How to successfully facilitate a virtual board game

Emily Hurley | 03/18/2021

It’s no surprise that playing a board game with a large group of people is a bit more challenging these days. However, we didn’t let that stop us from not only trying it, but also having fun with it. 

Over the past several months of working remotely, the Design team has continued to host our weekly Collab sessions virtually. As these sessions would typically have some sort of hands-on activity component to them, a couple of us decided to use this to our advantage to play a mystery-themed game.

The setup of the game was simple and was loosely based on a classic whodunit board game from our childhoods. We used members of the team as “suspects” and various objects around the first floor of our office building as “weapons.” 

The virtual facilitation of the game, however, proved to be much more complex. Although we work on digital products, we were able to draw a lot of parallels from our everyday work to the execution of the game.

Here are the top three:

• Create a highly organized plan

• Test, test, test

• Be more prescriptive than you think you need to be

Create a highly organized plan

As with any digital solution, the first step is to come up with a plan. It’s easy to get lost in the details right away when you have an end goal in mind, so taking a step back to look at things holistically is key.

We began by putting together a general outline of how we would facilitate the game, with emphasis on areas that had more room for logistical error. Once we had the specifics of the game nailed down, the facilitation piece flowed naturally from there. One of us would be the game master, and the other would assist players behind the scenes. We would make sure all players were briefed with necessary game pieces before gameplay and understood the instructions.

Test, test, test

At our studio, running usability testing and gathering feedback on what’s working and what’s not working is ingrained in our process. So, with the help of some close friends and family members who graciously dedicated their time, we put our game to the test prior to playing it with our co-workers. This allowed us to identify and address any issues and areas for improvement ahead of time.

We found that providing clear instructions and examples was critical. We initially didn’t spend much time on describing the rules, as we assumed everyone was familiar with the popular board game. However, some participants hadn’t played in a long time — or had never played at all. We had made the classic error of assuming too much about our users. 

We also found that there was a lot of misunderstanding around gameplay order. An inherent downfall of playing a board game virtually is that there is no clear direction in terms of who goes next, for example, as there would be when people are physically next to each other. Once again, our testing and piloting of the game help us head off confusion before debuting the game to our true audience.

Be more prescriptive than you think you need to be

Based on what we found in our test round, we were able to refine the way we presented the game and delivered instructions to be much clearer. We spent time updating the written directions, made sure to note specific nuances, and created a sample turn to be extremely explicit.

Rules of play

Because we were playing with a group of 16 people (note: the original game has 6 players), we divided players into 6 groups of 2-3 people. Of course, the volume of players created an added layer of complexity as the game required more prep work than in a real-world setting. We made sure to set up teams and prepared them with a document ahead of time with their assigned character, clue cards and a checklist to keep track of evidence throughout the game. Game facilitation was a collaborative effort as one member moderated and another one acted behind the scenes to answer any questions and act as lead detective. 

Due to our key takeaways, the game ended up being highly successful with the group. Although we may have underestimated the amount of time it would take to play a full game virtually, it was still fun. That said, designing the game itself was not only an enjoyable side project, but an interesting experiment to try with our team. Hopefully this will spark some ideas for your own team!

Imagery by Emily Hurley and Nellie Ortiz