A list of tabletop games to use at work

Before we dive into the list, some general items about games in the workplace:

  • Consider the setup time and amount of space required (including whether people will have to reach across, read upside-down, etc).
  • Check if anyone has accessibility needs that prevent playing the game. Meeple Like Us is a fantastic resource in that regard. In fact, stop now and go read one of their accessibility tear-downs to see what it entails.
  • Make sure you know how to explain the rules. Practice explaining them to someone (hi, mom!). YouTube guides can be useful here.
  •  That said, no need to go into all the details before you start playing, particularly if you’re going to be playing with/facilitating for just one group. You can say “let’s start and I’ll answer questions as they come up”.
  • Gently nudge players if they come down with a case of analysis paralysis.
  • Depending on the game, you can add more players by having two people control one meeple.
  • Buying the app or Steam version is a cheap way to learn a game’s ins and outs. Be aware that’ll take less time to play than in the physical version.
  • Context is important: explain the purpose of playing that game at work and afterwards check what people got from the exercise (if anything).

Oh, and if you’re using cooperative games (about half the following list), it might be helpful to define them to your group: games where everyone is on the same team and playing against the game. Everyone wins or loses together.

The quick coop: Hanabi

Hanabi is a light cooperative card game which works really well at work. It’s quick to explain and play, it’s cheap to buy, it forces everyone to participate equally and communicate well, it’s challenging but not brutal on the players, and it literally doesn’t begin unless people help each other.

The game accomplishes this through a simple hidden information mechanic: players hold the cards facing outwards and only learn what themselves are holding if one of the other players gives them a clue.

(You may be thinking: don’t people help each other in all coops? Yes and no. Coops often allow players to work separately towards the same goal. It’s not necessarily a good strategy, mind you, but it’s possible.)

Stats: 2-5 players, 30 minutes

A woman and three men playing Hanabi, another group in the background.
The psychedelic trip: Dixit

Dixit is an immensely popular party game, known for the strange, beautiful artwork. It’s a competitive game (one of the expansions has the option for teams to compete against each other). It encourages deduction and creativity: players take turns describing cards in not too obvious terms and guessing what the others meant.

There are several reports on the web on its use, not as a game, but as prompts for the team to talk during retrospectives (they also include better pictures of the cards).

Technically you don’t need the score track to play, just the cards and paper to write down votes and points (in other words, the more affordable expansions can be used).

Stats: 3 – 6 players (base game) or 12 players (Odyssey expansion), 30 minutes

Score track next to cards showing: clown juggling firesticks atop a pile of bombs, knight templar kneeling before TVs, flying pen with price tag, gargoyle with bubbles, and balloons with animal faces holding boy over lava
Dixit Odyssey
The one that’s just like your job: Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island and others in this family (Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, Ghost Stories, Yggdrasil) is a cooperative game with variable player powers. Pandemic is the most famous one, however Forbidden Island has the advantage of being simpler and easier to win.

What these games have in common is that each player has a special power and that the game keeps throwing obstacles at the team faster and faster and faster.

Players need to figure out how to best use their powers and balance actions that bring them closer to victory (finding treasure) with actions that prevent an immediate loss (stop the island from sinking under the weight of production bugs while the team is still on it).

Stats: 2-4 players, 30 minutes

Game components on top a glass table. Cards represent parts of the island and its treasures.
Forbidden Island
The poster child for responding to change: Fluxx

Fluxx is a competitive card game in which players can alter rules and win conditions as they go, for example, how many cards are drawn, played, kept in hand, etc. To win the game, a player has to collect certain cards – which cards exactly is also subject to change.

It’s a game that rewards quick tactical thinking, as opposed to long-term strategy, and at the same time illustrates how frustrating it is to be close to the goal and have everything change, often several times during the game.

Stats: 2-6 players, 5-30 minutes (yeah, notice the variable time? Can’t predict changes!)

3 yellow rule cards and 2 pink goal cards
The love-child of Dixit and Clue: Mysterium

Mysterium is an asymmetrical cooperative game that also uses strange beautiful artwork. It requires imagination and lateral thinking to match clue cards to suspect, location and weapon cards (or motives in the latest expansion).

One player has a different role from everyone else – that of providing the clues – and one interesting side-effect of this asymmetry is that people tend to complain about the clues because they don’t understand the constraints that player is under. Switching roles is a good way to create empathy.

Although nominally for up to 7 players, we’ve experimented with 13, combining it with ideas from silent collaboration. This turned it into a good game to play with a deaf coworker at a time when the rest of the team was just learning sign language.

Stats: 2-7 players, 45 minutes.

11 people sit around two joined tables, plus one woman standing. Many colorful cards are spread on the table and a special upright card holder divides two areas.
The almost NSFW: Cards Against Agility

Cards Against Agility and Cards for Agility are two versions of Cards Against Humanity (CAH), which is itself a version of Apples to Apples. It’s a quick, fun print&play game, good for ice-breaking, and can be used to kick-start a retrospective or to discuss Agile concepts that the team isn’t familiar with.

CAH is infamous for being very offensive, and you may found some questionable cards in the Agile versions, but it’s easy to produce your own cards with cleaner humor. In fact, designing your own version can be a cool team exercise. We have one in Brazilian Portuguese available, with localized references (Brazil being sadly ignorant of Eurovision).

Stats: 4-10 players, 30 minutes

The videogame: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes isn’t technically a boardgame, but it’s a fantastic game to use at work. It’s an asymmetrical cooperative game where one player needs to disarm a bomb (displayed on the computer) according to instructions that the rest of team reads from a manual.

It requires a great deal of communication and establishment of a common language every time the bomb modules change. We’ve used KTaNE in retrospectives to discuss various aspects of teamwork.

The game is also interesting because it needs different strategies to share information depending on the team: nobody’s ever played, some have played, everyone has played.

The PDF manual is available in several languages on the internet and the text-only sections are accessible to visually-impaired people using a screen reader.

Stats: 2-5 players, 5 minutes (as if. Nobody ever plays only one round.)

Two women read a manual while another looks at the bomb displayed in the laptop
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
The guessing game: The Mystery of Dattakamo

The Mystery of Dattakamo is a game designed to be accessible to visually-impaired people. Using touch, a player decides what an abstract object is, and the others, also by touch, must guess what it is through a series of questions with a yes/no answer.

It encourages people to be creative and, although competitive, it ends up in a brainstorming session similar to games like Black Stories. It can easily be adapted to a cooperative version.

The same designer has a neat variation of tic-tac-toe called Arabian Pots that is based on sound and thus also accessible.

Stats: 3-12 players, 15 minutes

The shameless plug: BDD Warriors

BDD Warriors is a print&play competitive card game used as an introduction to Behaviour-Driven Development. It requires players to create scenarios using science fiction and fantasy settings and highlights that working as a group on single-domain scenarios leads to better results.

Stats: 2-6 players, 40 minutes

A group of people sitting on the floor in a circle and playing BDD Warriors, some people observing around them
BDD Warriors

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