ESL Speaking Activity: Red and Black Game

Here’s an ESL conversation activity that gets students thinking about the consequences of strategies and choices. It’s the Red and Black card game based on game theory.

Teacher Notes – Game Overview

The game shows students something about the way people think and act. The choice is basically between the benefits of cooperation versus private gain via competition.

Total game time is about 20-30 minutes.

  • 5 minutes to explain how to play
  • 5-10 minutes of student play
  • 10-15 minutes of debriefing

Tools Required

  • a deck of regular playing cards
  • individual scoring sheet –  just a piece of paper with the numbers 1-10 down one side
  • a whiteboard or projector to show the payoffs for each card combination
  • student explanation notes (Google slide show below)

Activity Goals

This isn’t an intensive language experience. Fun is the main reason to give the game a try, though the debrief does activate language and reflection. The game moves along at a quick pace with little teacher involvement once everybody understands the rules.

Game Description


  • Each player tries to get as many points as possible.

Game Description

  • play one game with one partner
  • one game has 10 rounds
  • after Game 1, find a new partner and play Game 2 (another 10 rounds)

Game Set Up

  • each person has 2 cards: one red and one black
  • the numbers and suits have no meaning, we play just with colors
  • each person in every pair gets a label – either Player A or Player B.
  • neither label carries an advantage or disadvantage

Student Game Notes and Score Cards

Get the pdf file here.

Game Play

Here is what happens with each turn. Once students know how to play, they won’t need the teacher.

When the teacher gives the signal, Player A and B think about which card to choose. Player A and B may chat between between rounds.

After choosing a card, each player holds it against his or her chest. When both players are ready, they place their card face up on the table.

Now look at the scoring card (Google doc or pdf above). Each pair of students locates their card combination on the scorecard. Each student records his or her points on a piece of paper. Repeat the same process for a total of 10 rounds.

Change partner after Game 1. Repeat another 10 rounds.

Keep a separate score for Game 1 and Game 2.

Key Points to Emphasize

Be sure to point out:

  • pure cooperation occurs when both players play black (+3 points for each person);
  • highest personal gain and loss happens with the black-red combination;
  • red-red results in a loss for both players.

Debrief: What Happened?

Save this for after the game. Don’t talk too much about these ideas before or during the game.

During the game, there may be some discussion and negotiation between students. However, the key language component of the game comes during the debrief. Ask these questions to the class, or ask students to answer in pairs. Then take a few answers with the class as a whole.

Here are some questions to ask during the debrief.

Game Analysis

  • What is the highest number of points that one person can get by playing a cooperative, win-win strategy?
  • What is the highest number of points possible with a win-lose, dominator strategy?
  • What was your score for Game 1 and Game 2? Were they different? What was different (i.e. higher or lower)?
  • Did your scores come close to the maximum total for the win-win strategy? Why or why not?

Strategy Analysis

Did you have a strategy?

  • Did you try to maximize your points by working with the other person?
  • Did you try to succeed by making the other person lose?
  • Did you look at the game closely and figure out how to get the most points?

Could you imagine winning without harming the other person?

  • Did you change strategies in Game 1 versus Game 2? Why?
  • Did you lie or cheat in order to get points?
  • Did you notice the objective of the game was not to beat the other player?

Wider Analysis

  • Does game play say something about how we think about life and the objectives we want to achieve?


Depending on the class level, you might consider adding this quick overview of game theory. Very briefly, it explains the history and purpose of game theory, which is the philosophical backdrop for the Red and Black game.

Get the pdf file here.


Other Resources

Try this presentation on YouTube. It explains game theory in basic terms.

Here is a good read by James Carse. It describes finite and infinite games.

The Evolution of Trust. A fun web game. Your choice is cheat or cooperate. At the end there is a neat analysis and summary of strategies played by random computer characters.


More Resources

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esl conversation

2 thoughts on “ESL Speaking Activity: Red and Black Game”

  1. Can I get the answers to your riddles in the sample pack? Or do you have to buy the whole pack for them?

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