Come play the board game Pandemic with us! Members of the Brooklyn-based organizational transformation consultancy August demonstrate how it can be used as a fun and engaging teaching tool for Agile.
I recently qualified as a Certified ScrumMaster and am looking to translate that qualification into teaching and Agile coaching — not necessarily by-the-book Scrum but at least to convey the principles so that small teams of all types can begin to understand the Agile mindset and borrow elements from methodologies that suit them best. The CSM course I took inspired me to find a new way to teach Scrum using a simple, purposeful team-based activity. As an unashamed board game nerd, I settled on one of my favorites: Pandemic.
Pandemic is a co-operative board game for small teams of 2–4 players. The team works together to cure four Diseases threatening mankind around the world. Along the way, you’ll have to deal with Epidemics, build Research Stations and treat infected citizens. (For a full intro to the rules, this vid is pretty good as well as the explanation on BoardGameGeek.)
Pandemic’s innate unpredictability lends itself to the Agile mindset of responding to change even over following a plan. The idea of planning out your strategy for the entire game via a waterfall method and then stick to that strategy as the world crumbles would be foolish.
At the same time, the team does have long-term goals of curing the Diseases and short-term goals that will build to that ultimate objective e.g. trading a city card with someone. The theory behind Scrumdemic is that the game will illustrate how a team can work towards the long-term goal by delivering short-term goals incrementally, iteratively and on-time. At the same time, that same team can effectively deal with new requirements.
In the set-up for Scrumdemic, we’re assuming the following roles:
Product Owner — The workshop facilitator acts as the Product Owner, creating and managing the Product Backlog of goals as well as teaching the team about Scrum and explaining the game. Visualisation of the task at hand, both on the game board and on the Scrum board, is key to bringing everyone aligned on final delivery.
The Scrum Master — The spirit of Scrum is that the ScrumMaster be a separate person, distinct from the Product Owner and Development Team. This separation is important as it allows the SM to view the team’s process as a system and to be impartial as to how the system works. Being involved in the building would make that impartiality more difficult.
Since Scrumdemic is a teaching device, it is ok to blur these lines a little. Since the workshop facilitator is also teaching the practices of Scrum, it makes sense that they start the game as the ScrumMaster — reminding the team when to hold their Sprint Review/Retrospective and Sprint Planning Meetings.
You may find the during the game, the players begin to take on some of the roles of the Scrum Master. If the workshop is successful, by the end they will be able to facilitate their own planning meetings and retrospectives and manage the Scrum board themselves.
The Development Team are, of course, the players. Because of the Roles in Pandemic, a team of players necessarily reflects that of an ideal Agile team: all multifunctional (e.g. full-stack developers) but they can also augment that rounded talent with a specialization they can use themselves or teach others. Just like an Agile team, they can work together to solve problems and trade information but are responsible for their own work, and for deciding which task from the Sprint backlog they wish to tackle.
Before the team sits down, the workshop facilitator should set up the Pandemic game board, selecting roles & infecting nine cities at random in accordance with the rules. (For teams who have not played Pandemic before, I recommend using just four Outbreak cards and allowing teams to play with open hands.) A team arriving at a board that is already set-up will immediately be more excited and engaged.
The workshop facilitator should also set up a Scrum board so that the team can visualise short-term and long-term game goals. At the start of the game, the Scrum board will have 10 goals:
1–4: Cure each of the four Diseases (low priority)
5–7: Build a Research Station in each of the black, red and yellow areas (medium priority)
8–10: Three cities start the game with three Disease cubes. Reduce the no. of cubes in each of these to either one or zero. (high priority)
During the game, the Product Owner will find themselves adding more goals to the product backlog, such as “Cure Khartoum of all Disease cubes” or “Get five yellow cards to the Operations Specialist.”
You’ll notice in the examples above that the completion criteria for each of the goals are very clear. This serves to make it very easy for the Development Team — the players — to understand what the task is. It is up to them, however, to decide how it is carried out.
In Scrumdemic, assuming a 4-player team, a Sprint lasts four turns — one complete round. Therefore, before the first turn, the Sprint planning meeting takes place, and the team must decide which of the tasks from the product backlog they intend to commit to for the current Sprint. From the original 10 goals, the highest priorities will be to treat cities that have three Disease cubes (in order to prevent further Outbreaks). As cities are treated, players should move cards across the Sprint board to indicate they are done.
At the end of each Sprint, the Sprint Retrospective is a huge opportunity to build on the lessons learned during the previous Sprint — for instance, you may have noticed a new combination of two players' special abilities that can be used effectively or that a risk taken in leaving three cubes on one city didn’t pay off when an Outbreak occurred.
From there, the second Sprint begins and the team can look at the reshuffled Product Backlog. In the second Sprint, the team will be sufficiently spread out to think about where to build Research Stations. At the same time, the landscape of the game board will have changed — it’s possible there will be new Cities with three Disease cubes to treat, or the priority of Diseases to cure will have changed.
As a friend once told me, no Scrum workshop or certification is more educational than actually shipping a product to a customer. At the same time, it’s hard to ship any meaningful code in the space of a short workshop. I developed this workshop in the hope that Scrumdemic can make Scrum accessible and, importantly, fun. There are several elements of Scrum that are missing from Scrumdemic e.g. the daily stand-up, planning poker (and therefore velocity & burndown charts) and the Sprint review. However, as I mentioned previously, this exercise is designed to teach the basics of the Agile mindset and the Scrum methodology. I can see ways in which planning poker, the review and the daily stand-up could be integrated, but I think it would be at the cost of engagement and enjoyment.
A more significant flaw in Scrumdemic is that it may or may not be the best way to win the game! The idea of protecting your Sprint from changing priorities is not a smart play in the face of a double Outbreak (which happened the first time I tried this workshop!) Obviously, one goal of this workshop is to illustrate that Scrum actually works — if the team performs worse than they would have without a Scrum board then that is not a great endorsement! However, I do hope that even in that case a team can understand how they could be organised better and may still take enough from the added structure and group visibility that Scrum gives them to employ this in their working lives.
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