I have been organizing and promoting public play gaming events for twenty years and over that time I’ve learned a lot of things that you should, and shouldn’t, do when hosting a public board game event.
In this article I will be sharing some tips and tricks for organizing your own community gaming event.
A question about organizing community gaming events.
This article is based on a question I received from Jennifer who asked:
“My question involves organizing community events.
A few months ago, I saw a local Barnes and Noble advertise a family game night.
It ended up being the classic games like Clue, Monopoly, and the like. I was surprised since they do sell modern board games.
But it got me thinking about organizing a public event like that, maybe approaching Barnes and Noble or having it at a library. Do you have any advice for jumping into something like that?”
With things opening up around the world, now seems like a good time to start answering questions like this and talking about public play gaming again.
Before I get into my suggestions for launching a public play event, I first off want to thank Jennifer and those like them who take steps like these, steps that help bring gaming to a wider audience. The hobby needs people like Jennifer who take the time and effort to advocate for this awesome hobby of ours.
I also want to point out that we discussed this topic on Episode 139 of The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast: Gaming Together Again and I encourage you to check that out when you have time.
While Jennifer is coming at this with some experience, I’m going to start off assuming that anyone reading this has no prior event organization experience. That way I hope that this information is applicable to the widest possible range of people.
Tips for setting up a public play gaming event:
For any community gaming event, you are going to need three things at an absolute minimum. There are also some great, nice to haves as well but let’s start with the basics. For a public play event to work, you need a place to play, games to play while there and people to show up at that place to play those games.
Finding A Place To Play
The first thing you should drop from consideration and forget about ever doing is playing at your own home.
I don’t care if you’ve got a garage that can fit four 4×8 gaming tables and plenty of space or if you’ve got a super awesome game room that can fit a large number of gamers at once.
Save that personal space for people you know and trust. Do not open your own home up to the general public.
This is true for many reasons including liability issues, zoning laws and fire codes. Along with those legal issues you also have to worry about potential people problems. These can include, rudeness, hygiene issues, worries about damage and theft and a ton of other issues that I don’t want to dive into here. It’s best to avoid any of these potential issues by gaming in a public space.
Public spaces, especially retail or commercial spaces and restaurants, have insurance for things most homeowners do not. In addition, you will be in public with other people present and have more safety measures in place. In addition to this most people are going to be more comfortable meeting in a public place instead of someone’s private residence.
Along with this gaming at a public venue will make your event more accessible, especially if you can have it in a central location, close to amenities and things like public transit. If your goal is to get people out and gaming together you want it to be as easy as possible to actually get out and get to your event.
When looking for a public place you want a space that’s well lit, accessible, has public washrooms, and a space to play, including tables to game on and chairs to sit in. You want to check how crowded the space is and if anything else will be going on alongside your event.
It’s also preferable to have somewhere that you can either bring in food and drink or that serves it. This can just be bottled water and snack food, but it helps to have something available to keep gamers hydrated and not hungry. If you are looking at a place that serves full meals also take into consideration a way to separate the gaming area from the eating area in order to protect the games.
You should also check to see if the venue has places to park and consider how far you would have to carry the games you are planning to play. You probably don’t want to be lugging a pile of games down a block or two and up five flights of stairs for example.
Jennifer notes that there’s a local Barnes & Noble already hosting a game night and that seems like a great venue. If there is something like this happening in your area, your best option may be to try to get involved with that preexisting event instead of starting up a totally new one. Even if you do decide to do your own thing, you should try to time it so as to not to conflict with any other local events. You don’t want to divide the gaming community by forcing them to pick between two conflicting events.
Anywhere that sells board games can be a great choice for a public game night. These can often end up as win/win relationships between you and the venue. You get a place to host a game night and play games which in turn leads to more people frequenting the store and potentially more sales for the venue.
Book stores, hobby stores, comic shops and game stores all can be great venues for a public play event.
Jennifer also mentions libraries which I think are a fantastic venue for board gaming as long as they have the space for it that’s out of the way enough that potentially loud gamers won’t bother anyone trying to do some actual research. Many Libraries have private rooms for things like group meetings, which could work great. The only problem with this is that they are often hidden away and that removes any chance of catching the interest of someone just wandering by.
This brings me to my next tip, which is to try and choose a venue that really is public, where there will be regular folk frequenting the place or wandering by. The best way I’ve found to attract new gamers is for people to see other people having fun gaming. When someone with some time on their hands wanders by a busy gaming event with lots of people laughing and having fun, there’s a good chance they will stop and take the time to check it out. That’s one way new gamers get hooked.
Due to this, I love hosting events at cafes, pubs and restaurants. The thing to watch for here though is the lighting and also the normal noise level at these venues. Most games require concentration to play so you don’t want to play anywhere too loud, similarly, some games and gamers can be quite loud themselves and you don’t want to disrupt anything else going on at the venue.
So there’s a balancing act here between wanting your event to be public enough to be discovered and also making sure the gamers at your event aren’t being bothered or bothering anyone else.
Another set of places that I’ve found can be great for hosting game events are banquet halls and community clubs like the Knights of Columbus, local Legions, or various cultural clubs.
These venues tend to have large tables and often aren’t busy on a day to day basis, so they tend to be open to any event that will bring people in during their regular downtime.
The one problem I have had with these places is that now and then they do get booked for something during their “off time” and that can often usurp any regular game club meeting.
Also be sure the group you are working with is welcome to gamers of all ages, walks of life, and social statuses. Some of these private clubs are more welcoming than others.
As for actually booking a venue, this usually just means talking to the right person and selling the idea to them.
Let the venue know how many people you expect to show up, if you expect those people to spend money and what they would spend that money on.
If you are approaching a restaurant you will need to determine if everyone will be eating dinner first or just ordering apps while they play. Either way, be sure to keep the food and games separate in some way.
If you are looking to play at a game store, you could offer to feature specific games that the store wants to sell at your event, or offer to run, or let the staff of the store run, game demos at your events. If you are thinking of gaming at a café or pub consider instituting a drink minimum. Everyone must buy a beverage or perhaps they must buy one for every two hours that they are there.
Another option is to charge people to attend the event with some or all of the proceeds going to the venue. One variant of this I’ve used is that you charge a flat rate to play at the event and that fee is waived if the attendees spend a set amount at the venue. I’ve also made an agreement where I pay a deposit to the venue which is refunded if they make enough money from the people attending the event, in each case that I’ve done this I’ve never lost that deposit.
Now if you do set up some kind of agreement with the venue be sure that’s well communicated to anyone attending the event. Make sure they know that there’s a minimum purchase, or that they are expected to spend at least a set amount of money on food and drink. They should know this before they arrive.
Over the years I’ve found most places are more than happy to have a bunch of gamers there especially if they have a regular slow day and your game night can help fill that gap.
With some of these venues, one thing you do really need to consider is adult beverages and if they will be allowed. This is a personal choice and you need to be aware of further liability issues especially regarding people leaving after the event and potentially driving a vehicle, as well as the possibility of dealing with players who can’t handle their drinks well. Having events take place in the early afternoon can help with this.
If you are going to have adult beverages, I recommend looking into your region’s “alcohol server training”. This will make you aware of what to look out for as well as giving you guidance on how to deal with those who are overdoing it. Here in Ontario, this training is called Smart Serve.
One final note when dealing with a public play venue, be sure to clarify who is responsible for what and other legal obligations. Due to insurance, health and safety guidelines, etc. there may be very strict rules around who can do what during an event. For example, don’t go re-arranging tables without talking to someone first. Find out where the designated smoking areas are. Are there any boundaries on where your guests can and cannot go? Where are the washrooms? Where are the exits in case of a fire? Are there capacity limits you need to be aware of? Who’s responsible for clean up during the event?
Selecting Games For A Community Gaming Event
Now that you’ve found a place to play at you are going to need games to play. If playing at a game store or café, you may be lucky enough to have demo or store copies of games on hand, but for most places, you are going to have to bring the games. While it is possible to rely on others to provide games, I strongly recommend that the host should have a number of games on hand at any public event.
For a public play event, you want a mix of games and game types, both in regards to weight and player count as well as familiarity.
While I understand the urge to stick to just hobby board games, I do strongly recommend having some mass market favourites on hand. Even at one of the biggest chains of board game cafes, Snakes & Lattes, UNO, Jenga and Monopoly are still their most played games.
As hobby gamers, we often forget that board game night to many people means something very different than it does for us. Many people looking for a night out are going to be looking for something quick to learn or a game they already know. They are looking for things like classic mass market board games and light weight party games. While many of us love learning a new game and reading long rulebooks, the average person just wants to get to the game and have some fun.
Along with this, having popular well known games like Clue or Sorry, games that people instantly recognize, can make people feel more comfortable. You don’t want to intimidate and scare away potential new hobby gamers through your selection of games.
Note that I’m not saying that you should avoid hobby games altogether. Please help spread the love of designer games with the world, but make sure you have some lighter fare as well. For example, Guess Who has been one of the most played games at public play events I host at pubs.
When picking games for a public play event you should also base your decision on where you will be hosting your event. If you aren’t playing in a dedicated gaming area you need to watch for things like table size and may want to avoid games with lots of tiny components that are easily lost. The games I personally bring to a pub are very different from the games I bring to an FLGS to play.
Another consideration is the tone of the games you are bringing and/or allow people to bring to your event.
Personally, I not only refuse to bring any of the popular not safe for work board games to any event I’m hosting but I also ban them from any event I run. You don’t want anyone playing anything that may offend someone else, whether that someone is there playing games or just happens to be at the venue at the same time.
Similarly, you want to avoid games with controversial themes. You, and everyone else, are welcome to enjoy these in the privacy of your own homes. However, there are plenty of other games that are better suited for a public play event.
When first starting up an event you are going to want to be the one bringing the games to play, or working with your venue of choice to determine which games are on hand. Once you have a number of games ready for bringing to events, perhaps even a core set of games you always have available, you can also encourage other people to bring games.
All of the gaming events I run are open gaming events where everyone is encouraged and welcome to bring their own games (except for those NSFW and/or controversial games I just mentioned). The more people that bring games the more options there will be and in most cases, people bringing their own games are excited about those games and are willing to teach them to other players.
It’s also possible that a library, cafe or game store may not want outsiders bringing in games at all, and in that case, you should try to work with them to curate what games are available to play at your events.
Getting People To Come Out To A Public Play Gaming Event
Now that you’ve got a place to gather and games to play, you need people to show up. The most important thing here is getting the word out about your new event.
One service that I’ve seen a number of people use, myself included, is Meetup.com. This is a great place to find other gamers and people who are curious about gaming. My only issue with Meetup is that the service is somewhat limited as a free app with many features only unlocked once you sign up for a monthly plan, something you will be forced to do if your group grows to any significant size.
Facebook events are great for finding adult gamers. I personally run a local Facebook Group for Windsor gamers and create all my events through that. Those events can then be shared in other local community groups.
Board Game Geek has event forums for all states and provinces, which is a great way to meet up with hobby gamers in your area. The best part about connecting with people on BGG is that they are usually experienced gamers who have their own game collections.
If your event is free, it’s worth reaching out to local media, newspapers, bloggers, etc. I tend to do this for our big events, like our annual Extra Life gaming marathon, but I have also done this when launching a new event to help get the word out. Create a press release and send it to as many local news sources as you can.
I also suggest you put up physical posters and fliers, both at the venue you plan on using and at places that gamers like to hang out at (game stores, comic stores, coffee shops, etc).
Digital advertising is also worth doing. If your venue has a webpage ask them to list your event there. If there’s an online page for your city that lists community events, reach out to see if you can get your event added. It may even be worth talking to a BIA for the neighbourhood your venue is in or contacting the local tourism board.
Once things get started, word of mouth will probably be the best way to get the word out and for that, you just have to host a fun game night. Don’t only rely on that though. Every now and then do another media blitz, hoping to reach new people about your event.
Additional Tips For Hosting A Pubic Gaming Event
Now that I’ve covered the basics, finding a place, getting some games and filling that place with people to play those games, here are some further tips and things you want to have in place, maybe not for the first event but as soon as you can. These are things that will make our game night fun (or more fun).
Rules and Policies
You should have a harassment policy and communicate it well. Have this posted somewhere that people will see it. Print it out, laminate it and put a copy on each table. Make a business card with a QR code that leads to a webpage with your policy, etc. Make sure people know about your policy and have read it, perhaps even getting people to sign something indicating that they have read and agree to it.
While this may seem over the top, harassment policies actually make your game nights more accessible and open. They let people know that your event will be a safe space and what to do if it becomes unsafe for them. With this, you can and should also provide safety tools. Have an open door policy, and make sure any games that need them include tools like the X card. This can apply to board games as well as RPGs. Gaming is all about gathering together and having fun, and you want to stomp out anything that could ruin this for anyone.
Along with a harassment policy, you should also have some more general ground rules. This can include things like deciding who can and should bring games to the event, indicating that all players after playing a game should put it away as they found it, rules for caring of other peoples games, rules for food and drink, etc.
Note this isn’t about running a tournament or anything like that, so you probably don’t need something like a group wide start player rule (though you may want one), you just want to cover common things that come up at any game night. Thinks like who is responsible for cleaning up a game when done, where do the games go when no one is playing them, how do you indicate who owns which games, what happens if someone accidentally damages someone else’s games, and more.
While these rules could just be part of the ephemeral social contract of your game night, having them written down somewhere, or at least posted online, is much better. By having formal rules you can easily communicate these to someone showing up for the first time. Having written codified rules can also be very important for enforcing them.
As time goes on and you host more events these rules can and should change. When a new situation comes up, and you are worried it may come up again, update the group rules and be sure to communicate that to everyone involved.
A quick way to cover both the harassment policy and your updated rules is to have a sign in sheet that everyone participating has to sign before taking part, with that have a copy of the most recent set of policies and rules. A sign in sheet has an added bonus, you can use it to make a contact list so that you can let people know about future events (of course it goes without saying that you should only collect emails or phone numbers for a contact list with people’s knowledge and consent).
You Will Want A Host For Your Game Night
At every event, someone should be playing host. While I realize that the main goal of building a public play event is to get together and play games, someone at the event should also be playing host, perhaps even instead of playing games.
This person should greet everyone who arrives, explain what any group rules are (including the harassment policy), and work with people to facilitate games getting played.
If people show up while all the other people are playing something, maybe set them up with a solo or low player count game. The host should be watching for games ending soon and encourage people to swap things up and game with other people.
The host will need to deal with any issues that come up, work with the venue to take care of any problems and, most importantly, make sure people are having fun.
For me I usually mix this with gaming, making certain that the people I’m playing a game with know that I may end up having to pause our game so that I can get up and greet someone, or facilitate a new game starting, or teach a game.
As your group grows and you get a number of regulars you can share this hosting duty. You may even be able to delegate it, having different people responsible for different things. One player brings the games, another player hosts, someone else acts as a greeter, etc. These roles could rotate over multiple events.
You Want People To Meet And Interact With Other Gamers
The goal of your event should be to get more people gaming with more people. You want people to find new people to play with. You want them to get to experience games at different player counts and with players who use different strategies. To this end, you need a way to get people together playing quickly and efficiently.
One tool for doing this is to have a list of all of the games present at the event or a central area where people know to find the games they can play. One benefit of a list is that it will include all of the games available, even those currently being used. Another benefit is that a list can contain a lot of useful information, such as what the games are about, the player count, complexity, etc.
One way to get games going, and to get people swapping between tables, is to have some way to indicate that a group is looking for more players, or require someone to teach a game. This can be done with table signs (or I’ve used small plastic traffic cones). Even having someone walk around holding a game above their head can be a good way to indicate they want to play something and are looking for other interested players. The host can also just shout out to the group when a new game is starting or looking for players, though this may not be appropriate at all venues.
Try To Find Your Local Game Teachers
Having people on hand that are skilled at teaching games is a huge bonus for a game night.
I know people that go out to public play game nights just to learn to play games they have bought themselves but don’t want to take the time to learn how to play on their own.
Unfortunately, if you are just starting up a new event it may end up that you will be the only game teacher for most games and in that case when selecting games to have at the event be sure to pick ones that you know you can teach. Starting with your first event, you should be keeping an eye out for skilled game teachers and utilizing them to teach games as well.
To help with game teaching I strongly suggest finding teaching guides and game summaries online from places like Board Game Geek and Esoteric Order of Games. I try to find these teaching aids for every game I can and then print them out and place them into the game box. By doing this, even if I can’t teach a game myself, there’s a tool right there in the box to help someone else learn the game.
One of the best tools for teaching games today is the internet. There are many awesome how to play video series out there, like Watch it Played, Gaming Rules, or Rahdo Runs Through, and many others, that are great for teaching a group how to play a game. As long as someone has a cell phone at the table a how to play video is easily on hand.
Consider Having A Theme For Your Gaming Events
I personally always set up my game nights as open game nights where anyone is allowed to play anything they want (not counting those few banned games and game types I mentioned earlier). These kinds of events encourage people to bring and show off whatever game they may be excited about at the time.
Even with this, I also like to pick a theme for each of our game nights. This helps people focus on what games to bring and can also help drum up excitement for the event. If every game night is the same, just open gaming and people have no idea what to expect, then it’s easy for them to skip a game night, thinking they won’t be missing anything. By having a theme, people tend to get more invested. “I’m not just going out to play games, I’m going out to try some new pirate-themed games!”, for example.
Don’t Try To Do It All On Your Own!
Finally, I want to finish by saying don’t try to do all of this by yourself. This is the trap I fell into when I first started running a local group, the Windsor Gaming Resource.
Once you have some regulars at your game night talk to them and see if they are willing to volunteer to help out. While it’s admirable and appreciated that Jennifer and others like them want to start hosting a game night, they shouldn’t have to do it all on their own.
Remember that just because someone starts something doesn’t mean they have to be the only one doing it forever.
Similarly, if you are in a game club or attend public play events I encourage you to offer to help out.
This help can come in many forms, maybe someone who is online all the time and can run the group social media accounts, someone else may have a huge game collection so they become in charge of bringing the core games each game night, someone who’s active on BGG can be in charge of posting there when each new event is scheduled, someone that attends a local College or University may be able to help find new gamers by putting the word out on campus.
We gamers are a talented lot. Use that experience to your advantage for the benefit of everyone who takes part in your community gaming event.
There you have some of my top tips and tricks for starting your own public play gaming event. If you do ever start a game night of your own I would love to hear how it went in the comments below. Also, if you are already a pro at hosting community gaming events I would love to hear any tips or tricks you’ve learned along the way. You can share those in the comments as well.