Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How Board Games Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

Board Game Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan - "gateway drug of board games"

A few years ago, I met one of the loves of my life: Settlers of Catan. This is known in the gaming world as the "gateway drug of board games." Once I got a taste of this genius tabletop, I was hooked. I went on a binge. I played Settlers 9 times in 7 days. I spread the gospel of Catan to all my friends, and promptly whooped them all. From there, I played Citadels, Ticket to Ride, Munchkin, Coup, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Avalon, Talisman, and most recently, Dominion.

Why do I find board games so addictive? For the same reasons I love startup culture. Board games are a fantastic training ground for budding entrepreneurs. Here's why:


When I play a game, it is ON! I'm in it to win it. I've got a healthy sense of competition, and I'm not afraid to go after what I want. And like they say, "if you want to make an omelette, sometimes you have to crack some eggs." I'd never resort to sabotage or unethical game play, but sometimes you can't play nice. In a game of Settlers, I have no hesitation about putting the robber on my boyfriend's #8 brick hexel. My strategy can be relentless and cutthroat, though never malicious. Sometimes that's what it takes to make it in business.


On the other hand, sometimes you have to work together as a team in order to succeed. I love cooperative games. In co-op games, players help each other out in order to beat the game itself. For example, Sentinels of the Multiverse is a co-op tabletop card game that pits "hero" players against a "villain" deck of cards. The heroes strategize together, combining complementary strengths for attack, defense, and healing. In the end, the heroes vanquish the villain, or else we all die. Co-op games are the antidote to the sometimes volatile dynamic of competitive games. They're also a reminder that in a startup company you need to work as a team to beat out your competitors.

Board Game Sentinels of the Multiverse
Sentinels of the Multiverse - an awesome co-op game

Settlers of Catan may be solely responsible for developing all my negotiation skills. Trade is a crucial part of the game. You get the best trade rates working with other players rather than with the resource "bank." Settlers taught me to keep an eye out for advantageous trades and propose them whenever possible. After all, you can't get what you want if you never ask for it.

Trading resources in Setters is great practice in the art of negotiation: the dramatic give-and-take, feeling out someone's intentions, offers and counter-offers, emphatic persuasion. I've tried all psychological tactics, from pity to reverse psychology to bluffing. I'll create a sense of urgency and pressure, or else use humor and compassion. I've seen what works best, what works sometimes, and what makes other players not want to trade with you at all. Board games are a safe environment to test the bounds of negotiation so that you can find that balance between pursuing your goals and respecting trade relations. I'd much rather learn those hard lessons around a table with friends than with a hiring manager or business partner.


If you don't take risks, you'll never win. True of board games and of entrepreneurs.

Board games have low stakes, so there's nothing to lose if your gamble falls flat. There are consequences, of course, but games are a safe place to get comfortable taking calculated risks.

Anecdotally, I find that those who play it safe in a board game tend to play it safe in life. They will second-guess their strategy, overthinking the benefits and drawbacks of each move, and often regret their choices later on.

My secret strategy? Don't overthink it, and go with your gut. If I go with my gut over my sometimes-too-rational mind, I'll take risks that have a greater payoff.


Just when I feel like I've mastered a game, I'll mix it up by adding an expansion. Expansion packs add more variables to the mix, experiment with different rules, and essentially create whole new versions of the game.

Board Games Settlers of Catan expansions
Settlers of Catan expansion packs
You can't sit pretty in a startup. The world moves too fast, the market shifts, new technologies emerge. The rules change, new players enter...sound familiar?


I play a lot of board games. I win a lot, and I lose a lot. Even if you're very skilled, losses are inevitable. Board games taught me to not take losing personally. I've developed a good sense of sportsmanship; I'll congratulate the winner on a good game and genuinely look forward to playing again. Perseverance and humility in the face of failure is essential.

Having fun

At the end of the day, win or lose, games are fun! You only truly lose if you don't enjoy yourself. And if I didn't love the thrills of startup culture, I wouldn't be playing at being an entrepreneur.


Up next: How Job Hunting is Like Dating


  1. Great perspective--I've never thought about boardgames that way before!

  2. I understand completely. Check out Pandemic, I personally find it to be a great team-builder. Leaders rise, you can watch strategy and see how people think under pressure.

    1. Thanks, Kelly! I haven't tried that one yet, but I've heard good things.