If you're as obsessive about face-to-face board-gaming as I am, then the prospect of buying a new game, examining the bits and rules, and dissecting the central mechanisms and not having anyone to play it with is some kind of torture. In part to alleviate this potential for suffering, for the past nine years I have organized a weekly game group in Long Island, NY. The group currently has over 20 regulars, including The Games Cafe columnists Herb Levy, Al Newman, Kevin Maroney, and me. We meet weekly to evaluate new games for review in Herb's Gamers Alliance Reports as well as to play old favorites. Participating in a weekly game group is a great way to get your gaming "fix" and to be among friends for pure escapist fun. Getting that group together, however, requires far more effort than meets the eye. It is an on-going process that requires constant nurturing.
Group Focus and Scheduling
Forming a group necessitates formulating a focus that will guide all future activities. In the case of our group, that focus is evaluating new game releases for review in a publication. We try to plow through the rules of at least two new games at each session and play each new release at least three times (with a variety of gamers) before Herb Levy makes his review assignments. We gravitate toward European family strategy games (and American ones when appropriate). We tend to avoid war games, role-playing games, and collectible card games.
Where and when to hold your sessions is another consideration. If the nucleus of your group consists of friends, then having them rotate hosting assignments works well. If the group is going to be composed essentially of strangers (at least initially), then a public place like a bookstore or game shop, hotel, restaurant, school, house of worship, or library meeting room could serve the purpose just as well. Several groups I'm in contact with have started at the Borders Books chain by contacting the Community Events director for the local store. Establishing a regular three- to five-hour interval for play establishes continuity. In our case, we meet Fridays from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. We find that a five-hour session allows us to mix one long game, one medium game, and several fillers—enough variety to keep everybody happy.
Recruitment, the Most Important Process
Six or seven years ago it was a chore to round up four to six players for biweekly sessions. If one group member had a strong negative opinion about a particular title, it just didn't get played. After learning how to actively recruit members we now average a dozen players at two to three tables each week, and everyone still gets an active voice in what we play.
Ongoing recruitment is normally required because players move, change schedules or lifestyles, or simply lose interest. Even your core players can only be counted on to attend two or three sessions per month. You therefore need a roster of available players that is two or three times the average number of players you desire. Prior to the Internet, recruitment was limited to the old-fashioned methods of posting flyers on bulletin boards (especially at universities), running advertisements in local newspapers and game magazines, and word of mouth. Playing games in public places can often draw interest from passers-by. I met Al Newman at a defensive driving course. He noticed some German game brochures hidden behind my driving manual. Hey, you never know! Game conventions like the national Origins and Gencon as well as local ones can prove fertile recruiting grounds if you network well. Become friends with your local game storeowner and his employees.
We've also encouraged our 10- to 14-year-old children to play with us. The kids spend the early and late parts of each game night mixed with the adults on shorter games, but spend the central time playing their favorites at their own table. We're especially proud of the new generation of gamers that we're molding. The kids are each allowed to invite one classmate per week. It's very refreshing to see the video/computer gaming set enjoying old-fashioned low-tech board games.
The Internet has, however, changed all the rules for recruitment. We've found the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.board to be a valuable resource. Periodically posting announcements that you're looking for gamers in your area will usually net results. Make sure your post has a suitable subject line like "looking for gamers on Long Island." You can play r.g.b. detective, scanning posts for signature lines in your geographic area. I found Kevin Maroney this way, as his "Games are my Entire Waking Life" signature line included his telephone area code. So far, everyone we've reached out to via e-mail from r.g.b. has been an absolute delight when we finally met in person. Occasional posts to r.g.b. that make reference to your game group and its location can attract private e-mails. Dave Rapp noticed one such post I made, struck up an e-mail discussion, and brought two gaming friends with him. When someone from another part of the country announces on r.g.b. that they're moving to the New York area or will be visiting on business or vacation, I usually reach out and invite them to join in a gaming session. The buzz created by having visitors from other parts of the country and from overseas has had a ripple effect. In the past year we've had visiting players from Germany, Denmark, and California.
|Left to right; Al Newman, K-ban, Brian Miller, Tara Tobias Moritzen and Martin playing El Grande. Tobias and Martin were visiting from Flensburg, Germany. They had challenged any New Yorkers to a game of Settlers of Catan upon their arrival for a two-week vacation. This was their second session with our group. Tobias is now the web-master at the Die Siedler site for Kosmos.|
If you buy or sell games on on-line auction sites like E-bay, pay attention to the seller's location and make private contact. Several gamers I've traded with on rec.games.board.marketplace have become group members, and in the case of Jason Levine, have referred friends to our group as well.
Maintaining a group from week to week requires effort as well. The group leader should establish an e-mail distribution list. Weekly invitations are then e-mailed to the group, requesting replies two days in advance of the session. This allows table-leaders to prepare for a particular number of players and helps govern what games will be brought to the session. Reporting on previous week's results and new game arrivals helps create and sustain interest among members. On holiday weekends we try to schedule whole day events, usually on a Saturday afternoon to evening and include a meal break.
Several board-game bulletin boards and associations maintain web-based databases of gamers sorted by geography and interests. A good place to start is http://www.accessdenied.net/. I invite The Games Journal readers to respond with additional helpful suggestions to the Table Talk section so we can all benefit.
- Steve Kurzban