Where Logic Meets Love

9 Tips for Hosting a Kick-Ass Game Night

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

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9 Tips for Hosting a Kick-Ass Game Night | Faith Permeating Life

Mike and I started a tradition when we lived in Chicago that we've carried with us to Whoville. Every two to three months, we host a party at our place dedicated to playing games.

We invite basically everyone we know who lives in the area, which can range from family members to friends from college to people we just recently met. We also let people know they can bring friends, significant others, or family members to join the party.

Board games and other party games are a great way for people to get to know each other because they don't require making small talk, but people's personalities come out all the same. A well-planned game night will keep everyone laughing and having fun.

We've had seven or eight of these gatherings in the past two years, so by now we've come up with quite a few rules of thumb to make sure the party runs smoothly and everyone has a good time.

Here are nine tips I'll pass on to you in case you're thinking of hosting your own game night:

1. Potluck it.
For the first party Mike and I ever tried to host after we got married, we invited a bunch of people and then bought and made a whole bunch of food. Only one person showed up. After that experience, every party we've hosted has been a potluck, where we ask on the invitation that each person or couple bring a side dish or drinks, and then we make a few things ourselves. I use Evite, which allows me to create a list of things people can sign up to bring (I usually list non-alcoholic drinks, alcoholic drinks, chips and dip, veggies and dip, other appetizers / side dishes, and dessert). This works well for a number of reasons -- the amount of food is more or less proportional to the number of people who show up, and people tend to bring foods that are easy to eat while playing games and easy to grab between rounds. It also lets people know upfront that there will be food. Mike and I provide serving utensils, plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, ice, and water, as well as whichever food we've made.

2. Prepare your space.
We rearrange our living room furniture before every game night and bring in dining room chairs to fill out a circle of seating. We try to make sure there's enough seating for everyone and that everyone is reasonably close to a flat surface to set plates and drinks on. We have a stack of coasters on each of our four end tables so people don't feel weird about setting their drinks down. We clear everything off the coffee table so that game boards or cards can be set down. We put our dining room table against the far wall for food, and set up a counter for drinks in the kitchen. Mike is good about picking background music that keeps things upbeat without being distracting.

3. Don't plan to start games for at least an hour.
We had a party this past weekend that started at 7pm, and we started our first game at 8:30pm. First of all, most people show up late because they don't want to be the first one there, so by now we expect people to start showing up about half an hour past the start time. (This may be a regional thing.) Secondly, people are introducing themselves to new people, catching up with others, and filling up on food. They want to stand or sit and talk for a while before they're ready to get in game-playing mode. It's like your standard cocktail party, where you're snacking and chatting with people, but then eventually people start getting bored of small talk, and it's the perfect time to shift to a game.

4. Pick games ahead of time.
Mike and I have a large collection of games, but not all of them are suitable for large groups. We'll usually pick out about five games and plan on playing three over the course of the night. We try not to repeat a game at consecutive parties. Games that work well are ones that can be played by a large number of people (or a smaller number of pairs or teams), can be understood by a newbie in under five minutes, and don't require sharing personal information with people you've just met. (I avoid Loaded Questions for this reason.) I also generally avoid games like Scattergories and Boggle where people are silently thinking for the majority of the game, and go instead for ones that involve a lot of interaction. Depending on your setup and how many people you're expecting, you may also want to avoid games that require everyone to crowd around a single table to quickly react to something, the way some card games do.

Some party games we enjoy:

We also like the Picture-Sentence game, alternatively known as Telephone Pictionary, Eat Poop U Cat, Telestrations, or various other names. Each person has a piece of paper and writes a sentence across the top, passing it to the next person who illustrates the sentence in the inch or two underneath and then folds the paper so the next person sees only their drawing, and so on until the page is full. There are no winners or losers; it's just a funny game.

5. Consider your guests' comfort level and abilities.
I put this separate from choosing games because this is something you may need to gauge as the night goes on if you don't know all of your guests well. Some games that you may be comfortable playing with your closest friends -- like Cards Against Humanity or Dirty Minds -- can make other people uncomfortable or even offended. Other games, like Guesstures / charades, that require one person to stand up in front of the entire group, may not be enjoyable for people who are very shy or who don't know many other people there. Also, if your group contains a wide range of ages or education levels, consider whether anyone would have such an advantage or disadvantage in a particular game that it would stop being a fun experience.

6. The first game should accommodate a changing number of players.
There will inevitably be people who show up late, as well as people who can only stay for the first hour or two. It helps if you start with a team game like Pictionary or Scene It? where people can join or leave at will without throwing a wrench in the game. After the first game, late guests are less likely and people who haven't left generally settle in for the next game, so you don't have to worry as much about fluctuating numbers.

7. Know, and explain, the rules of each game.
I am the designated rule-explainer in our family, which means it's my job to make sure I understand the rules of the game. Sometimes this requires refreshing my memory by looking over the rules while people are refilling on snacks and drinks between games, but I try to have the basics down well enough not only to explain it but to anticipate questions or issues that will come up. (For example, I always stress that the person reading in Balderdash should look over people's answers before reading them out loud, so they can clarify any handwriting questions in private without ruining the secret.) Even if everyone has played before, I'll go over the basics to make sure we're all on the same page about how it's played, house rules, etc. If we're deviating from the written rules, it's good to say that upfront.

8. Have an end point in mind for each game.
Some games come with a game board that has a clear Finish at the end. Others rely on scorekeeping and may not explicitly tell you what score to play to. Some, like Taboo, say to play until everyone's had a turn reading, but in our family we like to play to a specific score and go around the circle multiple times. Figure out ahead of time what will constitute the end of the game so it doesn't drag on indefinitely. But be flexible, too -- if it's the end of the night and people are getting restless, tired, or drunk (see next point), it may be time to say, "OK, last round."

9. Plan ahead for the effects of alcohol.
Mike doesn't drink very often, but he'll drink the beer or wine people bring over for our parties, and it takes only a drink or two to get him really, really silly. This isn't necessarily a problem, and can in fact make games even funnier, but it's something to keep in mind when planning the order of games. If you're going to have alcohol there and know you have some heavy drinkers and/or lightweights who will get intoxicated easily, put knowledge or critical thinking games like Smart Ass or Trivial Pursuit earlier in the night when everyone's thinking straight, and creative or flexible games like Balderdash or Apples to Apples later on. If you have friends who get unreasonable or angry when they're drunk, then avoid games like Such a Thing that involve a lot of debate and judgment calls. And please practice safe hosting, just like with any party, and don't allow people to drive home if they've had too much to drink.

Using these guidelines, we've had some really fun game nights and look forward to many more. Hosting game nights works for us!

What are your favorite party games? What else should people keep in mind when hosting a game night?

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16 comments:

  1. This sounds like so much fun!!!!!! I love it. I'm not a huge gamer, but a lot of my friends are and I don't mind playing a game when they want to or watching them play. I might have to steal this idea. ;) Card games are also good. Like BS. One of my favorites for when you're with people you're really close to is Imagine If, because you get to guess things about each other and you learn a lot! But if you're with people you don't know very well it's not the best choice.

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    1. I do like Imaginiff -- we haven't played it at any of our game nights because we generally have more than eight people, and there's no easy way to expand the number of players like in some other games where you can just throw another place marker on the board. If we were to play Imaginiff at a party, I think we'd use the suggestion from the rules that the name spaces be filled with the names of celebrities, fictional characters, etc. rather than the names of people at the party.

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  2. We tend to games that require months of study and preparation, which obviously aren't right for big, informal groups.

    However, we do have one favorite fall-back that works for a wide variety of groups and doesn't even require any special equipment. It's called "Succotash." Everybody in the group writes down, on separate slips of paper, four or five items--could be titles, phrases, words--anything. These are all mixed together in a bowl or hat, then you split into two teams. Alternating teams, each person has one minute to get their teammates to guess as many words as possible. There are three rounds: The first round is just like catchphrase (use any words except the ones on the paper). The second round is charades. The third round you can only say one word, and they have to guess just based on that. (However, by that point everyone has heard, seen, and laughed over each word twice.)

    The words chosen reflect a lot about the people and group, and by the third round they've become in jokes. It's a great mixer. The one disadvantage is that there are people who hate the charades round, but they are often the best at the one-word round, so you can just adapt and let everyone do what they like best.

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    1. That's interesting -- I'd only ever heard a version of that game called "Celebrity" where you put the names of famous people in the bowl and then go through the three rounds. It didn't occur to me that it could be expanded to include things other than people. I'm not a big fan of Celebrity (mostly because I don't know who a lot of famous people are), but I'd be willing to try the version you describe.

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  3. I once went to a game night where we played "sculptionary." Rather than draw in Pictionary, we sculped with Play-Doh. It worked surprisingly well!

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    1. Sculpting is my favorite part of the game Cranium, but I didn't think about the fact that you could make a whole game out of it. Sounds fun!

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  4. In my circle of friends, Cards Against Humanity tends to be the go to game... New Yorkers tend to have raunchy permissive senses of humor and like to drink a lot, so it ends up being one of the few games where order can somewhat be maintained.

    When I was in high school, we used to play a variation of Uno (or you could do it with Crazy 8s) called Mao where the rules evolved as you went along that was really fun, but it becomes less fun if you have someone in the group that can't deal with ambiguity... I got a book chucked in my face at a party by a friend who couldn't deal with not knowing all the rules right away.

    Fluxx is another great rule evolving game, but it's pretty simple to follow because the rules change based on what's on the card.

    Also, I have a friend who's involved with a group called Games by Playdate. They're developing some of their own games (they're in the sidebar) and they also review games as part of their Too Many Days of Games series. Might be of interest if you're interested in games that are outside of the mainstream.

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    1. Oh man, my friends were really into Mao for a while in high school. I think I have a bad association with it because (if my memory is correct) the guy who "taught" it to us originally was kind of a smug asshole who really enjoyed the superiority of doling out punishments for rules we didn't yet know existed. It may also be because I'm such a rule-follower and can't stand getting in trouble for breaking rules I didn't know about.

      I'd heard of Fluxx from Becca before. We don't typically do card games at our parties because they usually require everyone being around a central table, and we tend to have too many people for that. But it sounds like a game I should check out for when we have smaller gatherings or play games at family parties.

      Thanks for the link to Games by Playdate!

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  5. We used to host game night at our house on a very regular basis. We stopped after 3 weeks in a row of having nobody at all show up; it was just too depressing. Friends tell us they are "too busy" on weeknights now, and we don't feel able to host parties on weekends very often. However, I've coordinated game night at my church, inviting the general public several times now.

    When we have more than 6 people, we get multiple games going. Many more games work with smaller groups than big ones. One game I do recommend even for large groups is Zendo, an inductive logic game that can be played at a relaxed pace and allows for conversation. It can be very challenging if you want, but the basic game is quite easy; my son was playing at 5, and we played at his birthday party when his friends were all 6 and 7.

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    1. I loved your article about having a game night at your church!

      We've always said if we had too many people come to a party, we'd break off into smaller groups and play multiple games, but so far it's never happened. The other night we had 10 people (not counting another 3 who were in and out) and we made it work -- The Game of Things dragged out a bit more because there were 10 answers to match to people instead of the usual maximum 8, but I suggested at the beginning that people write down the answers as they were read, which helped a lot. But I could see a multiple-game night working well for our building, where we had different games set up in different parts of the lounge.

      Zendo, from what I can tell, looks like the kind of game I would love and Mike would hate. I love Mastermind, and Mike will not play it with me because his brain just doesn't work that way. He swears he about had a nervous breakdown one time when we were playing because after a dozen games he still couldn't get how to apply the logic of the clues. So... maybe we will pass on that one :)

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    2. One of the things I love about game nights is having people to play with other than my partner and child, so that I can play games they don't like! :-)

      I'm not surprised you love Mastermind; you and I seem to have much the same kind of brain. I remember trying to play it with my dad many times when I was really too young and it was SOOO HARD, but then when I was 7 or 8 it suddenly clicked. We got a set for Christmas last year, and my 8-year-old finds it challenging, but he is willing to play, so I'm very happy about that.

      The summer I was 11, a family with a daughter my age rented the house next door, and I introduced her to Mastermind. When she raved to her parents about what a great game it was, they freaked out--because they were evangelical Christians of the type that are terrified by anything that even sounds like "mind control"! She knew the game was not challenging her faith, so we just played it in secret after that. :-)

      Okay, end of Mastermind tangent. I hope you'll try Zendo someday when you have enough people that Mike doesn't need to play it. He probably would like other pyramid games.

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    3. Too funny about Mastermind sounding like an anti-Christian game. I would guess that's not the only game that people have written off simply because of the name.

      I have a Mastermind app for my iPod Touch, so I can play it as much as I want without worrying about Mike :)

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  6. Making the game night a pot luck as well is genius! I think we'll have to do that next time! I don't mind cooking treats but it would be fun to have more food!

    Tara | http://zanogames.com

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  7. Not sure how big a gamer you and your friends are, but if you haven't heard of it there are tons of games you can look up on boardgamegeek.com. There are plenty of complicated games on the site, but lots of easier gateway games too. You can sign up and ask questions on forums as there are a lot of helpful people when looking for a particular type of game. It's a good way to diversify your collection and find a lot of games that aren't mainstream and that a lot of people probably aren't even aware of.

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  8. Im throwing a games night for my birthday and stumbled across your page from Chamonix in France :) I hadn't even thought about the fact that the first game should be one where the numbers can change, genius! I know theres always friends of mine that are late and saves holding off the keen starters. We are all heading out for some laser quest to get everyone in the competitive mood first. Im doing a round of guess that 90s song using some remade music clips on youtube, and we are doing a round of bowling using the xbox kinect and also play dough pictionary (which i love the name sculptionary for now! Thanks Katie!). Im making sushi as its easy finger food and I love the idea of setting up my kitchen breakfast bar as a bar as i have an open plan living room/kitchin. Thanks for the tips!

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    1. Salut! Sounds like a fun party! Thanks for letting me know you found the post helpful!

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