Tips on How to Host a Successful, Non-Violent Board-Game Night

3 things to avoid, according to County pros.

illustration by Chris B. MurraryIf you’re like us, you probably have fond memories of family game night around the kitchen table: games like Monopoly, Mouse Trap, and Yahtzee pulled from their shelves and piled high, strewn with the detritus of so much stovetop popcorn. And for all those Hallmark images, you probably also remember the feral rage that seethed inside you, waiting to burst through in a torrent of tears and grown-up swears as your little bastard of a brother Connected Four for the eighth time. 

As we matured and entered adulthood, the games matured with us (well, some of them, and, really, some of us). In the last several years, game night has surged in popularity among hipsters and middle-aged professionals alike. No longer the exclusive realm of basement-dwelling geeks, board-game nights—of both the “party” variety (think Taboo and Catch Phrase) as well as the “serious” kind (games with German pedigrees or anything with a 12-sided die)—have become almost as mainstream a social gathering as hitting the local bar. Almost. 

“Gaming, for many years, was relegated to geeks,” says Elliot Kravitz, a 48-year-old Croton-based credit officer with Bank of America, who has been leading board-game nights since 2001 with the Westchester Gaming Group (WGG), which has a membership base in the hundreds. “But now, those kids who grew up during the age of Star Wars and during the growing popularity of sci-fi, fantasy, comics, et cetera, are adults with disposable income.” 

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And those adults, says Kravitz, are looking for better ways to interact; while the Internet has made it easier to gather like-minded individuals together to game, “there’s also a growing backlash over the isolation arising out of online life, social media, and people texting 24/7 instead of living in the moment. Gaming is a welcome way to interact face-to-face.” 

Another WGG attendee, Niki Gallo Hammond, 36, of Ossining, not only plays games, she designs them. Gallo Hammond sees the origins of the growing popularity of board games in how technology has affected the way we socialize. “Unlike most other forms of socializing, board games require your full attention. You’re constantly interacting with the people you’re playing with, which means you’re not checking your cellphone or struggling to make small talk.” It’s also a great way to learn about people. “If you’re playing with people you don’t know very well,” she says, “it’s a great way to learn who they are in an indirect but meaningful way. Do they like to take risks? Are they easy to read? Do they have a good sense of humor?”

If you’ve never hosted a board-game night, where do you begin? Kravitz and Gallo Hammond recommend starting with a smaller crowd based on the number of players allowed by the games. Think four to eight to start—whatever your dining-room table (plus a side table for spillover) can accommodate. 

The key is to start light. “Good games to start with can be taught in 10 minutes and have a one-hour play time,” says Dobbs Ferry resident Vicki Bloom, 46, a book reviewer and web designer who’s been gaming with WGG for about three years. “Usually two games are perfect—one longer one that folks already know how to play, and one set of quicker ones where people can hop in or out.” Aim for about four hours total for a night. Also: It’s critical that at least one person already know the rules to a game and can teach the rest. 

With a glut of new games on the market, it can be tough to figure out what to start with, especially if the last thing you played was Candyland with the kids (or as a kid). Meredith Kramer, a teacher from Ossining, has been co-organizing the monthly Westchester Board Game meet-up for about a year and a half. A party (game) girl at heart, Kramer loves Fluxx 4.0, a card game wherein the rules change with every card drawn; We Didn’t Playtest This at All, in which cards contain random instructions which can determine a player’s fate in as little as 30 seconds or as long as five minutes; and Cards Against Humanity, a highly inap-propriate and hilarious version of the relatively family-friendly Apples to Apples, wherein players match nouns to a particular adjective, and the most “accurate” match is judged by one player. These games have “no big time commitment,” says Kramer, “so you can stop whenever you want,” making them great warm-ups as guests trickle in. 

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For his part, Kravitz recommends Dixit, an easy-to-learn game in which each player creates stories around images hidden on cards, and other players must guess the image, while Bloom recommends “strongly themed games that are easy to explain,” like King of Tokyo, a dice game with card modifiers, or cooperative games like Pandemic, in which every player must band together to save the world from a plague. “Everyone either loses or wins together, so it is great for helping a social group bond,” she says. Gallo Hammond is currently “obsessed” with Forbidden Desert, another cooperative game that requires players to find parts of their crashed airship and escape a desert before any of them die of thirst. 

Let’s face it, though: Deciding what kind of fun to have at board-game night is really not that difficult. It’s when a breakdown in communication occurs that things get tense, feelings get hurt, and what started out as innocent fun morphs into savage battle, or worse, real awkwardness. Westchester mediators Clare Piro, of Markowitz & Piro in Harrison, and Jenny Besch, director of the Westchester and Rockland Mediation Centers of CLUSTER Community Services, took us through three cringe-worthy scenarios, and how, as host, you can keep board games from devolving into war games.

1. Conflict over interpretation of game rules

You know what it looks like. Polite disagreeing that becomes more and more strained. Someone drops the classic, “Well, every time I’ve played, we always did X.” The key to diffusing a fight over rules, says Piro, a lawyer with 25 years in family law and nearly a decade in mediation, is to ask questions of each party so they can understand where the other is coming from, and to clarify why one interpretation works for one party, and one for the other. “Talk in terms of goals and shared interests,” she says. “In this case, the shared interest is wanting to be able to continue the game.” The host can avert a crisis by ascertaining why each guest’s interpretation is so important, and establishing that the shared goal is to keep the night from grinding to a halt.

Of course, says Besch, one way to avoid this altogether is to make sure there is clarity about the rules in advance. In that case, the host should “step in and take the onus on herself” for not establishing the rules ahead of time. The guests save face, and by asking each of them for their insight as to how to make the situation fair for everyone, you bring both people “from opposite sides to the same side, with the problem on the other side.”

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2. Accusation of cheating

“People are very odd,” says Besch, who engages her mediation trainees in games to teach them about resolving disputes. “They get very furious over games.” Cheating in particular represents a “social contract that’s been ruptured.” To deal with accusations of cheating, whether founded or not, Besch recommends bringing the accuser and accused into another room and asking them to resolve the situation themselves, either in the host’s presence or not. If they can’t come to a solution in that moment, says Besch, then ask them to table the conflict for the sake of the group. This allows both the accuser and the accused a chance to step away and be a little heroic, sacrificing their argument for the greater good. 

Alternatively, says Piro, the host can invoke “caucus” mediation, in which the accuser and the accused meet individually with the host, who can provide a neutral and less emotional sounding board.

3. Sore losers

“Children get over losing way faster than adults do,” says Besch. You might not encounter a sore loser at game night, but if the booze has been flowing—and what’s a game night without refreshments?—you might as well be prepared for one. In this case, Piro recommends “transformative” mediation. It’s not about problem solving; rather, the goal is to “repair a crisis in a relationship.” Both Piro and Besch stress the importance of giving the sore loser a lot of attention, and hearing his/her complaints. “Sometimes, if they feel they’ve been heard,” says Piro, “they can move on.”

Besch suggests publicly thanking both the winner and the loser at the end of the game. Someone has to fill the role of last place, she says, so it’s important to thank said person for taking that on this time. 

Remember, this is all supposed to be fun. All it takes is the right combination of games and highly specialized mediation training, and you, too, can host a small group of people in one room with minimal bodily harm endured. Happy gaming!       

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