There is something I find deeply satisfying about playing board games with friends in a bar. The blend of people, noise, and drinks feels right. I enjoy this atmosphere so much I host two regular tabletop game meetups at breweries. The community forming around these events is amazing. Everyone is welcoming, willing to teach and learn new games, and understands the most important component of any game is the player. Fostering such a community takes work. I want to help spread this congeniality by providing my advice on how to start public tabletop meetups.
You are going to be the ambassador for your meetup and the hobby as a whole. People need to want to play games with you. Have a warm attitude towards everyone. Embrace the diversity of people who want to play games and have taken time out of their day to do that with you. A huge part of this is being good at teaching games. Practice that skill. Your rules explanations need to be concise and engaging. Shut Up and Sit Down did a great primer on this. Gamers unfamiliar with your group or games must feel welcome from the moment they enter. Those first impressions are vital to keep people coming back.
This idea of returning players, of regulars, is critical to your gaming meetup. Critical to this is location. Consider several factors when selecting a place:
- How big are the tables? This limits the games you can play.
- How many people can fit in the space? If you need the place to be empty for your gaming group to fit, that is not sustainable.
- What are the food and beverage options? If people can eat, they care less about the starting and ending times.
- How easy is it to get to the venue? No one wants to carry a box of games on multiple buses or spend half an hour looking for parking. This goes double for you.
- What is the atmosphere? Are you going to be louder and more annoying than the existing clientele of a café or will you be drowned out by the cheers of a sports bar?
- Who can access the venue? Can people under 21 enter? Is there wheelchair access?
Answering these questions should narrow down your search. With a few places in mind, you can contact the establishments. Always get support of the manager when setting up a regular event. This lets you ask about other recurring events and plan accordingly. Ideally, your meetup is mutually beneficial to the business: they reserve space for you and you bring customers in what would otherwise be empty seats. The implication is your game night happens on an off-night (ours are Wednesday and Sunday). Try to find an enthusiastic venue partner that sees value in your event so you can get on their calendars and social media.
As the location is being settled, decide on the timing and frequency. I am a huge advocate for biweekly or monthly events. If you want something every week, great, that is your prerogative. However, you need to make most of your events (especially in the beginning); so this may be too much of a commitment. Relatedly, you need regulars. A weekly event can be seen as something to be brushed off in favor of the moment. They will think “I can always go next week.” An event happening once a month will get people in every time. I want to maximize guests so I can introduce that many more people to tabletop gaming.
By this point, you have probably already solidified in your mind what type of gaming experiences you want people to have at your event. Feature the games you want to feature. RPGs, social deduction, and heavy euros all have their places. What cannot be limited is the experience level of players. No matter how complicated the night’s games are, you must be willing to teach them every single time. Do not demand player familiarity. Do not keep people out of this hobby. If you simply want to play with your friends, do not make it a public event.
Considering you are the figurehead for your event, you must present a consistent attitude for others to follow. A message of inclusivity stems from your example into your regulars. To help codify this behavior, take the time to write a code of conduct. Here is the one I use for CPG events and our gaming meetups. Such a document is not physically present at the event, but everyone who is listed as an authority for the event must know and agree to it. Your community needs contingency plan if something bad happens. Here are some takeaways from drafting our code of conduct:
- Run the document by people the document is intended to help and protect. Have new gamers, people from marginalized groups, your friends who will host games, and the venue manager you are coordinating with look at this and know what to expect from you.
- Address the disconnect between game and reality, realize newer players have trouble with that line, and do not place the burden of separation on them.
- Have a content safety mechanism for RPG or story game nights. Realize content safety is not a substitute for empathy and just avoid obvious subjects.
Once you have a clear vision and a space, market your game night. Find the social media avenue that works for you (I use Facebook events, which makes it easy for the bars to add to their calendars). Invite a bunch of people. Make sure to stack the deck and get your experienced gaming friends to come so they can host games too, letting you float around and welcome people throughout the start of the event.
All of this can be a lot of work. I went to five venues before settling on Hellbent for our story game night. I have led twenty-five of the twenty-eight Ravenna game nights over the last year. It is mentally demanding to keep your energy high during several hours of gaming, lest anyone get bored. But, it is worth it. I authentically have fun every time I yell about not being a werewolf, every time we save the world from disease, and every time someone discovers a new game they love.
Side note: If you are one of the people who comes to my game nights, thank you. Sometimes people offer to buy me beers, which is unnecessary both because I do this for the love and because the bar always comps my tab. I wouldn’t say no to a coffee (Ko-Fi) though….