The 7 Key Ingredients of a good business game

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2017

There is a lot of debate by game designers and players about ‘what makes a game a good game’. Although this dialogue is mostly about games for entertainment, I believe we can build on their valuable insights to identify ‘what makes a team-based business game engaging and useful’?

By ‘useful’ in this context I mean valuable as a learning development tool for individuals and teams. I would suggest there are at least 7 key ingredients which should be present in an engaging and useful team business game. These are Narrative, Dilemmas, Scorecards, Time Pressure, Surprises, Collaboration and Competition.

1. Narrative

The narrative of the game must be relevant to the participants. For example, if the participants are the leadership team of a cruise ship then a game involving running a retail fashion clothing business is unlikely to engage them fully. The game does not have to be modelled on the participant’s business, although sometimes this is required, but it does need to be relevant and meaningful to the intended players. A key aspect of the narrative is the ‘Briefing’ that the participants are given about the game. If the briefing is done well (message, mood and messenger) it will inspire the players and also trigger their imagination to collaborate with the game designer by helpfully filling in any ‘realism gaps’.

2. Dilemmas

In most discussions about games there is a consensus that a good game involves ‘meaningful’ decisions. This means decisions which are non-trivial and to which there may be no obvious best answer - in other words ‘dilemmas’. Such decisions allow participants to agonise over their choices which also greatly enriches the conversations within the team. (I discuss the role of dilemma-based design as a technique for ensuring a strongly focused central game narrative more here). A good game will only have the absolute minimum number of decisions needed to achieve its goals - this is the design concept of ‘Requisite Complexity’.

3. Scorecards

It almost goes without saying that the players of a game need to be able to see at any point, in some attractive and clear visual representation, how they are currently doing in the game. Game ‘scorecards’ should show not just the progress against the ultimate game goals but also the status of any critical indicators which are the ‘drivers’ of the final scores. A good game will employ the important principles of ‘Information Design’ to ensure the visuals are actually useful and not just an exercise in ‘shock and awe.

4. Time Pressure

An important element of a business game is making decisions under pressure. This makes it more real-world and also this stress is important in facilitating the rapid evolution of team dynamics. One of the most common forms of pressure and stress is impending deadlines which must be met. It is also important that all teams can see exactly how much time they have left at any point on a ‘common clock’ over which there can be no arguments about how long is left or wasteful negotiations for time extensions?

5. Surprises

In the real world things change all the time and change is a key ingredient of a good team business game. The game ‘surprises’ need to be both nice and nasty and both relevant and irrelevant (‘red herrings’). The surprises can be embedded in the game or they can be external to the game or best of all - a synchronized combination of both. An important related aspect of well-designed game surprises is ‘multiple-media/modes’. By this I mean the game effectively blends multiple forms of media to engage the players. Media/Modes include the computer, hard copy, audio, video and human interventions (senior business people, facilitators, subject matter experts and even actors).

6. Collaboration

In a good game there should be more work involved in addressing the challenges than can be handled by a single individual within the time constraints. This forces the participants to divide up the work in some way. This ‘division of labour’ and roles is a great a catalyst for both helpful and unhelpful team dynamics!

7. Competition

There is a lot of competition in the real-world as we are all naturally competitive (despite what we might claim). A good game has the added spice of competition to make sure participants take it seriously and try to do their very best. It is important however not to let the competitive side of the game get out of hand or this will be at the expense of the learning. At the end of a good game players should have learned AND enjoyed themselves. In an overly competitive game participants may miss much of the important learning insights in the mad frenzy of trying to win at all costs!

I discuss how teams and individuals can achieve rapid experiential learning using business simulation games in my new book:

A Systematic Guide to Game-Based Learning (GBL) in Organizational Teams


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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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