Form four teams of (roughly) an equal number of people.
Invite each team to sit in an area located well away from all other teams.
Distribute one card of each of the two colours, eg red and black to each team.
Announce that the objective of this game is to win as many points as possible over the course of 8 rounds.
All teams start with zero points.
Display the Pay-Off formula (download from the Resources tab) and allow each team to study how points can be won or lost.
Under no circumstances are any teams or players entitled to communicate with others at any time during the game, unless directed by you.
Before each round, allow one minute for each team to agree on which one of the two coloured cards they will present (secretly) to the other teams.
When ready, ask each team to reveal their card simultaneously.
After each round, record the score won or lost for each team on the score sheet (download from the Resources tab) for all to see.
Progress to the next round and continue as above.
At the end of the last round, announce the winners and losers.
Conclude by facilitating a group discussion to reflect on the results of the game.
How To Play Narrative
I can recall playing this game as part of the evening program of my local youth group and being struck by how powerful it was. It lives with me to this day.
In advance, download the Pay-Off table (for four teams) and the Score Sheet from the Resources tab.
Form four teams of approx 2 to 8 people and seat them well apart from each other, so that all teams can hold a conversation without being heard by the others. Secrecy is important, so if your space is limited, encourage whispering within teams.
Distribute one card of each of the two coloured index cards (or other objects) to each team. Even writing the words RED and BLACK on blank index cards will work.
Your final step of preparation is to prominently display the Pay-Off table (download from the Resources tab) for all teams to see.
It’s now time to announce the purpose of the game. Explain that over the course of a series of eight (or more rounds, this is up to you) the goal is “to win as many points as possible.”
Note, I am being quite deliberate with my language here. There is value in keeping this objective rather vague. That is to say, some teams may interpret this goal through the lens of their own team, while others may view it more collectively as the whole group (of teams.) Play the game and find out what happens.
In any case, all teams start with zero points.
Armed with this information, allow each team a couple of minutes to study the various pay-off permutations to build a winning strategy.
When ready, attract everyone’s attention and announce that each team has a further one minute to consider which one of the two coloured cards they wish to present as their choice in the first round. Encourage all conversations and discussions to be as secret as possible to preserve the adventure.
Importantly, make it very clear that under no circumstances are teams or individuals permitted to communicate (verbally or non-verbally) with others from another team. The only discussion that should take place is within one’s team.
When the time has expired, invite one person from each team (holding their card) to gather in the centre of the teams and on your command of “3, 2, 1…” reveal their team’s card simultaneously.
Naturally, it is the composition of these four cards that determines the results for each team. For example, if Team A shows a black card but all others show a red card, Team A loses 30 points while all other teams win 10 points each.
After each round, update the score sheet (download from the Resources tab) with the accumulated points for each team and display it prominently for all teams to see. And, in case it’s not already obvious, yes, you may and most likely will see negative numbers!
Having recorded the score of the first round, invite all teams to hunker down and consider their strategy for the second round. One or two minutes later, invite one member of each team to meet in the centre, and again, on your command, simultaneously reveal their coloured card.
The game continues like this for up to eight rounds or as many as you choose. Review one or more of the variations as described in the Variations tab if you want to mix it up a bit.
Either way, continue to update the score for each team after each round, and perhaps, remind everyone what the purpose of the game is, ie “to win as many points as possible.”
Once all rounds are exhausted, gather everyone to review the final results. Unless your group is uniquely aligned, you can expect some if not all teams to be in negative territory.
I strongly recommend that you allow ample time to debrief the experience of your group. Be sure to focus on the merits of collaboration as opposed to competition, and the impacts of various strategies on the overall results. Review the Reflection Tips tab for some wonderful conversation starters.
Practical Leadership Tips
Do not be concerned if the teams do not constitute the same number of people, close enough is good enough. If possible, use a random group splitting strategy to form teams in the beginning (see Getting into Teams for lots of ideas.)
Reflecting on the results of this game is critical because sometimes, feelings may get rather heated if some teams perceive a betrayal of trust.
Don’t have index cards? Use a deck of playing cards and distribute one red and one black card to each team, or any set of red and black objects. Or any collection of any two coloured objects.
It’s good practice to remind your group of the purpose of the game frequently throughout the game, ie to “win as many points as possible.” This is especially useful – and poignant – when most if not all teams are sporting negative numbers!
A very quick and yet equally powerful partner exercise that explores collaboration versus competition is Hip Tag – take a look.
You could integrate Pay-Off as part of a well-designed SEL program to promote and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse people.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
The complexities of this game will invite your group to interact and engage with each other in a manner that will absolutely speak to the benefits of having developed a set of supportive and healthy behavioural norms in advance. Or, if not, you could focus on any less-than-desired interactions or outcomes to explore what sorts of behaviours your group would prefer to see and commit to in the future.
For example, in addition to those described in the Reflection Tips tab, you could invite your group to reflect on the following questions to explore a variety of full value behaviours such as:
How did your team demonstrate its ability to care for itself and others? What’s an example?
Generally speaking, how did the group make decisions? How were all members involved?
Describe your group’s goal-setting process?
What types of leadership were demonstrated during the exercise? Were they effective?
What actions or decisions built trust in this game? What actions diminished trust?
This exercise is nothing if not a wonderful portal for exploring a group’s goal-setting behaviours. Much like the quick partner exercise Hip Tag, this game is ideal for exploring the lens through which individuals and groups view the world. That is to say, how did they interpret your announcement that the goal was “to win as many points as possible?” You could also invite your group to reflect on the level of consensus reached towards achieving their stated goal and how this helped or hindered the process. All of these matters impact the ability of a team to set an effective goal.
Negotiate Rounds: On one or two occasions, invite one member from each team to gather together for 2 minutes to discuss a collective strategy before returning to their respective teams. Typically, these members agree to present a particular colour, but note – they do not always keep their word. This makes for some very interesting conversations afterwards.
Bonus Rounds: On one or two occasions, announce that the total points won or lost in the next round will be multiplied by a factor of 2, 3 or 5 times. This really raises the stakes of a particular round.
Three Teams: For three teams only, play as above, but utilise the Pay-Off table for three teams (download from Resources tab.)
Gambling Addiction: Frame this game as an opportunity for individual players (instead of teams) to experience the thrill of gambling. Play as directed above and then discuss how it felt to win and lose. Invite your group to reflect on the outcome if real money was actually won or lost.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Form teams and ask one person from each team to write RED and BLACK on two index cards (or paper.) After explaining the rules of play, allocate each team to a unique breakout room to discuss their choice of coloured cards. Return all teams back to the central room after 2 minutes and then, when ready, instruct the nominated team leaders to display their team’s chosen coloured card in front of their webcam for all to see, eg announce “3, 2, 1…” and instruct all cards to be revealed without delay. Continue play for multiple rounds.
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Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this engaging trust-building game:
What was the maximum group pay-off possible, ie if every group played red every round?
What do you notice about this possible result with your actual results?
How do you reconcile this result with the stated objective of the game, ie “earn as many points as you can?”
How did you interpret or understand the words “you” in this instance?
Did any individual or team consider playing in a manner in which every team won?
How difficult was it for all members of one team to achieve consensus?
What matters or attributes did your teams discuss before making a decision? Why?
How did you make decisions as a team? Describe the process.
What feelings did you experience during the game? Why?
Are these feelings hard to let go of now? Why?
How might the behaviours we saw here relate to other situations in our life, work or school?
What have we learned from this game that could help us in our relationships with others?
The inspiration for Pay-Off was sourced from the book Simulation Games 1 by Pat Baker and Mary-Ruth Marshall (first published in 1973, now out of print.)