From Our Remote Team to Yours: Team Bonding & Games

About 7 months ago, our team at Toucan AI went entirely remote. It didn’t come as a surprise to me (we knew before she had even joined our team that our first full-time employee would eventually transition to remote after spending a few months with us in Atlanta in person), but it was still something that gave me pause. None of us (Vishnu, Marifel, or myself) had ever worked on a truly remote team before, and we had just spent the first few months of our time together going in to our offices every day.

Funnily enough, it wasn’t the actual working aspect that concerned me—our team has always been incredibly committed to what we’re building, and I knew that no matter what, our intense dedication would be able to overcome any hindrances to productivity that might come from not being in close physical proximity.

For similar reasons, I also wasn’t particularly worried about communication—we’re all (for better or for worse) very Internet-connected people, and we check and respond to Slack quickly out of habit. I like to think that all of us are also forgiving and understanding, so we understand that when someone isn’t responding, it’s for good reason, and that they will when they get a chance (or that we need to elevate it to the next level of communication if it’s really that urgent).

I imagine pretty much all workplaces during this quarantine period are contending with how to make up for lost co-working time, and many leaders and executives will be focused primarily on these first two aspects: productivity and communication. While those are obviously important to keeping a company afloat, I would encourage folks to hone in on the aspect of an office that’s perhaps most difficult to replicate through technology: team bonding.

If you work at a big company in the US, you’re probably well-aware of the lavish Christmas parties and the weekly afternoon happy hours often used to boost employee morale. These activities, while exciting for some and unbearable for others, are crucial in helping teams spend time together that’s specifically not work-related. Unfortunately, most small companies can’t afford to make bonding time luxurious, even in a booming economy. At Toucan AI, we tend to concentrate on two types of budget-friendly activities we all love: food and games.

Before we transitioned to remote, we would typically host a monthly team dinner at an exciting local eatery, as well as an onboarding lunch whenever someone new (part-time, intern, you name it) joined the team. We also started hosting monthly game nights, in which we’d all bring some cool board games we had learned about recently to play together. Ever since we went remote, however, we had to come up with a new strategy for spending downtime together. Luckily, we got a head-start on the rest of the world by starting in September, so hopefully our extra time as a remote team can help provide some guidance to others. Here are some takeaways we’ve had thus far:

Tandem

The Toucan AI team doing Daily Standup on Tandem

Since we went remote, we’ve been using Tandem Chat. It’s basically just a virtual meeting room that lets you join a video chat with 1 click. It makes it unbelievably easy to start video chatting (easier than FaceTime, I’d argue), and is currently free as long as you’re part of their beta program (in which you agree to give them occasional feedback). The video quality is pretty good (unlike Hangouts) and it doesn’t have a time limit on its free version (unlike Zoom). We use Tandem for our Daily Standup, as well as for our Virtual Game Nights. As far as I can tell, it’s the best tool for startups to use right now for internal video chat (caveat: they’re still working on mobile, so you’ll have to use your computer).

Virtual Game nights

Soon after we became fully remote, we transitioned our in-person game nights to virtual ones. We do them over Tandem, once a month, for about 2 hours on a weeknight evening EST (usually Wednesdays).

We almost always pick games that are:

  • Mobile-compatible: holding your laptop camera up to a physical board game set is unwieldy and annoying, and I don’t recommend that for anyone
  • iPhone- and Android-friendly: we have a mix of both on our team
  • Short: we typically opt for shorter, round-based games rather than longer, strategy/Euro-style games—they’re a lot easier to achieve via video chat, as most Euro board game designers do not spend a lot of resources on mobile app quality
  • Online multiplayer compatible: obviously
  • Low barrier-to-entry: none of us are exceptionally skilled mobile gamers, so we also try to find ones that don’t require a huge time commitment to set up or notable gaming skills
  • Workable for 3 people: we’re 3 full-time right now. Keep that in mind when you’re considering what would work well for your team

Zombs Royale

A screenshot of Zombs Royale

Basically, this is Fortnite. It’s a battle royale game in which 100-ish people land on an island, viewed top-down, as beige-colored circles, where they battle it to the death. You walk around the island, collecting weapons and avoiding (or confronting, if it’s your style) other players as you try to become the last one(s) standing. You can play as a team of up to 4, or you can play individually, and you usually have to wait less than 15 seconds for the servers to find enough people online to start a game with you. To us, it felt less intimidating than actual Fortnite, due to its lack of surrounding hype, and we’ve actually gotten pretty good lately (even placing 3rd in a couple of games!).

Mario Kart Tour

A screenshot of Mario Kart Tour

I don’t know if it’s because the COVID-fueled Animal Crossing hype has been the focal point of Nintendo’s current media spotlight, but I’m not sure why Nintendo releasing a fully-functional, free Mario Kart mobile app didn’t get more attention??? It’s the classic Mario Kart racing game that has been smoothly ported to mobile with seamless functionality and just enough skill level to make it interesting. Definitely give this one a download, even if it’s just to play by yourself for fun. Quick note—you do have to play 5-6 times during the tutorial before you’re allowed to add your friends on multiplayer.

Splendor

A screenshot of Splendor

Anyone who’s familiar with the card/board game will find the Splendor mobile app to be a smooth transition to digital. It’s a 1-4 player game in which you trade gems for more gems that translate to points so you can ultimately become the most prestigious gem merchant of the Renaissance. This one’s a little longer (~30 min or so), but it’s pretty easy to get the mechanics down, and it definitely has more long-term strategy than some of the other options on this list, so worth playing at least once in your virtual game night rotation!

Drawasaurus

A screenshot of Drawasaurus

Drawasaurus is basically Pictionary, but a really well-executed version for online. It’s web-based, and you can create a private room for free without having to log in or provide any personal details. The drawer picks a word while the remainder of the players can guess what they’re seeing in an in-game chat feature. The sooner you guess correctly, the more points you score. It’s dead-easy to start playing, and the chat feature is nice since it allows you to bounce off of others’ ideas. From what I can tell, the room limit here is 20.

Houseparty

A screenshot of Houseparty

You’re probably familiar with Houseparty by now, as it has made huge waves in the past few weeks due to quarantined families needing a one-stop shop to virtually congregate. The video chat app (now distributed by Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite and the Unreal Engine), includes a bunch of easy-to-learn mini-games that even your tech-averse teammates or employees can enjoy. Once you’re on it (up to 8 at a time simultaneously), you can see everyone else’s faces, like any other video chat app, and can play generic-brand versions of Apples to Apples/Cards Against Humanity (“Chips and Guac”) and Pictionary (“Quick Draw”), Ellen Degeneres’s popular Heads Up!, and a Trivia game, which overlay on top of your faces. This app is also playable through your web browser or as a downloadable computer app.

Jackbox

A screenshot of Quiplash, a game from Jackbox

You might also have heard of The Jackbox Party Pack (AKA Jackbox), but it bears repeating—Jackbox is one of the best web-based multiplayer minigame collections out there. Each party pack costs about $20 and requires 1 person to download the pack on Steam (on your laptop or any major gaming console), but that’s it as far as setup goes—everyone else who’s playing can join in via their mobile web browser without needing a login account or anything. All you need is your phone/laptop and an Internet connection. Each party pack comprises of about 6 games, ranging from fun-fact trivia games to witty, comical games that really value creativity (or curation of your friends’ creativity). Most games allow for up to 8 players, and although they’re generally better with more players, 3 is enough to get some good laughs/fun out of most of the games. There are now 6 (7th coming out next year!) different party packs for Jackbox, and I personally recommend 2 and/or 3 for beginners. Hot Tip for Jackbox players: if the game starts buffering on anyone’s phones, just tell them to refresh their browsers and enter the game code again! It should restart pretty smoothly.

We’ve tried a lot of other games too, but these are the ones we’d consider to be winners! We’d love to hear your thoughts and are happy to add to this list if you have suggestions for us to try out. Hopefully your team can use this list to entertain yourselves socially during this quarantine, and hope everyone stays safe!

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  • Arjun