Put on your game face

Nightclubs. Restaurants. Concerts. Seems like every ubiquitous social activity is expensive, loud and not doable from my sofa. It's enough to make a fun-loving fellow withdraw from social activity. Fortunately, fun-lovers and shut-ins across the land have Game Night, which will hereby be capitalized by virtue of its awesomeness.

Game Night is a cheap way to socialize without having to scream over some band, or smell like smoke, or drop $9 per guava-tini. It boils fun with friends down to its basic components — fun and friends.

"A good Game Night, to me, should provide an outlet for friends and family members to laugh freely at each other and sometimes at themselves — to be themselves," says Kevin Le, a lawyer in Dallas who hosts a Game Night every two weeks or so and has the chalky white remnants of previous scorekeeping all over his living room wall to show for it.

But how do you do a Game Night right? Do you just dust off the ol' Monopoly board and break out the CornNuts? (Insert buzzer sound here.) A memorable Game Night takes a little effort on the host's part. But fear not — we'll lay out the process, from conception to competition.

Pre-party planning

Most of the important work you'll do in throwing a Game Night happens days or even weeks before anyone rolls a die or draws a card.

If you don't lay the foundation for a great Game Night, you may end up with a living room full of bored, annoyed, hungry, sober people — i.e. a catastrophe.

"A good Game Night requires proper planning, which includes the date and time of the event, the diverse mix of people who will attend, the supplies and the theme," Le says.

Pick the right when

First and foremost, select a date and time for your Game Night that doesn't have an obvious conflict, like a major televised event. You don't want your guests whining "Mind if I turn on the game?" or "Mind if I see who won the election?"

Pick the right who

Second, invite the right mix of people. Even your dearest friends might ruin your Game Night. You want players who are:

1. Happy. Game Night gets tense if people aren't enjoying themselves. Then it feels more like an exam.

2. Not insurmountably self-conscious. It's painful to watch a shy charades player beat himself up or giggle apologetically as sand runs through a tiny hourglass. Let the meek stay home.

3. Not hyper-competitive. Trying to win is fine — it's good, in fact — but being disproportionately competitive for the occasion is not. Game night will be fun for everybody if players are invested enough to want to win, but not at any price.

4. Not too stupid. Players who cannot grasp rules, count the pips on a die or recall facts will just embarrass themselves and slow up the works.

Pick the right eats

Now that your guest list is getting narrowed down, think about refreshments. You want to procure and prepare snacks that can be cleanly and easily handled. Provisions that are sticky, gooey or crumbly, or leave traces of food coloring on fingertips, should generally be avoided. Here is a guide:

Pretzels, perfect

Brownies, pretty good

Lime-flavored chips and salsa, fine

Walnuts in their shells, not ideal

Teriyaki pork chops over couscous, say what?

If culinary quality is your goal, consider the advice of food blogger June Naylor (DFW.com/foodblog):

"Traditionally we've done pizza, which is fine, provided it's not a gloppy pizza. This time we're going to grill, so sausages in buns will work fine, as do marinated chicken, beef or vegetable skewers. We grill just before starting the games and set up the food in a buffet area away from the game table, so people can go serve themselves as they like."

Regarding drinks, at a typical party a good host tops off half-empty glasses immediately, to keep the party hopping. For Game Night, though, dial it down a little. You don't want people so intoxicated they can't draw an apple tree or remember the title of the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie about an extraterrestrial.

Naylor's advice: "I like offering them in pitchers for guests to refill themselves, like a rum- or vodka-based punch with cranberry or grapefruit or both, with lime or lemon already squeezed and mixed in. If you have lime and lemon on the side for guests to use, you wind up with sticky stuff."

Also, don't forget appetizer-size paper plates, plastic drink cups and cocktail napkins.

Party's in play

One pivotal dictum trumps all others when you are hosting a Game Night: You are hosting a Game Night. People are counting on you to administer the playing of games.

Say you've told people to arrive at 8. Guests will trickle in, but don't wait too long to start the games. If you don't move things along, people will get annoyed, even if they don't act like it.

Get playing

To transition from cocktails to a game, be definitive. Don't just meekly suggest eventually considering perhaps playing a game. Declare, "OK, let's play a game! We've got (insert list of games)."

How do you decide which game goes first? Start with a group game that's played in teams, so latecomers can jump in.

Taboo, a guess-the-word team game, is just such a starter, though it's not for everybody.

"I am terrible at it," Le admits, "but it is a great game to play when you are hosting a Game Night with a larger-than-average number of people."

Another solid way to pick a game: MVP-style voting, which is itself a game! Here's how it works:

1. Give everyone something to write with and on, so that they can ...

2. List the games they want to play, in order, from 1 to whatever, 1 being the game they most want to play.

3. Obtain the ballots.

4. Read them.

5. Tally the votes with a point system. If five games are being ranked, a rank of 1 is worth 5 points, 2 is worth 4, and so on. The game with the most points wins.

As host, go ahead and set up the game. In life and at Game Night: Don't just stand around waiting for other people to do things.

Final tips

As the night progresses, there are a few things you should remember to ensure that everyone is having the best time of his life:

A. Switch things up. You'll notice I have just demonstrated this concept by ordering this list by letters instead of numbers. This kind of outlandish wackiness keeps things interesting. You can even invent a game. At a recent Game Night I attended, the best game we played was seeing if we could identify the flavor of a Skittle with our eyes closed.

B. Watch the teasing. One of the main sources of humor at Game Night is that somebody's artistic rendition of the aforementioned apple tree looks like a chandelier of screaming monkeys. As host, you have some power to make sure that laughs and praises are distributed equally. So when that somebody later correctly guesses "Brooklyn Bridge!" after her partner has drawn little more than two parallel lines, be sure to tell her she's a genius.

C. Play by the rules, basically. Rulebooks exist to keep a game fun and fair. Thus, because you want Game Night to be fun and fair, you should defer to the rulebook. Sometimes, though, a rule is not properly established or is misunderstood.

Say, for example, that somebody makes a gesture during Taboo. That is explicitly prohibited in the rules. So, naturally, you'll want to assault the guilty party.

Try not to, though. Instead, be cool, and let it go. If someone objects to the gesture, respond quizzically with, "Hmm, you know, I don't think gestures are allowed. Let's consult the rules." You know darn well what the rules say, but a good host doesn't flaunt his genius.

How to win

As host, remember that you have responsibilities, but keep things light and fun. Le says it pretty darn well:

"Let's face it, life is hectic. There is never any time to do anything unless you make time for it. Hosting a Game Night is a great way to get friends and family together in a stress-free and fun environment."

Well, stress-free for everybody else, at least.