Imagine playing a board game like Monopoly, but instead of buying houses and avoiding jail, you're managing the ins and outs of a production business. Not only that — you’re also working to maintain higher profit margins than your competitors, who just so happen to be your classmates.

Welcome to The Game, the grand finale for students in Production Planning and Inventory Control, a course offered in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

“The original version of The Game was developed by Salwa Ammar and Ronald Wright at Lemoyne College for an MBA curriculum, and I played it at an INFORMS Conference when I first arrived at Virginia Tech,” said Associate Professor and course instructor Kimberly Ellis. “It was a big hit at the conference, so I decided to try it out with our undergraduate students. That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, we have tailored The Game to our curriculum and played it every year.” 

In The Game, students get hands-on experience running a business. They step into the shoes of top company officials, making decisions that affect everything from costs and profits to inventory levels and labor requirements. After team members receive forecasts for their customer demands, they develop production plans and then adjust based on actual product demand.

“Students definitely have an ‘aha’ moment when they play,” said Collegiate Associate Professor and course instructor Natalie Cherbaka. “They get to experience application of the course material in real time and in an environment that is different from the classroom. We play The Game for an entire evening. It’s a three- or four-hour adventure where competition builds over the event.” 

A necessary transition

At its conception, The Game was played with a low-tech approach: Individual colored pieces of paper represented raw materials, teams assembled these into final products, and students wrote checks to purchase supplies and pay employees. As class sizes grew, groups of five to six players were stretched to 10, and managing the physical and logistical aspects of The Game became more challenging. “From previous experience, we also knew that students in smaller groups were more engaged in advanced decision-making activities,” Ellis said.  “We realized that something needed to change.”

During the fall semester 2019, Ellis and Cherbaka decided the game was overdue for a technological makeover. 

“Initially, our goal was to migrate just the financial transaction piece to a digital platform. Students gave good reviews but always had comments asking why the game was still played on paper,” Cherbaka said. “Once we started, we decided to make the entire game digital. In retrospect, the ability to play entirely online and remote is a huge benefit.”

Original paper pieces from "The Game" with the new digital version.
The Game was originally played using paper components. Students wrote checks and raw materials were represented by pieces of paper. In 2020, The Game went completely online. Photo by Jordi Shelton for Virginia Tech.

Serendipitous timing for digital migration  

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic moved all learning online, efforts to digitize The Game commenced. Two standout students, graduate student Drew Thomas '19, '20 and senior Matt Garlington '20, were enlisted to create the first online version of The Game.

“Matt and Drew had experience playing The Game as undergraduate students and were instrumental in creating the platform,” Ellis said. “They brought their experiences as students, and Natalie and I brought our experiences teaching. It was a really good team.”

The first version of The Game was played online for the first time in summer 2020. The team gathered information from this first round to inform further enhancements.        

“The timing was serendipitous in a way, that we were already making plans to move the game to a digital platform when the pandemic started,” Thomas said. “To be able to connect people, and still deliver on this milestone for the course, is great. It would have been difficult to achieve the same learning outcomes during the pandemic otherwise.”

Alumni feedback improves student outcomes 

After graduating, Thomas continued to develop the game in collaboration with co-worker and industrial and systems engineering (ISE) alumnus Ben Labine.  Together, they introduced the beta test version to the Alpine Consulting firm, founded by ISE alumnus Dan Surber. Alpine is staffed with numerous other ISE alumni who are familiar with The Game, so employees spent an evening playing the new digital version and stoking some friendly competition.

“When we played at Alpine, we were able to get a ton of feedback on the product in addition to testing out the new virtual version of The Game. These folks have a great eye for detail and were noticing bugs and where instructions could be more clear,” Thomas said. “It was definitely different from our time playing as undergraduates because the medium was completely digital. I think that set us up for success before going live to students.”

The Game rolled out to students enrolled in Production Planning and Inventory Control in spring 2021 and was an immediate hit. 

Colby Rosser, a senior in ISE, was able to utilize knowledge gained in the classroom and watch the results in real time.

“The Game really puts you in a fast-paced and real-world scenario because you have to make decisions on the fly,” Rosser said. “You get to see all the pieces of the puzzle come together from the class, starting at day one all the way to during the game. It’s also fun. Not only are you learning while playing, it’s also exciting. There’s definitely some friendly competition.” 

While the digital adaptation made it easy to play fully online, Cherbaka, Ellis, and Thomas agreed the technology also enabled students to collaborate easily in person. 

“It’s interesting because it’s possible to play completely remotely, but also to play in person using the online platform,” Thomas said. “Sitting at a table and making decisions as a team is important, and we got to see the value in the technology supporting those discussions.”

Even for students who did not play with the original version of the game, the combination of technology and face-to-face interaction was a bonus. 

“We’re able to delegate who is working directly in The Game’s software and who is using other programs. We get to see real-time results and how the decisions we’re making are affecting our profits,” Rosser said. “It’s a great balance between using that technology and collaborating in-person.”

Enhancing student learning

Ellis and Cherbaka knew the success of The Game could reach beyond Blacksburg. While attending the College Industry Council on Material Handling Education conference in 2022, Cherbaka lectured on The Game’s success — and industrial engineering faculty from around the world took notice. 

“Fabio Sgarbossa from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology was also in attendance as a lecturer. He heard about our success with The Game and decided to adopt it into his course with a group of graduate students,” Cherbaka said. “It went well for him, and he plans to continue using it.” 

In May, Cherbaka and Ellis received the Innovation in Education Award from the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE). This conference also spurred discussion on how the game can benefit other universities. 

“While we were at the IISE conference, a department head at a different university in the U.S. also asked how he could implement the game,” Ellis said. “Now we’re working to facilitate the use of The Game at other universities.”

Students and faculty attending the IISE conference in May.
Kimberly Ellis and Natalie Cherbaka (center) at the IISE conference in May, where they recieved the Education Award. Photo courtsey of IISE.
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