White Elephant Sizing Game

White Elephant Sizing Game is an estimation technique which is inspired by White Elephant Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa and/or Yankee Swap. The goal of this game is to estimate a significant number of Product Backlog Items in a relatively short time.

There are significant difference between White Elephant Sizing Game and Planing Poker. You need to review which one is better for you team. From my experience White Elephant Sizing Game is better in case there are more PBIs to estimate/size.

Game preparation

Before the game starts you need to print out/write down all Product Backlog Items on separate cards. The item’s title might be enough, but I would consider providing item’s ID (one taken from tasks manager/tracker) and some description if there is still a place. All cards should be put into a deck that participants can pick from. This deck should be shuffled before the game starts.

In addition to the cards, a board is needed. It can be a wall/window/whiteboard if sticky notes are used or a table. The board should be divided into several columns each representing the value of the allowed estimates. For example, if the team is using the Fibonacci Sequence for estimation, there should be the following columns: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…

We also need some space so the team can form a queue in front of the board.

The basic rules

The basic rules of the game are quite easy and straight forward. Each team member can do one of the two actions:

  • take a card from the top of the deck read it out and place in one of the columns (a.k.a propose the estimation for that item) or,
  • take one of the cards already placed on the board and move to another column (a.k.a change the estimate). If someone is moving card, he/she need to provide some reasons for doing it.

The game starts with the first person from the queue performing an action. Of course, the first person has only one option to choose from as there no cards on the board yet. Once the action is done team member goes to the end of the queue and it is the next person turn. The game continues until there are no more cards to pick from.

Additional rules for the game

To make this game more time efficient, to avoid any clashes or team disappointment for the final results there is a proposition of several additional rules.

Never-ending story

With only the basic rules there is an option that game will become a never-ending story. For example, one card is moved from one column to another column and back to the first column and so on. It happens rarely but it might happen if there is no agreement between the team members. To avoid a situation like that an idea of a safe card has been introduced. The rule is simple, one card can be moved only X times. After it has been moved X time it stays where it is and nobody can move it.

Another way to avoid never-ending story issue is to place a card on the column representing the highest estimate. This also needs to be done after cards change column multiple times (X times). After it is done card can become a safe card or it can be moved only into a column with higher estimate.


To make the game dynamic there should be a defined time-box for performing an action. The time-box need to be short enough to make game fluid and long enough to allow people to make a proper decision.

The length of the time-box should be depended on the team’s knowledge of the issue and the desired amount of conversation around it. For example, time box will be much shorter in case team has already disused PBIs with Product Owner, and much longer if they are able to ask questions.

Just a quick note: time-box for an action is not equal to time-box for the meeting divided for the number of PBIs. Why? Because one of the possible actions is to move item already at the board and so the time is passing and the number of items to estimate stays as it is.

Final verification

If only the basic rules are followed there is no way the last card picked can be moved – so in fact, the last person decides on that estimate. To avoid it and allowed the team to verify the final estimate, the game should continue for one more round. To be exact, once the last person placed the last card from the deck to the board, each member is able to perform one of the following actions (in the order):

  • take a card from the board and move it to another column or,
  • pass the turn.

Once the person who placed the last card on the board perform one of the above actions the game is finished.