Long before Facebook, Instagram and Angry Birds, in an age long past (or so it seems), families spent hours together huddled around the kitchen table, enjoying spirited games of Monopoly, Sorry, the Game of Life, and Risk.    A welcome break from television — the chief electronic entertainment of the era — board games provided adults and kids alike a chance to interact with each other in real time: laughing, communicating, and strategizing together, across generations.

In this digital age, have board games become mere relics of a bygone age?  And if not, what practical applications might they have today, not only for families but also for trainers, entrepreneurs, and business innovators?

These are some of the fascinating questions posed by Leigh Buchanan in a recent Inc. Magazine article (June 2013, p. 60) titled Chairman of the Board.    In his story, the author introduces us to entrepreneur Matthew Calkins, co-founder of Appian (a process-management software company).  A veteran gamer since age 3, Calkins engages in a most unusual business practice; every month he holds a night of board games for business.   During the course of the evening, he and his friends roll out as many as three new games, all of which the group is coming to fresh.  Says Calkin: “Since we’ve never encountered an experience exactly like this one, we have to adapt to what’s new with it.”
Beyond mere recreation and camaraderie, Calkins’ emphasis for these sessions is the lessons gaming can teach business leaders.  His discoveries include insights into the following areas:

Focus:  Notes Calkins:  “Typically leaders focus on outputs.  You know you’ve lost a sale but not that you are in the process of losing it.  Games give players a feel for the quality of their inputs, allowing them to quickly change tactics.”
Feedback:  “With games, you get feedback on whether what you just did was effective or ineffective…[as a result], I have developed very good early-warning detection.” 
Sharpening Strategy:  “When I sit down at a game, I think, In this situation, victory will be derived from what intermediary state?   Then I direct my strategy to accomplish that intermediary state.”

Some of Calkins’ favorite board games include “Amun Re” (land acquisition in Ancient Egypt), “Acquire” (hotel investment) and “Tin Goose” (aviation entrepreneurship).  To this list, I would like to add my own favorite strategy board game:  “Agricola” (from Z-Man Games).     As struggling medieval farmers, your chief goal in Agricola is to build up your property with pastures and fields.   A successful outcome might be the planting of one field sown with vegetables and two fields sown with grain, the erection of three animal pastures housing cows, pigs and cattle, and the renovating of your home from wood to clay to stone.   But here’s the rub: in order to get anything done in Agricola, you need to grow your family.  You see, each family member represents one “turn” or action.   As important as family growth is in the game, feeding your people at the recurring harvests (six in all) is even more vital.  Failure to feed your family come harvest time results in *major* deductions:  three points per missing food!      
For entrepreneurs in particular, Agricola teaches important lessons about how to manage your business expansion.    Yes, you most certainly want to ramp up your business “family” as quickly as possible; the more employees (family members) you have, the more work you can accomplish.   But balanced with expansion must be capacity.   Can you afford to pay/feed your people?    Are you ready for prosperity and all it entails?  

Like Calkins, I’ve been a dedicated game player for quite some time now, hosting a bi-weekly Agricola meet-up in Berkeley, CA.  What else has the game taught me about business?   These three important lessons:

1)      Think ahead. Actions you initiate early can reap long-term benefits towards the end of the game.   The sheep you breed in stage one may turn into a whole flock by stage six.
2)      Timing is everything. There’s a right time for each action.  Yes, you want to renovate your home from wood to stone for extra points, but that’s usually a stage-four, not a stage-one, kind of move.
3)      Respond to the changing situation.  Keep track of what other players are doing. Although you may have started out with a field strategy, if everyone else is buying ovens to bake bread into food, perhaps you should shift your strategy and pick up a fireplace (for cooking animals) instead.

In an age that is growing more solitary, with people sitting alone in their rooms playing virtual games like Facebook Scrabble and World of Warcraft, or texting people who are sitting right there across the dining room table from them, board games offer a somewhat retro opportunity to unplug, together, with your friends, family and colleagues.    When you toss in the myriad business lessons to be gathered, the message is clear:   it’s time to start playing more board games    Or as we might say during our Agricola sessions, you’re bound to reap the benefits!