). Skull can be made using just beer mats, or cards, and a marker pen. You would then just need to find the rules on the internet, which is easily done.

Also, there are plenty of websites with free games on them – just Google ‘print and play games’ and you will see what I mean. Many published games started out as free print and play in order to generate interest – great games like Monikers, The Metagame, Funemployed, The Duke, Two Rooms and a Boom, Secret Hitler, and Brawl. You can still find the print and play versions online if you look for them. There are a few tools that will be helpful if you want to do it properly though:

  • A cutting mat
  • An X-Acto knife or rotary cutter
  • An 18 inch metal ruler
  • Super 77 spray glue
  • 1″ hole punch
  • Printable card
  • A Printer

Another way to get games for free is to make sure you ask your loved ones to buy you games for birthday and Christmas presents.

Also, co-ordinate with your friends so that you each acquire different games, then you can pool them on game night.

If, however, you do have to buy them yourself, try getting them second hand from eBay or the marketplace section of BoardGameGeek. You could try charity shops too – I know someone who picked up Carcassone South Seas at a Barnados for £3, and he has never stopped going on about it.

I should also mention, that is important to be aware that sometimes games go out of print, and when this happens the cost of a second-hand game can go up a lot. For the best and most well-known games however, this situation is always temporary. If a game has been a success and has sold out across the world, there is bound to be another print run six months or a year later. You do not need to pay huge prices for an old game, just wait a while and you will get it new at a far more sensible price. Many online shops even allow you to register with them with no obligation to buy, and they notify you when the game comes back in stock so that you won’t miss it.

I won’t lie to you, these designer board games are rarely cheap – their manufacturers do not have the economies of scale that the mass market game manufacturers have. However, I try to think of each game I buy as an investment into future fun times. A decent board game is still usually cheaper than a night out at a club, cinema, or restaurant, especially when you factor in transport, parking, and babysitter fees if you have kids (and if you don’t have kids, what are you doing hiring a babysitter, weirdo?). However instead of just getting one good night for your money, you should get dozens.

I would also advise that it is not necessary for you to rush into becoming one of those people you see on YouTube videos, who have walls covered by shelves full of games. Most of those people have taken years to acquire all those games, and in any case, many of them complain that they do not have enough time to do justice to all of them. Those lovely games just sit there, not being played with, like Buzz and Woody at the beginning of Toy Story 3.


Where to Play.

It’s a tough decision isn’t it?  Coffee table in the living room or dining room table in the dining room?  For me, it has become a much tougher decision since I got my own house with an actual dining room table in it.  When I was a student living in a shared house, the decision was more between coffee table in the living room (upsetting my housemates who were trying to watch Coronation Street) or pile of boxes with an old blanket thrown over it in the bedroom.

Assuming that you have the option though, I would say that it depends on the game.  If it is a game that involves studying a board and/or regularly moving a lot of pieces around, then the dining room is best because the board sits nicely in the middle and everyone can see and reach.  If you are playing a more informal party game then the living room with sofas, armchairs and cushions might make everyone more relaxed.


The Shoebox

I have a shoebox that I always get out on game nights. Any type of box would do really; its former function of holding footwear is not really as important as what is inside it. Along with some spare dice, meeples, pawns, elastic bands, notepads and pens, it contains:

  • Blu-tack for putting on the corners of the board (and/or player boards) to stop them from spinning or sliding around the table. I use this less now that I have a nice playmat for the table, but it still comes in handy sometimes for securing board overlays we are using an expansion.
  • Beads for scoring certain games. I find this more aesthetically pleasing than using a pen and paper. Small beads are one point, larger beads are five, the largest are ten.
  • Zip-lock bags of different sizes, for all the game components. Keeping them separated when you put the game away makes the set-up easier for next time. Most modern games actually come with these supplied now, but when I started out I used to have to find the bags myself. I used to get unreasonably excited when some non-gaming-related item I needed to buy turned out to be packaged in a reusable zip-lock bag.
  • Some small bowls to keep tokens in during the game. I think this looks better than just putting them in piles on the table, and it often makes them easier for players to pick the tokens up.
  • Paper towels. To quickly mop up any spillages.
  • Wet wipes. Just in case.
  • My reading glasses. Because I am getting old.


Food and Drink

If you are going to be playing over a mealtime, you can suggest ordering a takeaway, or you can cook for your friends yourself if you enjoy doing that sort of thing. If you do choose the latter, make sure that it is something that needs hardly any preparation.  If you have to keep going in and out of the kitchen it is going to spoil the game for everyone, so make a stew or a soup in advance.

If you arrange the session in the evening, you can assume that people will have eaten, but you will still need snacks and drinks. Your guests will probably offer to bring something with them, and it is fine to accept their offer.

Pro tips:

  • Keep snacks and drinks on a side table to avoid spillage.
  • Avoid sauces, dips, greasy food, or anything that leaves lots of crumbs.
  • Biscuits, nuts, crisps, and non-melting chocolates (like M&Ms or Minstrels) are ideal.
  • Broad-based tumblers are less likely to get knocked over than tall and narrow glasses. Avoid glasses with a stem.
  • Avoid drinks that will stain the cards or board if someone does spill them.
  • If you are providing a meal, rather than just snacks, eat it away from the gaming table.


The Starter

Sometimes, I like to try to make the first game of the session a quick and fun game to break the ice. These games are sometimes called ‘fillers’. If somebody is late then it is no big deal if they miss it, and it means that the rest of your guests are not sitting around waiting resentfully, and secretly thinking about stabbing the latecomer with an olive fork when they eventually decide to grace everyone with their presence.  Even if everybody has arrived on time though, a short fun game is a great way to get things started.

If, however, the main game of the evening is one that takes a long time to set up, I will usually decide to save time by setting it up myself before everyone else arrives. This has the added advantage of providing a nice visual impact when players walk through the door and see the game in all of its glory, straight away.


Know the Games

If you are going to be playing a game for the first time, you can suggest to the others that, as preparation, they might want to watch a YouTube video, or read the rules online. Do not insist though.

You do need to ensure, however, that at least one person there will know the game well enough to teach it to the others. I would suggest that you make sure that person is you.

Don’t be like the guy I heard about who invited his friends over to play his new game Mansions of Madness but did not take it out of its wrapper until the night of the game. The session did not go well, and for a long time afterwards his friends would joke that the way to play Mansions of Madness was to take everything out of the box, talk to yourself for an hour while reading the manual, hand out pieces, take back the pieces, read the manual again, swear at the manual, hand out pieces to half of the people, take them back again, put everything back in the box, look at everyone with a frustrated face while yelling that you could have bought three games for the cost of Mansions of Madness, field questions about the sanity of someone who would spend so much on a board game, and then play Uno for the next 20 minutes before asking everyone to leave.

The first thing I do whenever I get a new game is watch a YouTube video of it being played.  Then I read the rules. Then I play it through on my own, as if it were a real game, but with me playing the parts of two or more players.  I find this play-through is crucial, as it almost always raises questions that I need to find out the answer to, and it is much easier to do this in a practice game session rather than in the middle of a real game when your friends are sitting waiting for you to find the relevant section in the manual.

If all this reading, watching, and solo playing sounds like a lot of trouble to go to, let me tell you that I find learning a new game to be great fun; it’s like being a kid again and having a new toy. And I know that it is not just me; a lot of other people I have spoken to feel the same way. We also all agreed that in the solo game we all secretly root for the colour that we each usually play (Go Green!).


Teaching the Game

I don’t want to put you under too much pressure, but your rules explanation at the beginning of the game is going to play a major part in how much your guests enjoy the evening.  You need to make it clear, short, and (this is the tricky bit) not too boring.

While you are setting up the game (if you have not set it up in advance), ask your friends for help. Give them some cards or components to set up. Apart from saving time, and it will help them feel connected to the game straight away. Also, it means that the first ten minutes will not consist of them sitting in an awkward silence, watching you set the game up.

Start by giving a very high level overview – what is the theme and what are you trying to achieve?

  • “We are members of a disease-fighting team. Our mission is to find cures for four diseases.”
  • “We are Roman citizens living in the glorious city of Pompeii.  The object of the game is to escape the city before the lava kills us all.”
  • “We are commercial insurance analysts. Our aim is to price our products so that they are profitable but still competitive.”

That last one sounds pretty grim doesn’t it?  Don’t worry though, it is not actually a game, it’s my day job. Somebody, somewhere, is probably designing a game right now based on that theme though.

After you have done the overview, you need to cover the main rules. Do not attempt to read straight out of the manual.  Try to get the rules across in your usual conversational style, maybe even try a little humour. You can also make it more interesting by using the components. I usually point at places on the board, and draw attention to any helpful symbols. I usually move pieces around the board, as I talk, and sometimes I will suggest that someone (the least confident-looking player) has a sample turn, before resetting and starting the game properly.

Know your audience; would they prefer it if you cover every rule in detail first or would they prefer to get going as soon as possible and pick it up as they go along?

The first time I play a game I usually try to make it clear that the first run through is a practice, and it does not matter who wins – we will play ‘properly’ the next time.  This takes the pressure off everyone, including myself.  It means that players can help opponents out with their moves without caring about winning the game, and people do not care as much if you suddenly remember an important rule half way through, that you should have mentioned at the beginning.

Some people like to play a simplified version of the game first time around, missing out certain complicated rules. I personally try to avoid doing this if I can, as I have found that players tend to become attached to the game as it is when it is first presented to them, and they don’t like it when new rules are introduced later. I have a group that I play with who still, after about ten games, refuse to use the stations in Ticket to Ride Europe, because when I first taught the game I decided to miss them out, and my friends enjoyed the game so much they don’t want to change it now.


Have no Distractions

Do not have the television on in the background. It has been scientifically proven, probably, that human beings are incapable of not watching a television screen that is on in the corner of a room.

A little background music is okay though, and I find that it can help create a relaxed atmosphere.


Gaming Etiquette

Try to judge the success of the game less by whether or not you win, and more by whether everyone had a good time. Poor gaming etiquette is something that can spoil the experience for everyone, so here are a rules to follow.

I know we all like rules, don’t we?

Oh, and by the way, obviously, if you are playing with friends or family, the rules are going to be different to if you are playing with people you do not know so well.

Here are the ten commandments that apply whether you are the host, or a player:

  1. Thou shalt contribute to the fun.  Be the sort of person who other people want to play with. Do not be loud and obnoxious, obviously, but don’t sit in stony-faced silence either.  Talking about the game as you play it is usually encouraged.
  2. Thou shalt not be a bad loser. Congratulate the winner. Offer him/her a handshake. Smile. It is fine to discuss why you think you lost, but do not try to diminish their victory by claiming they were luckier than you.
  3. Thou shalt not be a bad winner. If it was close, tell your opponent(s) it was a good game. If you crushed them, find something positive to say. Nobody likes a gloater.
  4. Thou shalt not be a rules lawyer. It is fine to check the rules if you think you or an opponent might have played an illegal move, that is not what I mean. What I do mean, is that occasionally, rules are open to interpretation, so don’t be the guy who always argues the interpretation which favours him. The spirit of the game is more important than the letter of the law, so try to guess what the game designer intended. If you aren’t sure, agree to flip a coin.
  5. Thou shalt not damage someone else’s game. Make sure your hands are clean and dry before you touch or pick up cards, tiles or anything that cannot be wiped clean. If you do damage part a game, however, then I am afraid I think you are going to have to offer to replace it. The owner will probably say no, but if they say yes, you can usually get replacement components from the game’s manufacturers – check out their website.
  6. Thou shalt not cheat. It is really not worth it. You probably know that already – but consider this – even if people just suspect you are cheating, they will stop wanting to play with you. So, I suggest that you be as transparent as possible, and explain everything you do, as you do it. Explicitly count out moves, play cards slowly and one at a time, do the maths out loud – if you try to do everything quickly, people might think you are trying to pull a fast one on them.
  7. Thou shalt not forget thy opponents’ names. I used do this all the time at game nights in the local pub. I would memorize all the names at the beginning of the session, then, after about five minutes, forget which name went which person. I have got better though – I try to use people’s names when I am doing the rules explanations, and this seems to help everyone remember.
  8. That shalt not play with thy phone between turns. Put it away. It sends out the message that you would rather be doing something else, and it is very annoying to repeatedly have to tell someone it is their turn, and then explain what has just happened while they were checking their Twitter feed.
  9. Thou shalt not have poor personal hygiene. Come on, guys.
  10. Thou shalt not kill.

I guess that last one goes without saying, I just got carried away with my theme.


Problem Players

I often hear people complain about ‘problem players,’ such as those who take the game too seriously, or perhaps not seriously enough.

In 1950s teen movies, guys who ‘don’t play by the rules’ are cool, but at a game evening they are a pain in the nether regions.

But hold on a moment. Perhaps you should try to take a step back, and ask yourself if it really is a problem. Didn’t we just say that the most important thing is that everyone has a good time?

Is it, though?

Well, okay, usually it is. Sometimes, however, you just have to accept that there are people you should not try to play games with.

I have a friend who once wanted to win Werewolf so badly, that she slightly marked the backs of the cards so that she could always tell who had the one with the werewolf on it.  After winning a few games, she felt guilty, and confessed; so now, if we play with that set, everybody knows who the werewolf is, which rather takes the fun out of it don’t you think?

I have another friend who always finds something to loudly complain about whenever I am explaining the rules of a game. He complained loudly because Sheriff of Nottingham was not like poker; then, the next week, he complained loudly that Coup was too similar to poker.

I also have a relative who does not really enjoy playing games, but occasionally gets roped into the sessions against his will. He literally never understands the rules explanations, no matter how simple the game, and I am pretty sure he does it on purpose. Once, at the end of my two minute explanation of the rules of Skull (the most simple game I own) he asked “so where does the weasel come into it?” There are no weasels in Skull.

The problem player who really sticks in my mind, though, is a young woman who I came up against the last time (and I think it will be the last time) I played Trivial Pursuit. She would not accept my answer of Margaret Thatcher because “it says Maggie Thatcher on the card!”  She was laughing as she spoke, but she meant it – I was not going to get my piece of pie. This caused me a bit of a dilemma – I had to decide whether to argue the point with her (like a small child), refuse to play any more (like a small child), laugh it off and carry on without the piece of pie (treating her like a small child), or reluctantly let her have her way but make a mental note never to play any game with her ever again and hold a grudge for twenty years, until eventually I will attain closure by making a joke of it in a stupid book I will write about board games. See if you can guess which option I chose.