How to host a games night

Looking for a rich social experience with friends, without doing the same old thing or spending a bunch of money? Try a games night and dinner party.

Jeremy Kutner / Freelance
Jim Wang plays Settlers of Catan, a popular German board game, at a game club in Guangzhou, China, in this file photo from July, 2009. In any country, Settlers is a fun game that's easy to learn and play, making it a favorite for games nights.

As I’ve mentioned before on The Simple Dollar, one of our favorite social activities is to host a “game night” with several of our friends. We do this on a rotating basis with them, with roughly two “game nights” happening per month. For us, it’s a social highlight – it provides great social interaction (that’s what a board game or a card game really is – a tool to get people at the table talking), a fun evening with friends, and some great thought-provoking game play.

Every so often, I’ll hear from a reader who seems somewhat interested in the idea but envisions people sitting around bored to death playing a marathon game of Monopoly. An example, from Brady:

We have friends over two or three times a month. We usually end up watching movies, which I like every once in a while, but I don’t like it because no one talks or interacts. I’d love to host a game night but playing Monopoly for four hours sounds really boring. I understand how in theory it gets people talking at the table, but a game marathon?

Never, ever judge the experience of playing tabletop games by your early-life Monopoly experience. From the many people I’ve talked to about board games, Monopoly has singlehandedly soured them on the idea of playing board games, and for good reason. Monopoly is extremely luck-based, takes far too long, has a huge “inevitability” factor (meaning when one person gets ahead, that person almost always stays ahead), and the house rules intended to make it “fun” just make it worse. If you’re one of the folks that likes Monopoly, your mind will be blown by a well-designed game.

Beyond that, people also often get a negative view of gaming because of the way it’s often used as an icebreaker, pushing people into an uncomfortable situation under the auspices of a “game.”

So, this brings us to the question: how does one organize and host a social evening of games with friends?

First, a “game night” is actually just a potluck dinner or dinner party with games as the entertainment. Keep that in mind as you plan this. The key is social interaction, as it would be with any dinner party with friends.

Second, the games themselves are there to provide entertainment and a springboard for conversation without dragging things down. Unless you really know the crowd, the games should be short, they should be easy to teach, and they should inspire a desire to replay it in at least some people. If you get a regular group going, of course, you can go beyond this – there are some truly great games that violate both the “short” and the “easy to teach” rules, but when you’re trying this out for the first time, stick to games that are both short and easy to teach.

Our gaming evenings go as follows.

If we’re inviting new people, we explain in detail the purpose of the evening. Usually, because of the anti-Monopoly and often anti-gaming sentiment out there, we focus on the social aspects of the evening – the dinner and the conversation. Simply state that we’ll be playing a few games as well that we’ll be happy to teach to you if you come.

We designate a pre-dinner time for people to arrive, but aren’t strict about it. Depending on what games we’re going to play and the schedules of the people that are being invited, we sometimes even start in the early afternoon. I find that a pre-dinner game or two does a great job of setting the mood for the evening. Plus, with an open-ended arrival time, we allow for the possibility of games to start before everyone arrives.

Someone should fully understand the games to be played before guests arrive and is willing to teach it. This is essential when you’re first trying this idea out. You want someone that understands the games well enough to teach them to others and has the self-confidence to do so. I usually encourage people to start out with the overall goal of the game (how do you win) and summarize the entire game in fifteen seconds or so. Then, set up the game, explaining the pieces as you go. This usually gets the basic framework of the game in people’s minds.

The meal should be partially prepared before guests arrive. We focus on “potluck” meals, where guests bring a side dish and the hosts are usually just responsible for a simple main course. Often, this is prepared in a slow cooker so that the meal can be served conveniently whenever there’s a break. We regularly serve soups and stews, as they prepare very well in slow cookers.

We strive to play a variety of games. This is really the kicker, isn’t it? What kinds of games are we talking about here?

The least expensive way to start is with card games – particularly games that can be played with a standard pack of playing cards. These work very well if you have a multiple of two guests or especially a multiple of four guests, as many such games are played with a partner against another partnership. I’ve been to several such occasions where one card game was played for the entire evening, with “relegation” and “promotion” among the tables, with the winning team at each table moving “up” and the loser at each table moving “down” (with the winner at the top table and the loser at the bottom table staying put).

Some suggestions: hearts, spades, euchre, pitch, 500, and canasta. I particularly love contract bridge and tichu, but both are best taught with an experienced teacher.

The advantage of card games is that the equipment cost is very low and it’s an effective way to gauge the interest of gaming among your friends. The disadvantage is that endless card games with a deck of cards can seem boring after a while, especially when there is such a wide variety of games out there.

However, there are a multitude of excellent games out there that meet the criteria I established above: easy to teach, simple rules, short, but also very engaging. Games that fall into this group include Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dixit, and For Sale. These are the games we break out when we’re playing with family members who don’t regularly game with us for the reasons stated above: easy to teach, simple rules, short, but also very engaging. They’re the perfect “starter” games, and the variety among the games is fairly large. I’m going to guess that readers will pop in in the comments below and offer many more such suggestions.

If you’re concerned about the cost, remember that board games like this are an excellent gift, as they basically beg to be played, shared, and to facilitate social interaction.

We keep food and beverages on a side table (usually). This makes it easily possible for people to have food and drink at the table when games are being played without risking moisture all over the game components or a cataclysmic spilling accident. An exception is when we use a standard deck of cards, during which we don’t worry about it too much.

If you’re looking for an evening with friends that’s rich in social interaction without doing the same old thing and also without spending a bunch of money, try a gaming night and dinner party. You might just find another avenue of entertainment to add to your repertoire.

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