The inclusion of local community voices alongside professionals in the creation of sustainable communities has been an important thrust of the UK Government over the past decade in its urban planning policy. The consequent focus on addressing skills gaps among built environment professionals to enable and facilitate such policy was intended to break away from top-down envisioning and generate participative mechanisms to involve communities. However, this deficit model has often undermined the confidence of professionals and failed to address the needs of communities. Derived from a recent ESRC Research Initiative, and designed to build cross-disciplinary skills by researchers in the fields of Geography and Architecture, the Sustainable Communities Challenge was conceived as a game or workshop exercise which allows participants to explore the components, relationships and trade-offs that shape sustainable communities. Based on UK guidelines on eco-towns and drawing on research into energy and waste, the scale of the playing area and symbols is largely grounded in present reality. The game requires team working, negotiation, and provides opportunities to rehearse active citizenship. There is no ‘right’ answer. The symbolic/conceptual nature of the game is designed to assist participants in focusing on values, relationships and consequences rather than individuals, their community and financial costs. The game, played now by over 350 pupils aged 11-14, provides a lens through which to examine key issues that reflect many of those identified in the ESRC Research Initiative and elsewhere in the literature on social learning, planning, urban design and regeneration. Language is important: minor modifications in instructions/presentation can generate quite different behaviours. Collaboration is difficult: team members find it difficult to shed the responsibilities initially allocated to them in favour of the community as a whole. Communities need access to knowledge and experience, without which they may simply repeat old mistakes. Hybrid brokers are important: teams draw on the strengths of individual members to address the challenge but work best with some leadership. There is no requirement for a definitive vision: participants happily work with unclear, even shifting rules. As awareness of the unsustainability of our way of life has become more accepted, the call for engagement at all levels has increased. This paper identifies some of the implications of involving communities and explores how ‘games’ such as the sustainable communities challenge can be used to build skills to support participation at all levels.