Game nights are a fixture of any board gamer’s life; I’ve been planning them for years! In fact, we plan a big Game Night in Nashville every month that draws in up to 80 people. The thing is, it’s not just game nights alone that excite me, it’s the evolution of them. All of my game nights, up to this point, have been pretty normal: a couple friends come over, maybe we grab some food, we play a game or two, and that’s it. I’m talking about more than that. The next level, so to speak.
What makes a good game night?
This is a question we all struggle with. Whether you’re planning a small intimate gathering with a few of your closest friends or you are staging a large scale event, making a game night extremely memorable is challenging. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made tons of memories at game nights that were just ok, but I’m talking about making the whole experence of the night memorable.
A few of the key things that I’ve become much more intentional about are those that allow the mood and tone of the night to match the theme and feeling of the game at hand: things like food, drinks, music, and ambiance. These factors take what would be a normal game night and turn them into something different and unforgettable.
Lately I’ve been addicted to building these experiences. Let me show you how it all began…
Vinhos Deluxe Edition
About eight months ago, I backed Vinhos Deluxe Edition on Kickstarter. If you haven’t already checked it out, give it a look. It is a beautiful game. My regular gaming group all enjoy wine and regularly have it at the table, so when I shared that I had backed a game about making wine and competing in a wine fair, suddenly everyone was excited to grab a few bottles of and make a night out of it.
After 8 long months, a large box filled with a wonderfully thematic euro game landed on my doorstep. Within the week I had learned the rules and was ready to get it to the table. Of course, we all brought some sort of special wine, but that was really the only plan. Once everyone arrived, we decided to go grab some food before we began. I had just tried a new Italian place in the area, so we thought it would be extremely apt to play a game about wine while eating Italian food (We later realized that the game is actually set in portugal… that was a good laugh!). Once we got home and started eating, we realized that our normal music just didn’t fit quite right. We turned on some Bossa Nova music got to work getting our wines ready for the wine fair (in the game of course).
What a great night.
After our Vinhos night, something triggered for me. I really enjoyed the experience and it was extremely memorable. I wanted to do it again, but I didn’t know when or with what game. I didn’t have the foresight to actually plan it, but I knew I wanted it to happen again. Then about a week later, a similar opportunity fell into place.
This second experience was much more low key than the first.
One of my other groups tries to meet every week or so to play through Seafall. If you’re not familiar with the game, it is the third Legacy game from designer Rob Daviau which has 2-5 players exploring the open seas in search for treasure and wonder. Legacy games are really cool concepts. They are campaign based games that allow you to permanently change the board, cards, characters and even the story. Seafall is the most ambitious take on this new genre yet.
On this very game night, we met up to play through the second game (third counting the tutorial) of the campaign. We were eager and excited to find out what would happen next in the unexplored seas! Unlike our Vinhos night, we didn’t have any themed food, but we did have a few of the other pieces to the thematic game night puzzle. I went looking for some thematic music and after searching for Seafall on melodice.org (a website that recomends music to match a specific board game) I stumbled upon the Anno 1701 soundtrack. Perfect.
Once we set the mood with some thematic music, we needed one more thing to set the tone of the evening. What better of a drink could a bunch of pirates and explorers from the Age of Sail partake in than a great bottle of Rum?
We had so much fun that evening. To be fair, we would have had fun with or without the thematic additions, but there was something slightly different about it compared to the first two games of Seafall that we played. Those small adjustments made the difference to make the so much more memorable.
Again, after another thematic gaming experience… I wanted more. Luckily the perfect holiday for a thematic board night was just around the corner.
Mysterium & One Night Ultimate Werewolf
The day was October 31st. Hallows’ Eve, to be exact. Usually I’m not much for the pageantry of Halloween, but this year I was feeling a bit more festive. Halloween usually doesn’t appeal to me, but after hearing Rich Sommer (and Jorge Garcia) talk about Spooky Games for the past few weeks on his podcast (Cardboard!) I had gotten the bug.
I was a bit late to the game, but on Halloween morning I decided to see if I could gather my regular game group for a night of spooky games. Luckily, they were all free! I went into full on planning mode for this one. First I had to figure out what games we’d play.
I’d been itching to give Mysterium a try, and I already knew that it was great, so I ran out and grabbed it from the local bookstore during my lunch. If you’re not familiar, Mysterium is a game where one player plays a ghost who must give clues to the visiting psychics to help them find his killer. This game feels similar to Dixit since the ghost must give large ambiguous art cards in hopes of pointing players to specific suspects, rooms, and murder weapons. I love Dixit already, so I knew that this one would be a hit.
I also remembered that my roommate had a copy of One Night Ultimate Werewolf that we hadn’t had a chance to play yet. Perfect! What a better night than Halloween to give it a shot! One Night Ultimate Werewolf takes the original Ultimate Werewolf game and squeezes it into ten minutes (“one night”). Since it plays so quickly and is so simple, it’s a great game to play when you have anywhere from 3-10 people over and you just want to have some quick fun.
Once I decided on which games we’d play, I wanted to make sure to set the mood well. I found some leftover halloween lights (think christmas lights but orange) and scrounged up a dimmable floor lamp from one of the game group members to set the low light mood. While searching for music for the night, I realized that Mysterium actually has it’s own soundtrack. Perfect!
The last thing I needed to do was plan a special spooky drink. Rich had shared a pretty cool Chthulu based cocktail on his Cardboard and Cocktail (episode 3) segment a few weeks back, but it seemed a tad too involved for our spur of the moment night. I reached out to him on twitter and he gave me some other, more approachable, drinks to look into. We decided on the Corpse Reviver #2 and everyone grabbed a part of the recipe on the way over. Since it was a little late to plan a thematic dinner, I ran to the store to grab some simple snacks (cheez-its, salsa, queso, chips) before everyone arrived.
Our spooky game night was one of my favorite game nights I’ve ever had. The mixture of the dark ambiance, chilling music, and deadly drinks (thematically speaking) was wonderful. I think this might have even been one of my favorite Halloweens as well! Both games were a huge hit with the group and the drinks were quite tasty! It was our first time playing both games, but since I’d thoroughly learned Mysterium ahead of time (thanks SU&SD for the “how to play Mysterium”) and my roommate was already familiar with ONUW, we were able to play them without a hitch. Though, let it be known that Mysterium is not easy! I played the ghost on the medium difficulty which was much more challenging than I expected. We decided to use the suggested rule of only playing one card per player, but we did have to break it a few times. In the end, though, we won! We also ended up playing five games of ONUW which was a blast! Both games really fit the night well.
What have I learned?
This whole “thematic game night” thing has been pretty eye opening for me. I always thought that planning these kinds of events was cheesy, but I’ve begun to see their appeal more and more. Ultimately, putting in a little effort up front to make the experience more engaging can make an average night an extremely memorable one. You don’t have to go out and buy special food, dress up, or make fancy drinks to do this. Honestly, something as simple as playing aptly chosen, thematic music can be enough to draw people in.
I get it, board games are much less likely to put you “in the moment” the same way that movies, music, or video games do. The reality is that it is hard to convince your brain that you are doing anything more than moving pawns around a board. Still, these little things are worth the effort. Not only will your group enjoy the game more, but they will also enjoy each other more. And really, that’s the most important thing to me.
[Author’s Note: Thematic drinks can add to the ambiance and experience of a game night, but are not necessary. If you do drink, please drink responsibly.]
What are some of your favorite game night memories? Do you have any aspects of your nights that really make them memorable? Let us know in the comments below or on twitter!