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Back of the Napkin


Object of Play:
The goal for each team is to come up with an answer  to a provocative question and write/draw it up on the back of a napkin.

Number of Players: Teams of 3. (See strategy section for discussion of different team sizes.)  No limit to the number of teams other than what the organizer wants.

Duration of Play: TBD by organizer.  Minimum amount of time recommended:  10 minutes per team per question.

Examples: Here are examples of questions and  napkins from the recent TEDxTC event in St. Paul, MN.  [1] [2] [3]

How to Play

  • Game is played in teams.
  • There is at least 1 problem statement/open-ended question per game session.
  • Each team writes and/or draws their answer on a napkin.
  • Each answer appears on one side of the (folded) napkin.
  • Players write their names on the other side of the napkin.
  • Optional:  Players may enter as many solutions as they want, however, each submission has to be from a different team.
  • Optional:  Each team must be comprised of at least 2 people who have just met or are just meeting.
  • Optional:  A group of judges will look at the entries.   Play for bragging rights or for a prize.  To keep it clear that there are all sorts of possibilities, offer different categories, such as:
    • Most Practical
    • Most Out-of-the-Box
    • Most Whimsical
    • Most Visual

As a facilitator/organizer, why might you play this game?  Here are some reasons:

  • To introduce people to each other and/or to facilitate networking amongst them.
  • To provide a fun, competitive way to brainstorm.
  • To turn the reception for an event into an experience that people value as part of the overall experience.

The back of a napkin is already associated with Aha moments and inspiration.  Its informality helps combat people’s instincts towards worrying about whether they can draw, have the “perfect” solution to the question, and other worries that can crop up if we were to use something more formal. It’s a good idea to reinforce this in the introduction to the game by encouraging teams to be as practical, whimsical and/or out of the box as they want, and, if winners will be named, by having categories that include playful ones.

Question strategy: define a question that’s open-ended and requires more than a couple of words to answer.  Keep it relatively short and clear.  Don’t worry that the question is too “big” in terms of its scope.  This game is meant to inspire conversation and ideation.

Another important thing about the question is to make sure it relates to something that all the potential players have in common.  Some examples of common things are:

  • a speech that everyone’s heard,
  • a book or article that everyone’s read,
  • a company or organization they’ve all done business with or been a part of in some other way,
  • an experience they’ve had in common, such as being a parent or living in the same community.

Team size:  you can choose to set the team size to be exactly n players, no fewer than n players, no more than n players, or n to y players.  I recommend that the numbers be somewhere between 2 and 6.  If you’re running the game at an event where people decide to play or not, going with the “n to y players” would work best.  This is because people are playing and networking at the same time, and if 4 people want to play in one place and 2 in another, for example, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to.  In an environment where it’s important to you that everyone plays, setting team sizes more precisely might work better.

With regard to team formation, you can go with an unconference approach and have multiple questions and have people gravitate to the question they want to answer and find others to team with, or go with something more defined.


  • A napkin that’s around 5″ x 5″ in its folded form works well. It’s better to get ones with a smooth surface so it’s easier to write on.  Gel pens work well, fyi, if you’re providing pens.
  • If you are playing the game with multiple questions or in a large space, consider having a host/facilitator at each question’s station to explain the game and answer questions.
  • I recommend having a flip chart or other large-format paper hanging on the wall and having players tape their napkins to that.
  • Tell players the timeframe in which the game will be played.

[This game is credited to Sheila Kim.]