Playing Lean – the game every entrepreneur should play

Sitting through lectures on thermodynamics won’t make you feel any closer to flying just as sitting through lectures on startups and Lean won’t let you feel any closer to investing in your idea. If it’s the business emotions and knowledge you’d like to experience firsthand, you need to try out Playing Lean – the board game that serves a role of a flight simulator for startups and teaches the rules of Lean Startup Methodology. The game forces participants to make strategic decisions and leads their enterprise to succeed in a demanding business environment. Gamification mechanisms unlock the creative thinking process, enable understanding of market dependencies and show consequences of taken decisions.

Playing Lean was designed in order to fully benefit from gamification mechanisms and storytelling in teaching Lean objectives, making it a game that every entrepreneur should play at least once in their career.

The game keeps players busy for at least 2 hours, including explaining rules and results debriefing. Usual minimum playing time can be confined to 90 minutes, however, typically the game lasts longer due to the discussions it sparks in the course of the play.

How do you play Playing Lean?

The game mechanics make it suitable for 4 participants (or teams) that inhabit characters of 4 fictitious enterprises: Friendsta, Twittbook, Facespace, and MySnap. Giving the companies such names, clearly reminiscent of current or past giants of social media, is a step well thought through. Each card reminds us of how the cards’ patrons played out critical situations in their course of professional development, eg. Twitter, who abandoned the podcasts market and dedicated its resources to microblogging, which turned out to be a hit and a lifesaver.

Every card possesses their own additional trait: Friendsta, being the Grandpa of Social Media, begins the game first. MySnap can pick an opponent’s card for a sneak peek in the first round. Facespace enters the game with higher technical expertise since Mark Zuckerberg was an excellent programmer. Twittbook is allowed to enter the game with one functionality already built.

Further on, the game provides experiment cards in 4 color categories (green, yellow, orange, and red), which present, among others:

  • strategies (eg. “invites only”, resulting in building a more exclusive brand, not available to all consumers),
  • problem interviews (eg. “The grumpy cat”, showing that even though a funny cat video may be sort of a success in social media, it doesn’t bring any value to your customers, thus emphasizing the need to ask more “why” questions and conducting more tests in order to find out, what the customer needs),
  • solution interviews (eg. “The False positive”, showing that some experiments fail when we incorporate false hypothesis, for example interviewing only those, who already are enthusiastic about our products),
  • planning fallacies (e.g. “Not Steve Jobs”, emphasizing the need to use data and remarks from verifying your assumptions, instead of Steve Jobs’ intuition, since, well, we’re not Steve Jobs”), and many others.

The goal of the game is to reach the centre of sales, marked red on the board, representing the final, ultimate customer. To achieve that, teams sell to other: green, yellow, and orange customers on their way in each round. Each team starts with a symbolic representation of 3 employees and with further rounds, gains more team members.

These pawn employees are delegated to round fields in order to build product’s functionalities, and, what is inevitable – the higher the advancement level, the more employees your brand needs to obtain before deploying them to these fields.

Training is another opportunity for employees, which will serve their company well in the red field endeavours. Training regards various matters, making the line of employee development another step of the team’s choices.

During the game, teams pass through 4 stages: Business Modelling, Problem/Solution Fit, Product/Market Fit, and Scaling, benefitting from set goals and used strategies. Each round consists of 3 event sequences: delegating employees, performing an action (building a functionality, removing one, conducting an experiment, strengthening the organization), and hiring.

Players follow the 3-step pattern of the feedback loop:

playing lean - build measure learn loop

The game shows attitudes influenced by certain values, important in both Lean and Agile approach. Lean is particularly dedicated to rational resource management, reducing waste, and is often applied in situations of uncertainty and limited resources, while Agile is famous for the “Innovators are everywhere” approach. Playing Lean embraces these values and the innovation culture, which leads to more efficient experimenting and better discovery of customers’ needs.


Playing the game is educational fun in itself, but it’s playing under an experienced facilitator that brings out all values the game offers. The game we played recently in our office was conducted under the watchful eye of Bartek Janowicz, the founder of ProInnovate and an expert on Lean Startup. This lead us to a number of remarks as we gathered after the game to discuss not only the glorious victory but the general outcome of Playing Lean. Among aspects we found especially positive, I can list the following:

  • a clear message on the limited budget,
  • the ability to conduct research 2 steps ahead, as well as focusing on the future, not the past steps,
  • keeping the record of resources, no reckless expenses,
  • the possibility to observe others,
  • incorporating numerous Lean real-life stories in the game, serving a huge educational role without being textbook boring,
  • in-game opportunities realistically depicting real-life conditions – betting on your strongest suits, sometimes being lucky and sometimes needing to withdraw to a smaller market.

We were critical about the following issues:

  • the game doesn’t enable one of the real-life survival mechanisms – cooperation between companies, e.g. in research,
  • mechanism of sales that has to generate resources,

not that much of an issue, but we criticized the restricted time. The game can be played longer than 90 minutes, and we observed that slightly more time for planning or writing down the strategy could change the outcome of the game.Because of the following aspects:

  • the game has one, clear goal,
  • it enables planning and experimenting,
  • it teaches about Lean Startup,
  • it is an informal but merit tool that can be integrated into meetings with the Board or clients to show potential scenarios,

we agree that Playing Lean is a valuable game that provides important insights on startups and Lean methodology.

The final verdict – we want that game!