Simulation Games with Embedded Puzzles

Simulation games with embedded puzzles require individuals or teams to solve one or more puzzles (such as cryptograms, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, riddles, tangrams, or matchstick puzzles). In some cases, participants may also create a puzzle. The facilitator debriefs the activity to illustrate principles and procedures related to such topics as problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, leadership, coaching, diversity, and teamwork.

Outsiders: A Sample Simulation Game with Embedded Puzzles

You are attending a workshop on diversity and inclusion. Lisa, the facilitator, organizes the participants into six teams. Five of these teams receive a puzzle envelope with 11 pieces of an identical picture postcard. Your team begins to reconstruct the postcard because you are told that the first team to assemble the complete postcard will win the game.

After about 3 minutes of hectic activity, you realize that one of the picture pieces is missing. You find out that all teams are missing this identical piece. When you get ready to complain to the facilitator, she announces that the outsiders (individuals from the sixth team) will bring a picture piece and show it to each team. Working in total silence, your team may inspect each picture piece that belongs to different outsiders and return it to the owner. Only one of the six outsiders has the missing picture piece you need.

After the silent inspection, the outsiders go and stand in front of the room and representatives from different teams recruit one of them to join the team. Obviously, all team representatives converge on the individual outsider who has the missing piece, ignoring the others. After a few minutes, the facilitator announces that the winning team will receive a cash prize of $17. Team representatives redouble their recruitment efforts, outbidding each other in offering a share of the prize money. Eventually, the outsider chooses to join one of the teams, bringing the activity to a conclusion.

Lisa conducts a debriefing discussion during which participants talk about what happened in the simulation game in terms of insiders and outsiders, inclusion and exclusion, and popularity and obscurity. She also asks provocative questions that relate what happened in the game to what happens in the workplace and in the real world.

More Examples

Here are brief descriptions of several simulation games that belong to this category:

Decode. This simulation game highlights the dark side of intense competition among teams. It incorporates a cryptogram puzzle in which the letters in a message are printed in a code that consistently substitutes different code letters for regular letters. (For example, the message Let the games begin becomes Yzf foz jukzh czjvq.) In the simulation, participants are organized into teams and taught how to solve cryptograms. Later, they are given a cryptogram message and asked to decode it. The scores awarded to the teams depend on the speed with which they decode the message: 500 points if they solve it within a minute, 200 if they solve it within 2 minutes, and 50 if they solve it within 3 minutes. The facilitator announces that she would give the correct solution to any one of the cryptogram words to each team. Typically, each team selects one of the longest words to be decoded by the facilitator. After the simulation, the facilitator discusses a better alternative: If the teams had collaborated with each other, selected different words to be decoded, and shared their solutions with each other, then everybody could have decoded the message faster and received high number of points. (Appropriately enough, the decoded message reads: Don't assume that the only way to win is to compete. Sometimes the best way to win is to collaborate with other teams.)

Each Teach. This simulation game emphasizes the fact that a team will outperform any of its individual members, as long as the members have complementary skills. It also illustrates how team members can learn from each other. The simulation incorporates the magic squares puzzle that requires people to fill in a 5 x 5 grid with different numbers in each of the 25 boxes so that all columns, rows, and diagonals add up to the same total. The solution to the puzzle requires the mastery and application of four different rules. At the beginning of the simulation, each participant works independently with a self-instructional handout to master one of these four rules. During the next phase, participants organize themselves into teams of four in such a way that each team member knows how to apply a different rule. Teams now work on filling several 5 x 5 grids to generate different magic squares. In the process, they teach each other all four rules. During the third phase of the simulation, there is a contest among all participants to see how quickly they can create a new magic square. The team that has produced the fastest puzzle solvers wins the contest.

Diversity Sudoku. This simulation game emphasizes the importance of diversity among team members. It incorporates a mini-sudoku puzzle that has a 6 x 6 grid with numbers in a few of the boxes. To solve the puzzle, participants have to place missing numbers in empty boxes so that each row, each column, and each 3 x 2 rectangle include the numbers 1 to 6, each number appearing once and only once. At the beginning of the simulation, two or more teams are given a mini-sudoku puzzle to solve. After a minute or so, each participant is given a secret clue that shows six boxes with the correct numbers. The facilitator asks participants to study the clues individually and return it to her after 30 seconds. At the end of this interlude, teams continue solving the sudoku puzzle. One of the teams invariably solves the puzzle significantly faster that the others. During the debriefing, the facilitator reveals that different members of this team received different clues while all members of the other teams received the same clues. This leads to a discussion of the usefulness of team members having different pieces of information and skill sets.

Rightsized. This simulation games explores the impact of downsizing. It involves cryptogram puzzles. Each team of five to seven members is given a puzzle to solve. The fastest team wins the first round. Members of each team now secretly vote to identify the member who contributed the least in solving the cryptogram. This person is eliminated from the next round. The process (of solving a cryptogram, identifying the fastest team, identifying the least-contributing individuals in each team, and eliminating this individual) is repeated until only two members remain in each team. During the ensuing debriefing discussion, the facilitator helps participants explore the emotional responses of the downsized team members as well as the survivors.

One Word. This rapid simulation game (a jolt) stresses the importance of flexible problem solving skills. It involves word puzzles in the form of anagrams. The facilitator begins with the word new and another four letter word (for example, soap). She asks participants to rearrange the seven letters in these two words to spell one word. (Sample solution: weapons.) The simulation continues in the same form with half a dozen more four-letter words combined with the word new. The facilitator ends the simulation by presenting new and door and repeats the instructions to combine the seven letters to spell one word. The correct solution is one word and this solution requires a new strategy different from the one that was previously used. The debriefing discussion relates this simulation with the need for flexible approaches at the workplace.

Multitasking. This simulation game explores potential problems faced by call-center employees who work on their computers while talking to a customer on the telephone. The game involves mini-sudoku puzzles. Pairs of participants sit back-to-back to simulate a telephone conversation in which neither person can observe what the other is doing. The participant who plays the role of the customer complains about a problem and asks for immediate service. The other participant (who plays the role of the call center employee) responds to the customer while trying to solve as many mini-sudoku puzzles as possible. At the end of a 2-minute period, the customer rates the level of satisfaction with the conversation on a 5-point scale. This rating is used—along with the number of mini-sudoku puzzles solved—to evaluate the performance of the call-center employee.

Consultants. This simulation game explores aspects of the knowledge industry. It uses triplet puzzles in which participants discover a link word that is associated with a set of three words. Five participants play the role of consultants and they are supplied with 50 triplet puzzles along with the solutions. The other participants have the same 50 triplet puzzles without the solutions. They compete with each other, trying to be the first one to solve all 50 triplets. Participants begin with $500 in play money. They buy information about the link word for a specific triplet (such as number of letters in the link word, position of the link word, or the first letter of the link word) by paying $5 to any of the consultant. After 5 minutes into the game, a few of highest scoring participants are promoted to the role of consultants. Instead of information being sold at a standard price, consultants can compete with other by charging cheaper prices. After another 5 more minutes of play, participants are permitted to exchange information from one another. When the game ends after a total of 15 minutes of play, the participant with the most triplets solved is declared to be the winner. During the debriefing discussion, participants explore the role of free-marketing forces on the marketing of proprietary information.

Broken Squares. This classic simulation game explores collaborative problem solving in teams. You can find various versions of this activity on the Internet by using “Broken Square Exercise” as the search term. The activity uses a construction puzzle in which various pieces of cardboard are arranged to create five identical squares. The facilitator gives each member of a five-person team an envelope with two to four pieces of cardboard in different shapes. Participants are required to assemble five squares of the same size, working under a few constraints: no talking, no pointing, and no taking of pieces from other members. However, team members may give any of their pieces to anyone else. The debriefing discussion produces useful insights about communication and collaboration.

How Fast? This simulation game explores how people attribute failures to personal incompetency or to environmental factors. It involves solving a short crossword puzzle with 15 clues. The hidden feature of this simulation is that some people receive difficult clues while others receive easy ones. (For example, the difficult clue for “cat” is a feline mammal while the easy clue is a pet animal that says, “meow”.) The simulation begins with the facilitator distributing copies of the crossword puzzle and asking participants to solve them as rapidly as possible. As soon as a participant finishes solving the puzzle, she is to stand up. When about half of the group has completed the task, the facilitator stops the activity and reads the correct answers (without reading the clues). Later, the facilitator shares the secret and explains that some people had easy clues while others had difficult clues. She then debriefs the group by asking people how they felt about their inability to solve the puzzle as quickly as their cohorts. She explains how optimistic people attribute their failure to outside factors while pessimistic people blame themselves.

Team Spirit. This simulation game (designed by my friends Charles Petranek and Randy Hollandsworth) explores how formal and informal leadership styles can influence a team's performance. The simulation involves a logical matrix puzzle. Teams answer trivia questions to collect clues. They organize these clues in the form of a matrix to relate different people with their pets, sports, industries, and geographic locations. They study the matrix to discover the answers to three questions. The debriefing discussion explores the nature and style of team leaders, the distribution of work among team members, and the relationship between team members and leaders.

Don't Lift Your Pen. This rapid simulation game (a jolt) demonstrates a creative problem solving approach. It involves a paper-and-pencil puzzle that requires participants to draw two concentric circles (on circle inside another) without lifting the pen off the paper. After a minute or so, the facilitator invites any successful participant to show how she completed the task. If no one volunteers, the facilitator demonstrates the “trick” and discusses how identifying and discarding unnecessary assumptions result in creative solutions. She then challenges participants to come up with additional strategies (such as using two pens simultaneously) for solving the puzzle.

Wired. This simulation game is designed to help managers learn how to train their associates on an individual basis. It uses a dozen different wire puzzles. (These puzzles consist of two entangled pieces of stiff wire. The puzzle must be solved by disentangling the two pieces without bending or cutting the wires.) At the beginning of the simulation, different groups of participants are given one of the puzzles. Using trial and error and a solution sheet, they master the procedure for disentangling the two pieces. During the next phase, participants pair up with someone who has mastered a different wire puzzle. They teach each other how to solve these puzzles. Some time near the middle of the session, the facilitator conducts a mini-debriefing during which participants share the best practices they observed for one-on-one training. After this discussion, they continue to pair up and learn how to solve other puzzles. During the final debriefing, participants discuss the application of best practices for providing on-the-job training in their workplace.

Triangles. This simulation game demonstrates the importance of focusing on what the customers want. It involves the triangles puzzle, which is a variation of the tangram puzzle. To solve the puzzle, participants cut a piece of card into small triangles and reassemble them to form various silhouette shapes such as a duck, a sailboat, a candle, or a house. In this simulation, participants are organized into teams that contain members with the roles of planners and workers. As an afterthought, a few left-over participants are assigned the roles of observers and customers. Planners are given card stock and six silhouette shapes they can create by cutting and rearranging triangles. They are also given the solution for solving the puzzle and creating each silhouette. They have 20 minutes to train the workers to produce one or more selected silhouettes (without showing them the solution diagram). Workers now have another 20 minutes to cut and assemble the shapes without any coaching or feedback from the planners. At the end of this time, customers make their appearance, inspect the silhouettes, and award them points based on their preferences. Almost invariably, planners select the easiest silhouette to assemble without bothering to ask the customers which ones they prefer. This results in final silhouettes receiving very low scores.

Cryptic Strategies. This simulation game uses cryptograms to explore planning and execution of problem-solving strategies. Each team begins with $20,000 in virtual cash and eight cryptograms. Teams have 20 minutes to decode all the cryptograms. They purchase the correct equivalents for different letters from the facilitator. The more letters they purchase the more expensive each additional letter costs. Teams also get cash rewards for solving each cryptogram. The more cryptograms they solve, the higher the reward they receive for each additional solution. At the end of 20 minutes (or when the team has solved all eight cryptograms), they are charged $1000 for each minute of play. During the debriefing discussion, participants explore the interplay among time, money, consulting costs and benefits, and the competency and commitment of team members.

What Is Measured? This simulation game highlights the fact that what is measured is what gets done. It involves solving anagram puzzles. Each participant receives a handout that contains the phrase performance improvement. All participants are given the task of selecting letters from this phrase and rearranging them into words. Participants complete this task within 2 minutes. Although the task is the same for everyone, the handouts specify one of four different scoring systems: number of words, number of words that contain more than six letters, number of unique words not found in other people's lists, and the list that contains the longest word.

Alone and Together. This simulation game uses mini-sudoku puzzles to explore the relative advantages of teamwork and independent work. The facilitator organizes an even number of teams. During the first round, half of the teams solve a mini-sudoku puzzle working jointly as a team. The other half solves the same puzzle with each team member working individually. During the second phase, teams solve another mini-sudoku puzzle using the approach that is different from the one they used before. Each participant now decides which approach (teamwork or independent work) was more effective and more enjoyable. The facilitator conducts a debriefing discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the two different approaches and the context in which each approach is more appropriate.

Six Chunks, Three Words. This simulation game uses word puzzles to explore how our assumptions hamper creative problem solving. Participants are given a series of six three-letter chunks (example: MAN, OBJ, SON, AGE, LES, ECT) and asked to rearrange them into words. After a suitable pause following each set of six chunks, the facilitator announces the correct solution and discusses the assumptions that prevented participants from rapidly discovering the solution. This process is repeated several times. Just when participants feel that they would avoid making further assumptions, the facilitator seems to be able to trap them into making new and dysfunctional assumptions (such as the words must be in English, they should use all the chunks, no chunk can be used more than once, or the chunks cannot be turned upside down).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Here are some advantages of embedding puzzles in simulation games:

  • Intrinsic motivation. People of all ages and from all cultures are intrigued by riddles and puzzles. By embedding them in simulation games, we attract and sustain participants' interest.
  • Versatility. Different types of puzzles enable us to simulate different interpersonal principles and procedures. For example, the embedded puzzles can reflect teamwork, communication, leadership, and cooperation.
  • Thinking skills. Embedded puzzles are particularly suitable for simulating and eliciting different types of thinking such as strategic thinking, logical thinking, inductive thinking, analytical thinking, critical thinking, lateral thinking, and creative thinking.
  • Teamwork. When the simulation requires team members to jointly solve a puzzle, individual differences become dramatically salient. Participants realize (and appreciate) that different people have different thinking styles and different types of intelligence.
  • Individual work. Puzzles provide an ideal context for independent work. Some simulations with embedded puzzles can be played in a solitaire fashion by individual participants.
  • Electronics. Computers have made it possible to display an exciting variety of innovative puzzles (such as Tetris). Participants can solve these electronic puzzles in an interactive fashion on their laptop computers and handheld devices.

Here are some disadvantages and possible limitations of embedding puzzles in simulation games:

  • Diversion. Embedded puzzles can distract the participants from the main learning point of the simulation game. Participants may be so excited about finding the solution that they may not pay attention to what is happening during the activity.
  • Frustration. If the embedded puzzles require high levels of specialized skills, participants may not be able to rise to the level of challenge.
  • Embarrassment. While working in a team, individual participants may become uncomfortable about not being able to contribute to the efforts of the team.

Concluding Thoughts

Life, I am told, is an intriguing puzzle. If this is true, why not use puzzles to simulate different aspects of life? This is the basic concept behind simulation games with embedded puzzles. By selecting the appropriate type of puzzle to reflect selected aspects of the real world, we should be able to create a whole variety of simulation games that are brief or lengthy, simple or complex, metaphorical or authentic—but always engaging.