This is a working out loud story about building a game for use in a workshop. It’s a long one, so grab a beverage and a snack before you dive in. I would not have guessed the turns this project took, so I hope sharing it will help others in their game development adventures – or at least turn out to be a good case study that can be shared in a variety of contexts.


Wanna play? This “Building a Better Learning Culture” game has been invented for my Cultivating a Strong Learning Culture workshop online at the Learning Solutions Digital Experience, May 3-4, 2021 (two 3.5 hour sessions). The workshop has several  thought-provoking activities, and you’ll take away a plan for strengthening learning culture. This is a terrific opportunity for designers, learning strategists, or leaders who want to improve their learning culture or encourage self-directed learning, for their team or for their organization.


Why a game?

The game, which I have named Build a Better Learning Culture, is for a workshop on cultivating learning culture. The workshop’s design is pretty straightforward. It has several activities aimed at developing an understanding of the foundations of a strong learning culture and ends with attendees creating their own plans for strengthening learning culture in their organizations. To help people to visualize concrete actions for those plans, I felt it would be useful to share a list of tactics – specific actions or behaviors that embody learning culture foundations, to bring them to life. I wanted a fun way to do that rather than just giving people a list. So I started to think about how I might use a game to introduce these tactics.

Game structure

I’ve been stuck on the alliteration of “build a better” learning culture from the time I proposed the workshop, even though “cultivating” a learning culture is actually a better description. “Building” a culture seemed to me to be a good goal for the game. The purpose of the game is to accumulate specific tactics that would theoretically be a part of  an effective learning culture. With that in mind, I cast around for a game structure that would make sense.

The game Mille Bornes came almost immediately to mind. (True confession: I’m the aunt that likes to play games; I have over 100, not one with a battery. Back in the day, Mille Bornes was a favorite among the youngsters in my life, most of whom are now in their twenties and thirties. Sigh.)

The goal of Mille Bornes is to accumulate mileage cards totaling 1000 miles. The card deck has mileage cards in 200, 100, 75, 50, and 25 mile increments. The game is not just a matter of getting the right cards first, though, there are additional rules and hazards that make it a bit of a stop-and-go trip.

Other players can play cards that figuratively give you a flat tire, an accident, an empty gas tank, or a speed limit. When these cards are played on you by an opponent, you first have to counter them with the matched remedy before you can accumulate additional miles (e.g. spare tire, repairs, gas, etc.). Another caveat to play is that you need to have a “Go” card on the table for you to lay down any mileage cards – and fellow players may use a “Stop” card to prevent your advancement.

Players start with six cards each. Like many card games, a “turn” allows you to draw from the pile or from the discard pile and then lay down one of your own cards – either in your play area to advance your quest, in another player’s area to slow that person down, or in the discard pile because you have no other play.

Overlaying learning culture concepts onto Mille Bornes’ game structure

The point of using an existing game structure to invent a game is that the original game designers have already figured out some key decisions around rules, and in this case, the composition of the deck.

I thought I could have people accumulate tactics rather than miles; nice match there. It’s also true that there are things that happen that damage an effective learning culture, so I figured I could have hazards of my own. And the go/stop cards could be replaced by cards that signified commitment to building a culture and wavering commitment to building it.

One of the things I remember about playing the Mille Bornes game, however, is that those Go/Stop cards are a source of major frustration. Go cards can be danged hard to get, and you get nowhere without one. Initially, then, I decided that I would forgo using them; it would simplify the game a bit.

In Mille Bornes, there are 46 mileage cards, 13 hazard cards, and 24 remedy cards, as well as 5 stop cards and 14 go cards, so I initially started by wanting to substitute my own variation into these categories.

Instead of varying mileage cards (e.g. 200, 100, 75, etc.), I had the potential of three categories of tactics (Purpose, Connections, Mindset). I decided that a learning culture would be built with 3 tactics in each of the three categories. That was fairly arbitrary – I could have gone with 4 of each, I think, but I wanted to see how long the game would run if I only required three.

I replaced the hazard cards with “culture busters” – also aligned to categories. Rather than make specific remedies for each buster, I decided that players simply needed an extra tactic to counter any culture busters played against them.

To determine how many tactics I needed, I added 46 (mileage cards) and 24 (remedy cards), which equals 70, divided by 3 categories, that’s 23.3 cards per category. I decided to make it 24 tactics per category. To determine the number of culture-busters, I added the 13 hazards plus the 5 stop cards (18) which works out to 6 busters per category. For some reason lost in my memory, I actually put 7 busters per category in the game.

I also decided to add some “wild cards.” I worried that the deck might run out of tactics of a specific type, making it harder for people to compile their cultures. So I added four “Adopt a tactic” cards and four “Invent a tactic” cards.

I wrote up the rules of the game, recognizing that most people have not played Mille Bornes, so I couldn’t rely on building up from their knowledge of that game.

Play tests 1

To see how the game might work, I cut out a bunch of slips of paper and wrote on each what type of card was represented. Good enough for the task at hand.

It didn’t really matter what the tactics were at this point – I was just testing out the flow of the game. At my dining table, I laid out hands for four players and played a couple of rounds. The results were disappointing. The game moved too quickly, and it was clear that people wouldn’t actually be learning the tactics written on the cards. Worse, it was kind of boring.

New rules

To improve the game, I made two changes. First, I put the Commitment/Wavering commitment cards into the game hoping to slow it down a bit (they mimic the Go/Stop cards). And second, I made it a rule that people had to actually say the tactics out loud when they played cards. That’s a bit odd, I know. We don’t say “Jack of Hearts” when we play card games. But I thought that my participants would be okay with this rule once they knew the point of the game was to get to know some of these tactics.

Identifying the tactics for the game

Identifying the tactics for the game was an interesting exercise in itself. As much as possible, I wanted to share tactics that were actually employed in organizations – examples drawn from books and articles on building  a learning culture. I had kept track of these to some degree when I analyzed the learning culture literature to identify the characteristics of learning cultures. Some tactics were just too context-specific, so I made them more generic. To flesh out my list, I went through my favorite resources again to see what I could dig up. I developed the shorter list of busters the same way.

Feedback

I had enough of a plan now to start asking others whether they thought the game had potential. I therefore asked a few friends to just review the rules of the game and the list of tactics to get their reaction.

Darren was “definitely intrigued” by the idea, and thought it could both generate discussions and  highlight steps to build a culture. At the same time, he expressed concern about the complexity of the game, specifically around the commitment/wavering commitment cards. And he suggested that some of the tactics were wordy.

Michelle Ockers, who has expertise in learning culture as well, had comments on the wording of the tactics and was kind enough to give me specific suggestions as well as some recommended additions.

Play tests 2

For the second play test, I purchased index cards. Staples had these nicely-sized smaller ones that suited the purpose quite well (on sale, $1.00 per hundred!). I didn’t actually write the tactics on the cards – that would have been tedious in the extreme. I just needed to play as if the tactics were there. So I printed out the tactic lists and just read random tactics as cards were played. That helped me to check out timing now that players would be asked to read them aloud.

Here’s what I learned from that play test. The Commitment/Wavering commitment cards were a bad idea – I ran into the same problem we ran into with Go cards in Mille Bornes. In both of the tests I ran, one player didn’t get to play because they never drew a Commitment card. I also learned the game took about 15 minutes with four players. That was close to the timing I wanted (15-25 minutes would be good), and I figured it would run a bit longer when players talked about the tactics or chit-chatted about other things as we so often do when we play cards.

Those play tests were enough proof-of-concept that I thought I might actually have a viable game. Wahoo!

Play tests 3

For the next play test, I actually made the cards. Designing them was quite fun! I made icons for each of the categories and color-coded them. I spoke with the folks at Staples about how to produce them so that I would know how I needed to lay things out. I spared myself the expense of printing on card stock for play testing, though, and just printed them out on paper and cut them apart myself.

I sent the cards templates to Michelle, too, so that she could do the same thing I was doing and give me her feedback. She was lucky enough to be able to do that with a live group and said that the game worked quite well.

Results: The big insight I got from that round was that the tactics didn’t all roll smoothly off the tongue as we were playing the game. In the context of building a culture, players should own the tactics – this is what “my” team or organization is doing. And when playing culture-busters against others, players should be using “you” language – “a leader in your organization did x… “ As much as I thought the tactics were clear, Michelle and I were able to identify ones that didn’t make sense in context or that needed rewording to be more smoothly shared in the game.

And then the pandemic hit

The game was designed for a preconference workshop at the 2020 Learning Solutions conference. But Learning Solutions was cancelled in light of the coronavirus pandemic, so all that work was put on hold for another day. Argh!!

One year later… making the game virtual

My preconference workshop proposal was once again accepted for Learning Solutions 2021, but it is to be run online, which kinda makes it hard to play a card game. However, I found a free online solution that allowed me to build the card game in a shared meeting room. (How cool is that?! Thank you, playingcards.io!) I needed to shorten up some of the tactics so that the wording would fit on the cards, but generally, it was a smooth transition. (Well, relatively smooth – there was quite a bit of trial and error to figure how to set up the game table and cards so they would look right, and one SOS to the game developer to fix a problem that I could not. )

Play tests 4

Once the card game was set up online, I set up multiple browsers so I could play test by myself (play all hands). The game usually took 20 minutes or so, mostly because I can be terrible at watching for who is about to win! I think it could take longer if people chat and hesitate over how to play. I can put just 3 people at each table to speed it up if I like – we’ll see how we can best divide participants once I have final numbers.

Insights from these play tests: I decided to add the “turn” indicator because there are no visual cues about whose turn it is otherwise. And I took notes on ways to improve the directions and the presentation of the rules at the start of the game when I run it for real. I plan to play it again and loop in some actual virtual players for a test before the workshop runs. I’ll also need to have a serious contingency plan just in case the system fails me the day of the event.

Stay tuned

If you have comments or suggestions you’d like to send along, please email me (clombardozzi at L4LP.com). As noted, I’m running the workshop May 3-4 – wish me luck!  I’m really looking forward to seeing my participants play and have a good feeling about the conversations it will generate. Update to follow.

If you’re not attending Learning Solutions and would like a customized workshop on cultivating learning culture for your organization, please contact me and we can discuss the possibilities.