Hosting A Board Games Night With People Who Don't Play Board Games

So you’ve started playing these new fangled board games and have somehow convinced your friends to come over and play.

But how do you stop the night from turning into a horrible mess? I’ve hosted literally dozens of board game nights and there’s a very real chance that I’ve bumped into an expert on the subject at some point in my life. So that makes me the ideal person to tell you how to have fun with your friends. Fairy Bread image via Shutterstock

This story was originally published in October 2015.


Know Your Friends

It seems obvious, but different people like different games. Your friends are much more likely to come back for more if they enjoyed the games they played last time.

Got a friend that’s a manipulative, scheming bastard? A game with a traitor mechanic would be right up their alley. Got another friend who is sick of zombies being shoved into everything? Avoid Dead of Winter and Last Night on Earth.

Busting out Twilight Imperium will scare off all but the bravest of board gamers while the same brave board gamers will self-defenestrate rather than play Munchkin.

Choosing games can be tricky. Especially when you’re a fledgling board gamer and don’t have a wide range of games to choose from. Games like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Splendor - often referred to as ‘gateway games’ - are always a good idea to have on hand.

These are the board gaming equivalent of fairy bread. Everybody loves fairy bread. Filler games like Hanabi or Love Letter are never a bad idea either. They’ll give you something to play while waiting for everyone to show up or help get things started.

As for other good games for your group, board game communities love to give out recommendations. What Should I Get (WSIG) posts are so common on Reddit that there’s a sidebar link with most of the common responses.

If being told what to play isn’t your style, you can always do your own investigating. The surging popularity of board games means that the internet is flooded with reviewers that cater to a range of audiences.

Shut Up and Sit Down has a preference for games that encourage social interaction and Dice Tower likes games where you can play nice. Find a reviewer that likes what you like for the same reasons that you do and you’ll have no trouble finding games that suit your taste.


Know Your Games

Playing a game you don’t understand isn’t fun. As host, you’ve got a duty to teach your friends how to play whatever it is you plan on playing. Luckily, Shut Up and Sit Down have posted this handy video on how to handle rules explanations.

You have to understand a game fairly well in order to teach it, which means that you’ll have to do some homework. For some people, this means poring over the rulebook until they’ve memorised every line then playing dummy games. You don’t have to do that.

Many games are much, much simpler than they appear if you take a structured approach to learning the game. When I’m trying to figure out how to play a game, I tend to focus on several key points and then work out the rest of the details from there.

The most important detail to learn about a game is how to win. When you’re working out how to win, you’ll also need to know how the game ends.

Then, I want to know what players can do. Once you know how to win, what you’re doing and when it ends, it’s easy to relate all of the rules back to one of those points.

Playing some dummy games is still a good idea though.

There’s no shame in cheating on your homework either. Countless resources exist online to help teach players how to play board games, such as Watch it Played’s Youtube tutorials to the Esoteric Order of Gamers and their cheat sheets.

Don’t rely entirely on these resources though, mistakes happen. Even after you’ve mastered a game, it’s always handy to have the rules nearby.


Feed your friends

When you’ve got a handful of people in your house for several hours, you’re going to have to feed them or they’ll get cranky. Nobody likes cranky board gamers. Tables get flipped, pieces get scattered.

Feed your friends.

There are people who loathe the idea of food and drink being anywhere near their games. If that sounds like you, set up something nearby so that players aren’t taken out of the action while still maintaining a spill-free zone.

Otherwise feel free to scatter plates of cheese and whatnot* wherever there’s space. Spare chairs and coffee tables are useful as extra surfaces to scatter upon.

More substantial food is also an option but one that you should plan for. Having the delivery guy show up in the middle of the game with nowhere to put the food is just going to make you feel silly. Have the food ready when there’s a break in play.

If you’ve just finished a game, you’ll even have a conveniently empty table that you’re all gathered around to eat at. Games in progress can be slightly trickier to deal with. Not eating at the table is one way to handle it.

Another is to take photos of the game in progress with your phone, put everything aside and hope you can piece things back together when you’ve finished eating. The latter option has yet to work for me but good luck if you’re willing to give it a go.

This is not a definitive guide on how to host a board game night. If you have your own tips, or want to point out any grievous errors, post them in the comments.

*Fairy bread is one of many possible whatnots.


Comments

    If it's going to be a 10 hour game, send the rules to people to give them the option to read the rules, but still give a quick rundown at the beginning.

    If it's a big game, maybe lay it out before they get there, if it's been decided already.

    have different types of games available, if people bring games, ask them what they brought when having the discussion.

    don't be afraid to split up into smaller groups, if you have the space.

    Also - Great article :)

    Last edited 26/10/15 11:12 am

      Getting multiple games going is definitely something more people should do. Most games don't support more than four players (or just aren't as good with more players). Splitting up just makes sense if you have the space and games to pull it off.

        I've desperately tried to do this with my group, but then they always just go, "But it's better with more people!" Yes, a game may fit up to 10, but it might actually function best with 6 or 7. split up and try new things!

          I think this was the problem we had with our game last night, Betrayal at House on the Hill, it seemed too easy to win because we had 5 vs 1. I think 4 might be the sweet spot for that game.

            Betrayal is not a balanced game. Sometimes the traitor will walk all over you. Sometimes they won't. It's a game that you go in expecting weird things to happen. Not fair things. Weird things.

            Apparently the consensus is that the game's better with more players. I guess that's because more weird things can happen.

              Good to know, either way we had fun, even the hapless Traitors.

    Knowing the game that you are going to play is number one priority. Nothing kills the mood like the host sitting in silence for 10 minutes reading the manual and trying to understand the rules.

      Yeah, I always dread the rules explanation for new games, so I make extra sure I've researched the rules and any common questions about them before hand.

      This article was originally going to be entirely about how to learn and teach board games. Then I realised that I could talk about fairy bread if I expanded it a little. That and the embedded video does a better job of dealing with the teaching half.

      Most games have a PDF manual online, with a new game I try to get everybody to read the rule pre-game. If you get even a 50% success rate it makes things so much easier.

    I put weed butter on the fairy bread for a real (video) games day once.

    I can’t speak for board games, but it was certainly a hit for multiplayer Trials, Mashed, FIFA ect.

    Man, who is this guy? It's fairly obvious that he doesn't know *anything* about boardgames.

    Anyway, most important thing is to lull your guests into a false sense of superiority by letting them win. Winning is fun.

    And alcohol: yay or nay?

      I'd say yes, but try and minimise spillage probability, or minimise the likely damage to spillage.

        I'm all for drinking wine out of a mug if it minimises spillage.

      They'll let anyone write for Kotaku these days.

      Most of my recent board gaming attempts have had a bottle of wine at the table. It's a social gathering and if your friends want social lubricant, so be it.

      Alcohol only in moderation. But that depends on the game. If you're playing something semi serious then you want people to not stuff around.
      If you're playing Jungle Speed or Cards Against Humanity then alcohol helps a lot!

      Booze is always part of my boardgame nights, and last time I roasted 2 chooks and had a big meal for everyone at halftime. MUCH more fun when we were all boozed up and had a full belly :D

    I appreciate your patience with me as I stared blankly at you while you taught me Hanabi.

    I did it with Talisman and my mates wife keeps asking when we can have another night (i think ive created a monster lol)

    Also Re food - Finger food is an awesome out. Spring rolls, Sausage rolls, Curry Puffs, Sandwiches, ShishKebabs. Cupcakes, Arancini, pastizzi, Dumplings oh the list is endless

      I'd have thought finger food would be bad, since it increases the likelihood of getting grease and such all over the games. And/or hold up gameplay while your fingers are indisposed/in need of a clean.

      Though I guess hand everyone a fork and it's all fine :P

        Napkins and non-greasy food work well.

        It does let you play one-handed, though.

    Have done a few boardgame nights now and I recommend booze-a-mahol to help relax everyone if there are some strangers coming. Also having done take out one night vs cooking something at home, I definitely prefer cooking something up. Take-away just came off as bloody expensive to me, and SOOO GREASY :P

    Breaking up the night also helps. So a good boardgame to start, followed by relatively quick ones (eg Skull & Roses, exploding kittens, zombie dice etc) are good in the middle because if you have food to serve/eat you're not going to have too long to wait for a game to finish.

    Finally, making a facebook event is always useful so that you can ask well ahead if people don't like some games, or prefer others etc. I'm always a fan of settlers but I have a few friends who are over it now which is fair enough. So that has dropped out of rotation but more games have come into the fold :)

      Every time I've tried to cook and play games, I end up spending half the game running back to the kitchen. Maybe my problem is that I'm trying to cook dishes that are too work intensive.

      As for filler games, they're the glue that hold board game nights together. Aside from helping to fill the time while other things happen, they're also fantastic for ending the night. They're pretty much fantastic at all times.

        This saturday I'm planning on running an evening with Werewolf/Resistance, Keep Talking and No One Explodes, and hopefully squeeze in some more serious ones (I pray i get to play more Cosmic Encounter).

        As for food, I generally make stuff that you can set and forget. One pot goulashes and stuff are easy. And you can do a lot of the prep way ahead. Generally do stuff thats forgiving, so if you're over the cooking time by a bit or something, it's not gonna ruin it.

          I've got a slow cooker now. Hopefully that means I can do things like pulled pork burritos or other things where all the prep work can be done hours beforehand.

        Yeah you need to be smart with the food you decide to cook, or in my case I bow out for the second round of games to be a good host (which I don't mind). All comes down to planning :D

        Slowcooker is your friend. I've done curries in it before for game nights, people love that.

    No phones!
    There are exceptions, but having a player who constantly needs to be yelled at to take their turn followed by them asking what happened is one of the most frustrating things.

      I've had to put a rule on one of my friends of "No phone use while playing". but once we started playing Dead of Winter, it seemed to not be a problem.

      If people are playing with their phones they are bored with the game, and you should have tried something different. Also snacks/food help keep people focused.

    I've found that being willing to sit out of the game so you can walk around the table helping people with choices or mechanics works well. Certainly for particular game like 7 wonders it helps a lot. Much easier to answer questions if you aren't playing and you can just say show me your cards, which gets a bit dubious when you are another player in the game.

    I Like running through A quick Youtube Video of Tabletop (with Wil Wheaton)
    They usually do a pretty good quick intro to a game (even if they don't cover all the rules). But they are fun and easy to watch/understand. I'm sure there are other similar videos around too.

    Obviously you need to start off with simple games. Party games like Werewolves, Cards against Humanity etc... are good starts. Not exactly "board games" but games in general. Then like suggested, Carcassone, Ticket to Ride etc are easy to learn.

    Knowing the players is important too. Some people don't do losing well. Some people don't to competition well. Perhaps choose a co-op game like Forbidden Island/Desert or Pandemic. That way there's no competition and then more experienced players can help the newbies.

    Also start off with quick games. I'd say 1 hour tops. That way you can play 2-3 games or rounds in an evening without people loosing interest. Long 5+ hour games require a special kind of dedication that new players rarely have.

    Finally, avoid games that knock players out. Even if they are fairly quick. This can easily lead to people losing interest, especially if they get knocked out early a few games in a row.

    EDIT: oh yeah, and like @comment said. NO PHONES!!!

    Last edited 26/10/15 12:17 pm

      Tabletop is what got me started in this hobby. Tabletop is also horrible for rules explanations. Those videos are best as a pitch. Wil's intro for a game is a great way to work out if the game is going to work for you or not.

      As for player elimination, that's another thing that depends on the players. I honestly don't mind a game that knocks someone out, even if it's King of Tokyo and I'm 90% to be the first player out. If people are going to lose interest because they keep getting eliminated, I think the better solution would be to move to a different game before that's an option. Not skipping the game altogether but maybe only playing once or twice.

    Just play Cards Against Humanity forever, right? RIGHT?

    On a side-note - my friends are loving playing X-Com. Even though we've only won one game of our first three.

      I wish I could find it but I swear there was a quote from someone that designed co-operative games (going to go with Matt Leacock) that said a 1/3 win rate is the sweet spot. You want to know that winning is possible but it can't come easy.

      Honestly I'm so over CAH. I got it very early (kickstarter or just after) and played it often.

      After a while, you start seeing the same combos especially if you play with the same group. These days I find it boring and usually don't play.
      The only time I bother is if it's a new group of people because seeing their reactions is hilarious.

      Werewolves is something our group plays pretty often, but unless you get the right mix of characters it can be one sided or the same person getting lynched on the first vote every single time.

        Same as me. CAH has died a little bit for my regular boardgame group.

        Everybody still wants to play it, but I save it for certain occasions because I know burnout will happen quickly. I also like to space it out.

      I hadn't heart great things about X-COM... Mainly that the timer mechanic could get a bit tedious at times. It was a shame to hear because it was something I'd been looking at picking up.

      On another note... Battlestar Galactica is fantastic. Watching the trust between everyone dissolve as the game goes on is especially amusing.

        The turn timer is simple enough to get around at lower levels as it has a handy pause button :D

    "got a friend who is a manipulative bastard"
    yes, yes i do Adam

      hahahahahaha you should play subterfuge. He's being nice to me in that

        He will betray you

          not as much as others have at that table, someone else has betrayed me more often, and consistently. totally my fault for being so trusting

            I have no control over how much you trust me.

    Anyone who "doesn't" play board games: not someone who dislikes them, rarely plays or has other preferences, the one who makes a statement of it; is kind of an ass. Why would you be so prejudiced that you couldn't bear to engage in an activity that doesn't harm anyone or anything like it's a stance or a belief - that they need to promote awareness by abstaining from something like a game for life. (these people exist and are generally prone to prejudice in other ways) Sorry, that's a whole other level of ignorant.

      It's the same with any hobby. You see it around the comment sections here when somebody starts to talk about having a sportsball night/day and having friends around for that.

      I had a friend like this and we've turned him around on the subject. Part of the problem was all board and card games where considered by him to be like Monopoly which is quite frankly an awful game.

      He now looks forward to Board Game night, and he's tried games he previously refused to play and loves them.

    Just throw down Cards Against Humanity, everyone loves that game

      CAH has such diminishing returns.

        Couldn't agree more, the replay value is incredibly limited.

          And that's without getting in to the fact that there's little "game" there and the content is problematic.

      Some people don't like the blatant horribleness it can breed, but there are some good alternatives - Funemployment, Codenames and Spyfall

        I still need to get my copy of Spyfall to the table. It will happen soon

        Codenames is brilliant and should (and indeed could) be played by everyone.

        Spyfall is one I might save until people are a bit more into games. It's a lot higher stress than something like Funemployed.

        Last edited 26/10/15 2:02 pm

          people got upset when I started asking what colours they were seeing in spyfall.

            I guess that kinda goes a little against the role play of the game, though it seems like a legit question. Maybe not a very useful one though.

              Trust me, it gets annoying when it's the first question every round.

                I love spyfall, was good fun when i accidentally give everything away every second time

                It doesn't seem like a good question - I'd immediately suspect someone of being the spy if they asked about colours.

                  I found it useful in particular scenarios, for example the circus.

            As long as you're not asking specifically what colours are on their location card (or anything about the card)

        I think Spyfall was one that I liked. Need to start a list of these things for Christmas.

      Cards Against Humanity is ok as a first tiny baby step but it's not really much of a game.

      If you're wanting to wean people onto something with some actual mechanics then Funemployed is a good choice. It facilitates dick jokes just as well as CAH (without being as deliberately repugnant), but introduces a theme, some more elements to consider, a little creativity and some simple (or not so simple if you like) improvisation.

      The rules are essentially the same as CAH except rather than Madlibs, players are trying to build a pitch of sorts to get a job. The lead player deals a Profession card (as they would a CAH black card) and the remaining players are dealt cards with random words on them, all of which have to be used to explain why that player deserves to get the job.

      For example, on a Proctologist job, I remember I had soft hands, ripped arms and grass (and one other that I've forgotten) my pitch was something along the lines of "At my previous job a the clinic called "Your Arse is GRASS", my clients appreciated my SOFT HANDS while I worked on them, but my RIPPED ARMS came in pretty handy for when things had really gotten lodged in there good and proper."

        And just like that I am finally convinced I can put this on the table with my gaming group.
        *clicks buy*

          The only thing holding me back is finding a decent priced copy. Same goes for Paperback.

    CAH is fine if it gets people laughing and relaxing - just not all night. Even so, I'd rather play something like Codenames, Say Anything, Spyfall, or Snake Oil. But they require a bit more from a player (creatively), so if you've got slightly apprehensive players who haven't played anything before and are maybe worried about looking silly or doing something wrong - then CAH might be just the thing to get them to loosen up.

    Co-op games are good for new groups - you don't have the pressure of performing, and it's easy to just show your card and say "I don't understand this card" - well, unless you're playing Hanabi.

    Otherwise, for "gateway" games, I would try stuff like Incan Gold, Bang! Dice, Cockroach Poker, Dixit, Fake Artist goes to New York, Guillotine, Love Letter, No Thanks!

    And if people are doing ok with that - maybe some 7 Wonders, or Isle of Skye

    From the opposite perspective, I'm a non-board gamer who gets invited round to friends' board game parties occasionally, and for me it's definitely the quicker and simpler games I find the most fun. Something like Codenames or Takaido that can be jumped into relatively quickly and easily. You play for a while and if you like it, you can have more rounds, if not, you're not committed to spending hours doing something you don't like.

    Also, inebriation always helps.

Join the discussion!