Prisoner’s Dilemma (aka Reds & Blues)

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular team building game which demonstrates whether people display win-win (co-operative) or win-lose orientation (selfish competitive) in a semi-serious environment.

You can download a FREE Powerpoint or PDF of this tool at the bottom of this page


  • To achieve more co-operative behaviour between team members who are pursuing shared goals.

What is it?

  • Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game which demonstrates whether people display win-win (co-operative) or win-lose orientation (selfish competitive) in a situation which offers the possibility of both.
  • It contrasts their actual behavior with their expressed intentions, i.e. do people who say they support a win-win approach actually carry it out when the chips are down?
  • If they do, the implication is that they will be equally concerned that the other party’s needs are also met in any agreement.

Why is it useful?

Often we’re more concerned with winning more than with achieving the optimum result. This activity:

  • Explores the issues of risk and trust between team members and the effects of trust betrayal.
  • Demonstrates the effects of competition between teams.
  • Demonstrates the potential advantages of a collaborative approach to solving problems.
  • Demonstrates the necessity of establishing the purpose of any activity.

Resources Required

  • Approximately 1 hour is required.
  • Maximum of 16 willing people (8 on each team).
  • Enough open space for the two teams to meet separately without interrupting or disrupting each other.
  • In the center of the room place two chairs facing each other for team representatives.

Game Setup

  1. Setup the room as described on the ‘Resources Required’ section above.
  2. The Facilitator explains that the group is going to experience a simulation of an old technique used in interrogating prisoners (carefully avoiding discussing the objectives of the exercise) where the questioner separates prisoners suspected of working together and tells one that the other has confessed and that if they both confess they will get off easier.
  3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is that they may confess when they should not and that they may fail to confess when they really should.
  4. Two teams are formed, named A and B, and seated separately. They’re instructed not to communicate with the other team in any way, verbally or non-verbally, except when told to do so by the Facilitator.
  5. The objective is simple: “Your group is to get the highest positive score (by the end of the game, which consists of 10 short rounds)”

Instructions for Participants

Objective: To get the highest possible score for your team

  1. There are two teams – A and B – who will play 10 rounds of competition
  2. You will choose to play either Red or Blue
  3. You will be scored as per the Score Table
  4. The first 8 rounds are a maximum of 3 minutes each
  5. You can have a conference, via representatives, with your opposing group after the fourth round (however, this can only take place at the request of both groups).
  6. You can have another conference (for a maximum of 3 minutes) after the eighth round, if both groups choose this.
  7. The ninth and tenth rounds score double and you will have 5 minutes in each round to make your decision.
    • If both groups play Blue, each scores ‘-6’
    • If one group plays Blue, the other Red then Red = -12 and Blue = +12
    • If both play Red, each scores ‘+6’
Team Building Ideas - Prisoners Dilemma Scoring System


There are five stages:

  1. Four rounds are played independently without a direct interaction with the other side, just transmission of each other’s decisions. (The Facilitator instructs teams not to write down their decisions until told to do so, to make sure that the teams don’t make hasty decisions, and announces each group’s decision and scoring at the end of each round).
  2. A pause where there is the possibility of talking to the other side if both sides want this.
  3. Four more independent rounds.
  4. Another pause with the possibility of interaction.
  5. Two final rounds whose scores count double, i.e. Red/Red is +6/+6, Red/Blue is -12/+12,Blue/Red is +12/-12, Blue/Blue is -6/-6.

How does this relate to prison (from the original dilemma)?

Are you wondering how do the colors (red and blue) relate to either “confessing” or “denying” to the crime in the original Prisoners Dilemma? You can think of it like this:

  • If both deny then the police don’t have anything to go on to send either team to prison. That means they get off and benefit so get +3 each (so both red).
  • If both confess (blue) then the police have got them but they get lesser sentences for being honest (-3 each).
  • If one confesses (blue) but the other denies (red) then the confessor gets rewarded for their presumed testimony against the other team in court (+6) and the denier goes to prison for a long time for not owning up (-6).

Facilitator Score Card

Team Building Ideas - Prisoners Dilemma Facilitation Score Card

You can download either a PDF or and Powerpoint of this scorecard for free at the bottom of the page.

Plenary Review

  1. The whole group meets to process the experience. 
  2. The Facilitator announces the points total for each team, and the sum of the two outcomes is calculated and compared to the maximum possible outcome (72 points). 
  3. The Facilitator leads a discussion on the effects of high and low trust on interpersonal relations, on win-lose situations, and on the relative merits of collaboration versus competition. Here are some effective questions for you to use:
    • Did your attitude to the game change between wanting to win and wanting to collaborate at any point? If yes, when and why?
    • Was there a difference in your approach between the first 4 rounds, second 4 rounds and the final 2 (when there were double points on offer)?
    • How did the conferences play out?
    • What did you learn about yourself, your team members and the opposing team?
    • When is having total focusing on winning OK and when is it not? What problems does wanting to win cause?
    • How did it feel to win (to the team who won)?
    • How did it feel to lose (to the team who lost)?
    • If you did the activity again right now what would you do differently?

Secret Sauce

  • It’s essential you highlight that for a team to have a chance of winning they need to end on a positive score. Anything negative loses by default. This stops both teams playing Blues in each round.
  • Carefully avoid discussing the plenary questions until the end.
  • The procedure is somewhat complicated so it helps to tell Participants that it’s the Facilitator’s expectation that Participants will not fully understand the process until they’ve played a couple of rounds.
  • Money can be collected from teams and used as a prize to heighten competitiveness, in which case the following addendum is made to the announcement of the objective: “The group with the higher positive score gets the money”.
  • It’s very important to do the Plenary Review to ensure the group profits on the learnings.
  • The conferences produce some incredibly interesting learning points so try and push the teams towards having them.

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About the Author

Nick Martin has more than 15 years experience as a change manager and is the founder and CEO of WorkshopBank.

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