February can be the coldest month. Weather is all over the place between snow, rain, sleet, and temperatures bordering on what is humanly tolerable. Your team feels cooped up in the office around this time of year. And with the sun crawling slowly back to day lights savings time, it can feel like winter gloom will last forever.
This is the perfect time of year to take a few days out of the month or a few hours out of the week to focus on inner-office communication and team building! I’m not talking about ice breakers or a company retreat. You can get into some deep, fun teamwork right in your own cozy office space. There are plenty of time-tested activities and board games to oil the gears and get employees talking.
Known as Arctic Adventure, Base Camp, Frostbite, and many other names, this one is a classic! You need a tent for each group, or a large pile of cardboard boxes and sturdy tape. You also need mittens for leaders and blindfolds for builders. Break off your employees into groups. Each group should have an expedition leader (or two for larger groups); the rest of the group members are builders. Give the leaders a pair of mittens to wear. Blindfold the builders. Ready some sort of timer app or stopwatch for 30 minutes.
Each group is on an expedition through the arctic. Things are not going well. The leaders all have frostbite on their hands but the expedition’s only pair night vision goggles. The builders are working in the dark, but they are otherwise unharmed by the cold weather. The temperature is dropping fast. Each group must assemble their tent before time runs out, but the builders can’t see and the leaders can’t use their hands. If you are using the alternate supplies, they must build a structure that all of them can fit inside using cardboard and tape. This is an exercise in listening and giving clear instructions. If you can have actual managers or directors in the leadership roles, that would be ideal.
This is a cooperative card game for up to 5 players. You are working together to pull off a timed fireworks display. Each of you has cards from a deck that consists of five different colors, cards in each color numbered one through five. The players need to place the cards in five single-color rows with cards in order from one to five. The catch is that each player holds their hand facing outward – they can’t see the cards in their own hand! Teammates need to give one another hints about the cards in their hand and where to place them without giving away the numbers and colors or pointing. Everyone must get the cards to the table in the right order before the deck runs out.
Hanabi is great for small groups in the office, and it’s a cheap game! So you could split into several teams, and each could race to finish before the others. This team building activity is great for developing communication and project execution skills.
Having really taken off in the past few years, escape rooms are a now a popular pastime and activity for corporate retreats. The participants are locked in a room that sets the scene. It could be an old house, a laboratory, or perhaps an evidence lockup at a police precinct. They then have an hour to find clues, solve riddles, and open doors to other rooms so that they can discover the solution and escape! If a haunted house is meant to frighten you, an escape room is meant to make you think. All of the participants have to work together, searching everywhere they can think of for answers or evidence. They need to clearly announce their findings and offer help as the clock runs down. Employees who are good at puzzles or pattern recognition will shine her.
Escape Rooms run about $20-30 per person, and they’re popping up all over the place. Most facilities feature many different themed rooms with varying difficulties, and most rooms can accommodate groups up to eight or ten. The escape room activity fires on all cylinders, encouraging critical thinking under pressure, cooperation, communication, perception, and even project management and business process management. They are great for special events as well. Employees in an escape room don’t feel like their completing a team task, they’re just having a ball. If you can’t get your office out to any local escape rooms, the Exit series by Thames & Kosmos and the Unlock! series by Asmodee are small card games designed to mimic the escape room experience.
Pandemic and Forbidden Island
If your work group likes the idea of an escape room, but either the price or your location prohibits travel, a good cooperative board game will do. Hanabi was our selection for a co-op game with restricted table talk. Pandemic is our plug for a co-op experience with, well, just restrictions. This board game pits players against a dwindling deck of infection cards as four diseases spread around the world. It’s up to your team to stop the epidemics and eradicate what diseases you can. The board is a map of the world, with connected dots representing major cities. Randomly drawn disease cards place infection tokens around the board. The players have hands of location cards that can be used for moving and curing diseases, but your actions are limited. The fastest ways to travel are to discard your cards, but that’s also the easiest way to cure diseases, and you won’t get those location cards back. You need to work together and plan carefully if you want to stop these four terrible illnesses from toppling civilization.
Pandemic comes from a group of co-op games from the same designers, that includes Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert. In each of these thematic games, each player has a simple ability they can use to help the group. Not many games feel as if they were designed with interdepartmental relations in mind, but Pandemic strongly fits that niche. If Sales, Accounting, and Shipping can cooperate and solve this crisis before time runs out, then perhaps they can get their orders out on time. A great, puzzley coop games for disparate groups of 2 to 4.
Ever feel like your employees don’t really know each other? Not everybody in your company needs to be best friends, but they should at least know one another’s names. Pairing Up is a common ice breaking activity, sometimes called Salt & Pepper and derived from the nametag game. The coordinator writes down famous couples on pairs of nametags. These can be peanut butter and jelly, Sonny and Cher, Romeo and Juliet, etc. They hand these nametags out to the group so that each person can’t see their own nametag as they put it on. Then, everyone mingles, helping each other figure out their nametag without giving it away. Once you know who or what you are, you have to find your other half.
New workforces will appreciate the opportunity to get to know one another and loosen up in a pretty casual icebreaker. Old workforces will also enjoy being able to socialize in a setting where the stakes don’t matter. This exercise is about getting comfortable with one another in a professional setting and chatting with folks that you don’t always chat with. If you want to make it interesting, try giving out a silly prize to the team that finds each other first. Or have the team that finds one another last come up with a silly song. Have fun with it!
5 Minute Dungeon
We’ve discussed some tense cooperative experiences here. However, Escape Rooms will seem laid back compared to this fast-paced, raucous card game. 5 Minute Dungeon works with up to 5 players. Each person has a deck of cards with sword icons, spell icons, arrows, etc. on them. There is also a dungeon deck of challenges. Everyone draws a hand from their deck, then you start the clock. Your team has exactly five minutes to get through every card in the dungeon deck. The game is visual and simple, but you need to think quickly and speak clearly to get through it on time. Did Chris and Betty both play their speed cards on the trap card? That card only needed one speed! Too bad, the other card is lost! Jamal – don’t play your arrow and sword double card. Hong, don’t you have a card that could negate this monster instead of wasting Jamal’s wild? The more you play, the easier it is, but the larger the deck gets, so the challenge escalates as well.
5 Minute Dungeon isn’t just a great game for inspiring teamwork – it’s perfect for a lunch break or to play on the go. The more your group plays it, the more effectively they will be able to understand and inform one another. By the time they’re hooked on the game, their work will be improving as well. Consider picking this card game up for teams in the same department or workflow. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, Space Team for Android and iOS devices is a similar experience for free. Your team may not want to stare at a screen after staring at a screen all day, but games like these sure don’t feel like work!
Concept and Mysterium
They say that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Well, that saying is taken out of context from a study conducted by Albert Mehrabian in 1971. In reality, people are bad enough at just talking to one another, let alone picking up on non-verbal cues. Whether you’re a salesperson who needs to puzzle through complex in-person meetings or an IT director who prefers working with computers, everyone can use a quick course in visual communication. Concept is just the game for that. If Charades was played with pictures on a board instead of acted out, you have a pretty good idea of how to play already. The pictures vary from those representing shapes and colors to those that represent the concept of an “historical figure” or a “movie” or “snow.” The main player draws a card with 9 terms, names, or titles to choose from. After they’ve chosen a topic, they can’t speak as they place markers on the board to lead their team to the correct word or phrase. Gameplay is quick and a lot of fun. Like in Arctic Frostbite, players have to be creative and think outside the box. Concept is a perfect game for parsing the meaning behind complicated industry imagery and jargon.
If your group has some more time, you may consider Mysterium, especially around Halloween. This heavily thematic game is about a ghost attempting to convey the circumstances of their mysterious death to a team of mystics. The ghost player has a stack of bizarre, and often delightful, dream cards to hand out to the mystics every round. Inspired by the classic Clue, the mystics must use these psychic dreams to determine who the murderer is, what the murder weapon was, and where it took place. The ghost player cannot speak, but the dreams they can hand out are beautifully illustrated and can convey a wealth of meanings. Mysterium is ideal for leaders in your organization to better learn to communicate with their staff. Bring it out at a company Halloween party…or any time the ghouls are out… Muwahaha
It goes by many names. Telephone Pictionary. The Caption Game. Fax Machine. Evil Potato Moon. You may have played it yourself under a completely different title. Each player has a stack of note cards (or papers, or post-its) the same as the number of players. They write a sentence, a movie title, a phrase, or an idiom. Then, they pass the stack to their right and accept a new stack from their left. The next player will look at the sentence, move that card to the bottom of the stack, and draw an image representing the phrase on the next card. They pass the stack to the next person, who reviews the image and writes what they think it means on the next card. This continues until you get your original stack back. Hilarity ensues as each player shows the group their phrase’s journey from one thing into a completely different thing.
Like Telephone, the point is to see how badly jumbled an idea can become after it passes through a chain of people. There is a valuable lesson to be learned here about data fidelity here, and how important it is to ensure information accuracy. In addition, when Paper Telephone is played in earnest and not just for laughs, your team can surprise you with how well they interpret one another’s chicken scratch and stick figure art. Additionally, if this exercise is particularly valuable for your group, consider investing in the box version by USAopoly, Telestrations. Computhink will always advocate ways to save paper while team building.
Most managers don’t think of guiding a team as a form of negotiation. But it is a give and take. Working with others can be about trading. Whether you’re swapping shifts, offering chunks of your time to a team member, or snagging discounts for a client, you have probably bartered a bit on the clock. Non-hostile negotiation is a worthy subject to train your staff on. It can help in crisis situations, such as when an aggressive customer works with an employee of yours. It’s also useful in the day-to-day.
Bohnanza is a negotiation game about – you guessed it! – bean farming. Every turn, a player must plant bean cards from their hand into their fields. Each field holds one bean type. When harvested, the more beans in a field, the more money you get. So being forced to plant those cards in your hand can really mess up your plans. However, on your turn, you also get to trade with the other players at the table. The game is about shaking hands, making agreements, and making sure everyone can get the beans they need to succeed (just not more beans than you, of course). Bohnanza encourages cooperation, clever trading, and a healthy dose of haggling that any business development director would approve of.
Dungeons & Dragons
Roleplaying is a common method for argument mediation in a workplace. It’s also the coolest way to slay orcs as a level ten Halfling barbarian! Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) isn’t exclusive to the popular kids anymore, people. And role playing tabletop games aren’t only about dwarves and dragons anymore. Some RPGs feature a cyberpunk setting, WWII, the distant future, or historically accurate vignettes. Some are simple scenes to be acted out without any pen and paper (a Scandinavian pastime called jeeping). Some are even about life in an office setting.
Playing an RPG with the recruits is a time-honored tradition for letting off steam. Which brings us to the best reason to team build with games: stress relief. It’s why we punch the clock at five, why we host company holiday parties and picnics, why we work from home sometimes or on the road. Deadlines, milestones, collaborations, webinars – all of this builds stress. We offer D&D and its less nerdy counterparts as an iconic way to relieve stress with your coworkers and your staff. And it’s the only setting where you can tell your boss what you really think of him without…actually telling him what you think of him. Be a half-elf for a day. Try your hand at flying a space ship. Go save a princely weakling who’s in distress. Just remember as you and your team members find yourself having fun at the office on a Friday night: orcs are people too.