It might sound weird to some of you but I play games with my teams during work. One of the most powerful games to use with a team is the Black Stories serie from author Holger Bösch and illustrator Bernhard Skopnik (The English version is also known as Dark Stories but those are from the same author and illustrator). There are good reasons to play games in the boss’ time so lets see how games are used. Fortunately Jordann Gross and Eddy Bruin introduced me into this at Agile Coach Camp Nederland 2015.

There is a lot of gaming going on in the Agile communities and there are different reasons why. You can use games as a teaching tool (think about getKanban), to estimate (Planning Poker), to fill a whole training (think of games like The Phoenix Game I blogged about). So there is a lot of games you can use that are work related i.e. the simulation games. But why would someone use a casual family game at work? Where is the benefit in that? Why would I tell Black Stories and how can I convince my manager it is valuable?

Well the thought behind this is very simple; It is beneficial for the meetings we have. Especially for the so called Refinement Sessions it is of great value. Although I know people who use them in Retrospectives as well. Lets look at the original game first. The game is actually a deck of cards with riddles on them. One side describes the short introduction of the riddle. This side should be read out loud by the facilitator. The other side is the full story, also known as the solution. This solution is for the facilitator and covers the storyline for the participants to discover. The participants start asking questions which can only be answered with Yes or No (or ‘Not relevant’) to find out what happened and how the story line looks like. On the back of the package itself, they explain it as:

50 black stories, 31 crimes, 49 dead bodies, 11 murderers, 12 suicides and one deadly meal. How could all this happen?

Black stories are tricky, morbid, sinister riddle-stories.

Solve the riddles! Reconstruct the particulars of each incident, piece by piece, by asking questions, guessing, or puzzling over the evidence. It’s a spine-chilling but fun guessing game that no party should be without – and one that will no doubt soon have you under its spell.

Now, where is the benefit in this? Well simple, it’s in the way of thinking. When doing this game as start of your refinement session, it breaks the current thinking process of the participants. Team members tend to be busy just before a meeting so they’ll bring their work into the meeting. With their thoughts they are still thinking about the last test run, the bug they are working on, the complex design issue for the new required functionality, etc. etc. Black Stories are a great way to set the stage for the coming refinement and get people in the here and now mode.

A second reason for using Black Stories during a refinement is to create the right mindset. So after putting people in the here and now, we need the team members to be prepared for refining Product Backlog Items. While we are learned to ask open-ended questions when discussing requirements, this game focuses on closed-ended questions. Now this is actually a good thing. Open-ended questions give you the opportunity to be divergent in the discussion, while closed-ended questions’ll give you the means to converge to what exactly is needed. The refinement is also to narrow down the Backlog Items to the barely sufficient to cover the needed functionality. After all, we work Agile, and one of its principles is “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” And Black Stories is a great way to get people to ask the right questions to narrow stuff down.

A third reason to use these Black Stories is having the participants start thinking out-of-the-box. While they try to follow/uncover the storyline, they will most likely hit a dead-end. From there on the participants start asking questions to probe where the storyline continues. At that point they have to come up with out-of-the-box questions to find where the storyline picks up again. This is helping the team in getting a out-of-the-box way of thinking and take this into the real refinement to come up with out-of-the-box solutions.

And last but not least, it’s a great deal of fun. I’ve had teams yelling “Black Storieeessss….!” as soon as they realized I was the facilitator for that refinement session. It helps people to be at the meeting on time, they don’t want to miss the game that’ll last five to ten minutes at max. So it definitely is a motivator for teams 🙂