Developing Games Fosters an Experimental Mindset

January 21, 2012

So, for the past week or so, I’ve been developing the Impediments Game. You can see some of my efforts: interation 1, iteration 2, Interlude, and Iteration 3. Now I have no experience or expertise designing games, so as you might imagine, there has been a great deal of trial and error involved in this process. Whenever you add a new element or change an existing rule or component of the game play you are doing it with some sort of hypothesis in mind. For example, If I add “Accelerator cards” it will give the players a way to overcome the negative impact of impediments. That’s the kind of hypothesis I’m talking about. How do we actually run an experiment to test the hypothesis? We play the game!

Game play gives us the tangible feedback that we need to validate our hypothesis. Playing the game gives us both subjective and objective data. How does the game play feel? Was it fun? How long did the game take? How many cards did you use? Which strategy won out?

What I’m experiencing as I play the game is a lot of different questions – questions that can form the foundation for the next experiment:

  • How would the game work without cards (I could try using points…story points? The person with the most story points wins?)
  • What could I add to the game to promote teamwork? Would there be some sort of benefit accrued by helping your opponent?
  • Should elements like risks, impediments, and accelerators have a limited lifespan?

Of course the real joy of games is that you can run your simulations over and over and tweak things until you are happy with them. That’s what I mean by an experimental mindset. I see all too many teams that seem unable to come up with meaningful experiments to try and modify their performance. They have a hard time coming up with the “What if…” part of the mindset. Perhaps they should be playing, or even better, making their own games.

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Developing the Impediments Game – Part 4

January 20, 2012

So today was a day to make a few changes and take stock of where things are at. The first change I wanted to make was to double the length of the game from 20 spaces to 40:

Changing the board like this actually raised a few interesting questions about the game for me. First, what does each space on the board represent? It could be:

  1. A square, just like on the sidewalk, just a position to advance to…
  2. It could represent a unit of time, like a day, or a sprint
  3. It could represent a position in a queue or a backlog

In this case, for right now I’m going to just keep it simple. I haven’t assigned any particular meaning to the spaces (although the astute observer might notice that they are now arranged in rows of ten, just like some sprints…). All I really want to do right now is insure that the game is sufficiently long enough that I can guarantee that whatever strategies each player of the game uses has a chance to fully play itself out in the duration of the game. In the first iteration of the game, with only 20 spaces, the game could play itself out in 4 rolls of the dice. That seemed too short, so I’ve switched to 40 spaces.

The other thing I felt it was important to do was to spend some time just playing the game and question the value that I was getting out of it. So I played this longer version, but just with the impediments, not with the risks. I learned that if I played two players with equal strategies – in other words both doing the best they could to win given the circumstances of each roll of the dice, the game felt a little frustrating. You spent your time trying to move toward the finish and were constantly being assaulted with impediments. It felt pretty tedious.

That brings up an important point: in most board games there are both positive and negative things that can happen to a player, even if they all just occur by chance. The classic “CandyLand” is like that. Playing with just impediments is kind of depressing. Especially when you can’t do anything other than pay their price. That’s where adding an element like risks to the game allows you to start doing something to proactively avoid impediments. Integrating risks into the game makes it feel much more interesting. Apparently dealing with impediments doesn’t feel nearly so bad when you have a strategy to deal with them. I think there might be some keen observations on learned helplessness lurking under that observation someplace.

What else can I do to give the player ways to deal with impediments? How about some Accelerator cards?

What would accelerators be? Here are some examples:
  1. TDD
  2. Pair programming
  3. Continuous Integration
  4. Continuous Deployment
  5. Automated testing
  6. Retrospectives

Each one of these things are the types of activity that a team can use to mitigate the impact, or even completely avoid some kinds of impediments. Time for more cards! I’m going to have to hit the office supply store soon!


Developing the Impediments Game – An Interlude

January 18, 2012

I know what you’re probably thinking by now: MORE on this silly game? Well, yes (I’m so embarrassed). You see, it just gets more interesting as I continue to play with it. Today I decided that I needed to improve the impediments cards in the game. In previous iterations, the cards had the word impediment printed on one side and the impact or cost of the impediment was printed on the other side. I thought it would make the impediments much more interesting if I used some real world examples. So, using the list of 100 impediments that was compiled by William Wake, I added an impediment description to each card. Now they look something like this:

What I like about having actual examples of impediments on each card is that players now get familiarized with different kinds of impediments while they play the game. Players actually might learn about different kinds of impediments! That’s kind of a nifty idea.

You see I have a confession to make: so far the game has been a way for me to try and model my own hypothesis about how impediments and risks impact teams. For example:

Hypothesis: A team that deals with impediments will have a higher velocity than at team that doesn’t address their impediments.

Hypothesis: A team that deals with Risks will have fewer impediments to deal with and subsequently higher velocity.

I confess that these are not complicated hypothesis, but they pose the kinds of assertions that I would like to validate. It turns out that constructing a game with rules that define the boundaries of the problem is a really fun and engaging way to test the validity of those assertions. But as I build out the game further, I’m starting to realize that games can also have learning objectives as well. Perhaps I ought to define some of those. For example:

  • People who play this game will learn about different kinds of impediments – some that they may not have ever considered before

Well, that sounds like a pretty good thing to me!

So now I’m thinking about the game a little differently. I’m looking at the games not only validating my own hypothesis about how impediments and the way we manage them (or fail to) impacts teams, but also providing a tool for teaching others about what impediments are and how they work. I think more people should create games!


Developing the Impediments Game – Iteration 2

January 17, 2012

This is a continuation of my last post where I was endeavoring to create a board game that allows players to simulate the trade-offs with dealing (or not) with impediments.

This time around I wanted to add a new element to the gameplay: risk

So how do risks work? Well, a risk is something that you can decide to address at any time, so you can pull one from the deck at any turn. After all, risk is always there, right? If you pull a risk from the deck, you will find it has a cost to mitigate the risk. That cost is expressed in the number of spaces you give up in order to “buy” or mitigate the risk. What is the benefit of mitigating a risk you ask? Well, if you have a risk that you have paid to mitigate, then you can avoid the next impediment that comes along. In effect, you are taking out insurance against a future impediment. My view is that there is a risk lifecycle where:

An unmitigated risk can become an impediment which can (perhaps) become a lesson learned

It is a progression of sorts that I believe takes place in the project management world. Fail to deal with the risk, and you are more likely to encounter an impediment. Fail to deal with an impediment, and you now have an opportunity to suffer (and hopefully learn).

I also thought that aside from the role of the dice, there ought to be an additional level of uncertainty. Everybody knows that bad things can happen on projects, right? Major setbacks can come out of nowhere. So I borrowed a notion from the game, “Chutes and Ladders” and created “slides” where a team could slide backwards on the project and lose ground if they just happen to land on the wrong space.

The “slides” are the black bars on the board that connect two spaces (OK, I stole some hair ribbons from my daughter).

OK, so how does this actually play out in practice? Well, once again I started with my two players: this time it was Green and Red. Red would take a strategy of addressing risk, and Green would take the strategy of ignoring risk and simply dealing with impediments. Here’s how each turn of play worked:

  1. Roll the dice to see how far you advance
  2. Roll the dice again to see if you encounter an impediment (you found an impediment if you roll 1-3 otherwise you dodge the bullet) Take an impediment card if the roll dictates
  3. Optionally, take a risk card

On the next roll for advancement you get to do one of three things:

  1. If you have an impediment card you must subtract the impediment from the roll in order to “pay the impediment tax” and move on. This can take more than one roll (causing you to lose multiple turns).
  2. If you have a risk card, you can pay for the risk card before moving on. Again, you subtract the value on the card from your roll. The practical cost is that you lose turns while you address the risk.
  3. If you don’t have an impediment to deal with (Lucky you!) or a risk to mitigate (eat your veggies!) then you are free to advance further on the board.
  4. If you have a previous risk card that you have purchased, you can use it to skip paying for an impediment you have discovered.

So how did this all play out? Well, the player (Red) that took the strategy of paying for risk up front. Sure enough, they started off slow, but then they raced around the board, and even with a few unfortunate slips on my “slides” they still managed to easily outpaced the Green player and won the game. Lesson? Address your risks early and you will avoid future impediments, but are still subject to the vagaries of project circumstance.

OK, so I’m feeling a lot better about the game now. This second iteration was pretty interesting. It’s not quite so trivial and seems to allow (me) to explore some interesting trade-offs in risk and impediment management. Now, I’ll know I have something great on my hands if one of my kids walks by and offers to play. Who wants to play? I’ve got a few more ideas, but I’ll save those for iteration 3.


Developing the Impediments Game

January 16, 2012

I was inspired recently by a twitter post from Elizabeth Hendricks where she said she was working on an impediments game. I thought that was an absolutely wonderful idea, so I wanted to take a swing at it myself. Once I finally managed to summon the courage to try I sat down and put together a preliminary set of rules. Here is my first attempt (first iteration):

Overall the game is organized as a straightforward racetrack, first-to-finish objective. Gameplay is in rounds, where each round consists of a capacity roll and an impediment roll. Capacity is the number of spaces a given team may advance. A roll of 1-3 means a team must take an impediment from the impediments deck. Impediments are subtracted from the teams capacity each turn and have a fixed cost that must be paid in order to remove them. In each turn a team can decide to spend their capacity on forward advancement toward the project finish, or apply some or all of that capacity toward resolving impediments. The team that reaches the project finish line first wins the game.

So there you have it, a set of rules to begin with. They’re pretty simple, but I don’t know anything about designing games so simple seems like a good approach for me. Next, I raided the kids game chest for some dice, playing pieces and a few ideas.

To make a board, I took some 3×5 cards and cut them up and laid them out in a pattern that was inspired by Candy Land. I cut up a few cards and made myself a deck of impediment cards. So now, I had a board, some playing pieces, impediment cards, and a 6 sided dice.

Not a bad start really. It looked like this:

OK, sorry about the table cloth – I know it’s atrocious. So I tried playing out a simple scenario to see how it felt. I had two players, blue and green. Blue was going to take the strategy of always investing in resolving impediments, and red was going to try and plow along without paying the impediment tax. So we started with round one, with both players at the start:

Green goes first and rolls a 5. I moved him five spaces forward and then rolled the dice again to see if he encountered an impediment. That’s two rolls each turn for each player: the first roll determines how many spaces they may travel forward, the second roll determines whether or not the player encounters an impediment (a roll of 1-3 means you draw and impediment card, a roll of 4-6 means that you didn’t encounter an impediment). Green rolls a two, so he pulls an impediment card off the deck:

This impediment card had a value of 2. This means that from now on, when Green rolls the dice to see how many spaces forward he can go, he will have to subtract 2 from the value of each roll. For example, if he rolls a 4 he can only move forward 2 spaces (4-2=2). Now in this case Green is just going to suck it up and try to keep going forward without eliminating the impediment.

Blue’s turn is next. He also rolls a five right off the bat. For his impediment roll, he rolls a 1, so he also pulls an impediment card. His has a value of 4 (that’s a pretty steep impediment). So at this point in the game, after one turn each, our players are at the exact same place on the board, however we haven’t had a chance yet to play our strategies out.

Green has the next roll and  gets a 6 so he moves forward 4 spaces, taking into account his unresolved impediment of 2. He then makes his impediment roll, and wouldn’t you know it? He gets a three, which means he just earned himself another impediment. This impediment is a 5. OUCH!

Blue takes his next turn and gets a 4. Instead of moving forward, he uses those 4 to pay off his impediment and resolve it. I arbitrarily set the price to resolve the impediment as equal to the impact of the impediment. So for this turn, blue doesn’t get to go anywhere, but at least he doesn’t have any impediments to deal with. Nice!

So then it’s Green’s turn again…but wait…Green has accumulated 7 points of impediments! There is no role of the dice that will overcome that (six sided dice anyway). So Green is completely blocked. He rolls a five, but because of his unresolved impediments he’s not going anywhere (5-7= no forward progress).

And so it goes, blue ends up racing to the finish line, resolving the occasional impediment along the way. Green remains trapped, completely impeded and unwilling to resolve the issues blocking forward progress.

At the end of the game I realized a couple of things. First, I had impediment values that ranged randomly from 1 to 5. For green, this meant that they accumulated pretty fast. Green only made it two rounds before he was stopped completely. You could argue that this makes sense. Any team completely unwilling to address their impediments at all is likely to have serious problems. On the other hand, I might argue that in reality, most of the impediments that I encounter on projects tend to slow it down rather than stop it completely. So I’m considering lowering the impediment values in the next iteration.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not sure that this particular scenario offers a significant learning experience or not. It seems a bit too simplistic to me. Perhaps I need to add some additional elements that might better reflect the chaotic nature of the typical project? I’ve created a set of Risk cards that I’ll also try out in the next round. What else should I try? Next stop: iteration 2.