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How to Host a Virtual Game Night

It’s been a hard few weeks, and you may be experiencing some stress, loneliness, or both. Playing board games with friends and family can be one of the best ways to feel connected and relieve that stress. But many of us are following guidelines for self-isolating and social distancing in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and that means being holed up alone, away from those you’d normally play with. Luckily, as with so many other things in life right now, you can play those games with friends and family online.

Wirecutter editor Tim Barribeau has some great suggestions for digital board gaming in his article on how to be social while social distancing. Here are even more ways to expand on that idea and make an evening of it.

Save the date

Even if time itself has stopped working (“Did I start working from home a week ago or a year ago?”), it doesn’t mean you can’t set a date and send out a digital invite for a game night. It’s comforting to have something fun to look forward to throughout the week, and your friends may appreciate that part just as much as the night itself. Paperless Post has some great designs for a game-night invite, whether you want to go cutesy or retro.

Don’t give up on snacks

You may not be able to set out the party platter for your friends, but you can still make food part of the fun by sharing some fantastic recipes ahead of time. NYT Cooking has a great roasted garlic and white bean dip (subscription required) that’s simple and pantry-friendly, provided you’re not totally tired of beans yet. (Cookbook author David Leibovitz has a very similar recipe that’s paywall-free.) Wirecutter editor Ria Misra also suggests making salsa with canned tomatoes, using a non-recipe approach like this one from Food 52. If you all pick the same recipe, there’s a strange comfort in knowing you’re enjoying the same tastes and smells.

Let the games begin

There are lots of options for playing games online right now. If you’re feeling resourceful, you can google the board games or party games you like and find decent versions of most of them hosted online. Then, set up a Google Hangouts or Zoom chat so you can talk trash—I mean, hang out—while you play.

Desperate times call for really good games—well-written ones with fun prompts that encourage open-ended creativity, with a user interface that can handle big groups. For that, Jackbox Party Games is king. It does require that someone purchase a game (or one of its party packs, which bundle five different games together). But links to the online “room” where the game is played can be sent out for free.

Most Jackbox games involve a main screen that the host will need to share with other players. When you’re playing in real life, this screen can simply be viewed by everyone in the room on a laptop or computer screen, or on a television. Links sent to other players will usually be accessed on their own (mobile) devices. That URL leads them to a page that looks different from the home screen, where they’ll submit their responses to game prompts, select answers, or cast votes.

All of this can be done remotely, if you use the right tools.

To share a Jackbox game’s main screen with your guests, Wirecutter editor Arthur Gies recommends the Discord app. “Discord shares both visuals and audio directly, so the game looks and sounds better and cleaner. But you’ll need to either use an existing Discord server, or create a new one, which is pretty easy, and free.” If getting everyone to download a new app proves challenging, you can also use the screen-sharing feature in popular videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts. We’ve found this works best if each guest uses a laptop or tablet for conferencing, and then uses a second device (usually a smartphone) to submit answers or make selections in the game itself.

Most games allow for up to eight players, but groups larger than that can also work. Spectators can hang out in the room, then switch in and out between rounds. And for many of Jackbox’s most popular games, like Quiplash and Fibbage, audience members can influence outcomes by voting for their favorite responses. For more info or troubleshooting, Jackbox has a blog post as well as an explainer video with helpful details about how to get set up to play remotely.

Brooke Hofer, Jackbox’s marketing director, tells us the site has been getting unusually high traffic in recent weeks. “I think a lot of people are using our games as a tool to help replicate that feeling of community. This weekend, we saw gameplay traffic that was comparable to a Thanksgiving weekend.” This means the site may be a little more laggy than normal. Hofer has a few tips for smoother gameplay: “Turning on extended timers so that players with poorer Internet connection have time to respond to prompts/questions is extremely helpful. We also recommend using wired Internet connections when possible.”

We bought some of Jackbox’s games a few years ago to play with friends on vacation, and Quiplash has been a long-standing favorite. If you’re familiar with games like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity, it’s a similar concept—funny and often irreverent prompts that elicit funny and often irreverent responses. (There is a family-friendly setting for when kids are around, or if your group is easily scandalized.) Players (and audience members) vote for their favorites, and contenders rack up points to win.

We’ve found Tee K.O. to be great fun as well. In this game, players draw pictures and write slogans, and the two are paired up on T-shirts, often to ridiculous effect. In the end, a gallery button pops up, and if you click through you’ll find your T-shirt designs available for purchase. So, yes, you can buy one and tell people that you survived the coronavirus, and all you got was this lousy T-shirt.

Note: Jackbox’s games are discounted on the Steam platform right now—and will be until April 10—so you can get a Party Pack starting from $13 (and up to $30), or a standalone title starting from $5 (the current price for both Fibbage and Quiplash, two of Jackbox’s most popular games). Drawful 2 (a Pictionary-style game) is also free until April 10.

If party-style games just aren’t for you, or you’re working with a smaller crowd, there are plenty of strategy board games that are available for online play and would work great for a virtual game night. One of our favorites is Dominion, a deck-building land-expansion game that’s available online for free. You need only to create a login, and you’re good to go. Catan, the “gateway game” of nerdy strategy titles, also has a free online version. One of our staffers loves playing it on Steam, although the reviews indicate it can be buggy, so it’s not a winner for everybody.

If you’re willing to spend a few dollars, Splendor is both gorgeous and fun, and on sale on the Steam platform for $4 until April 10. The gameplay, in which your goal is to become a master jewel trader, strikes a masterful balance between simple and strategy-rich. So it’s enjoyable for those just starting to dip their toes in the strategy game pool, as well as those who are practically SCUBA-certified.

Now that our kids are old enough to play, we’ve rediscovered Ticket to Ride, the classic board game in which you build train routes criss-crossing North America. It’s available across a range of platforms for $7 to $10 (though it’s currently on sale with Google Play for $4), and it’s especially great for families. Everyone will need to buy the app in order to play, but for a beloved game, it might be worth it. Annam Swanson, Wirecutter’s managing editor, says, “I downloaded Ticket to Ride on my phone last week, and have played it nearly every day since. I love being able to connect over what we lovingly call ‘the train game’ with friends and family spread all across the country—and paired with a Zoom video call it’s even more fun.”

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