What makes a good Agile game?

In my previous blog post Why we play, I focused on the value of agile games in our training. They build a safe-to-fail environment and let participants get a first hand experience of new concepts. One the one hand, playing games for learning is especially helpful for concepts, which can be easily misunderstood because they are different from existing ways of working. While on the other side, just playing a game for learning isn’t working. In this post I will summarise my understanding of a good learning game.

Clear Learning Objectives

A good game is oriented towards clear learning objectives. Many people don’t like games, because they don’t see their value. They fear that just playing is an end in itself. I play learning game and not just games to activate the class or for team building. I consider most of the games I use as the most effective way to deliver learning.

We have to be aware of what we want to teach with the game. Just playing because it’s cool isn’t enough. Some games such as the Ball Game can be used to deliver a wide range of learning objectives.

We have to be aware of what we want to teach with the game. Games are metaphors which allow us to experience situations which are educational, while keeping fear of failure low, and engagement high.

Ask yourself what you want to teach with this game and then focus the game towards this objective.


“Perfection is reached not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

This is also true for games. Unwanted glitter disturbs learning from a game. Often people ask me after the Kanban Pizza Game, oh we could add “xyz” to this game. My reply is normally: “What are you trying to teach with xyz?” Too often the answer is, that this is making the pizza baking process nicer. We should always keep in mind, just adding nice things may be disturbing the important key learnings of the game.

Streamline your game towards the learning objective. Sometimes this is hard, especially if you found this idea initially so cool and now you have to let it go. If there is nothing more to leave out, its perfect.

lego game in action


Playful games let people dive into the situation. In a good game you get lost in a positive way. Instead of thinking too much about the concepts, the concerns and all your question marks, you can first be fully present in the created learning experience. This makes the playfulness a key part of the effectiveness of a learning game.

Most learning games are relatively short; from a few minutes to a few hours. In this short amount of time the complexity of a game could impede the playfulness, because the players are more focused on understanding how to play the game instead of focusing on the learning experience of the game.

To create more playfulness; avoid long descriptions to set the game up.
You don’t want the player to think too much about on how to play the game properly. The focus should be on playing the game itself and not on its setup and rules!

To foster the playfulness of a game I keep it as simple as possible and try to create an environment to let the situation emerge instead of prescribing everything through explicit rules.

For example in the Kanban Pizza Game we don’t prescribe rules for each player on how he has to act. We just limit the tools (pair of scissors, red pen etc.) and describe to the people please create this paper pizzas. The workflow and the specialisation emerges out of the setup of the environment. In this case every team mate picks a tools on their own, changing them in-between seems to be too complex and a workflow with several steps emerges in a reliable way.

The description of the game at the beginning is surprisingly short. The setup of the game is not dominating and the focus is on creating pizzas in a most effective way while we introduce the Kanban practices step by step. I’m still impressed with  the high energy level through the whole 90 minutes of a game and on how the people dive into the created situation, which is a key aspect to make the Kanban Pizza Game an effective learning game.

Keep in mind: A learning game needs to be playful to be effective!

Safe to Fail

For people to openly experiment and try new things, a game needs to create a safe-to-fail environment. Trying new things without fear, lets people try more active and brave new things. For example; what is the worst thing could happen in a game in a Lego-based game to build a city, like the Scrum Lego City Game? Try to use games with acceptable consequences in case of failure, so participants feel free to try and experiment.

Scrum Lego City Game in action

A game shouldn’t be designed to force obvious failure. I think a game should contain a fair chance to play well and succeed. For example in the Lego City Game most of the time, people find the first Sprint to be a disaster. I let them know that have had very few teams who were able to deliver good results from the first Sprint.

Metaphors vs. reality

Many people can’t focus on the created situation of the game if it’s too closely related to their daily work. They would constantly try to transfer their experience into the game and can’t think about new approaches.

A strong similarity to the daily work would also cause a constant comparison the game situation with the daily work. In such cases people may not be open to the learning of the game and miss the opportunity to dive into the situation.

Good games are metaphors with a distance to daily work to avoid such dysfunctions.

The distance between reality and the metaphor helps people to concentrate on the learning in the game first, before we discuss what we learned. A good game has a good story and makes it easy for the participant to dive into the story using their imagination.

For Kanban we use a pizza production process and in Scrum we build cities with Lego. Some people are sceptical at the beginning. Overall its impressive on how much this helps the participants to engage into the game.

Another thing surprised me in such games. While the games have a distance to work, its impressive on how they reflect challenges in the daily work. For example; a lot of environments which are having problem integrating functionality in real life, find they also have trouble integrating houses in the Lego City Game.

While in the real world the people can blame the complex technology, the problems in integrating in the lego city are really simple. You just have to get the house integrated to the streets in your city. This often opens up a good discussion in the debriefing. Participants realize  that the problem isn’t only a technical problems and what they experience is also applicable to a challenging technology stack.

Games are models and therefore can’t contain all aspects of reality. They can just help us to experience certain aspects in a fast and focused way.

Keep in mind: Games should help to learn new concepts through the use of metaphors. Simply simulating existing reality diminishes what can be learned.

Each session is unique

A game is an open arena. You steer through your constraints and rules. Each game is unique. You can see the background of the people on how they play the game. If you put them in your script, then you destroy key parts of the magic and dynamic of the game.

You need to be a good facilitator and have to go with the flow. Don’t insist on the one way and integrate their characteristics in your game. Steering should be done through the given constraints and rules. Integrate the reflection of their characteristics in the debriefing.

Debriefing is essential

All games require artful debrief. No game is self-explanatory. While in a good game the learning objectives should be obvious, it still needs the debriefing to be an effective way of learning. Remember the player was first hand in the situation. He needs to take a step back to reflect on the experiences he just had. In the discussion with the players you can start from openly talking about the made experiences and guide the conclusion through the right questions or exercises.

For example; Would the Kanban Pizza Game more effective if you transfer the emerged Kanban system on the table based on paper, cover-tape etc. closer to a typical Kanban board? Debrief on how Kanban principles and practices can be found in the game.

Kanban Pizza Game Debriefing

A learning game needs to have a good debriefing to be effective.

Good games are totally powerful to deliver personal and team learning and create first hand experience. Not every game is does this and be aware of it.

Use the right game in the  appropriate situation in an appropriate way and you will understand Why we play.