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ATD Blog

Creating Tabletop Games to Foster Learning

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

It may seem strange to think of using tabletop games to teach serious subjects like business or project management. However, face-to-face board and card games are used in a variety of fields covering many serious topics. For instance, the CIA uses tabletop games to teach intelligence gathering, overcoming collection obstacles and collaboration.

Harvard Business Review refers to board games as a tiny microcosm of business that can help leaders and managers build skills such as deductive reasoning, understanding return-on-investment, and iterative thinking. In the medical field, healthcare-themed card games and board games teach both undergraduate and postgraduate students. In fact, tabletop games have been used formally for teaching business concepts since at least the 1960s with the introduction of the MIT Beer Distribution game, in which players quickly learn the ins and outs of supply chain demand.

In a business world, where people are increasingly isolated and alienated due to digital devices and show less and less empathy and connection to fellow humans, a board game or card game provides a connection. It's human to sit at a table facing others in a shared experience. But designing a tabletop learning game is not as simple as replacing Park Place from Monopoly with the name of your own industrial park. A little more work is required to make a game that both engages learners and helps them achieve the desired learning outcome.

Game Design Options

One of the most critical elements to consider when developing a tabletop game is matching the appropriate game design to the desired instructional outcomes. Here are some game designs that work well for tabletop and card games. You can use this information to help determine which kind of game you want to create.

Acquiring Territory
Fostering thinking about how to obtain and defend territories is necessary in many industries. For example, what does a sales person do to acquire territory and defend against potential competitors? How does a marketing organization acquire mindshare or part of a consumer market?

A board game can serve as the territory that needs to be conquered. Design the game’s board in sections and develop mechanics related to territory acquisition and defense. Check out games like Acquire or Domaine of the classic Risk. Deck-building card games can be another way of encouraging employees to think about the importance of acquiring certain resources to accomplish their goals. Deck building also can emphasize how the collection of some resources can lead to the acquisition of other, perhaps more critical, resources. Check out games like Dominion, Friday, or Valley of the Kings.


Operational Thinking
Games are systems. In fact, games are typically the intersections of several different systems. Organizations are the same; they are systems and games can be an effective method of helping managers, directors, and C-level leadership consider the trade-offs, prioritizations, and compromises that go with managing multiple systems all competing for limited resources.

These types of games often have more than one way to win and often require trade-offs and careful resource allocations. Games often model complex systems, which require the player to understand the trade-off inherent in the system—much like actual work environments and economic systems of which many employee are an integral part. There are often consequences for making a decision that looks good in the short term, but causes harm to the organization or player in the long term. Business simulation board games often fall into this category. A good example would be the MIT Beer Distribution game.

Features and Functionality
Not as intricate as a game designed to teach a system, games that teach features and functionality are equally as important. If members of the organization don’t understand the products they are selling or supporting, problems can arise. Fortunately, card games are an effective tool for helping employees understand features and functionality. To teach and reinforce various product attributes, try straightforward matching games that have players try to get rid of all their cards (called “shredding” games) or even games where you need to “fish” for the card that you want either from the table or from another player’s hand. In one of many variations, the features of a certain type of product need to be gathered by a player before other players gather features. This is accomplished by matching different types of cards together to form a feature match.


The great thing about these types of card games is that they provide a tangible “take away” from a large event and, if designed properly, the rules of the game can be modified to be single-player. This allows the learners to keep practicing with cards even if no group of fellow players is available. Most business-oriented games in this category are propriety because they are customized to a specific company’s product, but jumping off points can be simple games like Go Fish or Crazy Eights.

Practicing Sales Skills
Training professionals can avoid the typical moans and groans of a role play activities by integrating them into a card game. It is possible to create a card game where one player at a time draws a different role-play scenario, and the other players must react to the person’s role-play. Players continually alternate between acting out a scenario and evaluating other player’s responses. The outcomes and learning opportunities resulting from the game are similar, and in some cases, better than a pure role-play exercise. The game can be set up so that other players have objective measure on which to judge the role play and the players can fairly evaluate one another as they compete for the scenario cards. A good game in this category is Zombie Sales Apocalypse and its various versions (Zombie Instructional Design Apocalypse and Zombie Retail Banking Apocalypse, to name two).

Bottom Line

Tabletop games are a great way to bring employees together. They are more familiar to most people than video games, they foster face-to-face interactions and, if designed properly, provide a compelling learning experience. While it may seem daunting to develop a learning game from scratch, with a little bit of research and a good understanding of game design elements, you can begin developing learning games in no time.

Further Reading

About the Author

Karl Kapp has a worldwide reputation as one of the pioneers in the gamification of learning and instruction, having literally written the book on the topic. He's making headlines with his newest book, Microlearning: Short and Sweet. Kapp is an expert in the convergence of learning, technology, and business, was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education in 2017, and is the recipient of the 2019 ATD Individual Contributor Award. He works all over the world helping employers (from Fortune 100 companies to start-up organizations) deliver effective, meaningful instruction using a game-thinking approach. He is a TEDx speaker, an international keynoter, and the author of several LinkedIn Learning courses as well the creator of Zombie Sales Apocalypse and Zombie Instructional Design Apocalypse, popular card games for learning. Follow Karl on Twitter @kkapp..

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