Many meetups play board games or card games. Hanging out playing games can be a fun way to spend time together, and organizing a board game meetup is unusually easy since the games do most of the heavy lifting. Some games are better suited to this purpose than others; I believe the best games for a meetup have very short rounds, have a lot of “dead” time where you’re waiting for someone to make a move, and are for more than two players. A game can be a great game, but a poor choice for a meetup. The summary of this post is that if you run a board game meetup, I think the meetup will be better if you bring games that fit those criteria and avoid bringing games that don’t.
I’m less confident these are straightforward improvements than I usually am with these tips.
Still reading? Cool, let's talk about games for more words than are strictly necessary.
Why are games a popular meetup topic? I believe it’s because board games give a default activity. It’s not weird to approach someone at a board game meetup and ask if they want to play, which makes it easier to introduce yourself. You don’t have to worry about not having anything to say or talk about, since you can talk about the game. They periodically interrupt people, making it easier to change topics. They can also be fun. It’d be bad to forget that. They’re also really easy to run as an organizer. You can just pick a time and place, show up with a couple of cardboard boxes, and boom there’s the meetup. There’s a reason I named my sequence on easy meetups “Meetups In A Box” and that reason is because I want every meetup to be as simple for the organizer as a board game meetup.
The qualities that make for a great game if you consider it as a game are not the same as the qualities that make a game great for meetups. Keep that in mind throughout this post; I’m going to use a lot of examples, and the distinction is going to be important. Take Go. Go is a deep and much loved game. If people decide to play Go at a meetup, then two people are probably going to split off from the rest to focus on that for an hour. It’s going to impede them from mingling with other people, and they’re even limited in talking to each other since at any point in time one of them is concentrating on the next move. That’s not ideal.
Compare Go to Hearts. In a four player Hearts game, most of the time three players are waiting for a fourth to play a card. When you’re waiting you can’t do too much strategizing before your turn comes up. That means the three players who aren’t taking a turn are free to talk to each other. Since each round is fast, it’s easy for someone to decide they’re done playing and get up or for someone new to join the game. There's a bit of fiddling with the deck when someone joins or leaves but a four player Hearts game can become a five player Hearts game, the fifth person doesn't need to sit out.
Beware having two long games going at once. Imagine eight people who split in half to play two games that take over an hour, each with four players. The first game to finish notices that the other group is still going, so they start a new game. The second group finishes, notices the other group just started, so they start a new game. Thus goes the evening, with the two groups failing to mix with each other. That’s a bit of a spherical cow example and a large enough group will usually have enough going on to naturally avoid this, but keep an eye out for multiple long games locking people into their groups.
This is most important for new arrivals in the early part of a meetup. Since your attendees will rarely all arrive together right at the start time for your meetup, I think it’s worth starting with faster games so that you can more quickly adjust groups as new people show up. Don’t start with a multi-hour game that locks up your first four arrivals; number five may be coming soon!
This creates the space for my most common exception to the criteria of more than two players. I love Tak (a two player board game that usually ends in about five minutes) in meetups, since I can play with the newest arrival, get them to play whoever shows up next, and when the third in the sequence shows up we have enough for a game with more players. This works best if you’re comfortable chatting with someone else while being able to play quickly.
I’m going to expand on that last sentence. A neat and useful skill to develop for an organizer is the ability to play a game while carrying on a complex and unrelated conversation. It’s okay to play badly, as long as you play legally. To put that another way, losing more often but having better conversations is a good tradeoff as an organizer, as long as you don’t play so badly that it becomes boring for the other players. This is a key part of how I engage with people as they show up, allowing me to occupy one or two people who’d otherwise be standing around waiting for enough people to play a game.
Many games which are naturally too slow and lock up players for too long can be made faster with the addition of a chess clock. Clocked games have an advantage of usually ending at around the same time, which can fix the issue of two groups with a different cycle. Two player games can be made into amusing four player games by having two teams of players which alternate and where the teams aren't allowed to discuss strategy; Adam and Bella are playing white, Carl and Darla are playing black, so the turn order is Adam Carl Bella Darla Adam Carl and so on. Putting this on an aggressive clock removes the conversation which otherwise happens in dead time, but it can also be pretty funny.
Games can also be topical. If you are reading about meetups and board games on LessWrong, Rationality Cardinality is an easy example of something your audience may be interested in. Many people like games, many people like rationality, and offering to combine the two is good. Don’t feel shy about bringing in Calibration Trivia or Poker and talking about odds for instance.
People will likely want to bring their own games. This is great, because it takes less pressure off of you as an an organizer. It does mean some of the selection of games will be out of your control. If someone pulls out Twilight Imperium (a very long game that I would not recommend for a typical board game meetup) or the like and starts recruiting players, I find it's worth one comment about how shorter games work better for meetups and then I let it happen. It's not bad if people split off like that, especially if they're excited about the game, I just don't think it's as good as a meetup.
I’ve experimented with having themes for board game events, such as “card games” or “cooperative games” or even picking one game and declaring we’ll start with that one. The effect on attendance seems mildly positive. I’ve only done this a handful of times, but the only time I got fewer attendees than a generic board games meetup was when I picked a game to start that was a game I’d made up and wanted to playtest.
You can of course have a meetup that’s all about one game. Gatherings of chess players in the park, a Mahjong club that meets every other week, Magic: The Gathering’s Friday Night Magic events, and a regular Trivia night at the local pub are all examples of this. If you’re excited about that one game, go for it. This is also a space where campaign or legacy games become more viable options, but even here I’d be a little careful; it’s rare for a group to stay exactly the same size. Someone will move out of town, or want to bring their new significant other. Chess Club doesn’t care how many people show up as long as there’s enough chessboards, Gloomhaven has a pretty narrow range of players it can support.
More than most meetups, gaming meetups can benefit from being visible to passerby. I have yet to see anyone notice a book club talking in the park and join in, but I have seen someone walk past a row of chess tables then turn back and ask a lone person sitting at a board if they were looking for a game. I once saw a sign for Friday Night Magic in an unexpected place and made a note to show up next week to indulge in one of my favourite games. People know how chess, Magic, and trivia work and feel more comfortable showing up to one without an explicit invitation. You can of course provide an explicit invitation; a sign saying “Board Game Meetup, Tuesday at 6” can gather incidental attendees.
Board game meetups handle being outdoors worse than many other kinds of meetups. If you want to do it outside, I suggest bringing a blanket to lay on the ground. That will make for a flatter and more comfortable playing space than doing it on grass or dirt. Try to pick a spot with good wind shelter, otherwise the wind can pick up cards or knock over small mini figures. Lastly, keep an eye on the clouds and have a plan for what to do if it rains; people are waterproof, Ticket To Ride isn’t.
One last note: I’ve been talking about board games and card games here, typically played sitting around a table or in a circle on the grass. Much of this advice still applies to sports or physical games, though your venue requirements will obviously change. Pickup games of a local sport are a favourite meetup activity the world over. I am, however, going to make a tactful observation that the physical stamina and comfort of your attendees may vary wildly, especially if they’re primarily selected for whether they read LessWrong rather than whether they joined a local sports league.
A short list of my favourite meetup games: Apples to Apples, Hanabi, Tak, Outrangeous, Deep Sea Adventure. For physical games, Zip Zap Zoom, Frisbee, Capture the Flag, and passing tricks with juggling have all worked well but when I can I like soccer.
Fake money can be repurposed from existing games, purchased cheaply on its own, and enables some other games I wouldn’t normally do at a casual meetup. Poker is the main example here, but anything with a gambling component is way more fun with physical but fake money than with abstract points on a scorecard. I would advise against using real money, especially with a total value between all players greater than a dollar.
I’ve noticed that if I play aggressively and quickly (moving my piece immediately after the turn passes to me) it puts people off guard, and encourages them to move quickly. Whether this is something I want to do varies; in the early part of the meetup I usually do this so I can keep rounds short and make it easier to mix groups, in the later part of a meetup I usually play slowly and deliberately to give people time to chat.
I suggest Codenames as a good game for meetups:
(Note that there are people who do not enjoy board games. Actively do not enjoy. Dislike, even. This is fine - not every meetup appeals to every person. But also beware of treating these people as if they are just an ignorant shell around an inner person who would definitely enjoy board games if only they [x]. Some of them really are, some really aren't. Yes, even though "board games" is such a broad category. Yes, even though they seem to enjoy [other thing] which seems so similar. Etc.)
I usually run away from places where people play card games. I like to talk to people, and when they start playing, they... don't necessarily stop talking, but definitely stop focusing on the discussion.
Board games... are at least more interesting for me to watch. But the impact on talking is the same.
Personnaly I come (and organize) meetups to make my brain sweat and actively avoid activities that leave me unchanged (I won't change much during a play while I grow a lot after each confrontation or discussion). But to each their own of course!