Matt Steele

How to Run a Board Game Library At Your Conference After-Party

28 Aug 2016

We just wrapped up another sold-out NEJS CONF. It was pretty great, and we learned a lot our second year around.

One of the changes we made this year was to offer board games at the conference after-party, rather than just setting attendees loose with dinner and drinks.

I thought it worked pretty well, but I haven't seen many other tech conferences run with this concept. Here's how we set it up, what we learned along the way, and how you can incorporate games into your conference.

tl;dr:

  • Collect games from your friends' libraries
  • Take some simple precautions to make sure nothing gets lost
  • If you've got the budget, raffle off a couple games at the end of the night

Why board games?

Because they're catalysts for a memorable after-party:

Games facilitate new connections among attendees - We encouraged attendees to interact with out speakers and conference organizers, and games work marvelously for this. A first-time conference attendee might worry they'll run out of things to talk to an experienced speaker about, but they'll probably be more comfortable playing a game of Codenames with them, and it'll likely be more memorable.

It's an accessible alternative to a boozefest - Lots of conferences market their evening events as an opportunity to blow off steam. This often translates to: we have an open bar, so get shitfaced on our dime. These can be fun, but they exclude entire sections of attendees if that's the only entertainment you offer. Amanda Harlin reminded us of this at our own conference last year, and we took it to heart.

It's cheap and easy to organize - Looking over the other budget line items for the after-party, this was dirt-cheap to setup. Compared to renting the venue, and organizing food, bar, and decorations, providing board games is a rounding error on both your money and time.

Collecting the game library

If you're a board gamer, you might have a personal library you can use to see the board game table. If so, great! But if you're like me and mooch off your buddies' collections, you'll probably need to ask others to borrow their games for the evening.

Talk to your friends and ask if they've got a set of board games they'd be willing to lend out. Given the rising popularity of board gaming, you probably have a few friends with the hobby.

If any of them are planning to attend the conference, even better! We offered to discount donors' admission as a way of saying thanks.

Good kinds of games

You want to get games that meet a few criteria:

  • Short - preferably under an hour to setup and play.
  • Easy to learn - Folks don't want to pour through manuals, they want to be unboxing and playing in a few minutes.
  • Easy to play - Hardcore strategy games like Power Grid are tons of fun, but probably overkill for most attendees at this point in the day.

We also grabbed a few train-based games, to match our conference's theme (the venue was an old railroad station).

Here's some games that fit this criterion (and got played a lot):

  • Dominion - A fun deck-builder that'll scratch the itch of the ex-Magic: The Gathering players that sneak into your conference.
  • Wits & Wagers - A trivia game where you can win even if you don't know any answers? Sold.
  • Pandemic - Cooperative games are particularly great at generating tables of cheers and high-fives.
  • Concept - A great word association game. Another nice feature: folks can join at any time and don't have to wait for a new table to start up.

Here's the complete list of games we collected for NEJS CONF, if you're curious.

Keep them safe

Since you'll likely be consolidating a collection worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, folks will want to know that it's in good hands. And bad things can happen, unfortunately. A few things you want to have a plan for:

  • Make an inventory - We used a Google Spreadsheet to keep track of people's games. I made the spreadsheet a few days before and shared it with the game donors, and then re-inventoried all the games during the conference.
  • Have a plan for duplicate games - There were a few games the library had multiple copies of. Make a note of these, and mark them appropriately. Ask the owners if there are any expansions, sleeved cards, or other identifiable markings in the box.
  • Return games at end of the night - Donors want their games back sooner rather than later, and you don't want to keep a boatload of games in your car, anyhow.

Games Ambassadors

Geekway To The West

Geekway To The West

You'll want to recruit a Game Ambassador or two - these are volunteers who facilitate play among non-gamers. We recruited the folks who donated their personal library to be Ambassadors during the after-party. You can also ask for volunteers at your friendly local gaming store.

This is the secret sauce to running a successful game table. Most attendees won't be gamers, and don't want to read through pages of rules when they could be socializing. Having a Game Ambassador around to help run a table removes this risk, and helps introduce more games to more people.

We probably doubled the number of tables playing board games as a result of our Ambassadors floating around, checking out games, and teaching them.

Giveaways

We worked with Spielbound, our friendly local board game cafe, to purchase a dozen board games, and we raffled them off at the end of the night. This was the most expensive part of the event, and ran about $300.

You'll want to announce the raffle rules ahead of time, and have answers to common questions. For example: Who's eligible for the raffle? Do you get to choose your game or is it first-come-first-serve? Do you have to be present for the raffle to win?

Be aware of gaps in the drawing. For example, we told folks if they attended the after-party, you were registered. We reused a sign in sheet to get drink tickets from the bar, but quickly realized that not everyone was drinking, so our list was incomplete. So, 10 minutes before the raffle, we had to scramble and hand out raffle tickets from table to table. It wasn't pretty.

For the raffle drawing/winners yourself, you can announce them via the PA, or in Twitter/Slack.

(One option: We kept the games in shrinkwrap during the after-party, but you could also use them as part of your games library. This is similar to the Play and Win feature popularized by other conferences like Geekway. We ended up not doing this, as we had enough library games that it wasn't worth the extra hassle to set it up.

Best conference ever? Breaking out the boardgames at #nejsconf with new pals! @NEJS #fridaynightnerdnight

A photo posted by @drlieber on

Then, run the event

At this point, running the library is pretty straightforward. A few other bits to consider:

  • Shelving - Putting games on tables is lame and you'll run into a mess fast. Get some actual shelves, and put your games on 'em. I picked up these at Lowe's for $30.
  • Check in/out - If someone wanted a game, we just took their conference namebadge and put it in a box. When they returned the game they got it back. Simple.

Other than that, the event pretty much runs itself. You might have to wait a while for the last table to finish up their games before you can pack up, but otherwise it's easy as pie.

Happy gaming!