For the past six weeks, my partner and I have hosted community board game nights aimed at providing a space to facilitate relationship building and fun. While I am definitely a board game hobbyist and enthusiast, I knew hosting board game nights for the larger community could bring many types of people into the board gaming space and present different types of challenges. These challenges are associated not just with board games (learning and playing) but with hospitality in general. We were not going to turn anyone away (unless of course an individual created a hostile environment) and committed to embrace the people who showed up. We hosted 8-12 people each week and got folks from across the age spectrum, from different socioeconomic statuses, and in vastly different life moments. Now that the six weeks are over, I have some perspective on our experience I wanted to share.
This is Not Your Typical Game Night
We knew this going into hosting – this would not be like a typical game night that we have hosted in the past. During our typical game night, there is a general understanding of gaming as a hobby and folks, even new folks, tend to jump right into the group due to the commonality of gaming. Going into these game nights, we prepared in a couple of different ways. First, we sat down and looked at every one of our games and wrote down the game we thought we could teach and play. Then, we made a progression chart, linking together games with similar mechanisms and feel. For example, we would want to teach and play Sushi Go! before breaking out 7 Wonders. Lastly, we thought and talked a lot about the hospitality piece (e.g., acting as a host and game facilitator), our goals each night, and how our focus is not just on games but on relationship building. Because we took time to focus each week, I think the space we created was welcoming to all who came through our doors.
Levels of Comfortability
We often talk about the experience we have with gaming – what games has a person played or what types of games have they played? But I think the more important questions to consider is what are the comfortability levels of participants in learning new games. That feeling resonates with me as I remember the first time I stepped into a gaming group. I was worried about asking too many questions during the rules explanation, taking too long on my turn, and showing the group that I understood the concepts through my play. This comfortability varied greatly among our participants and the first couple weeks as the host, it was all about staying positive throughout the teaching and learning experience. To help ease some of this anxiety, we also selected a handful of games to bring down so that individuals did not feel overwhelmed with our game library, then purposefully picked games and recruited a group that wanted to learn that particular game. We gave an ‘elevator pitch’ of each game we were teaching. In the final weeks, we encouraged folks to choose games that they enjoyed of request similar style games to learn. Community game night was a great reminder that everyone approaches learning differently and everyone has a different threshold for putting themselves out there in a group to ask questions or request clarifications.
In our preparations we kind of glossed over how we were managing the many different personalities that may show up at game night. At ‘hobby’ games nights that I host at my house and the meetup I was hosting before I moved, I was pretty confident in managing personalities because I knew the people attending fairly well and when we had a new gamer join us, it was in general a painless acclimation to the group. But for a game night aimed at the community outside of the board game hobby, we had no idea who would show up. How will participants engage and react to other participants? How will that change in a competitive game or a social game? How will folks interact when learning a game through different styles and paces? To be honest, it was not that bad although we did have a couple of distinct clashes. This was apparent in the first couple weeks of the game night when we identified folks who were a bit slower at picking up rules. We had a couple of individuals who were frustrated at that and vocalized their frustrations. The tension was palpable but by staying positive, we were able to get through some rough moments and onto the fun! As those two played more games together each week, it morphed into a friendly banter.
Relationships over Gaming
In the board game hobby, I hear often that it is more about the people who play the games then the games themselves… but… the games do matter in the hobby. Would we all get together at game nights and conventions if we were playing Monopoly, Jenga, or Scrabble? Maybe, but most likely not. At community game night, the games did not matter one bit and I think this group of people was looking for ways to connect with others and board games was more of the excuse to come to a social space. We had to find a balance between board games and relationship building, realizing that the importance piece of this gathering was not necessarily learning and playing games. There was one night where I played Sushi Go! and only Sushi Go! At a normal game night, this would not fly. But as we were playing, we were socializing, talking about our lives, and focusing on the people much more than the game.
Games We Played
+ = Hits ~ = Mixed Review – = Misses
For one reason or another, everyone loved Timeline. I think the combination of easy rules overhead and that no one in the group was particularly history savvy made for a pretty fun time. There is something exciting about finding out when a random event happened in the context of the other events out there… for example, the invention of the shopping cart! By our last game night, folks were asking to play Timeline again and in my opinion, that is a great sign.
I decided to introduce Lanterns with a group of folks who showed more interest in taking another step in strategy gaming. I thought Lanterns would give the group more depth of choices while still having a very simple rule set. What the group liked about the game was the puzzle of the tile placement in order to get the cards needed. This has become my go to, easy to teach, introduction to strategy games in my collection.
This is one of my favorite small card games with a very easy concept to teach. It took one round for new players to get into the strategy of the game but after that, they really took to No Thanks! What resonated with the folks was the push your luck aspect of taking cards that you think may pan out by linking them together later in the round. No Thanks! was requested weekly after the first time we played.
I was trying to rack my brain for deeper games that had incredibly simple rule sets and choices on a turn. I kept coming back to Ticket to Ride and I wanted a different option. Then my eyes fell on Zooloretto, which I actually think is an easier teach and concept to pick up on than Ticket to Ride: place a tile on a cart, take a cart and place the tiles in your zoo, or spend money to do a special action. Plus, I feel like the strategy is more identifiable (fill your zoo with animals) and did not have the player interaction that other games have (e.g., blocking, accidentally or purposefully, in Ticket to Ride). Anyways, Zooloretto was a hit and surprisingly fast to teach and learn!
Codenames is probably the only group game that was unequivocally a hit on community game night. I think this was the right balance of abstract and concrete – even with the mix of personalities and ways of interpreting and knowing, it worked out in the end. This was one of the only games we played more than once over our six weeks together.
While social group games with secret roles did not really take off with the group, In Vino Morte is so simple and fast that the group enjoyed the three or four rounds we did play one night. I think this one was a hit as compared to other social games is because there is less social pressure in the gameplay. While the banter and table talk happens, a person only needs to choose to drink or pass. A very low barrier to enter the world of social deduction gaming!
We wanted to throw a cooperative game into the mix and Forbidden Island fit the bill, with some rules modification of course. This meant we were playing without any special abilities and you could trade cards with players on any tile. With the simplified rule set and the comradery of a cooperative game, we were able to teach this game to folks across different levels of comfortability with learning new games. Although the group ultimately lost, the game went over very well and everyone enjoyed their experience.
For how simple the ruleset and concept of Sushi Go! is, the small group I was playing with struggled through the entire game. When I was talking the next week with my friend and game designer Chris Anderson, he commented on the complexity of the scoring and how that could have led to the struggle of understanding the game even though the rules are simple. I think he is absolutely right. The group had little trouble with the idea of ‘pick and pass’ but were constantly asking questions such as, “Why would I want to pick this card?” A couple folks enjoyed the game so the experience was not a complete bust.
Group games with a group that does not know each other is always an interesting exercise. In particular, the game where players are trying to convey something to other players can be a hit or fall completely flat. Our experiences with these types of games included many different patterns of thought and interpretation and very abstract ways of thinking versus concrete ways of thinking – which led to some interesting discussions during and after the game. Dixit and Concept were different from Codenames because our group overall processed words more concretely than pictures…
I thought this game would have been a hit. Simultaneous card selection, minimal strategy, outguessing opponents, and a fun a light theme with a touch of randomness. Unfortunately, the minimal strategy made the game a bit opaque for the players in the beginning of the game and I quickly learned to throw in some strategy tips that might not be obvious within the rule set. While I think I am a good teacher of games, this was a good experience in my own growth about teaching games across different levels of comfortability and experience. Pick Picknic was one of the first games we played during the first week and it might have had a different reception if we had pulled it out later.
The more I reflect on The Resistance, the more I feel like this is not a great game to introduce at a community board game night. The group who comes generally did not have a relationship with each other and the game can be a really mixed bag because of that. The game thrives because of group social dynamics and it was hard to predict what those dynamics might be. I think individuals enjoyed the idea of the game but we did not have the social dynamic where The Resistance shines.