Board game recommendations (and reasons to use them)

I’ve played plenty of board games in my life. I’m not (only) talking about Monopoly.

I went to Cambridge (to visit, very sadly, not to study) in 2003. I found an awesome board game store and tried to buy Diplomacy.  The incredibly wise assistant basically forced me to buy Settlers of Catan before he would allow me to buy Diplomacy.

About Settlers of Catan

I have played hundreds of hours of Settlers, and recently gave Diplomacy away never having played it. I still believe it’s an awesome game.  (Strategy, relationships, IQ and EQ, competition and a little backstabbing. What’s not to like?) However, it  requires having enough people, the right sort of people. enough time (a weekend apparently is ideal) and ideally a couple people who have played before because it is complicated.

Now, Settlers has plenty of scope for tension as it is.  I kicked my best friend out of my flat once after a kingmaking incident. I’ve had arguments with significant others over games. And this is Settlers, not Diplomacy.

Do I recommend Settlers? Sure, it’s a popular game and usually a great deal of fun, especially if everyone is relatively inexperienced. Are there better games, absolutely. I hardly play Settlers in any more.  (Actually, I play massively less often than in the past given, well, life.)

Why I’ve been playing recently

I’ve played a little more recently in a work context, games to break up the stress of a major project or a chance to bond with colleagues involved in separate projects where we haven’t had as much opportunity to interact as I would like. It’s obviously fun, but can also be really insightful into the different ways people think, their aptitude for different types of tasks and the reactions when the game goes “less well” for them.

Understanding teams and team members

You might think a bunch of actuaries would be extremely similar. I’ve been surprised at the differences in interest and aptitude and styles of play – generally I take this as a positive. I believe in the value of diversity, not only the traditional focus areas of gender, race, age and culture, but the more subtle ways in which we are individuals.

It is useful to understand the way peers approach a problem or challenge and my aim is to better utilise team members based on this understanding. It is also true that certain aptitudes emerge or are confirmed (at risk of confirmation basis for sure).

Idea – recruitment and graduate recruitment

We’ve begun using these games as a part of a recruitment process. It is a more relaxed (but not always absolutely relaxed) way of interacting and evaluating candidates. It is likely distinct from other recruitment experiences and provides some insight into our team culture. It also allows several people from our team to meet the candidate and likewise the candidate to meet the team in an artificial manner but less artificial than an interview or formal introduction.

Games as relevant interludes during workshops

I’ve been involved with actuarial education for over a decade. My involvement is mostly around developing and presenting workshops on various topics. One thing I’ve learnt is that an entire day workshop with a single presenter is really hard work for the presenter and hard work for the students too.

I mix it up with Q&A, group exercises, live audience response polls, and sometimes board games. These games are selected to be relevant and fun. I think they’ve worked well – if you’re involved in something similar, even just inside your own organisation, I highly recommend it.

The value of co-operative games

For me, one of the least natural parts of a group interview or exercise is the cut-throat competitive nature. This sort of activity is more common at a graduate level than for “experienced hires”. The idea of working ostensibly in a group but knowing that there will be winners and losers, and often far more losers than winners, goes against any culture that seeks to promote effective teamwork. Sure, over time, individuals will seek to impress and their careers will broadly progress individually. The ability to cooperate in a team towards a common goal, albeit with different experience levels, skill levels and interests, is so fundamental to many positions that it seems bizarre that this isn’t a greater focus.

I only started playing co-operative boardgames a few years ago. If asked earlier in my life, I would have thought it odd or not fun. I wanted to win. What is the point if its not competitive? With some semblance of maturity, I now appreciate the joy work competing together. There is still a win or lose, but it’s naturally as a team rather than as an individual. I recognise this paints younger me in a less flattering light. I suspect I’m not alone, particularly in the actuarial world.  At least I can say I’ve learnt and grown and developed beyond that point.

Cooperative games can still create intense stress between individuals, exactly as in the real world. Competing views of how to achieve success, communication challenges, shared leadership and collaboration, the impact of mistakes and time pressure are common to both. How individuals respond to these stresses in a cooperative team environment can be extremely informative.

So what am I playing with this cooperative and team informative view in mind?

Other games I still enjoy or really enjoyed in the past

Published by David Kirk

The opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and other commenters and are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organisation. David Kirk runs Milliman’s actuarial consulting practice in Africa. He is an actuary and is the creator of New Business Margin on Revenue. He specialises in risk and capital management, regulatory change and insurance strategy . He also has extensive experience in embedded value reporting, insurance-related IFRS and share option valuation.

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