How to Build a Successful Games Club: High School and Youth Edition, Part 1
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the “Games and Chess Club” at my school. I started with 3 grade nine boys doing chess problems on an old board once a week and now have an average of 15 kids a session, two lunch hours a week with over 30 games: just about everything that’s appropriate for school consumption, from Avalon to Zombie Dice. The majority remain boys but every game day we get students from grades 9 through 12 with a nice cadre of girls as well. From the back 40 in a freeze-and-bake portable classroom on rickety tables to a classroom flooded with natural light, with round tables, and a bunch of solid rectangular desks you can form into any shape, we’ve come a long way.
In this first of a series we’ll look at how to get a youth oriented games club started, funded, and furnished. Next up we’ll talk about how to grow your club numbers to include all grades and be inclusive for girls, what games work best in the games club format, some dos and don’ts, and where to spend your money once you move beyond the basic games.
How to get Started, Funded, and Furnished
To get off the ground you’ll need these things in any order you can get ’em.
Chess boards. Yes, I know, I can hear some of you groan all the way from where you’re reading this but, seriously, get yourself some chess boards. Chess will do things for you that no other starter game can – not Magic, not Warhammer, not poker, not Jenga, checkers, Monopoly, Uno, Catan, or even the new hotness on BoardGameGeek.com. Chess is the key that will unlock everything else.
Credit where it’s due. Remember that almost 20,000 people gave Chess an average rating of 7 on Board Game Geek. Pretty good for a game that’s at least 1,250 years old and is the original miniatures wargame. Nothing wrong with a chess club in and of itself, or a dedicated chess day amid the other gaming. Just sayin’ But if you think as I do – The more games the better! – read on. There’s room for everyone at this table.
Funding. Chess will unlock the wallets of the school or library admin and school parent council. No admin or council in their right mind will turn down a proposal to engage students in collaborative and logical problem solving that is free of electronics and comes at a relatively modest cost. Do your research – I went direct to the Canadian Chess Federation and got chunky pieces and plastic roll out boards for the school rate – and then present a well written proposal to the powers that be.
Chess has cachet like no other game with the adults you’ll need on side. They may not understand the game – or games or gaming in general – but because it’s “chess” they’ll fully support somebody (you) who’ll take the initiative to run a Chess Club. The key takeaway here is that it takes exactly the same resources to run a gaming club as it does a chess club: time, space, money, support. It’s simply a matter of eventually adding “Games and” to “Chess Club” until you end up with your Games and Chess Club. You’ll find that the two will become interchangeable but, if you’re smart enough to keep chess in the rotation and run a chess tourney or three each school year, your club will always benefit from the interest of kids who genuinely like the game as well as the reputation and brand recognition of chess, even if you’re playing Zombicide.
The key takeaway is it takes exactly the same resources to run a gaming club as it does a chess club: time, space, money, support. Start one you’ve got the other.
Stable Youth Attendance. Yes, I know there are games that will be more exciting to kids than chess but you’ll be surprised at how many kids already know how to play and will show up so they can beat their buddy. You’ll need this commonality in order to keep a group of kids together long enough to introduce them to other games and have them start bringing other kids. And to be frank, 15 years in, chess remains a go-to game for my kids. I’d say 10% of all games played in the club are still chess matches. That initial investment in boards is still paying off and despite literally thousands of games they are still in good shape. Buy good stuff! The addition of a 4 player chess board and a giant chess set doesn’t hurt either.
A Set Time and Place. A classroom, room in the library, meeting room: it doesn’t matter. As long as you have a predictable time and place, tables and chairs, kids will get in the rhythm and put it in their schedule. The room will become their lunch or after school room and safe socializing spot. I can’t count the number of kids who, from the second week of grade 9 through to the week before final exams in grade 12, have been in my classroom playing games for virtually every single Wednesday and Friday lunch hour. That means I also get to game two lunch hours a week (and after school). I’m as dependent on this predictability as they are!
The Right Furniture – a luxury but an attainable one. All furniture is not created equal. Round tables are best for gaming. Try Pitch Car or Smash Up! or Pandemic: The Cure on a few uneven desks pushed together. Mind the gap! Every institution, be it a library, office, school board, or community meeting space, has spare furniture gathering dust somewhere. A few years ago I heard in passing that, “…the board office furniture storehouse is getting full.” A little investigating and the right paperwork and I had three sturdy round tables in my room within 3 weeks at no cost to anyone.
Ask around and see what’s available. Often libraries, schools, and community venues will bend over backwards when they see the good work you’re doing with kids. Big business when moving sites has loads of the stuff to spare and would like nothing better than to say their supporting youth through a Games and Chess Club.
In the next installment we’ll talk about how to get the Chess Club numbers up so that it can become the broader reaching Games and Chess Club we’ve been aiming for.