How to maintain a regular game night, including tips for keeping your game group going in a pandemic

Finding a game group can be hard. What can be even harder is maintaining that game group. In this article, I will be talking about tips and tricks for keeping a regular game night going strong.

This topic comes from longtime Tabletop Bellhop fan Emmet O’Brian who happened to ask this question before we all ended up stuck at home and locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, in addition to talking about maintaining a game night in normal times, I’ll also be offering up some tips for keeping your tabletop group going during exceptional times, like during a pandemic.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Note: All pictures in this post are of my “regular” Monday night gaming group that, pre-pandemic, would gather at my place once a week to play either board games or RPGs. While some people have left and others have joined, this group has been getting together regularly since 2007, and some of the members of this group have been gaming together for much longer than that.

Keeping a game group active and regular is a problem that all gamers face.

This article is based on a series of questions we received from Emmet O’Brian who wrote to say,

“I don’t always get to listen to the podcasts right away. I just listened to the podcasts on game weight and competition and you asked for more philosophical questions so here goes!

Getting and keeping a group active and regular is probably the problem that gamers face. There are so many things that can trump game night. Often the main causes are important responsibilities like child care, work and relationships.

So are there tricks you’ve used to mitigate these factors?

Do you use any techniques to build excitement around game night so that people want to show up more?

Assuming that not all players are required, do you think a larger group has more of these problems or fewer?

I weirdly get the feeling that when one person doesn’t show up it seems to give license to others to not show. Have you seen this happen?

Obviously, this is a really tough problem to crack. I don’t expect a solution but any sage advice is appreciated.”

First off I want to thank Emmet for this great, detailed question.

As I think everyone is aware, we don’t always get to people’s questions as soon as we get them in. The order we go in has a lot to do with what we’ve talked about recently, what games we’ve been playing, what other questions we have and honestly what we feel like talking about at the time.

Due to this, we actually received this question before any of us had heard of COVID 19. When Emmet wrote to us he was talking about the difficulty of getting a game group together without the added complexity of not being able to game in person. I thought it would be rather interesting to talk about this particular question now, a year into quarantine for most of us, due to the complexities that have been added.

I do still want to talk about a regular game group during an average year, but I also want to talk about what you can do now that most of us are stuck gaming from our own homes.

Emmet’s question has a number of different parts and I think it will be worth breaking up this discussion by those parts to make sure to cover everything.

We’re going to start off with some roleplaying and imagine that things are normal and that getting together with a game group is something that you can and will do regularly whether that’s at a game store, a cafe or pub, a friend’s place or your own home.

What are good reasons to cancel on game night?

Making Dungeon Crawl Classics characters with my Monday nigh group.Let’s start off with the first part of Emmet’s question about reasons for cancelling on game night. Specifically:

“There are so many things that can trump game night. Often the main causes are important responsibilities like child care, work and relationships.”

The main thing I think needs to be pointed out here is that there are a number of valid reasons to miss out on game night. Actually, I would go so far as to say that almost any reason can be valid.

Getting together with friends, family, or strangers to play games is a hobby, it’s a past time, and it’s important to realize that. Tabletop gaming isn’t a job (for most people at least) and it doesn’t put food on the table. The gamers you game with are generally adults and have things that they need to do that should come before gaming. We all have obligations and need to prioritize those over things like our hobbies and even in regards to our free time, we need to decide what leisure activity is more important than others. 

That said, signing up to attend a regular game night should be seen as an obligation. If someone doesn’t show up to game night, there’s a very good chance they are letting the other players down, especially in a smaller group. While almost every reason to miss game night can be valid, it’s definitely best to try to make sure none of those reasons come up. Players should try to schedule their obligations and other leisure activities around game night to make sure that things don’t fall on the same day or night. This should be done in coordination with other people involved, work, spouses, clubs, etc. 

I personally like to think of signing up for a game night as the same thing as joining a sports team. When you sign up for a team, you are obligating yourself to show up to practice and to game night and when you do show up you should be prepared to play. If you can’t make it for a game you let the entire team down. I think players signed up for a tabletop game night should feel the same way. 

What can you do to reduce game night cancellations?

Playing Pulsar 2849 with my Monday night board game group.The next part of Emmet’s question is this: 

“So are there tricks you’ve used to mitigate these factors?”, with these factors pertaining to the reasons people cancel, that I just talked about.

While you can’t avoid necessary absences or emergencies there are some things I’ve found you can do to up the average attendance rate for your game night. 

The first and most important thing you can do is to make it a regular game night. If possible, you should set your game night at a recurring time at the same place for each session. This could be once a week at one of the player’s houses or could be the first Saturday of the month at the FLGS. Exactly where and when will vary by game group and how much time people can dedicate to the group. Whatever that schedule is, it should be set and well communicated. 

If you don’t have a set schedule it becomes far too difficult for people to remember exactly when your game night is, as well as making it hard for the potential attendees to schedule their non-gaming time around game night. This leads to scheduling conflicts, which are going to result in people having to cancel whether they want to or not. You have to give people a sense of certainty so that they aren’t guessing when it comes to when and where your game nights will be. 

Consistency is key. Not only do you need to have a set, well communicated, schedule but you have to keep to that schedule. If at all possible you shouldn’t cancel a scheduled game night. If a few players are going to be missing, the rest of the group should still gather and do something together, even if just to maintain the ongoing schedule. Use this as a chance to try out a new game, play something different or just socialize doing something else like playing video games or watching the hot new Marvel show on Disney+.

Mike is the ham of our Monday night game group. The next step after having a set schedule is to use some form of tool to keep that schedule and communicate it to all of the players. This could be a calendar on the wall at the FLGS, meetings scheduled in Outlook, recurring Facebook events, a Meetup event, or something else. There are a ton of scheduling tools out there that can be great to use for your game night group. The key thing here is to use something that will remind people of their recurring gaming obligation.

Most scheduling tools also have the added bonus of providing a way to communicate with the rest of the group as well as a way for people to note if they are attending or not, which makes game night planning easier for everyone. Use these tools to confirm not only the time and place of the event but any additional obligations the players may have. 

This leads me to my next suggestion, which is pre-planning for your events and setting expectations for game night. Besides picking a time and place there are certain game night-related topics that should be discussed and agreed upon before your group gets together. Things like who brings the games, how many games will be played, and what kinds of games will be played. Will you be playing light games, heavy games, long games, many games or one big epic game? Will there be food? Whose responsibility is it to bring that food? Are drinks allowed and will there be adult beverages involved, etc? 

You also need to decide if any of these game night aspects ever change. Do you play light games one night and heavier games the next? Does the Game Master swap every week or does that role stay the same for an entire campaign? Does the player responsible for arranging dinner change every session? If things do change, it becomes even more important to plan ahead and communicate that as part of the schedule. 

One of my friends, Jeff, has it set up with his group so that the GM role changes every week and along with that so does the responsibility of hosting. This works great but that group uses a Discord Channel to make sure everyone is on the same page and everyone knows who’s turn is up next and which house they will be going to. 

Even if only one person makes it to game night we still play games.The other thing Jeff’s group does that I think is very important, and something that not everyone thinks of, is that they have a contingency plan.

Your group should have a plan for what to do if someone cancels, but more importantly, you need a plan for what to do when the host cancels or the venue where you host your event is closed for some reason. Now this plan could be as simple, as “we don’t game that week”, but as noted above, consistency is key to maintaining a group, so a better solution is to have a backup venue for your event and someone other than the main host who can step in when the host has to cancel. 

For a deep dive into what can you do when you have some game night cancellations check out my What do you do when one or more players cancel on game night? article

What are some tricks for building excitement for game night, so that people want to show up?

Learning to play Zombicide Invader ruing our regular Monday game night. The next part of Emmet’s question is:

Do you use any techniques to build excitement around game night so that people want to show up more?”

There are a number of things you can do to make your game nights more interesting and engaging to the players. First off though I want to note a few things that should be a feature at every game night and that are key to getting people interested in joining the group in the first place.

Provide a clean and welcoming space. While it may be a long-running meme, no one really wants to play in a dirty dingy basement. If you are hosting make sure the gaming area is cleaned regularly, there’s easy access to garbage, the area is well lit, there is plenty of seating, the seating is comfortable enough to sit in for the duration of game night, and there are washrooms and other amenities available. The same thing goes for picking a spot for a public play event. 

The entire point of game night is to get together and play games, so make sure there are plenty of games to play. This doesn’t mean the host has to have a huge game collection, this could just be reminding everyone to bring at least one game they want to play. If you are playing an RPG make sure that you have all the tools needed. Knowing who is in charge of character sheets is important in this regard, as I’ve had a number of sessions that had to be put on hold because someone forgot their sheet. I now have a filing cabinet in my game room and keep copies of all of my player’s sheets there for this reason. 

Now that you’ve got plenty of games to play and a welcoming place to play them in, there are a few other things you can do to get people excited to show up and game.

Tom is enjoyed a game of Teotihuacan during one of our Monday game nights. Adding a theme to game night can be a good way to get people excited. Theming game night does a few things, all of which can increase the odds of people showing up. For one, it sets expectations. Everyone knows the kinds of games that will be played that night. Next, having a theme limits the choices as to what games to play which can be great for avoiding the dreaded “what should we play next problem”. Engagement can be increased on a themed game night by having the players dress up in costume or bring in props that fit the theme of that specific game night. Themes can also keep things varied and interesting and stop the group from getting bogged down, playing the same games session after session. I’ve had great success using theming for public play game nights. 

Another tip for keeping people interested is to make game night about more than just games. Providing food in the form of snacks and drinks can keep people at the game table (though keep those drinks on side tables) and gaming longer. You can also turn your game night into more of a social event by having a meal before or after everyone games together. Similarly, your group could always meet up before or after the gaming session to do something non-gaming related together, like go watch a movie or grab a few pints at the pub. 

Even better, tie all of these things together so that you watch a movie or TV show that’s tied to the game(s) you are about to play or serve food that’s tied to the theme of the game night. Watching some Kurosawa films, eating some ramen and then playing Shogun sounds like a great game night to me.

Another good way to maintain excitement about game night is to provide a way to keep the buzz going between sessions. This could be a Discord channel, a Facebook group or even just an email list where the players can spend time talking about game night on off nights. This is a great way to plan ahead for the next session and to get people excited about what they will get to play next. 

You can also add a metagame to your game nights to build excitement. This could mean running a tournament, keeping track of who wins the most games during the night, having some kind of prize for the winner of each game, or some other method of turning the game night itself into a game. I know a number of gamers who have created trophies for specific games or for their group and being the holder of the trophy is a source of bragging rights within that group. There’s also always the option of raising the stakes during game night and playing for money. People have been doing this for years to keep card games interesting, there’s no reason you can’t do that for any tabletop game.

One of the things we’ve often done to drum up interest in public play game nights at the FLGS is to give away a copy of the demo game at the end of each game night. To win a copy all you have to do is try out the game, then at the end of the night, we randomly draw (or roll) a winner from a list of everyone who has played. I’m also a big fan of play to win tournaments where the winner of the game gets to take a copy home.

Is it harder to maintain a larger game group?

My Monday night game group playing some Terraforming MarsThe next part of Emmet’s question is in regards to group size and if a larger group is harder to maintain. 

“Assuming that not all players are required, do you think a larger group has more of these problems or fewer?”

In general, I have found that the larger the game group the less impact one or more players cancelling is going to have on the entire group. I honestly think the bigger the group the better off you will be as long as you have the space for it. The more people you have, the greater the chances are that everyone not only has someone to play with but that they can find someone they want to play with and that those players can find a game that they can all agree on playing.

Larger groups mean more concurrent games can be played at once, and reduces the chance that every game is full when someone new shows up to play. This also leads to more variety in the types of games being played. 

Now, this is in regard to playing board games. Once you get into RPGs there is another issue, and that’s trying to run a game for a large group. Most RPGs are designed for only a handful of players and it’s going to be up to the individual person running the game to determine just how many they can handle. What most RPG groups do, mine included, is to have a few more players than are needed to play so that if one or more players cancel you can still game. The problem with this is that you have to be ready and able to play the game during that one session where everyone shows up at once. 

Finally, you should realize that large groups can lead to other problems. The more people you have the more personality types you are going to get and the less chance everyone is going to get along. Things like different play styles, game preferences and competitiveness levels can all lead to interpersonal conflicts. While this is something to keep in mind I don’t think this is really the place to deep dive game night people problems. For now, I will just suggest you check out these previously published articles for some insight into dealing with game night problems: A look at competition at the game table, and How do you deal with a game night failure?

Does having one person cancel on game night lead to others cancelling?

Even a bad game can be fun with a good game group. Emmet notes: 

I weirdly get the feeling that when one person doesn’t show up it seems to give license to others to not show. Have you seen this happen?”

This is definitely a thing that I’ve seen and it can be a good sign that there’s something not quite right in your game group. When this happens it often means that there are a number of people showing up out of a sense of obligation and not for the joy of playing with others. Seeing someone else cancel gives them an out so they can also cancel guilt-free. 

You see this when people have found something they would rather do than show up and play games. That could be anything from a TV series they want to watch, to a new hobby, or another group or person they would rather hang out with, etc. You may also see this if your group contains a number of introverts who have to spend a lot of energy just to show up to a game night in the first place. One player cancelling gives them an easy out to avoid a situation that, while they will greatly enjoy it in the end, can take a lot of effort to get themselves to attend in the first place.

Dealing with a cascade of cancellations may not be fun but it’s best to find out if the players cancelling still want to be part of the group. You need to find out why they are cancelling and see if there is anything you (and the rest of the group) can do so that they will attend more regularly in the future. Try to discover what you can do to make game night more fun for everyone. A game group changing and evolving over time is normal and not a bad thing and one of the ways you will improve is through feedback from players who no longer want to attend.

If you have a player who does want to cancel on game night, that’s okay too. People’s priorities change over time, what they enjoy doing changes and so do their obligations. If someone wants out, let them go. As mentioned above, you should try to find out if there’s anything you can do to improve the experience, but don’t try to convince someone who doesn’t want to stay to stay. 

Finally, if you do find that you have a player who just stops showing up, it can be worth reaching out to find out why. Maybe they forgot about the game night or don’t realize that their presence at game night is being missed. 

Like many tabletop gaming group issues, the best way to work out what’s wrong and to improve is through communication. 

How do you maintain a game group during a pandemic or other difficult times?

I often break out prototype games for my regular game group to play.So that pretty much covers the things Emmet brought up explicitly. What I would like to do now is offer up some advice for maintaining a game group in tough times, like the current global pandemic we are all dealing with.

First off, everyone should be even more forgiving of people cancelling. People are dealing with a lot right now, things are not normal, and not everyone is coping with that well.

People are having to deal with their kids being at home during the day or sending them off to a school filled with potential plaguebearers. People are either working from home or working in a changed environment with new restrictions. Many people are dealing with a loss of income, and everyone is dealing with a loss of regularity. Things are not normal. 

While gaming may be a great escape from all of this, hobbies may need to take on an even lower level of importance over other things. People need to take care of themselves first and having to cancel game night for whatever reason shouldn’t be a cause of trepidation or worry right now.

Besides taking it easier on people who have to cancel, most of the rest of what I’ve talked about above still applies during a difficult time for gaming together.

Consistency is still very important. You should try to keep to your regular schedule where possible. While you may not be able to gather in person you should still get together in some way. That could be through a conference call, video chat, or via some form of virtual tabletop. I’ll be getting into some suggestions for how to do this a bit later. 

Game nights should still be pre-planned as much as possible, and that planning should be communicated. Expectations still need to be set, as mentioned above, but it’s probably a good idea to reduce those expectations. With everything else going on this may be a good time to split up game group responsibilities between the players so that the load is reduced for any one person. Perhaps picking which game gets played rotates each session, or the host of the live call can swap every week or the player who’s going to have their webcam showing the game board can swap session to session. 

Even though your game group may not be meeting in person, that doesn’t mean you can’t still get together and socialize before or after the game in some way. Maybe you all get together on Zoom and do a beer tasting, or you just chat for a bit over some coffee while discussing the games to be played that night. You can plan for a Netflix watch party after the session or share video game tips in Discord while the host sets up the map on Roll20. 

Playing the Labyrinth board game with my regular game group.Try to keep game night social. When gaming digitally, it’s very easy to forget there are other people on the other side of the screen. It’s very easy to just take your turn on Board Game Arena and forget you are playing with other people. Take the time to use the chat functions and mention when someone makes a good move, or chat about the latest episode of WandaVision. 

Things like themed game nights still work online. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as a pirate and jumping on Zoom for your pirate-themed game night. Things like that can be a great break, keep things interesting and break up the usual day to day, giving people an excuse to do things they normally would only do in public, 

While gaming online is a great alternative for when you can’t play in person, there are a number of issues that can come up that don’t happen on a face-to-face game night.

Technical issues can totally de-rail a game night. There are all kinds of ways our technology can fail us including loss of internet, power outages, uncooperative cameras, driver issues, memory issues, site capacity, and more. The key to dealing with these is to be patient with the person having the issues. In many cases, it’s not their fault, and even if it is, gaming online is brand new to most people and it’s going to take time for people to learn the skills needed to do so without a glitch. 

Be prepared for lag. This is especially true in video chat. Talking to each other online is not the same as talking in person and it takes a while to develop the cadence required so that people are not talking over top of each other. Physical cues and body language are also a lot harder to read when looking at a screen and that can lead to miscommunications and understandings.

In general, be patient and forgiving. For most people gaming online is something totally new. 

Ways to play tabletop games online

Playing the table hog Dinosaur Island with the Monday night game group.I want to finish off tonight by discussing some of the ways you can keep your regular game group going by playing online. 

The most basic way for you to keep in touch and game with your group online is through some form of communication software. While you could always set up a group email, there are a number of tools that are better suited for ongoing communication. These include basic text tools like Messenger as well as virtual conference rooms like Discord and Slack. 

These conference rooms include a number of great features like text, voice and video chat, the ability to set up different “rooms” for people to use and various member levels so that you can moderate access to different areas of the chatroom. These are great for both real-time and staggered communication and a number of people have taken to only using one of these tools to do all of their gaming. 

Video chatroom software is also very popular, with Zoom and Skype being the two used the most often. These are great for narrative style games but can also be used such that one player sets up the game and puts their camera on the board and manipulates all of the pieces for all of the players. I’ve seen this done for some of the most complicated games out there like Gloomhaven. 

Another alternative is to instead play digital tabletop games. In April I published a Comparison of three of the best sites for playing board games online for free where I talk about Board Game Arena, Yucata and Boite A Jeux. Since that article went live Board Game Arena has expanded its selection and servers greatly to deal with increased demand due to the pandemic. In addition to these free web-based sites, there are a number of board games that have been released in digital format that you can get in places like Steam. For an example of one such game check out our Terraforming Mars Digital review on YouTube

A final option for digital board gaming are the growing number of virtual tabletops that are out there. These include Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia. A large number of publishers have been using these platforms to promote their games this past year, due to the fact we have been without physical gaming conventions. While the quality of these games varies, digital tabletops offer a game experience very similar to sitting at the table playing physical games. 

For RPG fans there are a number of online tools specifically created for running roleplaying and story games. In the last year, Roll20 seems to have come out on top as far as popularity goes, but there are a number of sites out there including Start Playing and Fantasy Grounds. Some groups playing miniature heavy games have taken to using the virtual tabletops I just mentioned as well. 

All of these digital solutions can be a great way to keep your regular game night going. Just because you can’t get together in person doesn’t mean you can’t game together. 

There you have my suggestions for ways you can keep your game group going, both during regular times and during tough times like the current COVID19 pandemic. What I would love to hear from you are things that your group has done to keep the gaming going. Be sure to leave me a note in the comments below, fire me off an email, or hit me up on social media.

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