Thursday, February 01, 2007

Game Clubs

A game club is a somewhat odd social institution. You gather together with like-minded people every week or every few weeks ... and you game. Certainly, other social interaction is possible. Perhaps you might sit around and chat before a game or after, but if the club is big enough you're likely to play with an ever changing group of people every week, and so it can take months or even years to start really knowing people, and in the meantime ... you game.

My own game club is the weekly board game night most kindly offered by the folks at EndGame in Oakland, California. Every Wednesday night their beautiful mezannine is available for gaming from six-something in the evening to when the host decides he's had enough and wants to go home--which is sometime well after I leave at 10 or 10.30.

I've been going there for a bit more than two years now, and in the process I've come to know quite a few of the regulars, but I still only have contact with a scant few of them outside of the club. And in that time I've also seen people just mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again. It underlines the sort of disconnected social atmosphere that a game club can generate. Because you don't have a deeper connection with many of the people, and because you don't really know them outside the club, when they're gone they're gone forever.

Did they move? Did they get married? Did they get bored with games?

I dunno.

The other thing that I've learned about game clubs over the years is that they create their own social rules and suffer from their own social issues.

What Game to Play

Uniquely the biggest problem faced at any game club seems to be the what-game-to-play game. Unless someone very specifically has a game they want to push (and sometimes even then), a group of players waiting to play a game almost always seems to degenerate into a confused mob. And, if you have 7 or 9 players standing around--enough to generate two different games--the problem is even worse.

The first rule of game club that I learned was "Two people are a consensus." If one person says that he'd like to play a game, that isn't enough, but if two do, slap that darned game down on the table and everyone else will shortly follow. And for god's sake, if you've got 7+ people, don't try to coordinate both new games at once. As soon as you've got your quorum of two, get that first game down, and let the rest of the group gel into the "have"s and the "have not"s, and then let the have nots be responsible for finding their own game.

Sure, the two-is-quorum ideal doesn't always work. It's possible that no one else will want to gravitate to your game, but it's better than another five minutes of not being sure.

Who to Play with

Another frequent problem at any game club is that inevitably almost every player will have some other players that they don't like to play with. For me, it's slow players. I don't have fun if I'm sitting, waiting. On one of my first times at EndGame I got involved in a game of Titan: The Arena, which had beforehand been a game that I'd played every week or two with my roleplaying group. Sadly this game of Titan was one of the worst gaming experiences of my life. It was a two-hour game where almost every player constantly angsted over every play. "This is supposed to be a quick play, don't think too much," I said a few times, hopelessly.

I know other folks who don't like loud players or young players or players who take their gaming too seriously. I can deal with all those fine--especially if they play fast--but for other folks those particular characteristics can ruin a game for them as much as slow play can ruin it for me.

Unfortunately game clubs make it really, really hard to avoid someone who's playing style (or personality) doesn't match with your own. If four people show up, and you're one of them, you're likely to start a game with the other three--or else wait around even longer for a new game to start. Eventually it's something you try and accept; you can play with more complementary people whenever you can, but when you can't you have to learn to enjoy it too.

When to Help

I sometimes take too much responsibility for what's going on with other folks. For a while I was aware of certain players who didn't like other players, and when helping to arbitrate what games got started up, I tried to craft games in such a way that people wouldn't end up playing with the people they didn't like. That was definitely too much heartache, and I've since given it up. People can be responsible for their own happiness.

However I do try and be aware of whether I'm going to strand someone when I end my night of gaming. I usually leave around 10.30, and that's an hour or more earlier than some other folks do, so when I start a final game at 9.30 or so, I try and offer a warning that it's going to be my last game--especially if I'm playing with someone else that I know leaves at about that same time. It can sometimes result in even weirder juggling of who plays what in that last hour, but I figure it's just good manners.

Final Thoughts

When I called one of the first issues that arises at any game club the "what-game-to-play game" I was being precise in my terminology. It's often amazing how many moving parts there are in any medium-scale social interaction. But, once you learn the rules, it becomes that much easier to play.

Good game clubbing!


Anonymous said...

My friend Tom Kiehl has designed a game called "I Don't Know, What Do You Want To Play"? that addresses the question of what game to play next. Players each have a set of cards, which correspond to games that are available to be played (he's currently working on an application to make a deck based on your BGG collection). You take turns going around the table, and on your turn, you discard a card, representing a game you don't wish to play. If someone else discards a game you do want to play, you can pick that card up from the discard pile.

At some point, everyone will be down to one card each, and each player can either discard the card or put it in the "play pile". Cards in the play pile are shuffled, and one is chosen, representing the game that will be played. It's very simple and quick but remarkably effective at helping indecisive people like me choose which game it is that they're most interested in playing.

The card generator is something he's still developing, but it will be at his website, eventually, here:

As to your other thoughts about the somewhat odd social dynamics of a game group, I agree with you; I think the ideal situation is to have a group of friends that you can get together with to play games. But if your friends don't like to game, a game group can be a sort of social compact by which you mutually agree to give each other the chance to play games. The hope is, of course, that you'll end up becoming friendly, at some level or other, with the people in your group, at least well enough to enjoy their company on a regular basis.


Smatt said...

Great commentary, Shannon. Certainly true at our Missoula Game Nights. Fifteen to twenty minutes is not unheard of in our club while waiting for a consensus or even just a single opinion.

What bugs me is this really great guy who really wants everyone to play the same game. It's crazy. Seven people to me does not necessarily shout out Shadows Over Camelot or Bohnanza (though I enjoy both of those games in the right mood). Usually, I rally for two or more games to accommodate different playing styles. Anyone else have a "I'm a uniter, not a divider" type in their clubs?

By the way, Shannon, after reading your article in Knucklebones, I bought Coloretto. This is a total crowd pleaser. I've played this now with over a dozen people (both gamers and occasional gamers), and everyone has liked it - no exceptions. I find it to be the perfect game to wrap up game night - like dessert to a meal. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Anonymous said...

Nice little article! I find that a lot of these problems don't arise for us. I don't know if we would be considered a "club", though, precisely. We host a game night at our house once a month, and run 2-3 tables. Some people are always jazzed about particular games, maybe something they've brought, and other people are not too discriminating with respect to games - so things always get going quickly. One thing we do is have a lot of two player games available. This is nice, because people can break up into even smaller groups if they choose. I think your "2 is a quorum" is pretty key, and I guess we've sort of informally operated on that basis all along.

I'm with you on the slowwwwwwwww gamers, though. Carcassonne should not take two hours. Please shoot me now.

Aaron_ said...

I actually think that the "what game do we play" gets more common as a club ages.. With an infrequent or young club players are more likely to have strong opinions about games they want to play, while a regular club that has four or five long-term members begins to break down into "whatever you want to play"

Anonymous said...

Helmut (whom you know) has a system for "what shall we play?" -- it works best when you only have enough for one game. Everyone gets pen and paper. Everyone nominates one game (or perhaps two). Then everyone rates the games nominated on a scale of 1-5. (Important note: rates, not ranks. You can give multiple games the same number.) Total the scores for all the games, and the one that scores best is the one that gets played.

GollyGumDrops said...

I'd like to join a gaming club, but I'm a little stuck. There's a couple of issues for me:

Can girls play? Most gaming groups seem to be either exclusively male or pretty darned close. A woman joinging seems to be scary for them, either because 'girls don't play games' or 'my wife won't let me out if there's women there'. What's that all about?. I guess it's the same with age - will I stand out as an oldie? Or even a youth?

I don't know all the games, will I slow people down. OK, OK, I'm proving the girl thing, but I've played a lot of games, I've played Europe Engulfed, Arkham Horror, Railroad Tycoon, Tigris etc etc, but not, say, Puerto Rico, but I can pick it up as I go along.

What are the gaming club protocols? Are there any?

Shannon Appelcline said...

Women are definitely in the vast minority at our gaming club, but I've never seen any guys that were afraid of them, and if their wives won't let them out if there are women present, that's their problem, not yours.

And don't worry *at all* about not knowing the games. Practically every game I play at EndGame begins with a rule teach. It's a very rare game (maybe 1 in 10) where everyone sits down and already knows the rules.