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Group Game Debrief: "Snowblowers + Lawnmowers"

At my day job, I teach employment skills and trade-specific orientation. This particular cohort focused on port-related industries, material handling, and logistics. I developed a game for the classroom that dealt with the concepts of wave-planning (the changing of demand for a good over time and/or seasonal demand patterns), supply & demand/market forces, and secret bidding. To focus on different commodities but still keep it simple, I decided to choose snowblowers and lawnmowers.

This exercise was modified from "Middleman," which I first saw in Eric Solomon's excellent pencil-and-paper compilation Games With Pencil and Paper. The core was a fantastic starting point, and was inspirational to the point of me winning over fellow staff and then later clients on using it as an education tool for the above topics.

For those not familiar with the game (and I admit I wasn't until I had seen it in this book, maybe a month ago), players represent merchants of a given commodity trying their best to "buy low and sell high." There are other details that streamline the process of bidding based on numbers the players choose at the outset of the game, but I opted to remove that step and instead while acting as moderator I revealed those numbers at each phase of a new round. We played 12 rounds of the game, starting in January and ending in December ( and when it came to customer demand, attempted to depict something close to a northern-hemisphere, subtropical climate).

They choose how much to bid when buying their stock, then they set their selling price and quantity they want to sell. These secret bids are submitted to the moderator (me), and I sell to the highest bid first when providing the supply, and purchase from the lowest bids when buying.

As moderator, I set minimum buying price and maximum selling price to keep things reined-in. I also expanded from a single commodity to two, each with distinctive/seasonal patterns of demand so that the teams could reasonably predict when demand would be up for a given commodity. For example, in the peak of the winter, there would be much more demand for a snowblower, and nearly no one would want to purchase a lawnmower. Of course, in the peak of the summer, the reverse would be true. I also provided some clues with setting the numbers for production. More snowblowers are available in the autumn than in the spring, for example.

In addition to the basic buy-sell mechanic via secret bids, I added a few other wrinkles that made the process interesting and interactive. A couple observations follow.

  • Having two commodities, both obviously linked to a seasonal demand cycle, kept the core concepts I wanted to teach within reach of all the clients.
  • Adjusting the supply and demand numbers myself allowed clients to focus on their own bankroll, as well as attempting to predict what the other teams would do, with a minimum of analysis paralysis. I also did not provide the demand numbers until after all purchasing was done, so players focused only on a single phase at a time. Since no one had advance information, this wasn't a significant issue or point of contention at any stage.
  • I created a "marketing campaign" that allowed teams to win ties. So instead of splitting available stock between teams that presented the same secret bid, the team that invested in the marketing campaign would receive sales at that price point before their competitors.
  • There was a significant "runaway leader" issue in this game (I suppose, much like in real markets?). Also, teams left in the dust would continue to lose since they would be consistently outbid by their competitors who had more resources. Some of this could be attributed to players' poor decisions, but as it turned out the only way I could keep one of the four teams in the game was to provide "subsidies" and "promotional discounts" of free stock. No one seemed to mind, and after a while they regained their competitive edge.

I'll write more about this later, but suffice to say it was largely a positive experience for all involved (though at times bookeeping was a bit hectic for me... The game can't be blamed for that, though!)


Revisions for Future Sessions

There was a lot of money injected into the system each round, which amplified the runaway leader effect. I had a brief discussion with our clients to see what fun or interesting ways there might be to address this. To lessen the dramatic effect of this, I want to include the following:

  • Include quarterly expenses of $25 per warehouse. Players who were in a position to increase their inventory space at the mid-point of the game would also see their expenses increase.
  • Players enjoyed a "live auction" phase, when two or more teams provided the same buying or selling price, but weren't recipients of the marketing campaign bonus. They essentially called out their bids, back and forth, until only one team was left on top. It was a dramatic and interactive phase that most folks seemed to enjoy, and definitely everyone understood.
  • The possibility of ending a Marketing Campaign at the end of every month. This would provide more opportunities for players to spend their cash, and ensures that the player that spent the most money receives a benefit for the expense nearly every time.

I'd also like to eventually add a visual chart to this game, or even create a computer app I can project on the big screen so that the patterns of supply and demand become more visible as the game continues. Though this wouldn't require a change in the rules, it would be a significant development in terms of visuals and resources required (plus the time to develop the application myself).

Sounds quite interesting! How

Sounds quite interesting!
How would you say it fared as an educational tool?
Also, how did people react when you proposed a game in a classroom context?

Education Games

tikey wrote:
How would you say it fared as an educational tool?
It fits well into our current training (I work at a non-profit employment and training agency). Much of our model is about experiential learning, learning by doing, and through discussion. To sum up: it's best for the instructor to "stay out of the way" after presenting the framework for the clients, allowing for experimenting within that framework. The instructor's job focuses primarily on ensuring the framework stays in place and consistent while it's happening, and guiding discussions afterward to reinforce lessons you want them to learn.

I can't put clients behind the wheel of a delivery truck, but I can teach them how to make decisions about fuel economy, route planning, and efficiency. I can't put them in charge of a hardware store's procurement budget, but I can give them a chance to see how their own ideas of price structures, their own sense of business risk, and interaction with fictional "competitors" will affect their performance in a streamlined simulation of the business world.

This subject in particular was applicable to a broad demographic as well, helping to connect with our diverse cohort of clients.

tikey wrote:
Also, how did people react when you proposed a game in a classroom context?
I use games and game-like activities frequently. As it turns out, adults tend to learn better while a framework is in place and they have an opportunity to experiment within that framework. So my games put them in the role of a small business owner, or a delivery truck driver, or a warehouse manager, and they need to work within that framework to "earn points" or in-game cash, both of which are used to incentivize expected/effective behaviour. As long as I've been able to provide an obvious link between a "game" with the training material, then it stays relevant and useful.

Finally, pretty much anything beats constant lectures. A surefire way to disengage all your clients is to "talk -at- them" the majority of the time. Over the years I've been doing this, I've earned a reputation as an effective instructor and curriculum developer. That is helpful in both convincing other staff that my games are worthwhile, as well as collecting useful feedback from staff when I ask them for honest critique.

I could talk for hours about this kind of thing, but I'll spare you. :) But let me close by stating I strongly recommend teachers out there to develop interactive activities and games as an alternative to lectures. It's more fun for you and your clients/students, and chances are they'll retain what you're attempting to teach much more effectively.

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