How to Host a Virtual Game Night When Quarantined

One of the best things about being quarantined is the time spent with my family…virtually. I feel like we’ve all talked more in the past two weeks than we did in the two months before this pandemic began. We have every other day FaceTime sessions with our 87-year-old grandma and that’s been a great way to chat and stay connected. But at night, we take it to the next level with a virtual game night!

Boys all dressed for the wedding

My oldest brother, Harry (middle in the picture above), is the ultimate tech guy and he has always been that way. If a computer or phone is ever broken in the family, you call Harry because he knows what to do. If you need help deciding what kind of TV to buy, you call Harry and he will immediately steer you in the right direction. He’s just so good at all of that stuff. He has been hosting our virtual game nights and I’ve gotten so many questions from people on Instagram on the exact way to set it up. Harry agreed to write a blog post outlining all of his tips and tricks!

Take it away, Harry.

tips to stay connected for virtual game night during the pandemic

As Casey mentioned, I’ve gravitated toward technology since I was a kid and my unofficial second job is supporting the family with their tech needs.  We’ve now been under quarantine since March 13th and with my wife, two kids (ages four and two), and my mom all under one roof during this time, it’s nice to also stay more connected with others, especially in times of distress.

My job is in business/technology consulting and while I work from home from time to time, starting on Friday, March 13th, it’s been full-time WFH.  Our company recently started using Microsoft Teams for chatting, meetings, etc, and it’s one of Microsoft’s newer products so it’s pretty new to everyone and we’re all now getting a crash course in it.  This past week we’ve been leveraging it for a lot more video conference calls to stay better connected both internally and with clients.  We’ve also done some creative things in setting up virtual lunches and happy hours to socialize with colleagues/clients and it seems like everyone is now quickly moving into this “new normal”.

Why not just FaceTime?Why not just facetime for a virtual game night?

My wife’s family lives in Dallas, so we are big FaceTime users, especially to help the two little ones stay close to family. Most of the time we’ve done it with someone’s iPhone or iPad, but sometimes we’ll hook the computer up to the TV so that the kids both stay engaged during the call and we can all sit on the couch together and see and be seen on the other end.

Group FaceTime
Getting started with Group FaceTime on the iPad

Before quarantine times, I had never used the Group FaceTime feature because we hadn’t had the need and it’s fairly new. A couple of days into our quarantine, we tried it with our household, the Finns, my brother Ryan and his fiancé, Sarah, my sister Liz, and our grandmother Meme.  It worked pretty well and is definitely a recommended option, but I’ll outline how to both improve that experience and offer alternatives below.

We’re still pretty early into this quarantine but we’ve been quickly learning what works well and what doesn’t.  One quick learning; having the big screen hookup is a game changer if you want to feel like you’re really in the same room with others.

The Ultimate Goal –  To Stay ConnectedHow to virtually stay connected

What we quickly found challenging with FaceTime is that while we could chat together, trying to play a shared game didn’t work all that well.  We’re a family that loves to play games when we’re together in person.  At family events and parties, we’ll do charades, play party type games on the Apple TV, or just play some good old fashioned board or card games.  I used to be a gamer when I was younger and had the time (the kids and a job make that a lot more difficult now), so while I have a Nintendo Switch and Apple TVs, I don’t know of many shared online games that would offer what we’re looking for.

I’m learning a bit more now, but feel free to share suggestions because I’m still new to that myself! As I was looking at options, what I found was that party/family games on the Apple TV inherently assume that the whole family is together and looking at the same TV.  That cannot work right now so I searched for alternatives.

My wife also recently started using the app House Party with a couple of friends.  While it has a ton of potential (@Epic Games, reach out if I can help you improve/scale), after trying it for game night, we found that it doesn’t work that well.  We had multiple family members all wanting to play in the same room together, in addition to remote users, and it has an eight-person limit. Plus, it doesn’t work well with a big screen, etc.  While it is a great first step if that’s all you have, we wanted more…How to stay connected with family during quarantine and for a virtual game night

What I was really looking for is a solution that offers the following:

  • Ability to see the video of the other participants
  • Ability to see some sort of shared screen that would display the game we’re playing
  • Ability for each person to be a part of the game (likely through control via individual phones)

So far, there isn’t a perfect solution that I’ve found, but I do have some recommendations on a variety of hardware/software that can each be leveraged based on how you’re trying to interact with family and friends.  First, though, we need to break this down into the basic components…

The Basics

Here’s a basic list of what you’ll need to create a great virtual experience with your family and friends.

1. Display

Again, you can just use your laptop screen if you’d like, but in order to feel like you’re in the same room, the bigger the better! Hooking your laptop up to a large TV is ideal but a larger computer monitor can work as well.  There are two ways to hook up to a separate screen, wireless or wired.

Wired can give you a better experience but is sometimes hard to do if you don’t have the right length of cables, can’t get behind your TV to hook up the cables, or don’t have the appropriate dongle (I’m looking at you, Apple).  Wireless can sometimes lag a bit or be choppy, especially if you don’t have great wifi.

2. Audio

If you’re using a laptop, speakers are built right in.  If you’re wired or wireless to a TV, you’re likely going to push the sound through your device to the TV speakers.  You’ll have to watch out for two things here: hearing echoes when you’re talking with others and having the mic pick up the output from your speaker, resulting in people not being able to hear you.

If you’re hooking to speakers that are not built into your device and hear an echo, you may want to play around with having the sound still come from the laptop (can be changed in settings) but let the video go to the TV.  That works well when we’ve had that problem. If you’re having issues with people not being able to hear you, it may be because the mic is too close to the speakers.  Depending on how your mic is set up, you’ll want to try and move it as close to the people talking as possible.

3. Camera

There are two ways to do the camera, using the actual device (i.e. Laptop or Tablet) camera or using a USB webcam (while most are sold out on Amazon, this is one that I found in stock). The most important thing to consider here is the placement of the camera.  Ideally, it should be in line with the display that you have the other parties on.  That way, you’re looking at the camera when looking at them.  If not, it can just be a little strange for the others watching you.

Harry's Simple Setup
Harry’s Simple Setup using the MacBook Pro AirPlayed to the TV

You’ll also want to make sure that you frame yourselves correctly.  Being too far away can make it both hard to see and hear so you may want to fiddle with that a bit as you learn.  One of the reasons I started using an old webcam mounted right under my TV is because it’s nice and clean looking and creates a good frame of the family as we’re sitting on the couch.

4. Mic

Most of the time, you’ll be using the mic and camera from the same device.  If you’re using your laptop/tablet, the mic is built right in there.  If you’re using a webcam, the mic is typically built in there too.  You’ll just want to make sure that the settings of your computer are using the correct camera/mic if you are hooking up a webcam, though.

Making sure others can hear you might take some fiddling.  Either set up a test call with someone else or if you have other family members in the household with other devices, try it from other rooms.

5. Hooking It All Together

As mentioned above, you can do this either wired or wirelessly…

Wired – If you’re doing it wired, you’ll need an HDMI cable to hook to your TV or external monitor.  Most newer computers or laptops don’t have an HDMI port out, so if you’re in that boat, you’ll need a dongle to connect to HDMI.  HDMI will send both video and audio to the device you’re connecting to, so it’s pretty straightforward.

Wireless – We’re an Apple household and so are all of my family members.  We don’t have traditional cable TV and just have an AppleTV behind each TV in the house.  This allows us to Airplay video/sound to any TV in the house from any of our devices.  It’s pretty easy and typically doesn’t have the issue with echoing.  If you’re not an Apple household, you can use Chromecast to stream to Smart TVs, Rokus, and other devices.  I know there are some limitations here depending on the hardware/software you’re using, so others may want to chime in in the comments on the best way to do this.

6. Something to Run it All (Hardware & Software)Taking time to slow down this year

The key to all of this is having something that connects all of the other components together and add the software to get things running.  From what I’ve seen/done, using a laptop will give you the most flexibility.

Software Options

On the software side, there are a lot of options. Below I outline the positives/negatives with each based on what I’ve learned so far.  Feel free to add other suggestions as I’m open to try anything!

1. Group FaceTime

This is the defacto standard if you’re an Apple group.  It’s built-in and easy to use.  This is what we’ve been using to keep in touch with my grandmother since it’s built into her iPhone and iPad and she can just answer.  Trying to ask her to install a separate app and get that up and running would be impossible.

Positives

  • Can support up to 30 parties.
  • Most parties are visible at all times.  Displays varying sizes of individuals based on who’s speaking.
  • Extremely easy to use since it’s built into Apple products.

Negatives

  • Without built-in screen sharing, trying to have a common shared screen for games doesn’t work (we tried pointing a camera at the TV but that was a fail.).
  • If not all your parties have Apple devices, not everyone can participate.
  • Doesn’t include a lot of customization options.

When I Use Group FaceTimeHow to host a family virtual game night

We’ve been using Group FaceTime when we’re connecting with family (especially our grandmother, Meme) without the intention of playing a game together.  It’s so easy to use and we don’t have to coordinate much to do it.  All you do is open FaceTime (or even do it through an iMessage group chat), add multiple people, and click “call”.  It will ring everyone at once and if someone doesn’t answer, they can connect in later or you can re-ring them.

2. Microsoft Teams

Some may be familiar with Microsoft Teams through work, and that’s how I had the idea to try it for our virtual game night.  It offers desktop sharing so that worked perfectly for the game.  I also had the sound of the game coming through the device that was sharing the screen.  If you have it at work, you can send an invite to others who don’t have their own account and it works great.  If not, Microsoft offers free personal accounts so you can sign up and start to use it.

Positives

  • It is pretty easy to use, especially if you have an account and/or use it for work.
  • It has the ability to share screens, which is crucial for virtual game night. Plus, the video from the game comes through on the other end without being choppy.
  • It works across non-Apple devices so people aren’t left out.
  • If you do use it for work, you can easily add work colleagues to get them in on the fun since they’ll already know how to use it.

Negatives

  • It only displays up to four individuals at once so it is not great when you have larger groups.
  • It doesn’t have all that many options in terms of customizing the view.

When I Use Microsoft Teams

Virtual Game Night using Microsoft Teams
Virtual Game Night using Microsoft Teams

This is currently our standard for virtual game night. As long as you don’t have too many people on at once, it allows for a good game experience without lag and choppiness.  When we’ve been playing games, we’ve typically had 4-5 households at a time and it works great.

3. Zoom

While I’ve heard a lot about Zoom being a great video conferencing option in the business world, I had never actually used it myself. However, as I am now the administrator of our virtual game night, I’ve been trying new tools and platforms to figure out what works best.  A good friend of mine typically has a party on the first Saturday of March Madness and since we couldn’t all be together, we decided to do a virtual party.  We actually switched from Teams to Zoom, mid-stream, due to the fact that Zoom worked better when we have more than four households (at one point we had 16 houses connected!).

Positives

  • It has many viewing customization options, including the ability to see the person speaking and many others, or just view all parties at once.
  • It can share screens, which is crucial for virtual game night.
  • It works on non-Apple devices.
  • It’s free (for now at least).  I just signed up and it looks like they removed restrictions, due to the Coronavirus.

Negatives

  • The shared screen is a bit more laggy/choppy, so while it works for games, I prefer Teams if we don’t have too many households connecting since it’s a nicer experience.
  • It would probably be harder to get an elderly relative to figure out how to install this, instead of just using FaceTime.

When I Use Zoom

Using Zoom with many households
Using Zoom with many households
Zoom again showing the view of whoever is speaking
Zoom again showing the view of whoever is speaking

Zoom was a hit for our big virtual party that my friend hosted. It worked great with so many people on at once. We did play a virtual game, and we even celebrated a friends’ son’s birthday with candles and a cake.  It looks like we’ll be doing this next weekend too.

But How Do I Set It All Up?

It sounds like this has been the big question that Casey keeps getting…how do I set it all up?  I broke down the components above and I’ve done this two main ways, a simple setup and an advanced setup.

Simple Setup

The simple setup is how I connected things prior to quarantine.  Basically what I did was take a laptop, put it on a stool in front of the TV, and AirPlayed the video and sound to the TV behind it.  This worked extremely well for FaceTime and will work for virtual game night. Here’s my simple setup…

  1. Display – TV
  2. Audio – In-Wall Speakers with Sound from Receiver
  3. Camera – Camera in my MacBook Pro
  4. Mic – Mic in my MacBook Pro
  5. Hooking it all together – Wireless AirPlay to my Apple TV
  6. Something to run it all on (Hardware/Software) – MacBook Pro

Below are a couple of examples of friends who recently created simple setups.

Wireless hookup using Chromecast
Wireless hookup using Chromecast
Another simple setup
Another simple setup connecting via HDMI (Don’t ask why he has two TVs mounted like that. They’ve always been that way)

Advanced Setup

I’m a tinkerer, but also like things to be built in and clean.  Having a stool with a laptop sitting on it in front of my TV is not ideal (plus, with a four and two-year-old around, it could get knocked off easily).  So that led me to create my more complex setup…

  1. Display – TV
  2. Audio – In-Wall Speakers with Sound from Receiver
  3. Camera – The webcam that I had attached to my office desktop is now mounted under my TV.
  4. Mic – Mic in the webcam
  5. Hooking it all together – Wired HDMI connection to the TV for both video and audio
  6. Something to run it all on (Hardware/Software) – I put an old MacBook Air behind the TV, plugged it in, and hooked it up to the TV directly.  I have the webcam then hooked up to that laptop and the laptop is thrown behind the TV (which isn’t noticeable based on where the TV is). I then use a wireless keyboard/mouse to control it.  For software, I can use all of the apps we discussed earlier.
Advanced Setup looks clean
Advanced Setup looks clean
Camera Mounted Under the TV
Camera Mounted Under the TV
Laptop thrown behind the TV
Laptop thrown behind the TV (I’ll probably clean this up at some point)

But How Do you Do It For Virtual Game Night?

As mentioned at the beginning of my post, I’m still learning here, since I haven’t played a lot of online games.  As a family, we’ve really liked the Jackbox games (You Don’t Know Jack when we were kids) when we’re all together for holidays or family parties. Unfortunately, you can’t connect that game to others’ Apple TVs.  How I worked around this is by purchasing the Jackbox party pack on Steam. It comes with lots of games, but our favorites are Fibbage and Drawful.

Virtual Game Night using Microsoft Teams
Virtual Game Night using Microsoft Teams

My Advanced Setup: Steam works on lots of devices and what I did was load it up on a laptop (separate from the one I have connected to my TV) and connect to the same video chat.  This means I have my laptop, that is thrown behind the TV, connected to the video chat and the other laptop is connected, as well.  This only has to be done by one household, per group, but it also ensures fairness (everyone is in the same boat of hearing/seeing this screen, virtually).  I run the game on my laptop in my office in the basement, share that screen/sound, and then go upstairs to play on the TV with the family.

If You Have the Simple Setup: Two laptops would work best for this. One that plays the game through Steam (connected to video chat & share screen/sound with the group) and the other acts as your camera (that you can Airplay up to your television).  You can do it all on one computer but it just means that the person/household hosting the game won’t have the same experience as all others.  The key is, start simple and then try more and more complex things after you get the simple setup working.

I’m sure there are better ways but this is working for us for now! I do think that House Party has a ton of potential if they scale it quickly, and with all of the popularity it’s gaining it could be the next Snapchat. But for now, we prefer the setups above.  Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post at the end of quarantine about how much we’ve improved the experience over that time. I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments below, and please share other ways you’re staying virtually connected so we can all learn from one another during this chaotic time.

Harry