Systems Thinking Through Playing Strategy Games

The title of this blog post is also the title of a two-day workshop at the School of Transformative Leadership, the Palacky University, Olomouc, that I delivered recently, ably aided and abetted by Gary Hampson and Charlie Paull. A major reason for doing this workshop was that Charlie and I could continue on from the Essen games fair to Olomouc in the Czech Republic. ‘Essen’ (as it is known to the gaming cognoscenti) is the largest game playing and selling festival in the world – the ‘Spiel’ (Internationale Spieltage) is an annual 4-day gamefest involving around 150,000 people, and Charlie and I trek out there every year under our Surprised Stare Games hats. This year, Spiel ’12, was a great show for us, as we sold out of our new board game Snowdonia.

A second major reason was that it combined two great interests of mine – systems thinking and playing games. The systems thinking derives from a healthy dose of Open University courses that Charlie and I pursued over 20 years ago. We’ve been using these techniques in our working lives since then, and they’ve strongly influenced my game design habits too.

And a third major reason was that I was invited to do it by Gary, a gaming friend who had fairly recently obtained a research post at the University in Olomouc, so it was an opportunity to catch up. Coincidentally we were also able to celebrate Gary’s birthday the day after the workshop before we had to endure the 1,000 mile drive back to the motherland.

Fortunately it was OK to deliver the workshop in English, as I know no Czech. We had 23 participants from a wide variety of courses, ranging from Philosophy, Education and Film to Chemistry. The workshop was an ‘elective’ one, so to a great extent the students attended by choice, having a number of such ‘extra curricula’ workshops to select from. The workshop was run under the auspices of the School of Transformative Leadership is part of an EU funded project, the University 4 The Future, an innovative new model of how to set up and run a university.

Setting up

Our focus for the workshop was on the learners learning about systems thinking. We intended to introduce how to play and think about the games through systems thinking techniques and vice versa

We alternated between playing the games and covering the theory illustrated by the games. We started by having plenary sessions for the theory, but found that getting responses from the whole group was difficult, as individuals were reluctant to speak. Therefore we switched to individual and group tasks, followed by discussions in which we could ask individuals to respond for the group. This worked very well.

Essential systems thinking concepts that we covered were:

  • Holism
  • Interconnectedness and relationships
  • Perspective
  • Purpose
  • Boundary
  • Emergent properties
  • Closed mechanical systems vs open living systems

And we introduced the following techniques:

  • Systems maps
  • Sign-graph diagrams
  • Control model diagrams
  • Very basic process model diagram
  • Systems model diagrams
  • Rich pictures

Game components

Characteristics of illustrative games in this workshop we wanted were:

  • To include strategic elements – preferably with easily discernible different strategies
  • Accessible (easy to teach and to learn)
  • Attractive
  • Easily identifiable systems and sub-systems
  • Available
  • Manageable or predictable length of play
  • Specific illustrative characteristics relevant to systems thinking

We decided on using the following games:

Kingdom Builder – this is very easy to teach in large groups, has got predictable play length if you pick the cards and boards, and it’s readily available. It has easily discernible sub-systems and elements of both strategic and tactical play. Additionally I was able to get 6 copies from Queen Games at Essen Spiel ’12 for a small discount, owing to our educational use (thanks to Queen Games for that).

Fzzzt! – also quite easy to teach and predictable play length with strategic and tactical play. We were able to use SSG copies for this, brought over as surplus from Essen.

Seven Wonders – more difficult to teach, as it has a significant learning curve for non-gamers, and requires single game teaching really. However, it can take up to 7 players and is highly engaging with strategic and tactical features; it’s not too difficult to play once you’ve grasped the basics. It looks very complex, though this can be deceptive, so good for teaching ideas of complexity without being too daunting.

Ticket To Ride: We had thought that Ticket To Ride would be another candidate, but in the end we were less confident of the play length, particularly as we had numerous expansions, rather than base copies, which meant that teaching across groups would have been more difficult. In the end we used it as a ‘final play’ game, rather than a particular teaching aid.

Snowdonia – used as one of our complex games, primarily because we’d been teaching it a lot at Essen, as it was our 2012 SSG release.

Hamburgum – the other complex game, a favourite of Gary’s, this one went down very well.

Sequence of Play

The structure of each day was 4 sessions: 09:00 start, break at around 11:00, 11:20 to 12:30/13:00; then lunch, then two afternoon sessions with a break at around 15:00. We were flexible about timing of breaks, so that we could get to coherent start and end points. This was really helped by having in-room refreshments – coffee, tea, juice, biscuits – and excellent support from the venue; we were in the Ibis Olomouc.

Day one

At the start of day one, we introduced ourselves, the concept of a strategy game, and what we meant by systems thinking. Then we went straight into Kingdom Builder.

Playing the game: Kingdom Builder

Our teaching method for the games was for me to address the whole class, with Gary and Charlie answering questions, checking groups and firefighting. The exposition had to be very slow and careful to ensure each group was up to speed at each stage of the explanation. As English was their second (and in one case third!) language, for both game concepts and systems concepts, we had to keep the terminology simple, and also repeat concepts with different words, and get some response from our audience to know we were succeeding. This was difficult in the first morning until we got used to it. We needed to sound them out and work out what level of language complexity was possible.

Playing Kingdom Builder

After playing Kingdom Builder we launched into some basic systems concepts: systems components (systems maps); boundaries; holism; relationships; emergent properties; closed mechanical systems versus open living systems; the games as a sub-system and containing sub-systems. We drew up a collective systems map of playing Kingdom Builder as an illustration of all the concepts. Trying to get them to think outside the game box (to think of systems outside the game) was difficult, until Charlie prompted with some examples. We covered a lot of ground, including an extensive explanation of emergent properties, including examples with regards strategies as emergent properties of games. We were then able to build on this idea; to develop or change strategies during game play, is an example of both game playing and wider application. We also started on control models, in particular the feedback control model.

Playing the game: Fzzzt!

Our afternoon session was Fzzzt!, a very successful card game that we had published three years before. Using this as an example, we were able to illustrate the ‘rich get richer’ phenomenon (positive feedback loops) and contrast with negative feedback loops. We decided it was easier to engage them with individual A4 systems maps of the Fzzzt! session, than to have a plenary discussion. This was a good ‘hands on’ starter.

One of our main techniques, and it worked very well, was to draw up diagrams using the games as examples, and post these around the room. By the end of the workshop most of the available wall space was papered with diagrams, about half of them produced by the students.

Day two

For day 2 we revised our plan taking into account our day 1 experiences. First we littered the walls with all our diagrams from day 1, including the systems map for Kingdom Builder, a generic systems map, systems definition, control models, communications model, emergent properties, positive feedback and Story So Far. Our intention for day 2 was to focus on activities to engage them, followed by discussion and feedback, as a handle for the explanation of the points we wanted them to grasp. The central things we wanted to cover in day 2 were: complexity (difficult versus messy problems) and how to use systems thinking to address it. Techniques: rich pictures, generic systems model mapping, plus the basics of soft systems methodology to pull it all together. Finally we would get them to play their choice of game at the end.

We could have translated this as: “we’re going to throw you in at the deep end, and then give you some techniques to cope with this”!

Playing the game: Complex games

After a recap of what we’d completed on day 1, we asked our students to form a line by their perceived level of confidence in playing the games. This took only a few minutes, and it worked very well – it had a major positive impact on the rest of the day. We were then able to pick off the most confident 5 students to be taught to play Hamburgum (the most demanding game) with Gary, the least confident 7 to be taught Seven Wonders (the easiest game) by Alan, and the remainder to be taught Snowdonia by Charlie. This session was interesting, because we had variable abilities and variable game lengths. Hamburgum looked to be the longest game, but we found that it was within 10 to 15 minutes of Snowdonia length. We fitted two Seven Wonders games into the slot.

Playing Hamburgum

The purpose of this session was to introduce more complex and challenging games. Quite properly some players found this difficult, which is the experience we were looking for. More confident players helped them through, and this enabled more group bonding, which was good for the next session.

We now introduced ‘messy’ problems and contrasted them with ‘difficulties’, using game examples and those from real life, including environmental and wider planning problems, and personal situations regarding further study and employment. This was important, because we wanted to relate the systems thinking increasingly to their own circumstances.

We retained them in their gaming groups (combining the Snowdonia players into one group) and set them the task of drawing a rich picture of their experiences in the previous session and the wider workshop. Charlie had drawn up an example of a rich picture the previous evening, so we were able to demonstrate the technique to an extent. The example was of day one and stressing the non-material elements.

This part of the day needed a lot of individual hand-holding, prompting and thinking time. It proved to be very important to give each group the space and time to get to grips with the task. We covered the games tables with 4 or 6 large Post-It flip chart pages and gave them coloured markers and pens to use. We gave them about 40 minutes to do this exercise – and there was much scratching of heads. With individual guidance we triggered the initial ‘marks on the paper’, and by the last 15 minutes almost all were actively participating and some very creative and insightful pieces of work were added.

Ideally, we would have had more coloured pencils or even crayons for this. Never give them yellow felt-tips – the marks don’t show up!

Once we felt they had achieved enough, we rotated the groups and asked them to review each others rich pictures for 5 minutes (done twice, so each group looked at all of them). Then we called for questions and some discussion ensued. The best method we found for stimulating discussion was to ask for an individual representing a group to explain how the rich picture emerged – individuals were less inhibited in responding when talking on behalf of their group, rather than for themselves.

Rich Picture

We rounded off the session by explaining how to draw out themes from the rich pictures that would help to address problem areas systemically.

We put all the rich pictures on the wall. On each one there were elements representing initial confusion followed by (eventual) ‘happy faces’ and understanding. This was very significant illustration of their journey (shown on the Snowdonia one as a train journey).

A generic systems model

In this session I explained the generic systems model and how to map other proto-systems to it. The explanation was taken slowly stage by stage, with reference to real world and game system examples at each stage.

The final exercise was for each individual to do an A4 sized map of the system “A system for understanding systems thinking through playing and discussing strategy games” using the generic systems model as a template. We nursed some of them through this, while others found it plain sailing. This exercise needed more careful explanation as some students did not understand that they were to use the generic model and started their own fresh diagram or used a different system more directly to do with the game. However, the central purpose was to get them to think systemically, which was achieved.

Victory conditions

In the final session we gave a brief overview of the soft systems methodology (a lot of which they had now been through), using a hand-drawn diagram on an overhead. A number of the students found this very useful, as it gave a real world way of using systems thinking for specific purposes.

Reflecting on this, it might have been better to present this overview earlier, because we do want to show the efficacy, purpose or point of the approach earlier in the day.

Soft Systems Methodology

We finished off the day with playing their choice of games from those already played, or learning Ticket To Ride as an alternative. We had very good feedback from students, an example being: “Nice combination of theoretical things and practical playing. Teachers were very friendly and they knew what they were talking about. Thumb [sic] up for this course!”


2 Responses to “Systems Thinking Through Playing Strategy Games”

  1. 1 Gabriel Arce August 1, 2014 at 15:24

    I am very interested on this thread. I am learning systems thinking and own and play some boardgames. Was this recorded? I would love to read more about what you did.

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