8 lessons from tabletop games to apply in strategy and business

Image Credit: Gencon 2013 by Pure Geekery

I’ve been interested in and practicing a variety of tabletop games since childhood, particularly board games and roleplaying games. I draw a lot of inspiration from gaming that I use in my work as a marketing strategist; I thought I’d outline this in a little more detail here. This is a written version of a talk I gave recently at the European Planning Conference.

To start with play, all mammals learn through play. Furthermore, the kind of structured games we have developed over time, arguably as societies have become more complex, are a universal part of being human. What is even more discussed is the definition of a game, still a debated topic amongst philosophers, sociologists and game designers.

I’ll refer to one of the most popular definitions for now by the French sociologist Roger Caillois — in his book Les jeux et les hommes (Man, Play and Games), he defined a game as an activity that must have the following characteristics:

  • fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
  • separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
  • uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
  • non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
  • governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
  • fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality

Secondly tabletop games are going through a renaissance, particularly thanks to increasingly popular crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. The hobby games category is growing 20% year on year in the US. Since the launch of the platform in 2009, tabletop games have raised more money on Kickstarter than video games have, which is interesting to note.

1. Objectives, situation, strategy and tactics

The oldest kinds of games generally fit in the category of abstract strategy games. Archaeologists have found some of the earlier game pieces dating back to 3,500bc in ancient Egyptian burial sites. The most famous these days are games like Chess, Checkers or Go.

Two core ingredients define abstract strategy games:

  1. No hidden information: players have full view of all elements in the game
  2. No random components (e.g. no random shuffled cards or dice)

The main objective is very simple: winning the game. Thinking of chess, to win the game you have to take your opponents king piece. That’s it.

Similarly clients’ objectives tend to be some as simple as “sell more stuff”. The objective can be stated it in a more fancy way, though ultimately comes down to increasing sales one way or another.

Sometimes we mistake the need to create more specified, detailed, or different objectives with clients when actually what could be needed is a better understanding of the situation on the board, if that makes sense.

The objective doesn’t change, but the position and situation of pieces on the board does — in the case of strategists that could mean considering the situation of elements like the market, competitors, audience (consumers or business), etc.

To keep with the chess analogy, unfortunately it’s rare for strategists and planners to start with a new board. Most of the time we start working with new clients or brands like taking a chess game in the middle of it and have to figure it out as we go.

Strategy and tactics follow. They are always intertwined, different in a way but inseparable in another, each face of the same coin.

A strategy in chess is considered a long term plan or idea, and requires considering the positioning of pieces over many moves. One needs experience with the game to establish a strategy at all.

Tactics are short-term; this is probably what we all understand about chess or at least where I’m at: the basic piece moves, attacks and manoeuvres. Move your pawn up and take an opponent’s piece, bishops move diagonally and so on.

Both are related. You both need to have a long term strategy informing your tactics, and also be flexible to respond to what your opponent is doing, which might mean shifting your tactics and changing your strategy as the game evolves.

Playing chess and other abstract strategy games, teaches strategy when all things are equal and non-random. These games teach critical thinking and logical reasoning about strategies and tactics.

2. Balanced gameplay mechanics and socializing

German or European-style board games are balanced in such a way that players have strategically meaningful choices to make, with a minority of elements remaining left to chance or outside the players control. These board games typically have little to no player elimination until the end of the game.

Players set strategies and tactics based on their objectives, though unlike chess they don’t always have a full view of the game pieces. This can help balance the game in the favour of players with less experience, for example It can also leave doubt as to who players should be collaborating or competing at every turn.

They tend to be easy to learn so anyone can start playing immediately. Elements of chance in the form of dice or cards are sometimes present though don’t determine everything, as opposed to board games like Monopoly where good dice rolls are a predominant factor of win.

These games are often made with groups of three to five or six players in mind (though a current specializes in two player games) and given competition is indirect and players are kept in the game until the end, there is more space for socializing during the game

With over 18 million copies sold around the world, the most known commercially successful example of these types of games is Settlers of Catan. In the game players are settlers of an island made up of randomly set hexagonal tiles so the board changes with every game. Each tile represents one of five resources (bricks, wool, ore, etc). Players collect and trade various sets of resources to be able to build settlements and roads. Each turn players may be collaborating or competing with others depending on the situation at hand, but nobody can just hoard resources or they’re pretty certain to lose. The main objective is the win 10 victory points.

3. Stepping in someone else’s shoes

In case you don’t much about them, tabletop roleplaying games are one of the most recent forms of gaming and blend a few different traditions, starting with playing at pretending when we were kids, like playing house, or cops and robbers. More serious or grown-ups examples can be playing a role in a mock trial or the Model United Nations.

They are collaborative storytelling games, in which players interpret fictional characters. One of the players takes on the role of the main storyteller, or game master. That person knows all the rules of the game and it’s their job is to bring the world and story of the game to life for the other players.

I love that there are all kinds of stories available in roleplaying games, from high adventure and fantasy, swashbuckling, to political intrigues, to tragedy, murder mysteries, horror, and even comedy. It’s all there, whatever you make up.

The practice of account planning & strategy was originally created to bring consumers into the practice of advertising in creative agencies; understanding people through research, how they behave and buy stuff is an inherent part of the job.

In a roleplaying game, players actively take on a the role of another person, a completely different character and do their best to imagine the world in their shoes, from their perspective, which in turn informs the goals they have as a character and the actions they take.

I believe this helps me identify and empathise with people (consumers) of different walks of life and imagine their motivations, as well as the use cases of the various brand products and services we work to create strategies for. I also think this is (at least partly) where insights live, new information about how people behave that leads to new ideas and solutions for brands, products, and communication.

4. Collaborative problem solving

Another interesting trend in the past few years are the success of collaborative board games, like Zombicide, Dead of Winter or Pandemic. Their particularity is that players work together against the game, rather than competing against one another.

In Zombicide for example, the principle is simple: you are a team of survivors trying to survive the Zombie Apocalypse, like in The Walking Dead comic or TV series.

Each game has a set of objectives and rules by which the zombies move and fight independent from players’ choices. Players choose characters that have different skillsets and the only way to win is for them to work together in a way that will complement the one another’s skills.

Like in inter-disciplinary teams in a variety of businesses, everyone has their speciality to bring to the table. I like to think of strategy as a bridge between teams and people with different skill sets, like the account and creative sides of agencies; playing these kinds of games lets you practice working in collaboration and solve problems together.

This is another reason I believe tabletop roleplaying games are rich when it comes to the amount of things one can learn and practice from them. They are collaborative in nature; everyone wins if we’ve spent a game session telling a great story together. While each player character might have individual goals, we operate as a group and work together to solve the problems presented by the storyteller or game master.

5. Playing with data

Tabletop games often involve numbers and data in various forms, from evaluating possible moves in advance for chess, to counting cards or dice in board games or calculating character sheets or conflict outcomes in roleplaying games and figurine wargames.

These games have systems of rules to simulate the universe and type of story the player characters evolve in, and these often involve probabilities, dice, and numbers to represent skills, difficulties or capabilities.

Tabletop gamers often learn how to best exploit the rules of the games they play to optimise the use of numbers in their favour, to create a winning strategy or a powerful character.

Strategists’ work should be tied back to commercial and business results for clients. This often means having to spend some time trying to pull information out of data in spreadsheets.

6. Speaking with an audience

In a roleplaying game, players are constantly speaking in front of an audience; in the same way strategists do in internal meetings, with clients, or even with people and focus groups for consumer research.

When players narrate the actions of their characters, or describe a scene as the game master, they’re effectively “selling” the existence of what is described to the audience around the table.

In the same vein, a lesson from professional storytellers is to appeal to the five senses. This is something I believe is sometimes (or often) forgotten in the world of marketing and likely applies to other industries as well. Strategists tend to work in visual mediums, and might sometimes forget about the other senses.

In a tabletop roleplaying game, like in traditional storytelling, players rely on vocal descriptions, so hearing arguably becomes the most important sense to describe the world, and thinking of the five senses creates more compelling and emotional experiences.

7. Writing & improvising a solid story

The kind of creative brief or presentation documents strategists write in advertising, branding and marketing should flow naturally; the story in roleplaying game is the same.

As human beings we’re almost like hard wired to spot stories in what we see or hear, we automatically assign meaning, and because of that we also notice anything that doesn’t work in the flow of a story.

Inconsistencies are jarring, and roleplaying games can help us practice the flow of arguments, of beginning, middle, and end that makes a good story, a good brief and a good presentation to a client.

This is particularly the job of the game master or storyteller: the character players have the freedom to do whatever they please, they’re not set rails so the practiced game master learns to improvise and adapt to the actions of the character players.

8. It’s fun!

Last but certainly not least: the main reason we play at anything is because is fun. Participation is its own reward, whatever your favourite kind of game is.

I finished the talk with this quote. I think it illustrates the fun of tabletop roleplaying games quite well:

“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joy.”
- Antoine de St Exupéry

Try playing some new tabletop games in 2016 you won’t regret it!

I’m glad to give game recommendations or answer questions if you have any. You can get in touch in the comments, via my website or Twitter.

This article was originally published as an audio episode on my podcast, Ice Cream for Everyone.