In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not a practical person. I’m more interested in Why than How. I lack what Robin Hanson calls the “engineer’s mentality” – the urge to construct a concrete product of use to other people. Once in a while, however, I face a concrete problem of my own, and no one steps forward to engineer a solution for me. Case in point:

I really enjoy playing games – role-playing games, strategy games, trading games, and lots more. And I find playing face-to-face with real people to be about a hundred times more fun than playing over a computer. A social nerd is a happy nerd.

Unfortunately, it usually costs about a thousand times as much to organize a group of live players as it does to just turn on a computer. People are busy, they can only do Wednesdays at 4:15, they cancel at the last minute after everyone else shows up… The transactions costs of organizing a group of adults to play a game are staggering.

One might think that this problem is insurmountable, and I should just grow up. But neither Peter Pan nor I care for this fatalistic attitude. There has to be a way, I kept thinking. And now at last I’ve devised a system to slash the transactions costs of live gaming down to affordable levels.

Here it is:

1. Email all of the gamers you want to include and explain the following system to them. Tell them to email you if they are interested in playing once or more. No commitment, no guilt if they turn out to be too busy.

2. Establish a regular place and time for your gamers to converge.

3. Do not bother checking who plans to show up, or reminding anyone.

4. Keep a large menu of games on hand.

5. Once you see how many people have arrived, match the game to the number of players, instead of the other way around. For example, if you get seven players, then Diplomacy is the obvious choice. If you have five, Puerto Rico is perfect. Four – try Settlers of Cataan or Serenissima. Three – why not Iron Dragon?

6. If you have multiple choices given your number of players, work it out on the spot, instead of soliciting preferences in advance from people who might not even show up.

7. If your game time is near a meal time, instruct all players to eat beforehand!

8. After the game, email everyone on the list about what game you played and how much fun you had. Instead of pestering players beforehand, just keep them in the loop – and perhaps make them try harder to attend the next game.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s good economics, and so far my social prototype has performed splendidly. Before I hit on this formula, I spent months trying to herd cats – to get a bunch of busy adults to agree to a time, a place, and a game, and actually follow through – and played one game for all my trouble. My new system has made it possible to play four games in a row, at a fraction of the transaction costs.

Needless to say, if you like my system, feel free to adopt and/or improve it, and tell me if it works for you too.

Next engineering project: Figure out how to slash the transaction costs of play dates for my kids. Any ideas?