We don’t often think of them this way — probably because it makes them sound suspiciously like homework — but every game is a kind of teaching tool. The mechanics of the game are a metaphor for the lessons that game means to impart. Succeeding at the game means internalizing these lessons.
But the thing about games that separates them from mere lesson-imparting devices is that they aren’t fundamentally prescriptive. There isn’t necessarily one, overarching, inescapable moral of the story handed down from the creators to the players. Instead, players are invited to “read” the game themselves, bringing their own experiences and understandings into it.
The way the player’s pre-existing understandings collide with the curated experience of a game creates something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Different players take different experiences and lessons away from their time with the game.
This unique interaction means games can function as a kind of meditative tool for reaching a deeper understanding of all kinds of facets of our lives — and ourselves. For example: When I play board games, I often find myself applying the “metaphors” I’m learning through the game-play back to marketing. I’ll come away from a game bursting with inspiration about new approaches I can take to my work.
Is this a healthy, non-obsessive way to enjoy a hobby? Well…
But! Do I find it fascinating and legitimately, professionally helpful? Absolutely!
Will you find it helpful? I have no idea! All I can do is relate some of the big marketing takeaways I’ve had while playing some interesting board games recently. The rest is up to the game you’re playing and you.
1 — Catan
In “Catan” (formerly called “Settlers of Catan”), players take turns attempting to develop their own societies on the fictional island Catan by gathering and trading resources and then using these resources to build settlements, roads, and other developments. Players gain one “victory point” for each settlement they have established and two points for each city, while other achievements such as building the longest road grant points, as well. The first player to reach ten victory points wins.
The surest path toward victory in Catan is to have a plan in mind as soon as you start. Work backwards from victory, understanding exactly what you need to win and strategically accumulating the resources and carefully planning your settlement’s development to make that victory happen. Sound familiar?
Marketing — and especially B2B marketing — like Catan, is all about planned scalability. It’s not enough to know what you need to be successful now. Instead, you need to know exactly how you’re going to leverage your early wins for greater success down the line. What is this ad campaign going to turn into? Where is that road you’re building going? You’re not over-investing in sheep again, are you?“B2B marketing is all about planned scalability. It’s not enough to know what you need to be successful now. Instead, you need to know exactly how you're going to leverage your early wins for greater success down the line.” — @ShiitakeHarry Click To Tweet
2 — Ticket to Ride
In “Ticket to Ride,” players take turns building train routes connecting cities across a region such as the U.S. and southern Canada. The game ends when one player only has two or fewer train pieces remaining. At this point, every player calculates points based on the length of their routes and several other factors, and the player with the highest value overall wins.
Not only are the longest routes worth the most points in Ticket to Ride, but the player with the longest route wins 10 bonus points. Of course, the longer the route, the riskier your attempt to build it becomes, as your opponents will have more opportunities to thwart you. In other words, if you plan too far in advance or your plan is too rigid, then chances are it’s going to get cut off at the pass.
The same is true for marketing: creating a brand plan is crucial for development… but marketers have to understand that our plans rarely happen the way we want them to. Instead, opportunities and obstacles naturally crop up along the way, and we’ll have to adapt day-by-day and campaign-by-campaign to compensate. The resulting ride probably won’t end up as efficient as we’d like it to be, but if we do our jobs right, it will still get us where we need to go.“Marketers have to understand that our plans rarely happen the way we want them to. Instead, opportunities and obstacles naturally crop up along the way, and we’ll have to adapt day-by-day to compensate.” — Harry Mackin @ShiitakeHarry Click To Tweet
3 — Root
“Root” is an asymmetric board game, which means each of the players has different actions to take every turn, working toward different goals, and even has different victory conditions. In addition to learning their own faction, therefore, players also have to get a sense of what their opponent is up to so they can use their own unique options to interfere.
Winning at Root requires mastering two, equally important facets of the game: 1. the ability to understand your own unique strengths and leverage them to the hilt and 2. the ability to understand your opponent’s unique strengths and know exactly how to position yourself relative to these strengths. The comparisons here practically write themselves.
The best marketing needs both: 1. to understand its own brand’s strengths and 2. be able to clearly articulate what makes those strengths particularly desirable in their space. The better you can make what’s special about your brand more appealing than what’s special about your competition’s, the more successful your marketing becomes. “Winning” in marketing isn’t really about beating your competition at their own game; it’s about playing your own game better than they play theirs.“The best marketing needs both: 1. to understand its own brand’s strengths and 2. be able to clearly articulate what makes those strengths particularly desirable in their space.” — Harry Mackin @ShiitakeHarry Click To Tweet
4 — Décorum
(Disclaimer: I helped make this next game, and I’m shamelessly self-promoting it from my day job. But hey, I drew pretty heavily from my own experiences as a marketer when designing it, and they told me I could write this, so…)
“Décorum” is about home decoration, and, as anyone who has decorated a home with another person can tell you, you and your partner will wind up having very different ideas about how it should look. Both of your decor “requirements” must all be fulfilled at the same time in order to win… but you only know yours, and your partner only knows theirs.
After making each move, you’ll have a chance to ask your partner if they “liked” what you just did, “hated” it, or didn’t care one way or the other. Working with only this limited information, you’ll have to find a home state you can both be happy with, one passive aggressive argument at a time.
In many games, it’s natural to focus only on fulfilling your own rules. If you try to do that in Décorum, however, you’ll run into the same arguments over and over again. Marketing works exactly the same way.
“Winning” in marketing isn’t about getting to make what I want to make, or even just making the most successful campaign possible. Above all, to succeed at marketing, you have to understand what it means for your partner to win. If your marketing doesn’t suit your client’s brand, then it doesn’t matter how good it is.“Above all, to succeed at marketing, you have to understand what it means for your partner to win. If your marketing doesn’t suit your client’s brand, then it doesn’t matter how good it is.” — Harry Mackin @ShiitakeHarry Click To Tweet
When you understand your client’s win conditions, hopefully you’ll have a “Décorum moment” of your own: you’ll put your conditions and theirs together and find the right approach your marketing can take to fulfill both, usually creating an even better end product in the process… even if that means putting your favorite antique lamp back into storage. Or, you know, cutting your favorite joke from the blog you’re turning in.
Not that I’d know anything about that.
To see what else the TopRank team can transform into a freewheeling discussion of marketing theory and practice, keep up with the TopRank B2B Marketing Blog. If you’d like to work with a B2B marketing team you can reach a genuine “Décorum moment” with (or you just want to play some board games with us), get in touch right now.
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