catan cake

6 Ways to Improve Your Board Game Night

In All, Blog, Lists by Zach Hillegas2 Comments

Note: Credit for above photo goes to Jennie Ivins, click here for the original source.

Board games are fun. I like them. You like them. They’re a good time. Well, at least, most of the time they are. Chances are, if you’re reading this article or browsing this site, you’ve had great experiences in the past playing board games with friends, family, or otherwise, but you know that sometimes it just doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like it to.

Maybe somebody got really confused over the rules. Maybe that guy got really hungry and decided to leave in the middle of the game for a food run. Maybe that other guy is taking three years to take every turn and now everybody’s on their phones. There are a million and a half more reasons why a board game night can go astray, and it’s never fun when it does.

Fortunately, not all is lost! There are things you can do to improve board game night, get-togethers, wizard parties, or whatever you want to call your game night. Sometimes, the things that hurt game night the most are the easiest to prevent. If you’ve been struggling to maintain good morale among your gaming group, maybe these five tips can help.

Get some snacks
catan cake

Protip: Make adorable snacks like this to keep your players FOREVER. (Credit: Jennie Ivins; click here for original)

So, board games are long. At least, a lot of them are. And I don’t know about you, but that “two hour game” is, more often than not, a “four hour game,” and this can really become a problem when you’re not prepared for it. While it may seem like a no-brainer, having some snacks to munch on during your game always helps to make things better. Well, wait, no. Food doesn’t always make things better. Food is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but if you’re going to bring food, make sure it’s the right food.

See, food and board games don’t always play well together. Your board games are delicate creations, made of wood and cardboard and cards and pieces. You’ll want to make sure, then, that the scary grease monster doesn’t attack your pieces, or that the dreaded soda typhoon doesn’t overtake your cardboard. If you decide to bring snacks to the table, try to focus on things that don’t pose an immediate threat to the game you’re focused on playing. This is especially important if it’s not your game. I hear Dark Helmet is hiring for the position of “Major Asshole,” and if you bring messy foods to somebody else’s table without notice, you might be perfect for the position.

I just mentioned grease, which in my mind is the biggest offender. There’s nothing like going to work, and coming home to your friends playing one of your brand new games with a big yummy bucket of fried chicken. While everyone has their own feelings about how well they want to preserve their games, it’s generally good practice to not bring any kind of food that will make a mess of your fingers. So, instead of busting out that fried chicken, Cheetos, or your favorite wings, maybe you should opt for something more conservative, like fruits/vegetables, or candy.

Also, as far as food goes, be smart about it. That’s really all that needs to be said. Everyone likes themselves a good swig of soda, but if you’re going to be drinking that (or anything else), keep it off the table. The vast majority of modern games are made with cardboard components, and liquids, to cardboard, are the consummate devil. Even a few drops can seep deep inside, and peel the cardboard apart like it’s nothing, and then you’ll get to enjoy playing with some deformed, warped piece for the rest of time.

Snacks are great. Get them! Enjoy them! But be smart about it. Do these things, and everyone will be a little happier.

Set up beforehand

Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat.

Okay, so I know that certain games supposedly don’t take that long to set up, but how many times have you found where this is simply not true? In theory, most games can be set up in five to fifteen minutes, but I know that most of the time (read: every time) in my group, that setup time takes eons longer than it should. If you’ve got a bunch of people yearnin’ to play, this is a problem, and if you’re not smart about it, lengthy setup times can permanently turn people off from tabletop gaming. After all, who wants to play a two hour long game and wait an hour for it to be playable?

I am reminded of an experience I had just last week where I was with a few of my friends who aren’t serious gamers. They enjoy games here and there, but they’re not exactly proactive about playing them of their own volition. They told me to bring over 7 Wonders, so I did, and we sat on the floor and shot the breeze while I lazily set the game up. We don’t see each other all the time, so I continually found myself distracted by conversation as I slowly and surely got the game set up. After, I kid you not, an hour (okay, it was at least thirty minutes), the game was finally ready. We played a round, and that was that. They played their one round, they had their fill, and that was the end of “game night.” When one member of the group suggested we play another round, the response was, “ehhh, that took an hour and I have to get to bed soon.”

Anyone who’s played 7 Wonders knows that the games go by quickly. Every time I’ve ever played the game, we’ve played several rounds in one sitting. This was an example of setup time ruining the game. Of course, his “hour long” accusation was ludicrous, as the game itself took twenty minutes to play, but it made me realize that overly long setup time can kill the mood for people, especially if they’re relatively new to gaming.

Organizing your pieces and components will help to expediate your setup time.

Organizing your pieces and components will help to expediate your setup time.

The solution? Be prepared! And be quick. The obvious answer for your own hosted game nights is to set it up beforehand. Pull up a table. Make it look nice, for goodness’ sake. Set up the game, make sure everything is ready. Arrange everyone’s spot and have their stuff ready to go at a moment’s notice. And then, when they start arriving, you can waste as much time as you want, but you’ll be ready to hop in right when the time is right. This goes a LONG WAY into improving game night, so don’t miss this one. Also, if you want to speed up the setup time of your games, there are some organizational tricks that can help you out.

Alternatively, if you’re the one bringing the game to someone else’s pad, try not to let yourself get distracted. Set up the game quickly and promptly, and then allow yourself to ease up. Though most people probably won’t appear to care, people quite often subconsciously link setup time with the length of the overall experience, so make sure that you don’t disappoint.

Know the game and teach it right

“Don’t worry guys, the first rulebook is only thirty pages long. Just let me learn this real quick and we’ll be playing in no time!”

Okay, this one’s just the worst. Do you know the guy that invites you over for this “cool new game,” and then pulls out a sealed copy of Twilight Imperium and says, “don’t worry, it won’t take that long to learn!” Yeah, don’t ever be him. He’s the guy that people hate. If you’re having people over for a game, make sure you know how to play the game. It’s okay if the other players don’t know how to play, because they can be taught, but if you’re having people over and then you decide to make them twiddle their thumbs while you pour over the rulebook for an hour, then you’ve lost your license to host game night. Nobody wants to do that.

Instead, pull out that rulebook beforehand. I’m the go-to “rules guy” for game night, so I’m the one that’s always learning from the rulebook and teaching how to play. For even the simplest games, learning from the book can take two to three times as long as the game itself, and more complex games can take hours. Your guests will respect you and be grateful when you know the game in and out, and you’re ready to teach it clearly and effectively. Get this part right, and you may just have a returning group.

Teaching the game well is also important. It’s true that some people are naturally better teachers than others, and I can’t comment on how well you are at teaching, but there are, at the very least, things not to do. Do not, for example, have two people teach the game. There’s nothing worse than one guy trying to explain the rules, and then another jumping in at every moment to explain some kind of unrelated mechanic. The rules guy is the man with the plan, let him do his (or her) job. If you’re the one that’s being interrupted, just try to communicate that it will be easier if you go it alone; it’s important for the learning process to be cohesive, and not disjointed by multiple voices.

One thing that works well for me when teaching is to constantly ask, “does that make sense?” and to be clear that they should feel free to ask any questions. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to lend your players a hand their first time through. If they’re making a questionable move, ask them if they’d like any strategic pointers. Some players take kindly to this because it helps them understand, while others would rather go it alone and learn from experience. Be open to helping out your players, but don’t blurt it out when it’s unsolicited. Cultivating a learning environment helps to keep the atmosphere friendly, relaxed, and fun.

Teach a game well, and your players will come back for more. Make a mess out of it, and you’ll find yourself alone next session. Hardcore gamers might become frustrated when a game is taken slow and easy and padded with help for the new players, but in my experience, this helps them to foster their own love for the game, and ends up being more than worth it in the end.

Put away your phones

Okay fine, you can use it if your game comes with an app. But otherwise…

People will have different opinions about this, but it’s generally good to come to a common consensus on where you stand on cell phone usage during the game. While you don’t necessarily need to pocket your phone the whole time or create a “phone stack,” make sure that everyone agrees on how much phone usage is acceptable, and at what point it becomes obnoxious.

I personally prefer to put ‘em away during the game, because it helps to encourage social interaction, which is one of the best parts about playing games. If you’re sitting in a group of people gazing into a smartphone screen while they’re lazily moving pieces around, why don’t you just go play a video game? One of the reasons why board games are becoming so popular is that more and more people are yearning for social experiences, detached from the pulls of technology. Board games are a perfect outlet for this, and my games are so much better when everybody is invested.

This is also advantageous, because distracted phone use can detract from the game in other ways. Aside from being robbed of interaction, this can perpetuate analysis paralysis in a bad way. If the group overthinker is taking twenty minutes to take his turn and the next player pulls out his phone to deal with the wait time, guess who now isn’t ready when it’s his turn? The problem can end up feeding itself until it reaches the point where the players are more invested in their distraction than they are the actual game. In rare cases, it can ruin the game altogether.

While it’s up to you and your group, I’ve found that making some kind of “rule” is the best path here. Maybe you shouldn’t check your phone unless it’s urgent, or maybe you should just make a stack of them somewhere so nobody is tempted. Whatever you do, just make sure everyone agrees. Your friends won’t always be around, but your Facebook messages will. Enjoy the moment.

Get on the same page



Catan: The great destroyer of friendships for people who can’t agree on stuff

So, this is sort of similar to the phone thing, but in a more general sense. While I felt like phone usage was important enough to merit its own point, there are still plenty of other areas of etiquette that the group should agree on. It doesn’t matter what you decide, but make sure everyone’s on the same page. This applies to general etiquette, house rules, language, whatever.

An example would be my group’s “mistake” rule. Because I often play with newer players, a lot of mistakes are made, and rules forgotten. We have a rule where players can redeem one “mistake” (within reason) if they overlooked something. An example would be forgetting to collect a resource in Catan when a certain number is rolled. If a player realizes their error within a sensible timeframe, they can use their “mistake” to collect, but after that, no more freebies for them. If we didn’t have a defined, agreed-upon rule for this, it would be a pain in the butt to deal with every time.

Maybe you have the “YOU TOOK YOUR FINGER OFF OF IT” rule. Maybe you have little ones walking around that you don’t want hearing bad language. Maybe you have a turn clock. Whatever it is that you decide, just make sure that it’s in everyone’s best interest. Small quibbles with the rules, coupled with disagreements and over-competitive players, and ruin game night for anybody involved. Don’t let that happen, let your group agree on things that are important, and agree to disagree when they aren’t.

Don’t be a control freak
twilight imperium

I know you REALLY want to play this, but forcing it on your friends when they want to play Dixit might not end well…

This is also somewhat similar to the above point, but this comes down more to letting the group decide the flow of game night. Look, I understand. You just bought that new copy of Forbidden Stars and you’re dying to try it. Your group comes over, everyone’s had a long day, they see that cute little panda on Takenoko’s box giving those big ol’ puppy dog panda eyes, and now they all want to play Takenoko instead. You can either say, “no, this is MY game night,” and play through a five hour game of Forbidden Stars, or you can concede, tell yourself that there will be another day, and play Takenoko with the group.

The point here is that board games are meant to be fun, and exerting your control over your game group can often make that experience less than fun. If the group wants the night to go a certain way, then let the group go that way. This, of course, is a burden that’s on everybody. If, for example, you just despise Takenoko, then the group should also be sensitive enough to not drag you through it. In that case, it would probably be best to compromise with something in between. Whatever happens, the most important thing is that everyone is having fun. Having a good game night is give and take, and it’s more fun when everybody is having fun, even if it’s not necessarily the game you wanted to play.

This brings me back to a few months ago, where my cousin who now lives in France came to visit us. He’s an avid gamer, and has a taste for elegant eurogames. He took a look at Castles of Burgundy and expressed his desire to play it. I, however, had just gotten my hands on Eclipse, and I was just dying to play it some more. While I gave him the choice of what he wanted to play, I was clearly more invested in the idea of playing Eclipse. Sensing this, he chose Eclipse. He ended up disliking the aesthetics, and feeling like the game was too convoluted for its own good. The game stretched on for far too long, the experience was not very satisfying.

The thing is, I knew that he wanted to play Castles, but I let my own desires get in the way and it soured our night. I would have been just fine playing Castles, and it would have been great. Don’t be me. I like to think I’ve repented since then, but don’t do what I did. Compromise, give some, take some, and if everybody does this, game night should be just peachy.

So there you have it. What, in your opinion, makes a good night? Do you agree or do you think we’re full of it? Sound out your opinions in the comments!

About the Author

Zach Hillegas

Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, spending time with his lovely wife, or writing about video game stuff for Insert Gamer. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his (long neglected) gallery here, or follow him on Instagram at @artworkbyzach!


  1. Hi Zach,

    All excellent suggestions, especially if you have a somewhat formal gathering. Ours is very informal, so many of these items we thankfully don’t have to worry about.

  2. I liked that you stressed that board games are meant to be fun and taking them to seriously can lessen that fun. My family enjoys playing board games together but we can get a little intense about some of them. It does seem like a good idea for us to remember to have fun. That way, we can all get along and not get into fights over a game.

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