Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Board games - science style

Last week I was at Spiel, the largest board game convention of Europe in Essen, Germany. I played a shed load of board games with concepts ranging from collecting the most bananas to hanging up life sized washing. I also played a couple games with a scientific theme, which is a rare event in the board gaming world.

Can you save humanity?

Pandemic: ContagionOne game that I played at the convention is really going viral at the moment (pun intended). This was Pandemic: Contagion. The game is a spin off from the board game Pandemic and you play as a specific disease attempting to rid the world of that troublesome humanity.

Whilst diseases are of course not sentient beings, it is a pretty novel idea to take on the role an infection. The game itself was ok, it didn't grab me at the first play, but maybe it will grow on me (yes, another intended pun). What I did really like with the game was the artwork, as accurate as you ever get with cartoon viruses. The components were also really cool as you get to play with petri dishes and to hold a fist full of viruses.

PandemicThe original Pandemic is one of my favourite board games ever. A cooperative game where you fight the diseases together as a crack team of operatives and scientists, this time to save humanity! Again, the artwork is great and the four diseases are kinda realistic representations of microbes and viruses. The "Scientist"" character is also a fine example of promoting diversity in science, a white coated lady analysing her latest data. There are also a couple expansions to the base Pandemic game, one being called In the Lab. I've not played it myself but understand that here you can take a pause from racing around the world to enter the laboratory and develop new cures, cool!

Stereotypical spies

SpyfallAnother game I played at Spiel was the party game Spyfall. In this Russian produced game (just saying) there is of course a spy, who must uncover the location of the other players, whilst they each attempt to unmask the spy. The players are given cards with a location on them, one of which being a university. Now a university has many different departments as well as countless other student hangouts and from all these options Spyfall chooses to use a science lab. I say "science lab" as I'm actually not quite sure if it is a chemistry lab or more like a botanist's greenhouse. So let's just say it is something in the biological sciences area.

Unfortunately, the creators of Spyfall decided to go for the stereotypical depiction of an old crazy scientist for their game. The spy in the picture is disguised with a wig of white unkempt hair. One further point is that if this was a real situation then the spy would instantly be caught. Anyone that has worked in a university lab will know, old professors never set foot in the labs and would certainly not be seen getting their hands dirty doing some actual research.

Professor PlumAn old board game that surely everyone knows is Cluedo. One of the characters/suspects in this game is Professor Plum. This learned man was first depicted as an absent minded, aged scientist. Not really pushing the imagination of the players here or indeed the boundaries of science. The character has, however, gone through a number of transformations over the years in different editions. His job has varied from archaeologist to psychiatrist to video game designer. In the latest interpretation he has lost his academic title and with it has perhaps lost the chance to persuade generations more of impressionable young scientists to solve murders, perhaps.

The portrayal of scientists in board games has come a long way since Plum's days but maybe still has a way to go. I do really believe that chemistry and science is a massively under used theme for games. What could be more fun than beating your friends in the hunt to synthesise a new molecule or to write the best grant proposal, oh yeah I see it now. If anyone else knows of any other science themed board games then please let me know, I'd love to try them out.

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