The “403 Forbidden” card game

There is a subtle but very important difference between naming something and explaining something.

I’m sure you’ve heard people use the phrase “technical work” in lots of different situations but have you ever stopped to question what it really means? Could you explain “technical work” to someone else in plain, simple language? Could you do it without using the words “technical” or “work”? Now how many of these familiar-sounding terms do you think could you explain to a friend in 90 seconds?

The game aims to improve people’s clarity of thought and precision of language. It’s only by asking people to communicate ambiguous, complicated or vaguely familiar terms to a colleague in plain, easy to understand language that we realise how much we rely on buzzwords and jargon to fill in the blanks in our own understanding!

The game can help up-skill newbie developers and testers or assist interviewers to assess the communication skills of candidates. It could also help bridge the communication divide between “technical” (devs, testers) and “non-technical” (Product, Business, UX) team members.

Phil Karlton famously said, “There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things”. Once you play the game you’ll realise there’s a third; “explaining things”!

What you need to play the game

  • A Pen
  • Index cards

The Cards

The scope of terms you decide to include can be as broad or narrow as you like. See table below for some examples of what I use in my version.

RetroPOSTHotfix releasegit reset –hardStory
Dev completeResponseIntegrated Test502 Bad Gatewaycd ~
BooleanTechnical work++Port 443JSON
⌘ + NSerializationContext switchingLegacy code[a-zA-Z]
Brooks LawPropertyQualityBearer TokenHello World
Senior DeveloperPACT===Fibonnaci numbersPair programming
Build agent#ffffffw3schools.com“works on my machine”Jenkins
\nMVCPathSnake caseWireframe

The Rules

  1. You can not use any word written on the card, or derivative of it, to explain the term or acronym i.e. if you are trying to explain the term “developer”, you are not allowed to say dev, develop, development, etc.
  2. You have to explain the term in the context of software development i.e. you are not allowed to talk about houses or apartments if you’re trying to explain “property”

How to play

  1. Nominate 1 person to be the Games Master
    1. See “Games Master Responsibilities” section below
  2. Split everybody else into equally sized teams.
    1. you need a minimum 4 people to play. There is no maximum on how many people can play
    2. We played with 12 people (3 teams of 4 players) and it worked really well!
  3. Each team takes turns to play
  4. 1 person on each team is the Describer; everyone else is a Guesser. The roles within the team rotate each turn
  5. Each team has 90 seconds to correctly describe as many cards as possible
  6. The Describer can skip on a maximum of 3 cards, called Skipped cards, per turn
  7. At the end of the 90 seconds, the Opposing team (or the Next team, if there are more than 2 teams) get an opportunity to earn bonus points. They get 30 seconds (before the start of their 90 second turn) to describe as many of the Skipped cards as possible
  8. Each correctly guessed card is worth 1 point
  9. If the Describer breaks either rule, the card is immediately discarded. No points can be earned on Discarded cards
  10. The last card the Describer tries to explain should be treated as Discarded card and not a Skipped card

Games Master Responsibilities

  1. The Games Master should sit next to the Describer to determine if a forbidden word was used
  2. Below are the primary responsibilities of the Games Master
    1. Monitor time
    2. Keep track of scores
    3. Listen out of the use forbidden words
  3. All Games Master’s ruling are final!)

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