This past weekend, I hosted a full game day for more than a dozen people at my home (it literally was just me this time, as my wife was visiting her sisters and my children were visiting the grandparents). This game day covered the full afternoon and evening and resulted in literally dozens of board and card games played at my home, as well as some people stopping in the middle to watch some college basketball games. I think everyone had fun – I know I did.
The catch, of course, is that I wanted to keep it cheap. While I loved the idea of hosting a lot of friends from the various community game groups I’ve been a part of, I didn’t want to shell out a lot of cash for it. My goal was to have a fun experience for all on the smallest budget I could afford.
Here’s what I did to pull it off.
Offer Up a Flexible and Inexpensive Meal
The food I provided centered around two slow cookers full of soup that was mostly assembled from ingredients I already had on hand, purchased at sales over the past month. I made a meaty chili and a vegetarian bean soup with a somewhat similar recipe (I ad-libbed the vegetarian soup so there really isn’t a recipe for it).
The recipes themselves were inexpensive, focusing on beans and spices as the chief ingredients. I used dry beans, which I soaked overnight and boiled first thing in the morning, and simple ingredients.
For the chili, I followed a simple recipe. I just put all of this stuff in the slow cooker and turned it on low (I actually doubled it due to the number of guests):
– 1 pound ground beef, cooked
– 1 1/2 cups cooked black beans, or one can of black beans
– 1 1/2 cups cooked kidney beans, or one can of kidney beans
– 2 tomatoes, diced, or a can of diced tomatoes
– 1 can tomato sauce
– 1/4 red onion, chopped
– 1 chopped bell pepper, whatever color you like
– 1 1/2 tablespoons of “chili mix”
The “chili mix” is a jar of mixed dry spices we keep in the cupboard just for chili. It consists of the following:
– 4 tablespoons of chili powder
– 1 teaspoon garlic powder
– 1 teaspoon onion powder
– 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
– 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
– 1 teaspoon dried oregano
– 2 teaspoons paprika
– 2 tablespoons ground cumin
– 3 teaspoons sea salt
– 4 teaspoons black pepper
Again, if you have a big jar and eat chili frequently, you can certainly double or triple this mix.
My estimate is that the double batch of the meaty chili cost about $7 and the vegetarian soup cost about $2 in ingredients. I probably spent another $5 on chili toppings (shredded cheese, oyster crackers, sour cream).
The advantages of having chili as a centerpiece meal is many. First of all, it can stay in a slow cooker for many hours and be tasty over much of that time frame – it’s ready to eat after three hours on low and although the flavor profile changes a lot, it’s still quite good after ten hours or so on low. It’s easy to prepare, as you just dump all of the ingredients in the slow cooker and turn it on low – the only extra effort is cooking the ground beef. It’s also flexible, as people can modify it to their tastes with hot sauce, shredded cheese, oyster crackers, and sour cream.
My total cost for the food was about $14 (according to my receipt from the grocery store) and that was my only cost for the day. I also had two pizzas on hand, but both of those were free pizzas from coupons.
It is well worth noting that $14 is probably less than I would spend driving to a community game night and back and buying an inexpensive dinner for myself while at that game night. In other words, my dinner party for a dozen people was probably cheaper than actually going to a community game night by myself.
Move as Much Meal Prep as Possible Off Stage
One big advantage of doing meal prep in a slow cooker for a dinner party like this is that you can do virtually all of the meal prep before anyone arrives, allowing you to spend time with the guests rather than hanging out in the kitchen.
I strongly encourage anyone hosting a dinner party to do every possible bit of meal prep that they can “off stage,” meaning before the guests come. If you can, have the meal already cooking when guests arrive (a slow cooker is great for this). If not, have everything chopped and prepped and as assembled as you possibly can so that the time invested in getting everything ready when the guests arrive is minimal.
How does this keep the event “cheap”? It’s actually a really good way to avoid a meal emergency, honestly, and meal emergencies during a dinner party are either very costly (you’re suddenly ordering delivery or something) or socially disastrous.
Encourage Everyone to Bring a Snack or a Drink
One way that I kept the cost low on this event is that I asked each person that was coming to either bring a snack or a drink. Each attendee had a particular “assignment” – bring a sweet snack, bring a savory snack, bring a non-alcoholic beverage to share (like a 12 pack of soda), or bring an alcoholic beverage to share (like a 6 pack of beer).
For the attendees, this is a simple thing to do. They could literally grab it at the grocery store a mile from my house. It also allows them to come in the door bearing a “gift” for the host – always a polite thing to do – and allows them some freedom of choice in terms of what to get.
For me as the host, it was a great way to keep costs low. I didn’t have to spring for snacks. I didn’t have to spring for drinks (I did have some additional beverages on hand just in case, but they were never tapped into). Those extra costs were simply covered by others.
Encourage Everyone to Have a Game They’re Willing to Teach
Since it was a game day, I also asked everyone to bring a game or two or three that they were willing to teach to others. Most of the people I invited were avid board and card gamers, so this wasn’t a problem at all.
If your party is going to have a mix of people who game regularly and people who do not, make sure to ask the people who do play games regularly to bring their favorite gateway game that they can teach. Trust me – if they play many tabletop games, they’ll have a gateway game or two that they like on their shelf.
This, along with my own game collection, provided a ton of entertainment for everyone for a full day. We usually had two or three games going at all times throughout the day and evening, with people taking turns teaching.
Maximize Table Space by Borrowing Folding Tables and Chairs
If you have a large number of people, that means you’re going to need plenty of table space. The best rule of thumb for a game day is to make sure you have a chair for each person and a number of tables equal to the number of people coming divided by four, rounded up.
For me, this meant having three tables. Two of them were large tables already in our home, but we needed a third, so I borrowed a sturdy card table from a friend for the day.
If you need more table space, simply ask around your social network and particularly amongst your guests if they have any sturdy folding tables with a large table surface and then ask to borrow it for the day. If you need to borrow chairs, folding chairs will work just fine.
Have ‘Break Space’ for Non-Gamers, Too
Even though everyone I invited was excited to play games for most of the day, some people did want to take breaks at various points. I left one room in our home game-free and it included a television and plenty of comfortable seating.
During part of the day, some people retreated into that room to watch college basketball while others continued to play games.
Don’t Sweat Perfection – Just Focus on Good
Many people freak out over the idea of having a gathering like this in their own home. They get stressed out over the cleaning and the setup necessary to feel confident about the event’s success.
One thing to remember is that you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be good. No one’s house is ever perfect, and most guests not only don’t mind a lot of imperfections, but often don’t notice them.
Our house is far from perfect, but I just spent some time cleaning and organizing and it was fine. One good strategy is to simply sit out everything that guests might need so they have much less reason to poke into cupboards and such. I sat out bowls, plates, and cups on the counter for guests to snag as needed. I also sat out a big recycling bin for people to easily place cans to be recycled.
Again, the goal isn’t perfection. The goal is comfort and fun. Your house doesn’t have to be perfect or organized to be comfortable and to have fun, and your guests won’t mind or won’t notice any issues.
This game day was quite successful. I know that in the aftermath people were sending each other messages asking about games played, requesting the chili recipe, and saying thank you and wondering if there was going to be another one.
The key point is this: it’s very possible to host a very low cost game day at your home with a bit of advance thought and preplanning. I highly recommend providing flexible food from a slow cooker that enables people to eat when its convenient, encouraging guests to bring beverages and snacks, and just providing lots of clear table space and chairs.
It’s a great way to spend a weekend afternoon and evening with friends without being very expensive at all! Good luck!