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Top Of The Table – How To Host A Board Game Night

by Matt Miller on Sep 02, 2016 at 10:00 AM

A few simple steps can ensure that everyone has a great time at your next gaming get-together. 

One of the biggest reasons to love tabletop gaming is the opportunity it provides to spend time together with people you like. Whether friends or family, a designated board game night provides a lot of advantages. Everyone present has a shared project in the form of the game. Close proximity allows for jokes and bonding in a way that can be challenging through virtual forums. And if the game is good, it can lead to amazing shared memories about the competitions that were fostered, the cooperation that was engendered, or the story that was told. 

However, all that fun can be dashed away if you don’t think ahead a little bit, and instead let the evening get bogged down in rules details, you choose the wrong game for your crowd, or even if your game gets ruined in the process.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all structure for what works for every gaming group, the following tips can go a long way to ensuring a memorable and night (or afternoon) of gaming fun. 

Know Your Audience

Let’s start with what I consider the hardest part of hosting a great gaming shindig – picking the right game or games to play. The temptation here is to always break out the new hotness – a game that you just snagged at your favorite store, and you’ve been eagerly waiting for the chance to play. 

Sometimes, especially with experienced groups, that policy is just fine. Your fellow players may be equally eager to check out all those cardboard tokens and miniatures you just popped out of their wrapping. But don’t get blinded by your eagerness. 

A high-end war simulation board game with 200 miniatures is almost certainly the wrong choice if your brother is bringing his 8-year old nephew over to play. Likewise, that charming game about quilting may not fascinate the crowd of your college buddies you haven’t seen for 10 years, unless, of course, your college buddies used to bond over quilting. 

Think ahead about your attendees and their relative level of experience with tabletop gaming. If someone in the group has an unattractive competitive streak, perhaps a cooperative game is in order? Maybe you all share a love for Star Wars, so it might be an appropriate time to break out one of the many games that explore that galaxy so far, far away? 

When in doubt, go for simple game selections over more complex. 

On the other hand, if you’re absolutely committed to playing that one particular game, consider selective invites for attendees. 

A Gracious Host

It doesn’t matter whether you’re getting together with your buddies, or even your family – your mom’s old advice still stands. Be a good host. Take the time to greet people as they arrive, even if they show up a little late and it means pausing your game. Make sure everyone is offered a drink. Help everyone feel welcome at the table. 

This may seem like a paradoxical statement, but gaming nights are only halfway about gaming. Most of the time, they are equally about building relationships with people. That means you want everyone to feel at home and relaxed, and eager to participate in the fun. Simple gestures go a long way.

Preset the Game

Most of the time, a game night at your place adds up to a game that you own spread out on the table. More experienced groups are more likely to break this rule, as multiple players want to bring along their favorite offerings. 

If your gaming group isn’t quite at the point where everyone shows up with a game in hand, you should strongly consider setting up your game ahead of time, especially if the game being considered has a lot of components. Nothing ruins the mood quite so well as spending the first 45 minutes sorting out pieces and shuffling cards. 

Now, I can hear your objections from here. Many modern games include aspects of setup tailored to the moments after players have selected characters or taken other steps. In those instances, of course it makes sense to wait. But even a few minutes of organization and laying out components before your guests arrive is worth its weight in gold. 

On a related subject, consider getting some small bowls or shallow cups that can be used to hold game components during setup. Your table layout is going to look way better if distinct tokens are sitting inside their own designated containers. 

Know Your Rules and Get To It

This guideline is the natural extension of the suggestion directly above it. Once the game is out on the table is not the time to start reading the rules. If you are the game’s owner, it is absolutely your responsibility to know at least the basics of a new game in advance of a play session with others. 

Once again, like all things, there are exceptions to the rule. Experienced player groups may relish the opportunity to open up a game together and learn as a group. 

But most of the time, your players are interested in coming to play a game, not watching you read through a 20-page rulebook. 

I’m not suggesting you have to memorize every rule in advance of play. It’s completely appropriate to check back to the rules for clarification during play. Just don’t spend your whole play time trying to figure out what the game is about.

Even if you have read the rules, longtime tabletop players will tell you that communicating those rules to new players is one of the most challenging things about the hobby. Everyone at the table has a differing level of experience with game mechanics, and it’s very common that you’ll need to explain things more than once. 

My recommendation? Use a six minute rule; two minutes to explain the theme or story concept of your game, two minutes to offer an overview of the game, and two minutes to explain the first step or phase of play. Then dive in to the first turn or phase of play, and teach the rest as you go. Undoubtedly, for the most complicated games, that’s just going to be impossible. I've certainly played several games over the years where it just wasn't possible to get everyone up to speed in anything close to that short a time frame. But it’s a good guidepost to strive toward.

But no matter how long it takes you to present the fundamentals, I strongly stand by the suggestion to teach as you play. For instance, in a sci-fi game about competing civilizations, it’s likely that the first in-game event might be about gathering resources or building ships. If combat isn’t likely to occur until later, save the explanation of battles until the first intergalactic ships collide out in the black. Sure, this means that sometimes one player or another makes a bad decision early on because they don't know the consequences. But I promise that sacrifice is worth it when balanced against everyone's fun. 

Next Page: Picking a location, and the best snacks and drinks for game night

Set A Time Frame

People have a lot of demands on their time. Even in the evenings, it’s likely that at least one of your players has some reason they may need to get up early the following day. Open-ended play sessions can be a recipe for frustration, or for boredom when players feel like they didn’t know what they were getting into. 

If you’re able to lock down your game selection prior to the gaming gathering, consider letting your guests know about your estimated play time. 

On this score, it’s unwise to trust the box and its recommended play time, especially if this is your first time playing that particular game. I’ve seen those suggested times nearly doubled when playing with a group that is mostly new to the game in question. If you’ve played the game before and the other players haven’t, trust your experience over what the manufacturer states. 

Sometimes this guideline is impossible. You just don’t know how long the game is going to take, or perhaps it’s a game in which the play time varies dramatically by number of players. In this case, consider setting a tentative stopping time. “We’re going to try and defeat Cthulhu until 11pm, and then we’ll see how everyone is feeling,” is a completely acceptable statement, and it gives all your guests a chance to jump ship at the designated time if they need to do so.  

Location, Location 

Know your play space. I once had a disastrous session playing a game that involved the flicking of game components around a table, and the room we were playing in was filled with open floor air-conditioning vents. Guess what happened to the game components. Don’t make the same mistake. 

Make sure your table can sit the appropriate number of players and chairs, and that the table itself has enough room for all the game components. If you’re short on room, might I recommend investing in some of those folding TV tray tables? Set up a couple of those next to your main table, and you should have plenty of space for extra card stacks, component bowls, and rulebooks. 

Another factor to consider when selecting a location is the presence of non-players, and how they will factor in. A party game of Cards Against Humanity works just fine even when you have 10 non-players in the room chatting about something else. But the same thing is likely not going to work with an intricate diplomacy-oriented strategy game. Tailor your room selection (when possible) to a space where everyone involved in the game isn’t going to be distracted by what other people (who aren't even involved in the game) are talking about. And when possible, keep those extra non-players to a minimum.  

On a related note, it’s almost never a good idea to have other activities going on in the same room. For instance, if someone else in the room is watching a movie in the same room, there’s definitively no way that everyone at your table is going to pay attention to what’s happening in the game.

Finally, wherever you’re playing, do your guests a favor and take some time to clean up the space before they arrive. 

Tailored Libation

Hopefully, I don’t need to use this space to offer suggestions about whether alcoholic drinks should be allowed at your party. Let’s presume we’re all grown-ups here, and if we’re not, we know the rules. 

But it is worth mentioning that a gaming get-together is rarely synonymous with a wild drinking party. To clarify, many adult players are likely to enjoy a few drinks as they relax with friends, and for most grown-up gaming groups, that should be just fine. If anything, a relaxed atmosphere of drinking with friends can help everyone have a fun night of games. However, there are many tabletop games that require a certain degree of attentiveness and focus that may simply not be accessible to someone who has spent the whole night refilling their cup. Be conscious of the style of gaming night you’re going for as you consider how much alcohol is going to be served.  

Of course, the easier option is to stick with non-alcoholic drink offerings, which is of course the necessary choice if your player group includes younger folks. 

No matter what drinks you choose to serve, for the protection of your game components, drink cozies and coasters are your friends. 

Clean Snacks

Before we depart from the food and drink topic, I want to note something that most veteran game players tend to agree on, but that is overlooked by new gaming groups. 

Stay away from sticky and messy snacks. 

The temptation before your friends arrive for game night is to head to the store and load up on Doritos and chocolate bars, or if you’re in the healthy crowd, sticky fruits and dip. It’s admirable and smart to think about providing some snacks to share with your guests. But those particular options are a potential mistake.

Instead, consider dry snacks that aren’t likely to mess up your game components, or turn your playspace into a disaster. It’s pretty gross to draw a new card that’s covered in cheese sauce grease. 

Good snack options that are relatively low on the mess scale include berries or grapes, unsalted nuts, plain popcorn, jelly beans, Oreos, gummi bears, crackers and sliced cheese, M&Ms, or any number of trail mixes. It’s impossible to keep your game components pristine, and unless you’re a clean freak, it’s fine that they’re going to look a little used. But overtly messy snacks are not likely to extend the life of that beautiful board game you just bought. 

If your space supports it, you may want to consider keeping snacks and drinks on side tables to avoid spills or table clutter. 

Finally, as host you shouldn’t feel like you always need to provide all the drinks and snacks. That can get expensive, especially if you gather at your place on a regular basis. There’s nothing wrong with asking people to volunteer to bring particular options of food or drink. 

It’s Only A Game

It’s a sin that even veteran players are prone to commit. Get too wrapped up in the rules and mechanics of a game, and miss the point of why you’re there – to have a good time. Don’t be that guy or girl. 

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if the rules get bent from time to time to help a new player out. And I have yet to see the argument between friends over who should have won that last skirmish that was actually worthwhile. 

I strongly recommend keeping the mood light and the rules lawyering to a minimum. Some games absolutely do require attention to detail and small distinctions, but don’t let a disagreement over those distinctions ruin the evening. 

Try to talk your way past disagreements in rules interpretation, and see what everyone at the table thinks. And once a decision has been made, move past it. 

Keep the focus on having fun, and on building the relationships that made you invite these people to your table in the first place. 


What recommendations do you have about running a great board game get-together? Share your comments in the thoughts below. For more on tabletop games, and to check out a bevy of individual game recommendations for almost any occasion, you may with to peruse the backlog of Top of the Table articles by clicking into the dedicated hub on the banner below. As always, drop me a note via email or Twitter and let me know what topics or games you’d like to see covered in future articles.