When you’re fortunate enough to have kin or kindred spirits you’ll see over the holiday, it’s budget-friendly and usually fun to get the gang together for a game night.
When you’re a beginner at playing host, though, you may want to brush up on strategy, beyond what you’ll need to win Risk, Code Game or Uno.
The word game Bananagrams hosts a blog, and its top game night tip was to keep expectations realistic. “While TV ads and movie moments portray an image of all smiles and perfect Pinterest snacks, game night is often accompanied by frustration, tears, and tantrums; nobody likes to lose,” it cautioned.
Still, this type of gathering is the ultimate chance to “create a fun silly experience together,” Bananagrams added. “It’s a time to connect face to face, unplug from electronics, and make memories.”
If you host one game night during the holidays, you may also be able to create an annual tradition. And if such an event succeeds during Christmas vacation, everyone might be more willing to play more often the rest of the year.
To better your odds of hosting a gathering that’s more like the Hasbro ads and less like an evening spent herding cats, follow these suggestions from Bananagrams, Good Housekeeping, HGTV and other family fun experts:
Pick the games ahead of time
Note that this is not the time to teach everyone the intricacies of a role-playing game that takes hours or to play something where many of the players are eliminated right off the bat.
Choose something age-appropriate
If you’ve been hearing about hilarious games like Cards Against Humanity or Quiplash, bear in mind they can get salty, even raunchy, pretty quickly. To be family-friendly, select from games that won’t bore older folks but won’t scar the psyches of the younger set. If you don’t have any all-ages options, consider dividing into different groups based on competition styles and playing ability.
Consider staggered start times
When some of the folks gathering are devotees of a single more complicated game, like Settlers of Catan or the card game Spades, you have two options. Either gather them together earlier for a few rounds without the others or plan to have them stay after the less-interested party-goers have left or stopped playing.
Anticipate how many players you’ll host. According to HGTV, “Simple word games, board games and card games are great for small groups. For groups of more than six, avoid games with individual written responses or lots of moving pieces. Interactive team games like charades or an electronic trivia game are great crowd-pleasers.”
Expecting a big crowd for game night? After extensive testing by real families, Good Housekeeping recommended Spontuneous for four to 10 players. It’s a song game that requires zero musical ability. Players take turns saying a word and others compete to respond with a song that includes it.
For groups of three to six players, Anomia could suit. It’s a “board games we love” selection from the New York Times Wirecutter blog, which described it as one of the games “that are so quick, with such engaging energy, that if you play them too late at night, your neighbors might end up filing a noise complaint....it’s a simple word- and pattern-recognition game. Yet in practice it develops dramatic tension as cards are flipped, symbols are revealed, and players race to come up with an answer before someone else does.”
Wirecutter also gives Anomia extra points because the rounds can take 30 minutes or less, “and there are almost 100 cards that can come up.”
Plan around caregivers
The whole game can bog down if one of the players is pulling double duty as a caregiver for a tiny child. Work around that, not by making everyone wait, but by pairing the parent with another player if a game involves strategy where one team’s member’s absence makes a difference. Or, play a bigger team game so it won’t matter and the more serious players won’t get frustrated.
Access up to date options
The classics have their place, especially if the winter holidays are the one time of year uncles or grandparents get in on board game night fun. But don’t get stuck in the rut of considering Monopoly and Sorry! (alias “Not At All Sorry”) as the ultimate selections if they’re not universally beloved by the group — or if they’ll make holiday revelers relive long-ago family rivalries.
One more recent release is also a Good Housekeeping recommendation: Double Ditto, which appeals to players old enough to read and write quickly. Participants respond to cards they pick and then try to guess which other participants are in sync with them. It’s designed for kids as young as eight, but seems to especially hit the mark with tweens and teens.
Get a preview of anything you plan to play
“If you are introducing a new game to your family, read the rules in advance and make sure there is no additional set up required for the first time,” Bananagrams added. “This way you are able to engage the family immediately. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to read the rules and have an impatient four-year-old (or 40 year old) lose interest before you can even get the game going.”
If any adults you’ve invited would respond well, circulate the rules for your top picks via email and suggest folks read them. You’ll have more time for playing and less time taken up with explaining that way.
Unplug for the evening
Bananagrams advised that cell phones be restricted during play and the television off. If that’s a problem for some players, make sure to have a separate space for digital interactions so they don’t distract.
Designate a director and/or scorekeeper
Especially if you immediately become boisterous and distracted when your family and friends congregate, consider assigning one person per round of a game to keep things moving and keep score, instead of engaging in play. Rotate the duties.
For younger kids, be a bit flexible
“Game night should not be about teaching discipline,” Bananagrams emphasized. “Approach it with the goal of having a fun time together. Not all game rules HAVE to be followed. Read your audience, Sometimes practicing a game for 10 minutes and coming back to it a week later is better than powering through the hour you set aside for game night at the expense of fun.”
Offer comfy seating
“For board games, line the coffee table with floor cushions,” HGTV added. “For larger group games, move furniture into a semi-circle so everyone can have a seat and enjoy the fun. "
Bring out the sippy cups and koozies
While you don’t want to take this hosting job too seriously, you will want to avoid spills or sticky fingers that can slow the entertainment or destroy the boards or pieces.
Serve simple stuff
Avoid smudges on the board by opting for snacks that aren’t greasy or sauce-laden. Finger sandwiches are one good idea, or kabobs. Since as the host you will still want to play games, also serve foods you don’t have to mess around with once game night commences.
Set up side games
It takes the sting out of being eliminated from a game that will last a while if some sort of consolation round is available, particularly one that moves quickly and can be stopped at any point. One good option is Twister, the spinner-plastic floor mat hilarious contortion challenge for ages 6 and up. Consider the ultimate version, with a roomier mat and optional compatibility with Alexa.