The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Groundrules for Gaming

Jay Schindler

September, 2002

As the faculty advisor for a university gaming club, the Gamers Inner Circle at Oregon State University, I see new members show up regularly. The beginning of each academic year and, to a lesser extent, the beginning of Winter and Spring quarters brings new faces and new personalities to our group. While we do try to provide a quick orientation to how our group functions, most new attendees have come to play games and are not interested in the gaming club's procedures or protocols.

Gaming clubs are like many other social groups: they have a variety of members within an agreed structure (albeit a loose one), similar interests and goals associated with gaming, shared or distributed tasks that help keep gaming activities successful, and group norms on what is acceptable behavior for members of the group. However, many gaming groups have unstated—implicit—norms that are only learned or passed on haphazardly.

Group members often learn about an implicit norm when it has been violated. Groups rarely discuss such rules. However, offending members soon sense that an implicit norm has been violated.   

Engleberg & Wynn, Working in Groups

Our group has worked to make the implicit norms of our gaming club explicit—through the use of a simple set of groundrules. We've created a one-page handout about our group's basic desires and expectations of all group members. Our club president distributes this to all members at the beginning of each academic year, and to all new members as they join us. It gets only a bit of discussion, but the ideas do tend to permeate club members' behaviors well.

I have listed the Gamers Inner Circle Groundrules below, and encourage you to consider creating a similar document for your own group to review, endorse, and follow. Remember that the following groundrules are based upon our group's norms—I do not expect the set to fit your group. Consider them as just an example to discuss before you make modifications and generate groundrules for your own group.

After I drafted these ideas for our club, I presented them to the membership. We discussed them, made a few modifications, and then approved them. It has become one way to help keep our gaming sessions enjoyable and to help new members understand what we consider courteous and appropriate behavior.

Groundrules for Gaming

1. Are We Having Fun Yet? Everyone comes to our meetings to have fun. We try to create the greatest amount of fun for the greatest number of people. Do your best to enhance your own enjoyment, but also keep in mind your fellow players. What can you do to make it fun for them? Remember that being courteous, helping others feel comfortable and welcome, and assisting others wherever possible can be a real reason why players keep coming back for more.

2. Timing is Everything! We try to follow this schedule so everyone gets a good mix of gaming:

6:30 - 7:00 PM Quick, easy games to get warmed up while people show up. Please quit by 7:00!
7:00 - 7:15 PM Games Cavalcade time!-We describe games & match all players to a game.
7:15 - 11:30 PM Play games, spontaneously start new games after ending other games.
11:30 - Midnight End Game: We try to end with a game all can play together. Then we clean up!

3. Handle with Care! Some games cost over $80, and can lose play value if only one or two game bits become lost. Since many of the games we play are brought by their owners to share with fellow players, please treat the game board and components with care and respect. Also, after a game has ended, help the owner put game components away and check the area for stray game bits. These behaviors encourage players to bring their personal games back again to share with others.

4. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!...but food or drink can damage a game. Low fat, low moisture foods like pretzels are game-friendly. Pizza or other game-unfriendly foods should be kept away from gaming areas. Drinks in spill-proof containers can be reassuring to game owners and other players. Respect the wishes of the game owner regarding food and drink near personal games. If in doubt about the game owner's preferences, ask.

5. Master of the Game! Game Masters bring a game to share and play with others. They are expected to explain efficiently the game rules to players new to the game. Some Game Masters even prepare a one-page summary of rules to help explain the game, translate foreign language phrases, and more. If you bring a game, be prepared to explain rules and suggest strategies before or during the game. Players with game experience should be patient and help new players enjoy the game.

6. Table Talk! It's kind to help first time players by pointing out possible turn options and discussing general game strategy. Usually it's acceptable to highlight information clearly visible to all players. However, table talk that provides details about where another player is weak or that suggests strategies to hinder a specific opponent may be seen as unfair or partial. Discuss what is appropriate table talk and agree to keep the game commentary within these boundaries.

7. King Me! When a player or two fall behind in a game, they might focus less on winning the game and more on deciding who—other than themselves—will become the final winner. These "kingmakers," through their favoritism, can change a keen competition into a social contest of who is more obsequious, flattering, or ingratiating. If you're a kingmaker, try to be like King Solomon and help everyone, or help make the game more balanced for all (e.g., reduce the impact of random events on all players so player skill is emphasized).

8. Be a Sport! Many games are structured so there is one winner and one or more losers. Be a gracious winner. Losing can be disheartening, but don't become a grumbler about it. Also, please remember that some games (e.g., Diplomacy) have conspiracy and the potential for betrayal built into them. Don't assume the player's behaviors in a game are a true reflection of the player outside the game. Trying to get revenge because of play in a previous game is not healthy!

9. As We Found It! We are able to use these facilities because of our status as a club and our good reputation. Since others may use the facilities immediately after us, it's important we leave the facilities as we found them. Please return chairs and furniture to original locations, remove all foodstuffs, close windows that were opened, and clean up any remaining litter. Check the area before you leave. If we all pitch in and take responsibility to do this, it will take only a few minutes.

10. We Determine our Future! Our gaming group is successful because many tasks get accomplished by responsible people. If you would like to help us grow and succeed, please consider doing one or more tasks associated with publicity, membership, fundraising, administration, or more. Talk to an officer of our group to learn more about ways you can help.

(I would appreciate hearing from others about these groundrules, especially if they have additional suggestions for making them more complete. There is a gentle balance between being complete and being short, but I find it interesting to see how other gaming groups structure themselves. Feel free to send an email to the author at jayvs2@comcast.net with your feedback and any actual Groundrules Set your group creates.)

- Jay Schindler

(This article originally appeared in Strategist magazine.)

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