Learning Games: The Beer Game

I encountered an interesting training activity recently called the beer game. Originally developed in the 1960s, the beer distribution game is an experiential learning activity designed to show the challenges of supply chain management. It's played by four people on a large table, using a specially-printed underlay (which you can see in a couple of the videos below).

There is a flow of goods (in this case beer) from the factory / brewery to the retailer, via the distributor and wholesaler. There is a flow of orders in the opposite direction. The goal is to try and balance supply and demand, while avoiding excessive inventory or back-orders (which generate a financial penalty).

Game Play

Customer orders (far left of the image) are pre-determined (but unknown to the players) and are provided to the retailer via a printed card deck. In response to this simulated customer demand, the retailer then decides on the amount of beer needed to replace inventory and cover future sales - that order is then placed with the wholesaler.

The wholesaler then ships that order to the retailer (but with some delays due to shipping) and places their own order with the distributor - who repeats the process of shipping and ordering.

The factory receives the order from the distributor, brews the beer (allowing for production delays) and ships orders.

Orders, inventory and any backorders are tracked (on paper or spreadsheet) so that costs can be assigned and a winning table announced at the end.

This whole process represents one game round (or week), with games usually running for 26 or 52 rounds.

The starting position of the game is shown in the image below, while detailed game play is well described in the videos I've attached to this post.

 

Reflections on facilitating training games

Some of my reflections about running training games since participating in this activity:

Experiential: Actually being a part of this game (which is really a table-based simulation) was a great way to learn.

Team-building: Working with a group of players built rapport rapidly.

Complexity: More complex games can include more details and nuances, but take more time to explain and longer to play.

Mixed groups: Facilitating an activity with a large group (especially one composed of learners of different backgrounds or experience levels) can be challenging.

Debriefing: Including a debrief is a crucial part of facilitating a learning game - not just explaining what happened in the game, but also exploring each participant's experience helps to consolidate the learning, as well as checking understanding and gaining some perspectives that other participants (and even the facilitator) may not have considered.

Post-activity resources: Providing follow-up activities, readings or website links can help participants make sense of what happened on the day - which is why I tracked down the resources I've used in this post.

Repetition: In the same way that our performance improves with practice, I've found that playing this game more than once (using the online version) significantly reinforced my learning.

Resources

Explains game board board set-up and describes each of the four player roles.

Really great explanation of rules and game play.

Plays from approximately 7:40 mins onwards - explains how and why the results occur.