“Hello, do you have a few moments to talk about Through the Ages? Have you felt like something is missing in your life? Do you feel a void where you should feel happiness? Then sit down, and let me talk to you about board games, and why you should play them with us.”
If you’ve ever found yourself saying that to one of your non-gamer friends, then you’re probably doing it wrong. I know, I know. You have plenty of friends who don’t play games, won’t touch ’em, won’t get near ’em, and they seem to think that when you sit down to play a game of Cosmic Encounter that you’re actually dressing up like warlocks and wizards in the basement. It sucks to have friends that aren’t into gaming, but it is possible to convert them. While some people will never take on to games, I’ve found that more people than not are actually quite receptive to modern games, and all they need are a foot in the door.
However, just like missionaries don’t get a lot of conversion going door-to-door, neither will you open your friends up to this hobby if you don’t do it with some tact. The following steps will help you to reach out to your non-gamer friends, and in no time at all, they’ll be one of us (step 0: avoid sounding like a cult).
Step 1 – Play Lots of Games
The first step is easy, and fortunately for you, you’re probably already doing it! If you want to get your friends to join you in your game nights, the first step is to simply play lots of games.
When you frequently play board games, it’s likely that your friends are going to hear about it, assuming they’re ever trying to get a hold of you. Game nights can be long, so it’s very likely that you’ve already been “busy” several times with game night in place of some other plans. In my experience, it’s not easy to hide it when you’re playing games all the time, and your friends are probably aware that you love to play them.
This is good, because if they really are your friend, they will most likely question at some point or another why you like to play games so much. Even if they don’t think they’re into it, you can’t help but wonder what draws people to their hobbies, and sometimes this line of thinking will cause your friend to investigate. They might warm up to the idea of playing board games before you even approach them if they’re aware of how much you’re into it!
Long story short, the first step of helping your friends to get into board games is simply letting them know that you play board games.
Step 2 – Cool It With the Board Game Jargon
Let’s get something straight–most tabletop gamers identify their “brand” of board games as something different than how the rest of the world sees it. For most people, when you talk about “board games,” your non-gamer friends are going to be thinking of the good ol’ stuff you find on Target’s shelves–Clue, Monopoly, Risk, you name it. Most gamers would classify these games as something separate from modern designer games. Some might say “casual games,” others might say “mass market games,” and others still will say “bad games,” which is a great way, by the way, to turn people off from wanting to learn more.
The reason I mention this is because it’s really easy to get caught up in tabletop lingo, so much so to the point where it makes tabletop gaming look like some kind of deeper hobby. “But…tabletop gaming IS a deep hobby.” Yes, I know. It is. The world of tabletop gaming is full and rich, and is absolutely a huge hobby unto its own, through which you can go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, but your gamer friends don’t need to know that. When something appears to be anything more than just a simple pastime, it creates a mental barrier of entry. Even if that perception is wrong, people are more naturally inclined to reject something if it has an implied level of commitment that’s required to keep up with it.
So, what’s the answer? Call your board games “board games,” and find ways to compare them, not contrast them, to familiar games. Make your friends feel like the world of board gaming is just an unfamiliar extension of what they already know; making connections to what they already know will help them to bridge the mental gap between the mass market games they’re familiar with, and the more complicated modern designer games.
Take Cosmic Encounter, for example. While this may be ludicrous blasphemy to some reading this, you might describe Cosmic Encounter to a non-gamer like this: “It’s kind of like Risk in space mixed with Poker; you’re trying to conquer your enemies like in Risk, but an important part of the game is reading people and outwitting them, like in Poker.” While there’s quite a bit more to Cosmic than that, it creates something that your friend can relate to. This is much better than saying, “Yeah, we have this game called Cosmic Encounter, it’s a hand management game with alliances and bluffing mechanics; it’s got some, but not too much take that mechanics, and also has variable player powers.” If you never want your casual friend near your Cosmic Encounter game again, that might be a good approach. Otherwise, go with something more similar to the former.
Step 3 – Lure Them Into Game Night
Why is it necessary to use a hook, line, and sinker when you’re going fishing? Oh yeah, because jumping in head first and trying to catch a fish with your hands is a pretty terrible idea, and you don’t have to be a genius to recognize that. Converting your friends to board games is like fishing for people. You can’t just throw board games at them and expect them to bite; you have to bring them in slowly, and you have to give them a reason to want to play with you. The easiest way to do this is to “dress up” your board game night in such a way that makes it enticing for them. I’m not saying you need to deceive them, I’m saying that there are plenty of ways to play games without referring to it as a “board game night,” and playing your cards that way might help to open the door up for your friends. Here are some ways that you can make the prospect of “game night” more appealing to someone:
Call It Anything But a Game Night
Saying, “hey, we have this board game called Ticket to Ride that’s pretty fun, wanna try playing it tonight?” will probably be a lot more effective than saying “hey, we’re having a game night tonight, want to come?”
This is similar to point #2 above, where you want to avoid making it look like some kind of commitment. Instead, present it as a nice little diversion. There are other options too–you can make “game night” part of a bigger night with more plans. For example, what if you’re not having a board game night, but rather a double date? What if you casually plan to go get some food together as couples, see a movie, and then come home to finish the night off with a game?
How about having a “get together” and then slyly busting out some nice light casual games? It’s easier for people to play board games when they don’t feel like they’re being pulled into them. A lot of people who “accidentally” find themselves playing games end up getting into them in the long run. Don’t make game night the focus of the evening–let it creep up on them, and it’ll do the rest of the work itself.
Appeal To Their Interests
People might be more inclined to try out certain games than you’d think. We live in a wonderful time where there’s an unprecedented amount of excellent games that reach every small little niche. If you want to be more likely to pull someone into game night, find a game that might appeal to their interests.
Do they like video games? There’s an easy transition. Explain to them that board games are more and more like video games these days, only with the added benefit of social interaction that you can get from the tabletop. Go with a more Americanized game that has video game-esque mechanics.
What about theme? Licenses are a huge one here. Got a huge Star Wars fan? Well, there’s no shortage of incredible Star Wars games out right now. What about The Walking Dead? Dead of Winter could be a treat to them. If you observe the things that your non-gamer friends are into, chances are you’ll probably be able to find some kind of board game that aligns with it.
Okay, don’t LITERALLY bribe them. A real bribe wouldn’t cause lasting change in someone’s love (or lack thereof) for board games. Paying someone cash or any other type of bribe to play with you not only comes off as desperate, but it doesn’t require that they actually enjoy the game.
There are, however, more…subtle bribes. Like pizza. Honestly, who’s going to turn down some delicious pizza when it’s being offered to them for free? I consistently amaze myself with the out-of-character things I’ll do to get in on some free pizza when it’s around. You’ll want to avoid giving people something as a prize for playing with you, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t indirectly do that. This is great if you have friends that are on the fence. If they’re almost over the line, bust out some delicious food to seal the deal.
Basically, you can help get someone into a game if you provide some sort of incentive. Again, this should never be directly correlated with their participation (as in, we’re giving you X so that you’ll play this game with us), but it can be served as an enticing side dish. Basically, if you ask someone if they want to play and they say no, and then ask again saying “but we have piiiiiiizzzaaaaa…” then you might get a more positive result the second time around. It’s not really a bribe, but I mean, it kind of is.
Step 4 – Choose a Gateway Game
Alright, so you’ve got your future-board-game-lover friend sitting with you at the table, and it’s time to play. You know what to do, right? It’s time to pull out Eclipse, right? WRONG. Your first game of choice (unless it’s a game specifically chosen to cater to a certain interest, like in our Star Wars example) should always be a gateway game.
The “gateway game” is a term that’s probably familiar to most tabletop gamers, and it refers to a game that bridges the gap between mass market games and modern designer games. Gateway games are relatively easy to learn, but rich in strategic depth. They don’t take too long to play, but they play long enough to feel satisfying. They’ll most likely have some luck, but not as much as something like Monopoly. In other words, gateway games are the best of both worlds. Some of these games are so good, in fact, that many gamers continue to play them long after getting into the hobby.
The most famous gateway game of all time is The Settlers of Catan. I, and many many others, can trace their boardgame bloodline back to this granddaddy of modern designer games. Catan has been around for 21 years now, though it didn’t start getting into the public eye until almost a decade into its existence. Despite that, Catan was one of the first eurogames to be introduced to Americans, and it did its fair share of work in Europe as well. The popularity of Catan was one of the first falling stones in the landslide of modern designer games that would eventually follow, leading to the wonderful board game renaissance that we’re experiencing now in 2016. The amazing thing about Catan is that it’s still going strong. In other words, if you want a good gateway game, it’s hard to go wrong with Catan.
There are other gateway games out there, though. Plenty of them! Dixit, Mysterium, 7 Wonders, Small World, King of Tokyo, Camel Up, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic are among some of the popular gateway these days. Every game has something to offer–how lucky many gamers are today to have so many good games to jump into! Whetever you choose to play, you’ll want it to be something that’s engaging enough to pique their interest, but tame enough as to not scare them away. Choosing from these gateway games is a good place to start. Alternatively, you can search online for good ideas.
5 – Teach Them How to Play and Don’t Blow It
There’s a reason that “don’t blow it” is included in this point. It’s one thing to teach a game, but it’s entirely another to teach it well. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, a bad teaching session can, and often does, deter people from ever wanting to play again. The new players’ learning session is like a trailer to a movie; it’s like the first book in a trilogy; it’s like the pilot of a new TV show–if they have a bad experience the first time, they will be unlikely to return.
Of course, it doesn’t do much good to simply say “teach well,” so lucky for you, we’ve already got a good resource! If you’re struggling with the way you teach board games, check out our 10 Teaching Tips to Improve the Way You Explain Board Games.
When you’re playing with an inexperienced gamer, teaching well is especially important because they don’t have the context of other designer games to compare their experience to. If they’ve only ever learned Monopoly, and then they end up incredibly confused because you teach like a putz, what do you think they’ll think of modern board games going forward? It’s absolutely imperative that the teaching experience goes well. Oh, and that brings us to our next point…
Step 6 – Go Out Of Your Way To Make Their First Game a Great Experience
Or in other words, “Step 6 – It’s not about winning.”
The first experience that your non-gamer friends need to have is a good one. This means that you need to ensure they have a positive experience, no matter what. I can’t quantify what fun means to different people, but you’ll probably have an idea from the people you’re playing with. This doesn’t come down to a specific set of rules as much as it comes down to being perceptive. If your new friend is having a miserable time, then what are you waiting for? Do something about it.
This can manifest itself in many forms, one of which often is the score. The most likely scenario is that you’re going to be better than your new friend at whatever game you’re playing, if not just because of their lack of experience. If they start getting upset at the score, then tone it down. If they don’t care, and want you to beat them into the ground, then by golly, keep doing what you’re doing. If they’re hungry, consider bringing in some snacks. If they’re bored out of their minds because there’s that one player who takes three and a half years to finish a turn, kindly smack that guy upside the head to help remind him that the guests are none too impressed.
Keep in mind you don’t want to go too overboard with this, because excessively spoiling new players can lead to problems when you inevitably reach the point where you should stop spoonfeeding them so much. I’m not suggesting you outright throw your games, or bend over to their whims, but it’s important to remember that, ultimately, their experience should come first. If they like the game enough to return for a second time, you can slowly ease into normalcy until they’re ready to take the same kind of beating that everyone else can.
Step 7 – Take Note of What They Did and Didn’t Like
Your first game with your non-gamer friends might not be a hit. In fact, it could be a horrible flop! Regardless of whether your night was terrible or sublime, it’s important to take notes of what your friends did and didn’t like about the experience. This is important, because you might want to play a different game for the next session if the current one didn’t resonate very well. Maybe they’re avid Risk players, and were put off by the lack of conflict in Catan. Solution? Find a more aggressive game! Perhaps they appreciated Catan, but felt like there was a little too much luck and that it ran too long. Maybe 7 Wonders is right up their alley! Pay attention to what grabs them and what doesn’t, because if you can present them with something the next time that lines up perfectly with their tastes, you might just have yourself a new gaming buddy.
This is also true for elements outside of the game itself. For example, if your players liked the game but their experience was dampened by the player who consistently takes 20 minute turns, perhaps you need to have a chat with that player, or show him some tips on battling analysis paralysis.
Naturally, this also applies to the other end of the spectrum. Did they absolutely fall in love with Ticket to Ride? Then stick with it! If your group meshed together really well, maybe try getting the same players over the next time. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Just make sure that you cut out the bad parts of their experience, and repeat the good parts.
Step 8 – Stick With One Game For a While
First of all, this step is assuming that you’ve already found a game that your friends enjoy. If you get your non-gamer friends to your next board game night and they end up hating the game, use the miraculous powers of common sense and find a new one.
Okay, so you’ve found a game that your new friends enjoy. Stick with it. With almost every game, experienced gamer or not, you’ll see things that you never saw your first time on subsequent playthroughs. Honestly, this tends to happen during the first game itself, where players start to recognize what they could have done had they understood the game better just a few turns ago. There is a sense of accomplishment from applying lessons learned by experience, and you don’t want to rob your new tabletop buddies of this.
For example, I played Kemet last night with a friend who hasn’t played so much as Catan. As a side note, I would normally start him off with a lighter game, but he joined in on a pre-planned game night, and I made it clear that the game would be much more complicated than anything he was used to–because he was going in with the right expectations, the complicated nature of the game wasn’t a deal-breaker (this is something to keep in mind; complex games are okay, but you need to make sure that new players are well aware before-hand).
Anyway, it took him a while to grasp the strategy of the game. For a good portion of the game, he had the Scorpion and the Phoenix hanging out with two five person troops (in non-Kemet vernacular, this means that he had a terrifying army at his disposal that would give your finest troops nightmares). However, those armies just sat there, in his city, for most of the game! In Kemet, this is very bad, because it’s a game that rewards you heavily for being aggressive. Even though, at numerous points, we made it clear that he could easily change the game if he put those guys into action, he didn’t end up doing it late in the game, as he kept getting distracted by other actions, and he was just trying to figure things out.
Anyway, he did use those armies in the last turn, to great effect. He still ended up losing by a sizable margin, but he’s a cool guy and enjoyed the experience. More importantly, he learned a lot about how he should have played that game. I’ve already gotten texts from him today expressing that he’s eager for a rematch, and why wouldn’t he be?
So, how lame would it be if I switched up the game next time? Pretty lame, that’s how much. I have a friend, who’s never played a designer game in his life, who jumped right into a relatively complex one, and is now eager to play again–to help foster his excitement, it would be a wise move to bring Kemet back to the table, and see how he evolves. By getting used to one game, he’ll be able to learn how fun games can be when optimal strategy is being put into practice.
Step 9 – Add Expansions (Optional)
You don’t HAVE to do this step, but it’s a great way to introduce your players to a little more depth. Expansions allow for a game to become slightly different from what it was before, but they’re not hard to learn because they’re stacked onto an established foundation. Expansions are a way to teach players a new game without actually teaching them a new game. Although learning new games is commonplace for experienced gamers, it can be an arduous task for someone who’s not used to playing modern games. Adding expansions gets them used to learning new concepts, and also makes them easy to explore due to being on familiar ground.
Expansions are also a great way to show off the versatility of modern board games. If you’re playing with somebody who’s only used to the likes of Monopoly and Clue, an expansion can be a pretty cool concept! It’s nice knowing that, if you find a game you really like to play, you can stick with it an extend its longevity by buying add-ons as opposed to entirely new games. In my experience, expansions can be instrumental in helping non-gamers to see just how fulfilling modern board games can be.
Catan: Cities and Knights was the game-changer for Greg, a friend of mine. Greg had been a friend of the family for years, and never joined in when we played Catan. Eventually, he finally decided to take the plunge, and he found that he enjoyed the experience. Not only that, but we all found out that Greg is a pretty good player! Catan lasted for a while, but we eventually introduced Cities and Knights, which is my favorite Catan expansion (and most everyone else’s, according to the poll on our front page), as it adds a perfect amount of depth to Catan while retaining the general spirit of the game.
Greg took a liking to Cities and Knights, so much so that we all collectively scoff now at the notion of playing vanilla Catan. Little did Greg know that that was just the beginning. We now enjoy regular games of Castles of Burgundy, Libertalia, and Eclipse, and he’s already taken a liking to Kemet! Greg is now as much of a gamer as the rest of us, and it’s been great having someone new to share my games with.
Step 10: Introduce a New Game
If you’ve introduced a new friend to the tabletop and you’ve managed to get this far, then you’ve done it! Odds are, if they stuck with you for this long, they’re on the path of becoming a bona-fide tabletop gamer.
The last step as a journey into new horizons. Having graduated from the academy of their first gateway game, it’s time for your new friend to greet the future and embrace new experiences–it’s time to play a new game.
There’s not much to say about this point. Pull out something new! See if they enjoy it! If you’ve gotten them to fall in love with one game, you can probably do it again. Of course, this is dependent on your group; maybe you only want to play one game. Hey, that’s fine, whatever works. Whatever the case may be, you’ve got yourself a new tabletop buddy, and you can start testing the waters with fresh new experiences. They might be ready to try out new genres, new mechanics, or new themes. There’s only one way to find out!
Hopefully, by following these steps, you’ll be able to recruit some of your friends into enjoying the wonderful world of board games with you. Ultimately, do what you feel is best, because honestly, this doesn’t have to be a big deal. It’s not like tabletop gaming is some elite club, or that you have to “convert” your friends into a “tabletop gamer.” Maybe you just want that old buddy of yours to play games with you from time to time. Whatever you end up calling it, I hope that these tips will be able to help bring more people into your game nights. Good luck!