I love board games. There’s something about saving the world from the brink of destruction with friends in Pandemic or laughing at the ridiculous drawings people come up with in Telestrations. Board games provide an environment that allows people to be social, challenge themselves, and have fun. At this point, I’ve hosted and/or organized over 70 board game events in the past 3 years. That’s about 2 events per month. During the course of these events, I have had the privilege to play with over 50 people, many of which are now good friends of mine. For me, board games remain a satisfying part of my life, and I hope this article can help you add something new to your social life.
This article is designed to help you set up a board game night where the games will be main event (besides from general socializing). There are four steps to success: 1) Plan, 2) Prepare, 3) Execute, and 4) Review. This process is designed to be an iterative cycle that will lead to better and better game nights over time. Alright, time to get started.
Planning is key for a successful game night. Having a plan provides organizational structure and will give you an idea of how to prepare for the actual event. There are three topics to focus on in this section: 1) People, 2) Venue, and 3) Food/Drinks.
People: The first step to setting up game night is to determine how many people can actually participate. While this is important for any event, it is doubly so for game night. For example, certain games have strict player requirements and you want to plan accordingly to make sure everyone has the opportunity to play. As host, find a range of dates and times that work well for your personal schedule. From here, send out feeler invites to those that you would like to participate in your event. Feel free to use your favorite communication medium (i.e. phone, text, social media, messenger pigeon, etc.). Ideally, this should be done at around two-three weeks in advance. There are two reasons for this window of time. Too early and people feel uneasy to commit. Too late and people have already made plans. Based on the responses you receive, you should have a good idea of what the event size is going to look like. After the invites are sent out, make sure to send out at least two reminders. I like to do one about a week before the event and one the day before. This repeated confirmation will allow you to better gauge who is serious in participating while giving an opportunity for those who were on the fence to commit.
Venue: Once you know the approximate number of people that will be participating, you will want a location (most likely your home) that can host that many people comfortably. Each player should have easy access to play the game and also interact with everyone else. Also, most board games tend to use cards, game tokens, and cardboard. These components work best on flat surfaces, so a table or some other flat surface that everyone can sit around will be essential.
Food/Drinks: I like food. I’m going to assume you like food as well. Board games and food (and drinks) go quite nicely together. It’s tough building railroads in Ticket to Ride while your stomach is growling. Everyone who is fed is going to be a happy camper and more likely to be engaged with everyone else and the games you play. In terms of planning, have some snacks and drinks available and/or organize with people ahead of time to determine who is bringing what to your event. Check if anyone has food allergies or food preferences to make sure everyone is accounted for.
Once the event logistics are sorted out, it’s time to determine which games will be played. Game selection is key and there is a plethora of options out there. This section is designed to help you build a board game library that will provide the highest probability of enjoyment for your guests and yourself. If you just want a quick list of potential games to play, skip to the bottom of this section.
I have prepared a two by two grid based on two parameters, accessibility and satisfaction, to help group the various board games that exist into different categories. (I qualitatively define accessibility as the ease to learning a game and how complex the rules are and satisfaction as the overall enjoyment and likelihood to play the game again in the future.) These two parameters lead to four types of games: Black Hole, Kill Time, Journey, and All-Star.
Black Hole: Do you remember the last time you played a game with esoteric rules that made no sense, broken, and nobody seemed to be having fun? Me neither. Games in this category cease to exist since no one wants to play them. Any new game that falls into this category will also be likely doomed to irrelevance. If you happen to find a game in this category, do your family and friends a favor and do not play it.
Kill Time: Games in this category are fine for passing the time, but don’t tend to have much enthusiastic buy-in from players. It just so happens that many games in this category are classics from the past (Checkers, Monopoly, Risk, etc.) with limited mileage for success at parties. While we may have fond (or perhaps not so fond) memories of playing Monopoly or Risk, these games are simply low on the enjoyment scale but serviceable. For the purpose of game night, try to avoid playing these games.
Journey: Ok, now we are getting into interesting games. This style is categorized as niche-fits that are highly enjoyable but have a high barrier to entry. These games can be long, complex, and are not for everyone. Some notable examples include Terra Mystica, Through the Ages, and Eldritch Horror. Journey games, however, can be very rewarding if everyone knows what they are getting into and welcomes the challenge.
All-Star: These games are rock-stars. They appeal to most individuals and demographics. Feel free to break out games like Codenames, 7 Wonders, and Ticket to Ride. Not only are these games accessible and easier to learn compared to Journey games, they provide high-quality entertainment for all participants. Make sure to always have a few All-Star games on hand to ensure a fun time.
For the rest of this section, I will focus on All-Star and Journey games since they have the highest satisfaction factor. Each category will fall into one of two types of game nights based on my previous experience: Player-dependent and Game-dependent:
A player-dependent event is one where the participants are the focus and the game is secondary. This event arises from inviting players with little to none prior consideration of the games to be played. Play All-Star games here.
A game-dependent event is one where the game is the primary event and participants dedicate their time to the game. This event arises by selecting the games first and then filling in with willing participants. Play either All-Star or Journey games here.
Player-dependent events work best with games in the All-Star category. Why is this? Well, your participants are likely to have a variety of different backgrounds with different experiences in board games and certain likes or dislikes. Three parameters need to be considered: Time, # of Players, and Quality of Experience. Most players do not come in expecting to play a single game for 3+ hours. In addition, having games that can accommodate all willing participants is extremely important. No one likes to be the odd person out. If you have seven people that want to play, don’t play a game with a maximum number of six players (unless someone is partnering up, of course). Finally, picking a solid All-Star game that meets the time and player requirements has the highest probability of everyone being satisfied with their experience.
Hold on, what about playing an epic dungeon crawl or building the best vineyard in Italy? Despite your best intentions, pulling out a game in the Journey category has a chance to ruin the overall vibes of your game night due to mismatched expectations. The main difference is that these games tend to be more complex and take a significant amount of time to play (something that many people are not up for). However, do not fret. That is why board-game dependent events exist. These are the nights where you pick the game(s) that will be played and invite people that have expectations in alignment to what is going to be played. Here, the game length, number of players, and quality of entertainment still matter. However, everyone should have certain expectations and will know what the game night will look like going in. Both All-Star and Journey games are appropriate for these type of game nights since each person will know what he or she are getting into beforehand.
Here is a brief list of All-Star games that will serve as a good launch point. Make sure you check the time and player requirements for each game so that you can match the game to your event.
7 Wonders | Carcassonne | Catan | Codenames | Coup | Dominion | Pandemic | Resistance | Sheriff of Nottingham | Sushi Go | Takenoko | Telestrations | Ticket to Ride
Alright, you’ve done all the planning and have a general idea of what to expect at game night. That means it’s time to play. Board game events tend to be more intimate experiences due to the smaller number of people involved. Basic etiquette is expected here. Greet people as they arrive and help them be comfortable as they settle in. Introduce them to the other participants; you all will be either working together to find the cure in Pandemic or plotting against each other to have the longest road in Catan. As playing board games require some sort of social element, it’s important for both strangers and friends to become acquainted with one another.
Be aware that there will be some set-up and takedown time with games. Expect about 5–15 minutes of lead time setting up a game and explaining the rules and another 5–15 minutes for clean-up. To speed up play, strongly consider learning the game ahead of time (especially if it’s one you have not played before). The result will be two-fold. You can speed up the learning process for new players as you are a more effective teacher and will cut down on the dead time needed to learn the game. I found watching video tutorials online (available for the most popular board games) to be very effective to learn how to play games quickly. Good options include Watch It Played, Dice Tower, and Shut Up and Sit Down. Second, knowledge of the game(s) will help you determine which ones will be most appropriate for your audience.
However, even the best plans sometimes go awry. Be able to adapt. Maybe a few people couldn’t show up due to an emergency. You may have to improvise by playing a different game (another benefit to knowing your games well).
Lastly, the most important part is to have fun!
The final step after game night is to review how things went and begin thinking about preparations for future events. First, make sure you thank all of your participants. Your guests made an effort to play, and you want to make sure their time is appreciated. Not every game night is going to be a rousing success. In fact, it is expected that there will be duds every now and then. That’s normal. This is all part of the process of feedback and iteration. After each game night, you’ll learn a little something. Maybe Jody doesn’t like spending five hours saving the world from mythological creatures. Or perhaps Nick arrived too late and wasn’t able to join in the fun and games. If game night was a success, remember what worked and try to replicate the successful parts for next time. I personally like to ask each person for their thoughts and then jot down some notes to keep in mind for next time. After running game night a few times, you should find that it becomes easier as you become a more experienced organizer.
Once you have run game night a few times, you might find yourself with some regulars. If you and a few regulars are into a certain game or genre, then you may consider setting up some game-dependent events. Are you and your friends into A Game of Thrones and want to see who will end up on the Iron Throne? Set up game night specifically around the game. In this case, it would be purchasing A Game of Thrones: The Board Game and inviting people to fill in the available slots. This way, you can better control the player number and expectations of the group.
Variety will also be key after hosting multiple events. Tired of playing Cards Against Humanity five times in a row? It may be time to update your board game collection. Purchasing All-Star Games are a safe bet and will add some great variety. But if you are ready for something a bit meatier, consider venturing forth into the Journey game space. Finding the next best game for game night will take a little time and due diligence. There are numerous online resources to help you get started (i.e. boardgamegeek, /r/boardgames, etc.). Once you find a potential game to buy, read some reviews and consider watching some videos of the game in action to see if it’s your cup of tea. After you buy the game, introduce it at your next game night!
I personally believe that board games are a fantastic medium for bringing people together and providing a high-quality source of entertainment. We are now in a golden age of board games with plenty of options and something for everyone. I hope this guide serves you well to get some game nights going and spread the word of board games. I would love to hear any feedback you may have, and if you find the guide helpful, please spread the word. Stay tuned for more board game-related content in the future.