Image Image Image Image Image



What can you learn from a boardgame?

  • By Vision Synergy


The island was sinking.

Most of my team were separated from each other, trapped, surrounded by rising water.

Our diver was equipped to get to the exit point, but our helicopter was down, so there was little chance the rest of our team would make it.

The good news?

It was only a game.

We were playing Forbidden Island, one of the most popular games in the relatively new and quickly growing genre of “cooperative boardgames.”

Boardgames are fun, but what can we really learn from a game that might be relevant to missional collaboration, partnerships, and networks?

Actually, we can learn a lot.


Want to play a game?

It was Albert Einstein who once said: “Games are the most elevated form of investigation.”

One member of our team is a frequent gamer and some of the favorite games on his list are cooperative boardgames. These types of games set the players as a team against the board. The players all win together, or they all lose together. Some cooperative boardgames have a secret “traitor” dynamic, which makes the game even more challenging.

Examples of cooperative boardgames include Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, Pandemic, Space Alert, Shadows Over Camelot, Defenders of the Realm, Flash Point, Escape, Lord of the Rings, and even much older games like Break the Safe.


Many of these cooperative boardgames use similar mechanics. Players may receive a random “role” or “character” card, which gives each person some special abilities.

Part of the cooperative gameplay is using whatever special abilities are in the mix to accomplish the goal of the game.

One of the fascinating things about especially popular cooperative games like Pandemic is that the worldwide community of players often create new role cards with new abilities and share those cards online. Many game designers value this type of engagement and widely encourage players to make variants. Pandemic players, for example, have created dozens of different role cards and customized maps for the game (essentially new game boards).


Learn to Play, Play to Learn


At one of our training workshops in Asia, our team created and played a cooperative boardgame with the workshop participants. Our game was a variation of Forbidden Island which we called, Turn the Tide.

In our workshop, the debrief and discussion following the gameplay unpacked several key principles and best practices in the development of missional partnerships. We asked the participants to discuss the roles they had in the games and how they worked together. We asked them to think about the special abilities and distinctives of their own real-world ministries in the context of their mission partnerships.

Some of the workshop participants were quite surprised to find how much learning could be drawn out of a single boardgame.


Partnership Principles at Play

Here are three examples of key principles of partnership that the workshop group drew out of a simple game. We’ve seen these same principles demonstrated in hundreds of real-world mission partnerships over nearly 30 years of field work.

1. Clear Identities. “You need a mix of distinct abilities to win the game.”

A key partnership principle is that an effective collaborative partnership is made up of partners with their own clear identities.

A diversity of strong partners is essential for success. A strong partner is one who knows who they are, what they care about, and what they do best. A partner who cannot clearly define their own identity, calling, or strengths will have difficulty seeing how they fit into the partnership, what they can contribute to the big vision, or how they can benefit from the joint effort. A strong partner will more fully understand their potential role and will be able to evaluate the impact of the partnership on their own agency. Clear identities strengthen relationships among partners and reduce ambiguity, overlap, and duplication in the work.

2. Common Focus. “There is only one goal in the game. You have to work together to find the cure (or find the treasure) and save the world (or get off the sinking island).”

A key partnership principle is that an effective collaborative partnership recognizes and accepts the differences among partners but concentrates on what they have in common.

The focus of an effective partnership is always first and foremost on the common purpose that draws the partners together. Acknowledging differences is important, but a strong partner looks for commonalities with other partners in areas like vision, values, and experience. It is not necessary to agree on every aspect of history, methodology, and belief in order to accomplish something significant together. A strong partner values the diversity of the backgrounds of other partners but emphasizes their common focus.

3. Broad Participation. “You have to actually talk to each other and coordinate your actions to win.”

A key partnership principle is that an effective collaborative partnership maintains the widest possible participation in decision-making.

Commitment, ownership, and participation is encouraged by actively engaging people in the process, not just the dream. An effective partnership is never top-down or hierarchical in nature. Partners give special attention to developing processes for planning, decisions, and communication that enlist broad participation.


Your turn to play!

To learn more about the 15 key principles of partnerships, download the Pocket Guide to Partnership. This is a great tool to use as a primer for your own group’s game-centered discussion of partnership principles.

If you would like to try out our game with your own group, you can download the print-and-play graphics, rules, and discussion guide for Turn the Tide.

If you would like to see how one world-famous trainer developed an entire workshop around a single boardgame, check out the workshop outline for High Performance Teamwork by Dr. Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan. Note: the boardgame Break the Safe is difficult to find these days, but any other cooperative boardgame could be substituted.

Game on!