Starting a Community Game Group: Interview with Mark Stuart

Ever thought about starting up a board game group in your community, but just didn’t know where to start?

Mark Stuart runs a successful community tabletop group in Gainesville, FL. With the help of meetup.com, a social networking site that allows people of like interests to find one another, his group has grown to 220 “meetup members” (basically people who show interest) and a solid 12 regular members for game get together. The group has also used Facebook to grow its membership.

In this interview, Mark explains how he began his group, how it has grown over the past several years and gives some advice for others looking to start groups in their own communities.

Please forgive the rough audio, the recording is in a loud room. Due to this technical issues, I’ve included a text version of the interview below if you’d prefer to just read it.

Be sure to check out the Gainesville Board Game Group if you’re in the Gainesville area, or need inspiration in getting a group started near you.

Emily: I’m here with Mark Stuart. Mark Stuart operates a board game group here in my hometown of Gainesville, FL. Thank you so much for being with us, I really appreciate it.

Mark: I’m happy to be here, Emily.

Emily: Let’s start with the most important question, what is your current favorite board game?

Mark: My current favorite board game…that’s very interesting….I guess it’s called 20 questions, which is completely different than the original 20 questions because you get clues as you go along to try to guess what it is. So, that’s probably one of my favorites. I like the mental ones where you have to know stuff.

Emily: I do too, those are really fun. So tell me about a little bit about how you got started organizing a gaming group.  What was your catalyst for really starting this group here?

Mark: well it’s on meetup.com which is like Facebook but you actually meet people and I thought it would be really nice to actually meet people and some of the interests I had was board games, going to plays and photography. So I started a photography group and then I decided a board game group would actually be a lot of fun and I’ve found a lot of people, college students up to people in their 70s like playing board games so they just joined up and we kind of have a core group that attends regularly then we get people that come and go. That was my catalyst.

Emily: About how big is your group right now?

Mark: On average we probably have about 14 people that show up per meet up sometimes we’ve had as many as 30 and as few as 7.  So it just depends.

Emily: How did you find meetup.com and how did you decide that was a good way to start this endeavor?

Mark: Very interesting, a friend of mine who lives out in California sent me a link and said “what do you think of this new thing called Meetup.com?” and so I went there and looked and thought “this is really cool” so I actually joined a photography group that had been going at that time and when that cancelled I started my own photography group and then decided board games. So I just found it arbitrarily from a friend who found it arbitrarily online too.

Emily: How many years now has this been in progress for you?

Mark: 3 and a half I think. 3 and a half to four years.

Emily: And how has it grown in those 3 and a half years?

Mark:  We’ve had a lot of people join but, like I told you before, it’s free to join so people don’t regularly attend. We had a core group that started attending regularly, we get new people that find and join like one or two at a time, so I’d say over time we’ve added 2 or 3 members that are fairly regular per year since its inception.

Emily: Meetup.com is free to join, but do you charge a fee to participate if you’re a permanent member?

Mark: No. Actually I have a voluntary thing where I say “if you can contribute to help my pay for the organizer fee’s I’d appreciate it,” but I don’t keep track of who gives money or when they give it or anything like that it makes it nice so there’s no onus on someone if they didn’t contribute money or if they did.

Emily: So, where do you hold your game nights, do you have any advice for other organizers on finding venues?

Mark: Okay, our game nights are actually held at Krystal’s hamburger joint on Newberry road, and the nice thing about them is depending on who ‘s the manager they’ll let us stay until 3 o’clock in the morning because we start at 7 o’clock at night on Saturdays. I’d say just finding a place, depending on what hours you want to stay playing, to find a venue where you can set up a large group of people. We went to Perkins for a while, we tried Steak and Shake, which wasn’t too good because they had a lot of turnover. Find a place where you can actually meet. we’ve even met in member’s homes.

Emily: How do you guys pick games? Do you ever have arguments over what games you’re going to play? Do you have a schedule that you follow through?

Mark: Actually, we, most people, the core people have about a dozen games maybe more than that but they bring about a dozen at a time in huge Ikea bags and we just set them down there and sit and talk for a little bit, and then we decide lets play games and we go through and see what we want to play  and then we get those people who want to play those games and break up into about two or three groups and sit there and play it.

Emily: And does that work really well to have simultaneous games going on?

Mark: Oh yes, if you finish a game we’ll ask another group, “how long until you finish your game?” and then we’ll wait and trade and play something else, and it’s not just board games, by the way, it’s card games like Phase10 or something like that…

Emily: So all “tabletop games.”

Mark: That is correct. There was an article about us actually.

Emily: Really, in the Gainesville Sun?

Mark: Or in the Ocala Star Banner.

Emily: Any other ways you’ve tried to advertise besides Meetup.com and the mention in the Ocala Star Banner?

Mark: Actually, yes.  We’re on Facebook, we actually have a Facebook page. We’ve found a few people that have found us on Facebook and joined the group too. They had no idea what Meetup was.

Emily: It really is one of those social things that some people are on and some people aren’t.

Mark: That’s correct.

Emily: What is your biggest piece of advice for people trying to start a similar group in their own communities?

Mark: I would just say if it’s something that you want to do, start the group. Because there are plenty of people like whatever you’re doing…unless it’s something really out there…and for a board gaming group just start it up and I’m sure you can probably find four or five people for a first meeting to join and play and then they’ll tell their friends and more people will join. So just do it.

Emily: And what has been your biggest success?

Mark: In the board game group?

Emily: In the board game group. In the “tabletop game group”.

Mark: Honestly, I would say, you’re going to find this really strange but, we have birthday dinners for members who are regular core members and we go and have dinner before board games and then we go to the board games and that’s been our biggest success, because they invite their friends to the dinners too and then they become members of the board game group. So that’s probably the biggest success for making it expand.

Emily: Well, thank you so much, Mark  I really appreciate you stopping by with this great information for anybody trying to start out a group in their hometown.

Mark: You’re welcome, Emily.

Emily: If you’re in Gainesville, check out meetup.com and find Mark Stuart’s board game group. 

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