Know Your Audience

I was watching one of Bez’s streams this week (please check out her site and channels here), and the guest was another prolific creator I know – Oliver of Tabletop Games Blog. One of the conversations strayed into the expectations that surround a game on the table, and the people around that table. Let’s take a look at the art of identifying and tailoring your games to the people playing with you, and making sure you know your audience.

It might not be a thing that we really think about or talk about too often, but carefully trying to anticipate – and then deliver on – peoples’ expectations are a massive responsibility for a good board game host. It can be very easy to think “I love this game. I’m going to take this game to my group, and we’re going to play it, and it’s going to be awesome“, but there are some major potential pitfalls in doing this. I’m going to share my own experiences and recommendations here, so which groups are you likely to encounter, and what should you be mindful of?

1. Friends who don’t play board games

If you’re a board game fanatic like me, there’s often a part of you that wants everyone to share in the joy and excitement you take from these games. You’ve probably also had the same reaction that I have with some people. Even with lifelong friends, it can be really hard to bridge that divide between someone who loves cardboard, meeples and clever mechanisms (me), and people who have never played a hobby game (my friends). I’ve tried (and failed) to get people to engage with games I’d even consider to be lightweight. A lot of that is based around preconceptions, or a bad experience in their past.

For me, personally, there’s a running joke that I’m going to explain the rules to my friends, and they will ignore me. Then I’ll do it again, and they’ll do talk through it again, and laugh. Rinse and repeat ad nauseum. Now in fairness, sometimes they’ll then engage when I get exasperated, but often it means I’ve lost them. Complicated rules – even if they sound simple to you – are a major turn-off. I’ll be revisiting this in a later post around teaching board games.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you’re definitely not alone. This video by the Aunty Donna crew from Australia sums it up perfectly.

Some suggestions

When we’re allowed to see other humans in the same room again, post-lockdown, and you’re planning a games night with your friends, start simple, and build up. Take a selection of games, but make sure that at least a couple of them are on the very light end of the scale. I’m talking about some games lower than 2.00 weight rating on BGG. It’s very easy to look down on a lightweight game if you spend most of your time playing heavier stuff, but don’t do it.

There are some amazing games that you can play that require minimal rules explanations, simple goals, and intuitive gameplay. I’ve had great success with 6 Nimmt!, The Resistance, Citadels, and Cockroach Poker. Carcassonne is a fantastic example, as it plays really easily, and it’s easy to work on your own thing on the bit of the table you’ve innately claimed. But once the group get the hang of the rules, you start getting questions like “If I claim this road over here, then join it to his road, can I steal his points too?”, and their eyes light up when you explain that you can. It’s moments of understanding like this which open the door to other games. The roars of laughter when a convincing spy reveals their role after a win in The Resistance, or people laughing when you have to pick up a load of bull heads in 6 Nimmt! – that’s when you know you picked the right game.

2. Family

Families can be tricky to play games with, especially if you have a mix of generations playing. If you’re playing with parents or grandparents whose exposure to games is limited to Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Rummy, dial down your expectations accordingly. It’s very hard to offer recommendations here, as nobody knows your family like you do. You know the people who have no patience, or those with a vicious competitive streak. Only you know if being a table-flipping bad loser is in your gene pool.

wookiee fipping a table
Do you know someone likely to unleash their inner Wookiee?

In my own experience I’ve found that older generations are more likely to be engaged with card games. A lifetime of holding playing cards for various games means there’s often an immediate familiarity. That familiarity can be lost when people are faced with a board for something like Praga Caput Regni, which looks so confusing to a non-gamer, that they’re immediately daunted and disengaged before you’ve begun.

Some more suggestions

There are a ton of great card games out there which offer a sense of familiarity, as opposed to an imposing and confusing board. The Crew would be a quick teach to anyone who’s played a trick-taking game before, and I’d look at games like Love Letter, Condottiere, and I’d even go as far as Dominion if you get on with those. Mysterium and Dixit are also both excellent games that encourage talking, interpretation and engagement above the table.

Abstract and Dexterity games are another couple of types of games which easily cross generational boundaries, especially with children. The Azul games, for example, are so tactile and easy to learn. My experience of kids playing Azul (Summer Pavilion in my house) is that they’ll fixate on completing a pattern, or trying to collect all of their favourite colour. Dexterity games are almost always a hit with kids. Don’t be afraid to break out the Jenga (or Men At Work if you want something a bit more interesting), PitchCar, Meeple Circus, Rhino Hero (HABA make incredible kids games), or the perennial favourite in my house – Coconuts.

men at work game
The excellent Men At Work game – my son has far steadier hands than me and always wins

People, kids especially, like to make up their own rules and restrictions in games, and you know what – that’s okay. This is one of the most important things in my opinion, when it comes to playing games with different groups of people:

Let go of your expectations, and what you want, let the players enjoy the game.

Bold, underlined, and big text. That’s how important that bit is to me.

If you’ve got kids who want everyone to make a particular pattern in Azul, what’s the harm? If your other half has very particular ideas about quilts, and wants to house-rule Patchwork so that 1×1 tiles have to fill gaps in the middle first, go with it. Remember the two main reasons you’re playing with them in the first place. 1) You want everyone to have fun playing games with you, and 2) you want them to play again another time. There’s a time and a place for being strict on the rules, and it’s not always here. Usually, it’s in this next group.

3. Your regular games group

Heck, you know this lot by now. Bring out whatever works well, whatever people want to play. Run a poll, draw straws, have fun. The idea of having a regular group is that you can play all of these games without the concessions you might make in the examples above. There is an exception to this though…

4. Your regular games group – but there’s someone new

If someone new turns up to your group, try your best to make that person/people feel welcome. It can be a really daunting thing, to step into a room for the first time and be faced with a group of people you’ve never met. Some people face real anxiety in situations like this. With any luck they’ll have talked to you via email or some kind of chat, so you’ll have a rough understanding of what their level of experience is, and their likes and dislikes.

welcome to game box art
Welcome To… your new games group!

Unless they’ve already told you otherwise, I’d avoid going for anything with a take-that! mechanism. It might be the case that every week you and your crew beat seven shades out of each other in your favourite game, but it doesn’t mean someone else is happy doing that straight away. Even when you’re with people you’ve known all your life, you only need one bad day and it’s easy to feel picked-on or victimised. It’s not a good first impression for someone new. Talk to them, try to grasp their level of experience, and make sure you don’t pick something too daunting.

Get them involved

A co-op game is a great idea here, it makes people feel like they’re part of a team, and that new person gets to go home knowing they helped you solve that Pandemic, or find the killer in Mysterium. If they like Euro games, pick something that matches their level of experience. Finishing the night with a game of Just One is perfect. It’s super-light, co-operative, and usually raises a few good laughs. Whatever happens, your aim here is to make that person feel like they had a fun time with new friends. If it means putting your epic legacy campaign off for a week or two, so be it. There are still a hundred different ways to have fun with your games collection.

In summary

Please bear in mind that this is all based on my own experiences over the years. These are not hard and fast rules, these are things I try to bear in mind whenever I’m going to play games with different people. There are a ton of other situations I can think of, but I think the ones above cover the gamut of the most-likely situations you’ll encounter.

The trick, if you’re as obsessed with games as I am, is to take a breath. Relax, and accept from the outset that in all likelihood, in most of the situations above, you aren’t going to be playing a competitive game of Tawantinsuyu, or Root, or whatever your favourite heavyweight game is. Heck, even medium weight games might be too much for most of them. Just tailor your expectations, use some empathy, and remember that above all else:

If you want someone to play games with you again, do your best to make sure they have a good time.

Thanks for reading folks, hopefully there’s something in there you can take with you and bear in mind in the future. If you have any good hints from your own experience, feel free to comment here or find me on my socials, linked to at the top of the page.

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