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What Makes a Great Gaming Community? (or: “Thanks, Endgame!”)

This blog is primarily about game design: how and why games work. However, games themselves are only half of the gaming equation. As Satre (almost) said: gaming is other people. In other words, there’s another crucial element of gaming fun that I’ve touched upon here and there, but that too often goes unspoken: community.

Designing a great gaming community can be every bit as hard as designing a game itself — as I was reminded this last Friday, when I learned that Endgame, my most beloved gaming community ever, is shutting down. This announcement is heart-breaking for the numerous gaming groups that have blossomed at Endgame: the roleplayers, the war gamers, the Magic players, and my own boardgamers. And that heartbreak reveals what a great job Endgame did.

To remember what a great gaming community Endgame has been, and why I’ve been a regular attendee there for 14 years, I wanted to talk a little bit this week about what makes a great gaming community. And, it need almost go unsaid: I learned most of these lessons from Endgame itself.

The Gaming Space

To build a great community, you need to start out with an open and welcoming space.

You Need Great Staff. More generally, you could say “great leaders”, but most great public gaming spaces are in commercial businesses, so I’ll go with “great staff”. They need to be people that are truly invested in the idea of creating a gaming community, who place its creation first and foremost. But, they also need to be down there in the trenches, supporting it every single week with a smile: staying late so that people can play and maybe joining in the games. (Endgame clearly had this when they prioritized building a gaming space into their long-time Uptown Oakland retail space, and over 14 years there was always someone there who was willing and happy to stay, so that we could game.)

You Need Great Space. The gaming space can’t be an afterthought, as I’ve frequently seen in stores that squish their gaming tables in between their shelves after hours. Granted, you can still have an OK gaming space like that, if there aren’t fascist employees ready to yell at you if you lean too close to the shelves of games. (Not a made-up example.) But to generate a community, you really need to have a discrete space: to game, to talk, maybe even to store games. (Endgame had that in spades: they built out two mezzanines above the retail-store level, giving them space to have two different sorts of gaming going on at a time. And I always loved the bridge between the two.)

You Need Consistent Availability. You generate a community through regularity: a weekly time works well. You also generate community by not providing too much time. If you have a gaming space that’s always available, no one knows when to show up, but if you have a strongly scheduled weekly time, then you can quickly build critical mass and keep expanding it. (Endgame’s board game night was Wednesdays; other nights of the week were used for other sorts of games.)

You Need an Ungated Environment. This point will be controversial, but I think you need to avoid barriers in the form of required payments to use the gaming space. Because that’ll keep out casual players, it’ll keep out poor players, and it’ll keep out principled players who disagree with the policy. That’ll damage both the diversity and the critical mass of the community. Of course, a gaming space needs to pay for itself one way or another. That means that you need to convince people who use the space to support the store and in a world of internet discounting, that’s very tricky. The best choice is obviously to build a culture where that happens, but absent that I think the most acceptable compromise is to require occasional purchases or to charge fees that are convertible to gift certificates. (Endgame never charged a fee, except for tournaments where they were obviously required, like Magic drafts, but they did figure out other ways to raise funds from players, most notably from their auctions, where players put used games into the auction and then got gift certificates back for the monies raised. Their yearly parties were also good fund raisers.)

The Players

It’s a little harder to mold your player base, but modeling and rules can sure help.

You Need a Large Player Base. You want to ensure that whenever people come together to game, they’ll have plenty of opponents (or compatriots in a bold new world of co-op gaming). The best way to ensure that is probably a great gaming space that meets all the criteria listed above. Build it and they will come. However, you also need to make sure your playing space is large and everything about it is welcoming. (Endgame had eight tables laid out for board gaming, and on occasion filled them all and even overflowed into other areas. How’d they do it? Being in the center of the very populous San Francisco East Bay obviously helped, but they also made sure that everything about their space was great.)

You Need Friendly Players. This may be the hardest rule of all; how do you control the behavior of players? Well, you can start out by modeling: having your great staff play in your games and be friendly and nice. If you teach the lessons of the community to your players, they should in turn reflect it. However, you may need not just a carrot, but also a stick: you have to be willing to kick out a bad player; this might seem more difficult if you’re trying to run a business too, but it shouldn’t be. A bad community member is likely to chase away many good communities over the length of his stay. In the end, you want to create a community where members will proactively welcome newcomers to their games and teach them how to play, and where people are nice to each other — even if some of them opt not to play with each other. (Endgame had a great community of great people, and I really have no idea of how they seeded it, unless it was the pure kindness of the store’s founder; this wonderful community is what most of us will miss most.)

The Games

Finally, I don’t think a gaming community needs games of their own, but it helps the climb to greatness.

You Can Have Great Access to New Games. A game store can offer good access to new games as long as they stay on top of their ordering. Even a non-commercial gaming club can organize members to order together, to reduce the cost of shipping. Either one will benefit the community by constantly bringing in new games to play. (Endgame traditionally ordered pretty well. Their yearly auctions also did a great job of moving games between community members, offering new people the opportunity play them.)

You Can Have a Great Game Library. You can create a great game library by having the community members chip in (either donating money or games) or by convincing manufacturers to send you demo copies. Either one creates a great source of games to play — as long as someone knows the rules. (Endgame’s only had a great game library in the last several years, but I’ve really seen its benefits. Newbies often come in, walk over to the library, find something to play, and sit down to learn it; I probably go to the library several times a year when my table is looking for something to play that’ll fit a specific time period or player number.)

Final Thoughts

All communities have challenges, even great gaming communities like Endgame. Obviously, the fact that Endgame is closing reflects some final challenges they faced, in both the rents of an expensive region like the San Francisco Bay Area and in the costs in energy and time from the staff. But, over the years I’ve also seen logistical challenges, the biggest of which has often been the vast quantity of people wanting to play.

But, for the fourteen years I’ve been a member of Endgame’s community, and the eighteen years they’ve been in business, they’ve been a bright light of gaming fellowship in the dark Bay Area night.

May this article help to fan the flame of some other nascent gaming community.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples