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One of the best ways to quickly and effortlessly level-up friendships is to create a shared experience. I learned this the hard way. Here’s how it happened:
In 2009 and 2010 my husband and I urban nomaded – we traveled the world living in different cities for 1 to 3 months at a time and working remotely. We were looking for a new home base so we would rent an Airbnb, do grocery shopping and try to make friends quickly to see what it would really be like to live there.
We did a total of 14 cities including Buenos Aires, Tokyo, New York and of course, Portland where we ended up settling. Making friends was actually harder than working remotely (except for trying to find fast wifi). It wasn’t too hard to reach out to friends of friends or old college buddies in new places. And then we could usually get a coffee or dinner on the calendar. But after that, it was hard to really bond. I didn’t think much of it until our honeymoon.
On our honeymoon we were about to board a cruise around the Greek Islands when we heard, “Go Timbers!” My husband (a huge Timbers fan) was wearing a jersey and a fellow fan and cruiser was as well. It turns out him and his wife were also on their honeymoon and based in Portland! During the cruise we couldn’t eat dinner together (we were assigned to different dining rooms), so we would go to the cruise game room and play shuffle board or ping pong. We also did trivia night together and played the Newlywed game. It was so little time—maybe a few hours over an entire 10 day cruise but we were instantly bonded.
When we moved to Portland it was easy to have more game nights, go to wine country and hang out together. This baffled me—what was so different about this experience?
And then I realized it was the experience. Playing games together, joining on teams, competing against each other had created this bonding experience that was deeper than any normal dinner or coffee.
This is when I started hosting game nights. I found it was the fastest way to bond. Here’s why game nights rock:
- You learn together. Especially with trivia games you end up tackling new challenges.
- You play together. Remember play dates? Remember how fun it was to play with your friends at recess? Game nights are adult play dates.
- You laugh together. It is so rare as adults that we actually get to laugh with other people. We might laugh at someone’s post on social media or laugh at a YouTube video, but often that happens alone. There is something about laughing with a group that is unforgettable.
- You get out of your comfort zone together. If you are playing a game or someone is trying to do charades it can be out of people’s comfort zones. And a little adrenaline is a good thing.
Not only have I laughed the hardest I have ever laughed before at some of my game nights, I have also made life long friends. (And a major shout out to Tony Dal Ponte for inviting me to his first game night in Portland, Oregon.)
How to Host the Perfect Game Night
Have I convinced you? Ok, here is what you can do to make your night memorable:
What’s the Goal?
This might seem silly, but not all game nights are created equal. For example, if you are around new friends the goal might be to just laugh together, but not do anything too challenging. If you are long time friends, the goal might be to bond in a new way and try something daring. If you are a Game of Thrones fan the goal might be to try to the new Game of Thrones game. This will help you with the next questions of how many people and what kinds of games. So decide, what’s the goal:
- To laugh as much as possible
- To get out of our comfort zones
- To get to know people better and bond
- To learn something new
Being totally honest I have had some game night fails. Here are my mistakes so you can learn from them:
- Too Many People: It is actually harder to play games in a big group. People get impatient. It’s hard to find good games. There aren’t always enough places to sit.
- Not the Right Space: Most games require a circular seating pattern or big table and chairs. Game nights in public coffee shops can be too loud. Game night where there aren’t enough chairs or a big enough table can be hard to get comfortable.
- Not the Right Group: I think most people can get going with a game night. However, they often need some warning (see #4), some warm-up (see #6) and they need to fit your goal. The biggest game night mistakes I have made were inviting a bunch of people who knew each other and one or two people who didn’t. This made the new people feel left out and the old friends feel like they couldn’t be as wild and crazy as they would have liked.
So, before getting too far think about these 3 questions:
How many people can comfortably fit in your space?
How many people can play the games you want to play?
What kind of group do you want to have?
The best part is choosing the game. I wrote up a huge list of my favorite games broken down by category right here:
However, if I HAD to pick my 3 favorite games for each of the above it would be this:
- Codenames: This game is THE BEST. I love it for strategy and creativity. It’s really fun to play with new or old friends and never gets old.
- Bowl of Nouns: This is a solid game and very easy to set-up and travel with. I also like it because it moves really quickly.
- Cranium: Great for lots of skill sets and super easy to do with teams or a big group.
[Tweet “My favorite game of all time is ___”]
Wow, that was harder than I thought. It was like trying to pick a favorite pet or something.
Ok, you have picked the game and you have a good idea of who you want to invite and what you want the set-up to be. Now, you have to do some people prep work.
This is the step that is most often missed – but it is essential!!
Introverts/ambiverts (like me), recovering awkward people (like me) and control freaks (like me) like to have warm-up time. Especially if you want people to bond or get out of their comfort zone.
A recipe for a bad game night:
1 Challenging Game
Awkwardness / Discomfort
All you need to change this up is a little more alcohol, a few more munchies and a warning for everyone. Before your game night, tell everyone your goal. You do not have to tell them the game (surprises are good) but you do want to share your outcome. This is important for 3 reasons:
- It warns them to get ready
- It gives people an out if they are not into it (you do not want to force people where they do not want to be)
- It primes them to expect the outcome so you create it together
For example, a too vague invite looks like this:
Subject: Game night!
To: BCCed invites
I am having a game night on Saturday! Would love for you to make it if you can. Just RSVP to me by Friday so I can buy enough beer. Feel free to bring dessert.
7pm, Saturday night
Let me tell you, as an ambivert, recovering awkward person, control freak this email STRESSES me out and will eventually stress you out. Here is why this doesn’t work.
- Are you serving dinner? Just dessert? Should I eat or not? If I don’t I will be hungry, if I do I will be stuffed.
- What game? Will I know it? Will I like it?
- Who else is coming? Will it be just me and you—could be weird!
Here is a better email:
Subject: Game night: 7pm Saturday
To: specific listed people as CC
Get ready to get your geek on this Saturday at 7pm at my place! I just got the new Dan Ariely game called Predictably Irrational. And I am dying to play it with my fellow science nerds (if you haven’t figured it out already, that’s you!)
I’m making chili so feel free to bring dessert or anything else you might like.
Eating will begin at 7pm
Game Science will commence at 8pm
Sobriety will end at 9pm
*You are welcome to crash if you need
I try to be as specific as possible and will even go as far as to warn people NOT to come if we are playing a game that will be particularly daring. For example, when we play Cards Against Humanity I will say in the email, “We are playing a highly inappropriate game. If you get offended easily you might want to skip and wait until next time.”
Drinkies & Munchies
Solid food and drink are essential—almost as much as soft seating and good lighting. Be sure to have what I call “mindless eating aids.” Yes, game night is the one time you want people’s blood sugar running high. I put out tons of bowls of jelly beans, pretzels, Hershey’s kisses, cookies and grapes. People love to graze especially if you have a long night.
I highly recommend doing potluck or feeding people. Eating together is part of the fun—plus your game night will run at least 3 hours so you want people to be well fed before they drive home if they have been drinking.
Alcohol is not essential, but can add a fun element. If you don’t do alcohol, try for something festive like hot apple cider, hot cocoa or milkshakes.
As the host, you should know and take control of timing of the night. The worst is game nights that get started too late or drag on too long.
- Start Time: I recommend having drinks and food first to get people warmed up and then diving into games about 45 minutes in. If you wait too much longer people will regret showing up on time or get antsy.
- Break Time: I like having clear breaks between games / segments. This gives people a chance to go to the bathroom, refill and get snacks. It also gives people a chance to leave if they need to get home—this is totally ok and not a sign that your game night is bad. It actually makes you a generous host.
- End Time: I typically like to say “Last game!” before we play a later game. This way it lets people know what’s coming and saves you the awkward moment where its dragging on and you want people to go home.
Full Disclosure: If you are a spontaneous type or want to play it by ear and see where the night takes you GO FOR IT! You are braver than I ;).
I hope this post doesn’t take the fun out of game night, but if you are like me you like to have lists and insight before doing things (I think it’s part of my personality matrix!). Here are a few things I always keep in mind:
- Back-Ups: It’s nice to have a back-up game. Sometimes games just don’t work. Maybe it’s the game, maybe it’s the group, maybe it’s the timing. If this happens—no worries. I usually have a really basic game as backup. Typically Charades and / or Taboo are really easy ones everyone knows or can hop on board with.
- Play Yourself: Sometimes hosts get so into hosting that they don’t enjoy the game. The more fun YOU have the more fun your guests will have! Let loose and don’t feel like you have to play host all night. This is also why I like eating first so you can get it out of the way.
- Wrap Up With Suggestions: At the end of the night I always like to ask people what they liked and didn’t. I also always ask for game suggestions. This way you can keep improving for next time.
I go to or host game nights constantly and I have to say they are one of the highlights of my weekends. And a few of my favorite game night photos from Instagram: