How to Organize and Host a Gaming Evening

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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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50 thoughts on “How to Organize and Host a Gaming Evening

  1. Nice tips. I would add another: Don’t be so dedicated in your mind to playing a given game that you play it at all costs. Have a backup and if it’s clear someone doesn’t enjoy it, don’t suggest a second round. I once went to a game night that involved passing this electronic thing and the person had to describe what was on the screen without saying the word or something – anyway, a word game – and this one woman was just TERRIBLE at it. She never scored and took her whole turn just fretting over what to do. So then other people weren’t having fun either – but what did we do? Played it a second time!! It was like torture!! And I felt really bad for the lady because she knew she was bad at the game and wasn’t having fun, either.

    Otherwise I like games and they are a fun and frugal way to spend an evening with friends :)

  2. I’d also suggest that one person be designated as the “answer” person. People are going to have questions along the way about rules and such, especially if the game is new or they’ve played other versions. Designating one person as the one to answer questions cuts down on the confusion for those that don’t know the game. I’m speaking from the experience of being the person that didn’t know how to play, and had 3 people speaking over each other to answer questions – very confusing for the new game player!

  3. Kelli, I bet that was catch phrase. Definitely not for everyone. I’ve been in groups where we played for several hours, but people would randomly peel off and come back as they feel — we played for fun and not in teams. Still, some people just left because they didn’t like it.

    I like games like Cranium because it’s got a little something for everyone. but it can be a buzzkill when one team gets way ahead.

    I really like Deborah’s idea of having one answer person. I love games, and I even sometimes have problems understanding them.

    Thanks for the reminder about game nights, Trent. I love playing games and need to get one started again in my town.

  4. Catan is fantastic, one of our tops! Yahtzee is fun, well known and easy to teach as well. We’re in the kid stage of life as are many of our friends, so we’ll often have a movie night for the smaller ones simultaneously, even bringing them in their jammies at times. :). (one or two will inevitably crash on the way home.)

  5. We have a game night every other friday with the same group of people. Usually it’s Role Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons, which absolutely aren’t for everyone, but other times it’s plain old games. Our favorite hands down is Apples to Apples. Almost always a hoot and a half.

    We’re lucky enough to have a family game store in our area (family fun hobbies in Hamilton NJ) that provides free gaming and other activities like model building or rockets or whatever on a nightly basis. Check your area to see if there’s a dedicated small business game store. They’re not always the most family friendly places (depends on the owner) but if they are they’re an awesome resource for finding new fun games and activities.

  6. We love our game nights. At this point most of the people we hang out with regularly know how to play our basic stash of games, so there isn’t much explaining that goes on. One thing that we do is ask people to bring extra folding chairs or a card table since we only have one large table- this allows for multiple games going on at a time and gives us some more seating space. Sometimes we fire up the Wii and play that as well. We also never require people to play a game- generally there are at least a few people who are content to sit on the couch and chat.

  7. Other ones you should check out are Ingenious, Snow Tails, No Thanks!, Poison, Jamaica, Small World, Zombies!!!, and Munchkin.

  8. We love game nights. Some of our favorites are Quiddler, Phase 10, Five Crowns, Taboo, and the Dominion series. I always recommend finding a great local game shop. The staff usually play most of the games and can give you good tips about games you might enjoy given the names of games you already like. Also look for games with expansion packs (like Settlers) to make it possible to play with lots of players.

  9. Flux is pretty easy to teach :) I like Quiddler and Set as well. Apples to Apples is almost always a hit as well.

    I really, really actively dislike Munchkin though. I once had a friend try to force me to play it (along with everyone else). I had to bluntly tell him that I would leave before I would play Munchkin. I have no problem watching other people play it. I just refuse to play it myself.

  10. Just curious, Kathy, but why don’t you like Munchkin?

    I only like it when there’s a decent # of people or when people know it well. I’ve played with just 3 before, and it ends up being a long, drawn-out stalemate. But 4-6 is a great number for the game, and once people know it well, it is great fun. We play frequently at family events.

  11. There’s a certain type of game that doesn’t work well for game nights. Call them “Muck-up your neighbor” games. Munchkin is one of those; the point is to mess with the other players. This isn’t necessarily the best type of game for game night.

    I agree about Carcassone. Fantastic party game. There is some messing with your neighbor, but the game is so freeform that it isn’t a big issue.

    I recommend “Betrayal at the House on the Hill.” A new edition is supposed to be released in October. Each player plays an investigator in a creepy haunted house. But until a series of events happens, all the players are working together. Eventually, the Haunting begins, and it varies depending on the last action. Sometimes, the player who picked up the cursed dagger is now tasked with eliminating the other players, or maybe the player opposite the guy who just found a pack of silver bullets becomes a werewolf.

    Gavitt’s Stock Exchange Game (by Out the Box Games) is also a quick, fun game with a minimum number of rules to remember.

    Unspeakable Words is a fun Mythos-based game, way better than Scrabble. Especially since once your sanity points drop to one, you can start making words up (like “plths”). Fun times.

  12. Trent, what do you do with your kids? Babysitter, I presume? What about when you host?

    I’d love to do a game night, but most of our friends are in the same boat we are: several small kids, and a babysitter gets pricey quickly.

  13. when i was in college we would play spades, rook, and win lose or draw and taboo for hours. we even had a dry erase board for win lose or draw. spades and rook can be addicting especially. i would love to have these times again!

  14. Well sure, Doug, if people take it really seriously then Munchkins would not be good game for that group. We love it for game night around here. Just have to keep the sense of humor intact while playing it, and it can be a ton of fun to mess with your friends.

  15. We have kids, too, 6-16, and they’re always included. I’d add Bananagrams (fast Scrabble — rules on my website) and Pit, and second the nomination for Set. Younger kids can also play Sorry, Dominoes, or Connect Four without too much adult consultation. And there’s always Legos. :D

  16. Trent, have you tried Pandemic yet? It’s a cooperative game where all the players work to cure the diseases spreading around the world. My brother-in-law is big on games and introduced it to us. Check it out if you’d like something along those lines for your game night!

  17. Havw you tried any of the games made by “Cheapass Games”? They’re really good, and very much in keeping with a frugal ethos – minimal packaging, with no duplicates of components you probably already own (dice, pencils, counters) to keep the price down. We have their “Kill Dr Lucky” and it’s always a hit.

  18. A game night favorite here is Jeopardy on DVD. I used to tell people we had the only “full contact” Jeopardy game in the neighborhood. Lots of hooting and hollering and jumping around! We usually have a card game going also, and the card players can’t resist getting their guesses in either!

  19. @Leah — I’m not really a big fan of “muck with your neighbors” games in general. Also, I suspect that part of it is that I’ve had horrid experiences playing D&D and Magic the Gathering and it’s similar to both of those to some extent.

    *shrugs* I’m also more into games that move quickly like Euchre, Set, and My Word.

  20. My husband and I have been going to and hosting “games nights” with two other couples for at least 7 years, so by now we have played a variety of games. We generally play “Uno” (various iterations) or Taboo. We have tried some other games (depending on what games the hosting couple has) like Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary (we had less success with those for the reasons already indicated…some people are not good at these types of games and don’t enjoy themselves). Imagine If is also good game…

  21. I love playing games, and would like to get a regular game going. However, I have one warning: One person can really ruin everything.

    We used to play with another couple. The husband was great, but the wife… well, let’s just say that I would have preferred their 2-year-old son was playing instead. She would blatantly cheat (and not even try to hide it), utterly deny any accusations of cheating, accuse others, emotionally blackmail all of us but particularly her husband, and cry if she didn’t get her way.

    I’m still not quite sure how to handle someone like that, but I guess this is just a warning that there are people out there who will get the most out of a game night by spoiling the fun for everyone else. Be careful who you invite!

  22. Well it depends on how enthusiastic they are in playing games in the first place – if someone is a sore loser it usually takes away the fun of playing…

    Anyway it also depends on how many people are playing – if there are exactly 4 people playing mahjong can make time suddenly disappear fast; although the initial equipment might be quite expensive

  23. Apples to Apples is one of those that you can learn really quickly, and is a lot of fun. Also it’s for four to ten players, which is nice in terms of flexibility. That one’s a frequent candidate for “Let’s play again!”

    I second the recommendation for Pandemic. It’s for two to four players. Don’t play with five, even though you technically can…I don’t think it’s winnable with five players.

    Another one to check out – Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. The idea is you’re trying to build monuments to Cleopatra. If you accept a certain amount of corruption, you can build faster and get more points…but at the end of the game, the most corrupt architect is fed to the crocodiles. :)

  24. Chris B- you might consider having everyone bring their kids, then have babysitters (one or two, depending on the number of kids) who run kid activities (including games) in an adjacent room, and everyone with kids can chip in on the cost. Or if you have your own teenagers, entice them to do it. Since you are all at the same place, you might also use it as an opportunity for a pre-teen to get some unpaid babysitting experience with lots of supervision nearby.

  25. Im curious on the kids aspect as well – my friends and I have kids at a variety of ages and not sure how we could actually focus enough on the game with all the kids in tow.

  26. I would recommend Pandemic as well. You can win with five players but it is very, very hard. My group plays games at least once a week, sometimes more, and Pandemic is a cooperative game we keep coming back to again and again.

    I would also heartily recommend Small World to both casual and hardcore board gamers. It’s simple to learn but has a lot of variety. It is a competitive game where you attack other players, but is a lot of fun. Another new favorite is Carson City. Players of any skill level can get into the game and have a chance of winning.

    If your group feels like spending an entire afternoon playing a single game, the latest Twilight Imperium, Descent, or Through the Ages are all good games, but a little more complex than the others I’ve mentioned.

  27. Caveat: I don’t actually have kids

    but if you all have kids and want to do a game night, I suggest the following:

    have the host be a person who has a big enough house to have a separate area for the kids. maybe adults play upstairs and kids play down in the rec room. When your kids are young enough to need supervision, hire a babysitter together. Depending on the age/number of the kids, you might need a second babysitter.

    One friend and I used to do this for some families we knew. We’d watch movies and play games with a crowd of kids. One New Year’s Eve, I think the two of us had 20 kids. We threw a movie in, and a lot of kids were captivated by that. With the younger ones, we played with them and had a variety of toys out. Most of the kids were in the 4-10 range with only two toddlers and one baby, so it wasn’t too difficult for us to keep an eye on everything.

    Then, each parent kicked in to help pay for us. We made something like $15-20 an hour (definitely 20 an hour for the time with 20 kids), which still works out to a pretty cheap $1-2 an hour per kid. If you play for 4 hours and have two kids, you just have to kick in 8 bucks for the babysitter.

    I also remember group game nights at my church. Yes, we had some families with little kids. But there were enough older kids and people around that we all communally watched the kids. I think we still had one church babysitter in the nursery (which was right next to the room where we played games). That also worked out really well.

  28. We play Bunco, and it too has a progression of tables, head table for winning pair, losing table etc. Usually over the course of the game a player finds him/herself at all of the tables multiple times. It is a “luck” game, simple rules, and makes it easy for conversation. Since each player gets a new player during each “round” it keeps things fun. We have simple snacks at each table such as candies, nuts, nibble type foods. We also have potluck and take a break during the middle of the game. It is a progression of 4 sets with 6 rounds per set.

  29. There are 6 of us obsessed with our game nights! We have all collected various games by receiving them as a gift, finding them at yardsales/thrift stores (all pieces in tact)and digging around our parent’s houses! We are all pros at hosting and everyone brings a snack and some booze. We actually have an unofficial wait list of people who want to come!
    Our favorite games vary, but a few favorites are:
    Beyond Balderdash, Quelf, Celebrity, Apples to Apples, Last Word, Taboo, Scattergories, Wits and Wagers and Scrabble Slam.
    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE GAME NIGHT!

  30. @ Chris B: We start game night later than Trent does, as we have really small kids. They go to bed around 7, so we have friends over and do an “everyone bring a snack-ish kind of food” potluck, and play games from 7:30 or so. If a kid starts crying, one of us takes a break and goes to check in with them. We haven’t had others with kids over yet, but if we did, we have pack and plays available for bedtime. I think if the whole group agrees that it’s okay for a parent to take a break and not be barraged with rules or penalties when they come back, it makes it less stressful and more fun for everyone.

    Also, Pit is an awesome, affordable game!

  31. The last game night I went to had kids. One person volunteered to keep an eye on the kids while the others played games. Then we switched so that the babysitter got to play and someone else took care of the kids.

    @Kathy, I’ve been out of the Magic scene for a while, but it used to be that it was played one-on-one. Not as much problem there, because one person can’t be picked on by two or three people. As for DnD, the point of that game involves cooperation, so if there was mucking with someone, I’d say y’all were doing it wrong. But, it benefits from having mature people as participants. Having a jerk for a gamemaster or a player can set the whole night wonky and leave a lot of feelings hurt. My last game had some juvenile antics on the part of the characters, but the players have always been quite respectable to one another.

  32. I was so happy to see this here, since gaming is a great and cheap way to have a good time with friends. I wholeheartedly agree with the Pandemic suggestion. Apples to Apples is also really great with people who don’t play games very often.

    One game I didn’t see recommended that I would strongly suggest is Bohnanza. It’s pretty easy to get the hang of, and the game play involves a fair amount of player interaction. And the cards are cute. Also, Time’s Up is really fun, particularly for couples or people who know each other fairly well.

  33. We host a game night once a month. As most of us have kids, my husband and I are the constant hosts, since we have the most space, inside and out. The kids range in age from 14 to 20 mos., and usually, they hang out and play with the Wii in the living room (and the littlest one alternates between hanging out with the “big kids” and hanging out with mom & dad). However, I’m suggesting a game of kickball, kids vs. adults, for game night in November. We’d have to start earlier, and obviously the littlest ones will only be able to minimally play, but I think it would still be fun.

    As for games, Scattergories and Yahtzee are big hits around here. I’m hoping for a big Uno game one of these days, though!

    The latest thing we’re trying is a themed game night – one of our friends has brewed an Oktoberfest beer, and so we’re making October’s game night “Oktoberfest”. We’re each attempting to make a German dish of some sort.

  34. Good old poker is a lot of fun. Our group meets once a month for a very low-stakes game. The variations are endless, and we laugh till we bust.

    Boggle is another winner and now, since it’s on the net at http://www.wordsplay.com, we team up and compete (often guys against girls) on two computers.

    Much hilarity!

  35. well, one thing i noticed when playing with non-hardcore gamers: don’t play games that have knock-out rules or newbie traps in them.

    eg. Monopoly has knock-out rules: it’s possible to be ousted from the game and turned into a spectator, which is not fun unless the game takes only a short while.

    An example for the newbie trap: most traingames start you off with no money but the ability to sell shares. Selling too much shares is a thing that looks good, but is usually a newbie trap.

  36. Oh: I forgot to mention this: there are a whole lot of cooperative games that are very good. Some groups seem to prefer these to competitive games (in order of complexity):

    * Pandamic (good but is similar every time you play)
    * Shadows over Camelot. (my favourite to play with non gamers, it has the option to have a traitor too)
    * Lord of the Rings coop game: good, but very difficult when adding the expansions.
    * Battlestar Galactica: very very very good game, but not so easy to teach people. The theme also puts a number of people off. Also: traitors (cylons in this case) aren’t optional, so it’s not a real coop game.
    * there’s also a Chtullu coop game whose name escapes me. A lot of gamers seem to really like it, but for me, it’s too convoluted and upward of 4 hours is a bit much, even for me.

  37. I haven’t done this in a while, but I want to strongly recommend Cranium. With a clever and creative crowd, it’s a GREAT party game.

  38. D@D is not an easy game per se, but it was a great way for my husband and I to connect with teenage nephews.It uses your imagination, teaches cooperation, and you can even pick up a little math and map-making skills ;-)I liked seeing how one player went from kill everyone/look out for #1, to a cooperative pacifist over the years.

  39. @Jeroen: Are you thinking of Arkham Horror? I enjoy it but I agree with you that it can be quite a lengthy game.

    The most important thing is to know your group. Our group does fine with cooperative games and really competitive “muck with your neighbor” games without any hard feelings. However, we’ve occasionally included other friends who’ve not had the same attitudes, which can really put a damper on the game night.
    Only one of the couples participating in our game night has kids, so we almost always game at their house and start around the time the kids go to bed. Occasionally we will start earlier and play a game, like The Adventurers, that the kids can play as well. It works out well.

  40. *taking notes of new games to play*

    My 8-year old boy is old enough to play as long as the game isn’t too word-oriented so he usually plays with us. Otherwise, he’s in another room with the Wii/a new (library) DVD. Flux is another good game (as mentioned above) for beginners because the rules ARE the game and change every time its played. It’s a good game for when someone has to check on the kids or pop into the kitchen to refill the chips and make more guacamole since finding a time-space in the game is usually easy. I also like Chronology and Robo Rally.

    Ajtacka (#17) That person would quickly e uninvited to any party of mine — unless they had other, very sterling qualities. I’d probably be very rude and invite them into the Wii/TV room with the other children.

  41. Trent, how may people do you invite.

    My friends and I often have game nights, but run into problems because some of our favorite games only allow 5 or 6 players while we have about 8 people that regularly attend. We end up not getting to play some of the best games unless we split up, which feels kind of antisocial and depending on who is hosting and one group ends up playing on the floor because most of us only have one table.

    Also, did you know there is a carcassone app for iphone and ipod touch. It’s amazing.

  42. I find that the Monopoly Deal card game can be a good way to break the “Board Games = Monopoly = Slow & Tedious” chain. Once people realize that it plays a heck of a lot quicker than Monopoly, they realize that not all games are bad, and that even a game with the Monopoly name on it isn’t a complete waste of time/space/carbon atoms.

  43. A couple options I didn’t see here that require minimal startup costs like cards: dice and dominoes. Our friends used to play a dice game called Ten Thousand (summary: only ones and fives, or 3- or 4-of-a kind count; first to reach 10,000 points, wins). There are several games you can play with dominoes. We often play Mexican Train, but have found we prefer one called Chicken Foot.

  44. When teaching a new game, sometimes it’s helpful to have a practice round or two, with everyone showing what their stuff is and talking about their options and why they’re choosing what they’re choosing. Then put everything back and start over for real.

    I prefer playing games on the floor because there’s plenty of room to spread out, but I’m only 47 and have no trouble with that. And I don’t have any pets or toddlers.

  45. I love game nights–and pitch is my absolute favorite, and one few people have heard of. This post makes me want to set up a game night right now!

  46. I love 10,000! it’s what we call a “filler” game, one that we play when there is a shift going on (i.e., a number of our friends tend to go for cigarette breaks at the conclusion of a game, or leave to stretch their legs, check on kids, grab food, or simply decide to sit the next one out). As we decide what we’re going to play next, we usually play a quick dice game. Though 10,000 isn’t always quick :)

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