Harvey O’Brien runs a regular boardgames night in his house every week, he’s a founding member of the South Dublin BoardGamers, he knows a thing or two about games and he has a beard. I’ve had the pleasure of joining him and his guys for games some time back and they’ve now become regulars at the various Knavecons (which is really just a big games night with lots more people). I caught up with Harvey to ask him a little bit about running a games night and what it’s all about.
- Harvey you run a regular games night. Why’s that then?
Because I enjoy it. It’s fun to meet up with people that enjoy modern gaming and play whatever hits the table. It’s sociable, it’s relaxing, and it’s good for the brain. It’s also generally just good craic. We play a couple of times a week in SDBG. When we started playing as a group, it was just three of us. We played in our homes (and still do), so we’d just rotate hosting week by week. Sometimes it was also simply practical to go from house to house, if someone had a particular game they wanted to play, they’d put it on the table at home before the others arrived, get all set up, etc. As time went by and more people began to join us, it was simplest to keep the three primary venues as a kind of focus. It also meant there was no pressure on anyone else to be a host, particularly when some of our members were in rented accommodation or had housemates or whatever. It also gave the group a solid centre: you’d know that something would happen in one of the three venues at least once a week, and you could just come along and play. Tea and biscuits provided. No crisps… 😉 As time went by, we added more nights, and more types of nights, ranging from what we’d call an ‘open night’ where there’s no fixed game or numbers, just whatever people feel like and whatever accommodated the numbers, to a ‘closed’ night where you had a specific game with a specific number of players required, and then we’d have the ‘epic’ nights where we’d meet on a Friday and play through to the wee hours on Saturday with some big box game like Twilight Imperium or Game of Thrones. These days we still have the three ‘central’ venues, but others do host, particularly those that can only play at the weekend because of family commitments.
- What’s your earliest memories of gaming?
Well, that depends on how you define gaming. Modern gaming is one thing, but of course I played all the regular games as a kid. My childhood was spent mostly in West Clare, and I remember many nights in the dark during ESB black outs playing 45 with my family by candlelight. Seriously. The 70s. Actually I had my first taste of modern games with HeroQuest, which I bought in Easons in the late 80s. I quickly swallowed up that whole MB cycle of ‘new’ games, but it was years more before I came across this game called Carcassone and went online to find out what it was all about, where I discovered BoardGameGeek and my eyes were truly opened… It was about a year after that I think I finally connected with Jimmy and Niall and formed SDBG.
- What’s the essential elements that make a good games night?
Everyone needs to feel welcome and comfortable. We are in our homes, so it’s like welcoming any other guest. It’s obvious, but everyone is there to have fun. Yes, your definition fun varies depending on personality, but that’s part of the balance of hosting. You have to take into account who’s coming and what kind of games or game systems they enjoy, and it’s often a question of bringing out a mix of games that will suit the group. It can be tricky, but we all have a good enough range of games that we can generally find something that works. Depending on numbers, you might break into a few separate games and then swap around, or run some party games like werewolf or Shadow Hunters to get everyone playing together. Sometimes people will want to play old favourites, sometimes they’ll be hungry for shiny new stuff. You’ll generally know from the people coming what games might not be suitable at all, or which might be a stretch but might work. It’s good to throw a bit of a challenge in there sometimes, but you don’t want to put anyone in a position of being bored or frustrated. You get a sense of people’s tastes early on, and quite honestly, you’ll know very quickly whether they’re a fit for the kinds of things the group plays in general. That’s also part of the trick with running a games group anyway – personality – and again once you start with a known centre, you work out from there and generally will get a group going that plays well together.
- Is there an optimum number of gamers for a games night?
Again, it depends on what kind of night you’re planning. If you’re doing an open call, you could end up with ten or twelve people, or with two. On the other hand if you want to play a game that is ‘best’ with a given number, like Battlestar Galactica for five or Dungeon Lords for four, then you have to either make sure there’s enough players to make up another full game or lock down your numbers. It also can depend on physical space, and not all of us have the same amount of room. Some games are table-eating monsters. Conquest of the Empire is one, which we do actually play from time to time (an old favourite), or Railroad Tycoon, which I think is officially the largest map. War of the Rings: CE is a beast as well. Again though, it very much depends on what you’re doing. Jimmy has an awesome wargame set up in a separate room, with proper terrain and painted metal miniatures, and there are regular wargamer sessions running Napoleonic scenarios for two or four players. I guess it’s a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, really.
- What do you love about hosting games nights?
Again, we’re all there for the same reason. You get to play the games you’ve bought, or games you want to play that someone else has brought, and you know that the people you’re playing with are going to treat the gaming in the same spirit you are. It’s not like playing video games online, which is sociable in its own way. Before I got into this, I was playing World of Warcraft. While I made some actual friends there, and I’m still in touch with them, and it was sociable, it’s still not the same as a bunch of folks sitting around the table sharing a laugh over a gag that you had to be there for…
- What games do your group have a soft spot for?
We are pretty inclined towards shiny and new, and with several fairly voracious collectors among us, there’s a steady supply. We do a BGG geek list every month with our own ‘most played’ and ‘most epic’ game of the month. Splendor has been very hot for the last six months or so. But some games have never been far from the tables, like Game of Thrones, Eclipse, Mage Knight, Ankh-Morpork, Chaos in the Old World, Dungeon Lords, Lancaster, or Mare Nostrum. We’re in the middle of a Twilight Struggle league right now, actually. I guess if there’s a game we have a certain affection for it’d be Twilight Imperium, the old grand dame that doesn’t get played that often, but has generated some great stories over the years. And of course there’s Heroscape, the greatest toybox in modern gaming, which comes out every Christmas for an epic child-friendly and later adult all-night session. Likewise Arkham Horror gets a spin around Halloween and/or Gaelcon. Also, different people are into different particular games, and would play them away in a closed session, like block wargames, or even a little RPG action. We’ve made a few stabs at campaign play in things like Pathfinder the card game and Imperial Assault. But I guess all that comes under ‘shiny’, right?
- How do you recruit members for your group?
We’re on a couple of web sites and groups. Our main site is currently hosted by Big Tent, which is a US based group hosting service. We attend the cons with our little signs letting people know what we’re about. We get traffic via BGG and word of mouth: friends of members, families, etc. We have a process for acceptance, which is only fair given the fact we’re in family homes, not public venues, so we like to invite people along to an initial game and see how we all get on. This is that personality fit thing I mentioned. It’s very rare that someone is actually turned away, but again, you know pretty quickly when you meet us if you’re going to enjoy gaming with us, so it’s a mutual thing.
- If someone wanted to start a regular gaming group what would you recommend?
Consistency is the key. You need to meet regularly, and so have at least a core group of people that you are certain will be around. Jimmy, Niall, and I have been doing this for about eight years now, and in all that time at least one of us has hosted something almost every week. I think it’s important that your members know that kind of stability is there. Now, life is life, and we’ve had to cope with various family logistics over time, and we have members that are very keen to invite people to their homes as well, and that’s absolutely great. But equally we have some members that we see only very occasionally, and they’re welcome every time. We only ask that you stay in touch, and respond to the annual clean-up email if you’re still interested at all. Again, the point is we have that centre to organise that, and you build a group on that, and then build layers of craic around it. Like I said, people should feel welcome and comfortable, and when the ground is solid, it’s a lot easier to feel that way. You have to be a good host, and though you have ground rules (no crisps!!!! ;)), you need to be able to respond to the different members’ preferences and needs, while also having fun yourself. The bottom line is, as I said, we’re all gamers, and we all want to enjoy ourselves. That should never come at anyone’s expense, so being sensitive is part of it. So is having the piss taken out if you, of course. We’ve all been there. I roll ones, by the way, and there’s a zone of chaos around me where probability ceases to obey the laws. Ask me sometime about the game of Relic where everyone at the table was both astonished and in fits of laughter. Look: the bottom line is if you want to build a gaming group, you’re going to want to make it so people will want to keep coming back and more people will come. Be organised but open, welcoming but attentive, and above all PLAY! Like yourself at Knavecon, Vic, you have to get away from the desk and hit the tables, right?
Dr. Harvey O’Brien
Dr. Harvey O’Brien