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Terraforming science into play

by Evan | Dec 13, 2017
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Photo by Stin Shen, via Instagram

Terraforming Mars
is the hot thing at the intersection of science geekdom and board game geekdom. It's a prime example of how while you won't earn a PhD playing a board game, you -- or your kids -- may pick up key science ideas and start looking for more.

This superb game was designed by a Swedish science teacher, Jacob Fryxelius, It has a learning curve and takes a few hours to play, but it fulfills the promise so many games fail to do -- it plays out in very different ways each time. The main science lessons are a big reason for that. Players pretend to be corporations competing to turn Mars into a habitable world. That means making it warmer, getting oxygen into the atmosphere and creating oceans. With hundreds of science-rich cards in play, the paths to those three goals vary widely.

The game excited one player enough to write an essay about its clever science lessons. That writer thinks the game shows how "phenomenally stupid" it would be to try to  change a whole planet, but, of course, others think it can be done. Among the recent books we have on that are Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet by journalist Leonard David and Mars One, Humanity's Next Great Adventure: Inside the First Human Settlement on Mars by Norbert Kraft, a physician who helps select possible Mars pioneers.

Evolution is a popular topic for science games. One gamer put a recent game of that title on top of his list of accurate science games. I've played Evolution a few times, and it does show how survival depends on adapting to changing conditions -- which includes evolving competitors. If my animal eats all the available plants before my wife's can eat, well, too bad for her, but if her animal evolves into a predator, too bad for me. At least until I evolve horns, etc. 

Sure, science games are simplistic compared to a textbook, but so are history games, business games and the rest. The point is to teach themes and inspire curiosity, not prepare for a career. And, if the game is good, to have fun.

And speaking of fun, one more plug. If you are into heavy board games and like a science theme, look into Dominant Species. It's about species migrating to find resources as the Ice Age advances. Everybody's competing to flourish the most on different terrains with different food sources. It's an engrossing mish-mash of scientific concepts. Just beware of the spiders. 


EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.

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