Appian CEO sees games as serious business

Software company founder relies on games to improve business acumen

If you want to succeed in business, play games. Not the electronic ones or even the granddaddy of them all, chess.

No, sit down at a table with two to four other players and break out a challenging strategy board game – just as long as it isn’t Monopoly and there are no dice.

That’s the advice of Matt Calkins, president and CEO of Appian, a company he founded to develop business process management software.

“Games are valuable because they prepare you for life,” he said. “The better games minimize luck. I don’t like Monopoly because it involves too much luck.”

That’s why the games he plays and the ones he creates do not involve a roll of the dice.

And if you’re thinking of chess, don’t. You’ll never see Calkins squaring off against Boris Spassky.

“I do not play chess,” he said, although he added that he appreciates it as the ultimate game of calculations.

But chess is a very poor proxy for real life, he said, because no one calculates and prepares his or her life moves so far in advance.

“Business is not like that. Life and relationships are not like that. So why play a game that is like that?” he asked.

“Too much data is hidden in real life to be able to project 10 moves ahead as you walk down the sidewalk,” Calkins said. “Calculating in a game is not good preparation for life, and as such I tend not to favor games with calculation.”

However, those self-imposed restrictions have not curtailed Calkins’ game-playing because he has more than 1,000 board games in his personal collection.

Calkins’ love of games began, as most people's do, when he was a child, and not that long ago that he wasn’t exposed to video and electronic games.

He just happens to be “old school,” he said.

“I write board games, strategy games, and play them," he added. "It’s entirely over a board, with other people.”

That’s because Calkins believes board games offer something videos game cannot.

“There’s so much bandwidth from that big rectangle laid out on your table,” he said, using a technology term to describe the nature of those folding boards.

Players can see where all the pieces are, how much money everybody is holding, and the information only they can see and the others cannot, he said.

“It’s just a far more complex set of information requiring more bandwidth than you can put through a typical computer monitor,” he said.

In addition, strategy games provide feedback within a relatively short period of time, a valuable tool for dealing with ordinary daily life and business.

“You know after you’ve played a game whether you did the right things or the wrong things,” he said.

That’s important, Calkins said, because people learn through repetitive activities that provide feedback.

“We’d all be better at running our businesses or our careers or our lives if more two- or three-hour episodes in our life were to give us so frank a feedback as to whether we performed well or poorly,” he said.

Calkins called strategy games “a proxy for real life and real work” because they involve facing a number of intelligent people across a table with a complex set of variables and certain information not in everyone’s possession.

“That is very much like a day at the office,” he said.

So Calkins’ games of choice include some variables and even a bit of uncertainty, he said.

“In the games that I write there are no – or very few – variables that are not known to at least somebody, and the uncertainly consists in having those variables known to somebody other than you,” he said.

“Business and gaming are so merged and so intertwined, I find myself using techniques from one to the other and back and forth,” he said, adding that the similarity is particularly apt for software developers like Appian, which must take into account many variables of business processes, including some that will be unknown to the developer.

“Writing software, coding, means making a series of logical expressions that fit within the rules that a user can understand," he said. "Playing a game is making a series of logical expressions that fit within the rules."

In both cases, “You’re advancing toward an objective through a series of informing activities,” he added.

When Calkins isn’t running Appian, sitting down at a game board or competing in the World Boardgaming Championships, he is busy creating his own games.

His first published success, a game called Magnet, was named runner-up for Games Magazine’s Abstract Game of the Year in 2010.

Asked to name a favorite game, Calkins cited one of his creations called Propliner. It involves building an airline business in the early years of commercial air traffic – long before the word jetliner came into common usage.

“It turned out to be the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in writing games,” he said, “because I wanted to share with people the sense of management through uncertainty that I feel when I run a business. I wanted that to come out in the game.”

Calkins described Propliner as an interpretive and risk-avoiding game because as in real business, “you interpret the climate and you hedge your risk.”

In addition to the standard business situations – getting financing, hiring employees and building a brand, Propliner’s uncertainties include crashes, spikes in fuel costs, scheduling delays and worker strikes, among other unforeseen events.

Each unforeseen event in Propliner is known only to the person at the table who is holding that card. That affects how all players behave as the board game progresses, Calkins said.

Propliner will be published some time next year by strategy game-maker Rio Grande Games.

Business-oriented games aren’t the only ones Calkins enjoys.

But when it comes to creating games, Calkins not only talks the talk, he walks the walk.

In January, GMT Games will publish his Sekigahara, a game Calkins named after a decisive battle in 1600 involving two armies of more than 80,000 warriors each that helped unify Japan.

“It’s about the movement of armies and loyalty," he said. "One of the elements in [developing] the game was going to be how quickly an army could move along the primary highway versus the side roads in Japan."

“As part of my research, I actually hiked the Nakasendo [highway] in Japan,” he said, spending what he called "a very long day" along the 332-mile route between Kyoto to Edo, the former name of Tokyo during Japan’s feudal period.

“I went there and I saw this place, and I really understood what it meant to hike it and to move an army along that space," he said.

Among the other favorite games that he owns, Calkins said he enjoys Acquire, which involves building a chain of hotels, and Diplomacy, a game of strategy and alliances based on World War I.

Calkins said playing games makes him a better CEO and his business skills make him a better game player. “Actually I think they both make me better at each other,” he said.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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