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How To Host A Games Night

Chronicles of crime game night

I’ve heard lots of stories about people hosting the perfect games night: they’re either terrific tabletop gatherings or board game bedlam. I’ve been privy to a fair few sessions, for which I’m blessed! I’ve seen the good, the bad and the “oh lord never again!”. What makes them different were the levels of planning and orchestration to get them to be what the host had intended. Hosting a Games Night isn’t hard, but it takes some thinking. A lot of thinking.

When you decide you’re ready to open your homes to the gamers of the wild, or the more casual gamers you know, there are some considerations you may want to make. From hosting to selecting games. Teaching gateways to fillers and beyond. And if all goes well, you may even get to the heavier stuff… here’s our guide on how to be the board game host/hostess with the most/most-est successful games evening!

The Good, The Bad, And Everything In Between!

One of the more awkward sessions I partook in was really well planned. Ironic right? The host had pulled out all the stops. They prepared some snacks, drinks and even had two tables for games so in the extreme circumstance one didn’t fit the bill, a smaller game could go on. Their level of consideration for making it a hospitable and lovely atmosphere was to their credit. Where did it go wrong? They chose just their preferred games, all of which were hardcore war games. It was like being sat in a war room in the middle of a heated battle. Heck, I was surprised the bloke wasn’t wearing a boonie hat and some medals!

Risk, Twilight Imperium, War of the Ring to name a few. All conflict, all the time. All games which make any hardcore gamer’s heart skip a beat, but would scare the hair off of any casual gamer. It was very much an event to celebrate their favourite games… And as lovely as it was, it missed the mark.

Credit where credits due, he hit the nail on the head with being a quality host. However, because he was so perfect, no one wanted to say no to the games. He took the game which he believed to be the most gateway like and ran us through the rules. He’d even made prompts and handouts to help us play, which was a really lovely touch and made us even more reluctant to say no! However, 3 hours deep into it and a few of us had burnt out… we ended the game early and sat about eating and drinking. The silver lining is that it was a superbly fun evening of socialising and playing some games, but it was far from his expectations.

The flip side to this style is the no host, many options style. This works well sometimes, and other times it’s just a free for all. We were invited, turned up, played games and never once spoke to the host! We played some ace table-toppers and had so much choice, but inevitably stuck to what we knew and were familiar with. Without someone to guide us through the games they’d laid out, we chose what was comfortable. It’s what’s natural! In some respects that was more akin to popping down to your local club and playing some games, but it’s not quite the vibe I’d want to be offering personally. I’d want to be there to not only guide their experience but to get them playing things they may not themselves choose.

Hosting? Or Getting A Roasting?

Being a host in any sort of social situation can be a lot of pressure if you let it. Making sure drinks are filled, bellies are full and people are entertained are the basics. (That’s your job, by the way. You’ll be the one filling drinks and such!) If you’re wanting to be a truly hospitable host, you’ll need to consider whether you’re going for snacks or food, cold or hot drinks, nibbles at the table or a good distance from the gaming?

It sounds common sense, but you’ll know as well as I do that board games take up a lot of space. Also, will your guests feel comfortable helping themselves to your wares and food? Like operating someone else’s shower, finding something in someone’s kitchen is a near-impossible task. If they’re not ready to make themselves at home, I’d have things out on the side so people don’t have to rummage your house looking for teabags!

Everything else should fall into the common rules of being a person visiting a person. People generally know not to make themselves too at home. There’s a line, and you generally know when you’ve crossed it. Where it gets complicated for us board gaming folk is with the general board gaming etiquette we’re used to. The unwritten social rules we stick to that make us cringe or shudder when broken. You know the ones… bending cards, being on phones, arguing against the rules and, of course, assuming it’s “like monopoly”. These are all gaming no-no's for those of us more experienced. To others, it’s probably no big deal! And to kick-off, these are things you’re going to possibly need to deal with. Risks.

Smashing Those Risks

It comes without saying that there’s going to be a risk when considering whether to play a particular game or not. Not everyone is careful. In fact, not all gamers are gentle, caring or sentimental about their games. Some see them as things to be played and used! However, it’s clear that some are a bit more delicate with them. And, realistically, you’ve got to weigh up whether you’d rather risk the game being damaged aesthetically or playing it at a games night with non-gamers. You can mitigate the potential damage by sleeving and the likes, but again, if your biggest concern is the game’s condition than having it played, don’t play it at games night.

The other risk as a host you’ll have to contend with is the games not being enjoyed. Now this one isn’t as prominent when you’re inviting people you know well! If it’s your usual game group, it’ll all fall into place and they themselves may have some ideas of what they want to play! Easy living, right? Well, it’s not always so simple. You need to know a little about your guests’ preferences or have enough on offer to cover your bases. A non-threatening theme with something everyone can access may be a good call. Cthulhu Mythos and Lord of the Rings are pretty deep themes that require a lot of background knowledge. If your guests don’t know their Dark Lord from their Old Ones, avoid these. Go neutral or common ground.

Whatever theme you choose, you’ve got to have passion you can convey about the games. Strict advice, choose games you can talk about and play confidently. If you yourself are going to be tripping over rules, technicalities and theme questions, you’ll lose your audience. Get the game set up and let people see what it contains. Folk are going to want to look at stuff and investigate the components, which is a good thing… but if there are hidden elements, keep them close to hand! This brings us on a smooth Segway into teaching these games…

Talk The Talk, Walk The Walk…

There’s more than one way to teach a game. Some methods work better than others, and if you know your guests it’ll be a whole lot easier! However, you’ll not always have that benefit. In some ways, you’ll be their Marco Polo of board gaming. You’ll guide them through a journey that could start them on their own board game adventure! (Or it could help them have a successful couple of games with you. Who knows?) Whichever way they decide to go, you’re still the one responsible for giving them the basics of any game, which is why it’s so important you can talk them through it.

Board games, as you no doubt know, have a massive range in variety of weight. For those who don’t know, weight refers to a combination of complexity, game time, mechanics involved and difficulty to grasp. The heavier the weight, the harder it’ll be to teach. Strict advice, start low. Pick something with a light weight that can be picked up easily. A good choice might be a gateway game. Carcassonne, Catan, King of Tokyo and Azul are the classic choices. However, if these tried and tested selections aren’t your jam, the lovely Zatu bloggers have amassed some alternatives to the classics. You’ll hopefully be well accustomed to these beacons of gaming, but picking any game you’re confident with the rules of will aid you undoubtedly.

…And Then Game The Game

Whether you’re teaching a stereotypical gateway game or something you feel your guests will enjoy, there are a few things you’ll have to be and consider. There’s also a sensible chronology to it all, a sequence to introduce before you start rolling dice. Concept and theme, goal, components, sequence and losing. It’s how I’ve taught games in the past, and it works well.

Start with the concept. What’s the game about? What’s the setting, focus and reason to play? Give them a bit of background and some lore. Many rulebooks provide this and they set the scene wonderfully, don’t be afraid to read it!

Move onto the goal. What are players aiming to achieve and how do they do that? In what ways can players gain points or move towards a victory? You’ll benefit from talking about end game bonuses and ways to get an edge here too. No one likes surprise victories or wasted resources, so make sure everyone is aware of what’ll gain them points.

Now move to the components. What does everything do and how can players use things? Do they have resources to manage? Anything they have to track without components? Always talk through any decks of cards or out of turn functions. You don’t need to talk through every card, but an overview with commonalities will always be beneficial.

Then go with the sequence of play and rules. How does a player’s turn run and what can players do? I personally find it best to do a sample turn here. Where possible, I’d provide a copy of a turn sequence overview for players from the rule book as well – a photocopy of the turn summary. As for rules, consider what players can and can’t do on a turn, and if there are any social rules in place: not being able to talk or discuss cards, the need to trade and the point of negotiation are all alien concepts if you’re not familiar with them.

Finally, play with a vision to accept losing. This game should be your bread and butter. Something you know the ins and outs of. If you go hard for victory, you’ll guarantee a win. But at what cost? To begin with, you should be explaining your actions, motives and intentions every turn. Make everyone aware of what you’re aiming for and how you’ll do it. You’ll also want to suggest options to others to help them get the edge. Learning a new game in one go is a lot, and your guests will appreciate the support! If you’re doing it well, you’ll eventually be able to reduce the amount of help you’re dishing out… but never aim for victory. Aim for fun.

Plugging Holes

Any good games night won’t be just the one game. You’ll surely be wanting to hit a few things at the table that evening, right? There’s so many great games to show off and you’ll want to get as much to the table as possible. But hitting your guests with big game after big game will oversaturate things. They’ll be exhausted! No level of enthusiasm can reduce mental strain. It would be a good idea to stagger the weights and lengths of the game’s to reduce the risk of burnout. So what do you do? Hit them with some quality filler games of course! If you’re not savvy with the hip lingo of youthful table-toppers, a filler game is a shorter game that plays quick and doesn’t require tonnes of overthinking.

A filler game should be a game you can teach as you play. Or, alternatively, a game you can show an example game of without taking lots of time. Simple concept, fast play and high engagement are the sweet spot trio of any filler. But why use a filler? The idea is to reduce mental strain, remove analysis paralysis and get a game going that you could play a few times with low time stakes. It’s a great opportunity to get folk trying new mechanics and doing some silly stuff without concern of the huge time investment. Fast, fun and no commitment. Sounds perfect, right? I personally find that these are the opportunities for people really let loose and just have a crack at something.

My personal go-to fillers include Coup, Infinity Gauntlet, Railroad Ink and Skull King. We won’t always play all four, but we’ll usually hit Coup once or twice. None last more than 20 minutes and there’s little commitment to them.

Where’s The Hard Stuff!?

And what about the big stuff? The hard stuff? The top shelf content that’s only for those with some serious experience?! Surely you want to know how to host for the elite board gamers and the games for only the enlightened in dice and cards…

Well… it doesn’t exist. There’s no game that’s only for the experienced. Anyone can play anything, and you could – should you want to – choose a heavier game for your games night. The difference will be the time spent on the teach, preparation and number of games you can play in a session. Heavier games tend to take longer, and therefore will reduce how many games you can play without frying your circuits. This might not be strictly true for those who have experience playing lots of heavy games, but everyone has a limit.

If you’re going to hit something heavier, you’ll want to consider using a filler as a warmup game. Something to get people thinking and considering tactic making and formulating. It’ll get them calculating and planning ready for some bigger games. Surely they’ll then be ready to play any game you throw at them, right? Possibly… but again, consider what games they’re going to enjoy. Heavier games tend to have more mechanics, and that means there’s more flexibility in people enjoying elements of them. Root for example has hand management, variable player powers, dice rolling, conflict and point to point movement. And that’s just the shared mechanisms! And yet, it’s a game I have played at a games night with some newer gamers and it went down a treat! I feel that’s because players only needed the intricacies of their own faction and background of other players’ goals.

More strict advice: let your guests know about the game before they arrive. There’s nothing more terrifying than seeing a massive board, hundreds of tokens, dice, meeple, miniatures and cards all on a table. Let them know the premise for the game and what players can do on a turn. It doesn’t need to be a huge in-depth explanation of every mechanic and tactic available, but it should cover some of the turn sequence, basics and win conditions. Some games even benefit from having a reference provided ahead of time, particularly in those with any level of asymmetry. Root and Vast as prime examples due to the unique play of each faction. Nemesis or Scythe would also go down a treat with a brief explanation or rule summary! Just make sure everyone has an idea of what to expect.

It’s Just Too Much!

There’s a limit to what people can handle in one sitting. I’m still a firm believer that anyone can learn any game, given the time and commitment. However, I’d never want anyone to feel they had to play but weren’t enjoying it. Everyone should know what they’re doing and feel comfortable knowing how they’re going to do it. Games that are wildly open, sandbox-like or have too many working parts and a big weight might deter guests from getting involved or overwhelm them. You want these good people to leave energised and talking about the thrill of the experience. Not the time spent playing, waiting or overthinking.

On Mars is a prime example for me. It’s a game I wouldn’t use as a games night game for non / newer gamers. It’s one of my heaviest games and it’s a push too far. Don’t get me wrong, I love On Mars! I could talk about it until the end of days! My passion for it is undeniable… but there are so many moving parts, so many options, so much meat to the game that I know it could be too much! The risk with it is, as much as I’d get them playing and working towards a win, it may result in a flop. I don’t want folk playing the game for my benefit, only to be deterred from it forever! But again, you’ll know your guests best. Focus on what they can handle…

With more seasoned gamers you could easily throw it on the table and get it played whether they had background knowledge or not. It entirely depends on how committed your guests are to pick something up. Again, board games have etiquette and unwritten rules that some games rely on for smooth teaching and play. It’s down to experience. The heavier the game, the more likely you’ll need to have a background understanding of how games play. Preplanning, direction, action management. All stuff that comes naturally to those who’ve experienced it, but it’ll cause a quick burnout for new gamers!

Wrapping It Up In a Neat Bow

So should you host a games night? Yes. Without knowing the background of you, your group or your diet and shoe size, I think you should. Despite the many ramblings, strict rules and ideas to support hosting a games night, I seriously recommend you do it. It’s so worth it and the perfect remedy for both not seeing folk and getting some games to the table. You’ve just got to remember you’re hosting for your guests’ benefit and introducing games to them. They are the centre of the evening. Not your desire to obliterate them in every game played! Host, play, enjoy!

As for a quick summary…

Cater to your guests’ needs with food, drinks and games.

Know your guests. Get an idea of what they might like based on their interests. Or, go for a gateway game!

Be present and attentive. As much as you want to be involved, you’ve got to go at your guests’ pace.

Pick stuff they’ll enjoy or things that don’t need a trilogy of lore for.

Teach slowly and in a logical order. Explain your actions and turns so they can learn from you. You’re the guru at the table! Enlighten them!

Break it up with fillers. Choose games that are fast and punchy to keep the energy up between bigger games!

If you’re going to go heavy, pull out all the stops! Rules references, a how to play video, background and an understanding of what they’ll do will aid them no end.