The trick is simplicity, food and knowing your audience.
Congratulations. You survived 2016 and made it to the holidays. Surrounded by your family, you anticipate the meal but worry what will come after. Will your uncle drink too much? Will dad bring up politics? Take control this year and stop the awkwardness before it starts. Bring a game.
I'm not talking about Battleship or The Game of Life: those old family board games that cause more arguments than they prevent. No, be bold and bring something actually fun to the holidays. Hunt Jack the Ripper with your siblings in Letters from Whitechapel, save humanity from a plague in Pandemic or vie for resources in Catan.
We're in the middle of a board game renaissance. Thanks to Kickstarter and mega hits such as Cards Against Humanity, it's easier than ever to find amazing board games to play with your friends and family. Nerds and non-nerds alike no longer need play legacy games such as Monopoly, Risk, and Sorry.
From the simple Zombie Dice to the complicated Twilight Imperium and everything in between, there is something for everyone. But there's still one mighty obstacle to overcome for even the most ambitious would-be board gamer: how do you convince your friends to sit down and play?
Tabletop game virgins are often overwhelmed by the hobby. The rules for even the most simple game can seem complicated. Dice, cards, and miniatures create a barrier to entry for people who think specialty board games mean long weekends laboring over hand painted minis and arcane rules.
Teri Litorco has you covered. Litorco is a longtime tabletop gamer and a popular vlogger. On her YouTube channel she reviews board games, paints minis and—most importantly—walks new gamers through the ins and outs of the hobby. She's also the author of the new book The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming: Rules Every Gamer Must Live By.
The book is wonderful because it's simple. Litorco has written an etiquette guide for game night that speaks to both the hardcore fans with 30 years of Warhammer 40K experience and the newcomer who balks at dice and plastic. Her advice is practical, measured, and delivered with a grin.
"It can be really overwhelming," Litorco told me over Skype. "There was never a guide on how to get in." She's right. One of the big problems of living through the board game renaissance is that fans are spoiled for choice. There are hundreds of quality games out there, some are fun and fast and take just fifteen minutes, others are complicated and may take eight hours just to understand the rules.
Litorco wanted to make it all less intimidating, so she wrote a book to walk people through how to pick a game, play it with their friends, and smooth over the inevitable problems that arise.
"I played chess with my father when I was very young. I grew up playing monopoly. It wasn't until my 20s that I discovered this whole other, deeper hobby," she said. "So because of how late I came into the hobby, a lot of my content had been focused on making it accessible."
Litorco's solution is beautiful in its simplicity.
"You start with food," she said. "Food is the answer." Too many aspiring hosts make the mistake of selling the experience as a board game night instead of a social gathering that happens to involve games.
"It's one of those things where we forget the other aspects of being human when we talk about games," Litorco said. "Because we often talk about mechanics and components and all the other things about the game, but we don't talk about the social experience of gaming."
There's nothing that bonds people faster than a shared meal. "Food is always the key. Whether you're introducing yourself to a new gaming group or you're going to an event, food is always a part of it. Food makes us better as people. Food makes us bond better."
Once a person's belly is full they're far more open to new experiences. My wife and I tested this recently and it worked like a charm. We invited two friends over and promised them a meal in exchange for their participation in a few rounds of some simple board games.
After lamb chops and a chocolate pie, the board game novices happily dove into Antidote, a simple card game where players rush to cure a mysterious disease before it kills them.
The game got a lukewarm reception, but the night was a success. Our friends remembered the food and company, not the mediocre card game. They're already asking when we plan to host the next dinner and tabletop night. We won't play Antidote again and that's fine. We'll find a game the whole group enjoys.
"Knowing your friends helps," Litorco said. "Make sure that the universe entices you. It doesn't matter how good the mechanics of the game are, if I do not care about European infrastructure, Power Grid is not gonna be a game that I want to play."
These days, there's a board game for everyone. If your friends love The Walking Dead, pick up one of the several zombie branded games on offer. If they love Firefly, there's a board game set in that universe. If they think castles and knights are cool, pick up Castles of Mad King Ludwig.
There really is a game for everyone and it's not worth ruining the entire event by forcing your friends to roll the dice on a game they have no interest in. Litorco suggested starting small with new gamers.
"Games that are accessible to children are really great for drunk people later in the night," Litorco said. Which brings up another hazard of a friendly game night—what to do when people get too drunk or stoned.
It's a common problem. Many a fun game night has been felled by players getting too sauced or blazed to push through the Mansion of Madness. Litorco told me it's an easy problem to solve, provided hosts structure the evening correctly.
"Part of it is the length of the night," she said. "If you're looking at a lengthy night, if people are showing up at 5PM and you're going to around 2AM, and you're noticing around midnight it's a wash. Start it later. Go out to eat and come back."
Over and over, Litorco emphasized the social aspects of gaming. It's about hanging out with people, not over planning and forcing folks into a game they aren't interested in. She said it's perfectly acceptable to have a great dinner, move into some games, then go out to a bar for a nightcap. It's about the people, not the game.
But drinking or smoking too much might be a sign of a bigger problem with the evening. Hosts need to watch their players, understand their mood, and have a game plan to deal with potential problems.
"When I start seeing people withdraw, that's a big red flag for me," Litorco said. "People on their phones all the time. People who don't know it's their turn. Usually, when I look at a game and I see people skipping turns, that's a good sign. It means people are eager and anticipating their turns."
When a host sees their players tuning out, it's best to give them a graceful exit point. "Suggest moves that help them finish out early or might pull them in again," she explained. "Give them social permission to step out without shame. That's the big thing. You've got to try to frame it in a way that it's not about shaming that person into coming back or shaming them into behaving the way you want them to behave."
Litorco told me that it's always better to let players go do something else than it is to force them to trudge through a game that's not working. The important thing is to do it without making them feel awful.
She suggested hosts have these bored players pick the next game the group plays. "That's an opportunity to give them and out and give them a way to help out. That way it preserves the experience for the people in that game. It makes sure that one person doesn't ruin it for everyone else."
Sometimes, though, it's not just one player who loses interest but the whole group. "If the whole room is going sideways on you … kill it and burn your boats," Litorco said. "You can't be married to a game so much that you want to see the end so much when everyone around the table is not enjoying it."
For Litorco, forcing unhappy players through a game they aren't enjoying is the cardinal sin of the hobby. "That is valuing the game over the people," she explained. "Gaming is about the social experience you share with that other person. If you are not valuing that person's experience, you are undermining that person's experience as well as your own."
She's right. I've seen many a game night that started out with potential fall to an obsessed host who tries to force a group to play a game they're not interested. I once watched a friendly gamer try to wrangle a group of drunks into a four hour game of Arkham Horror—a complicated and lengthy board game based on H.P. Lovecraft's work.
It didn't work out. She didn't know her audience, didn't read the room and relied on beer to lubricate the evening instead of food. This holiday season, don't make the same mistake. Grab one of the literally hundreds of awesome board games out there and make family time fun again.
Litorco can help. The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming is full of useful advice for bringing everyone, even your family, to the gaming table.