Science-themed board games for lockdown and beyond

For anyone who fancies a trip to Mars, a bit of bird spotting or attempting to navigate a response to an international pandemic…

Writer: Hamza A. Wahid
Editor: Maddie Wigmore-Sykes


Since we’re all locked up and the majority of social interactions consist of asking your family what has happened in the ten minutes since you last saw them, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a fun activity you could all do together? You probably know  where I’m going with this, and you’re already thinking about the last time you played Scrabble when everyone got bored two hours in after an argument about whether ‘Zeds’ was a word. Let’s not even get started on the four hour game of Monopoly where so much money got stolen from the bank that you weren’t even playing a game as much re-enacting a mob film. So what if I told you that there were hundreds of other board games that were shorter and much more fun, with all sorts of weird and wonderful themes. As I’m trying to shoehorn this article into a science-based magazine here are six science-themed games, rated for your convenience on how simple they are, how great they are and how easy it is to convince yourself that playing them counts as revision.

Note: A lot of these games also have digital adaptations available either directly via Steam, on the amazing Tabletop Simulator or on the mobile app store of your choice.

Hive

Take control of an army of insects in this abstract game, where the aim is to completely surround your opponent’s queen bee to establish your queen as the real leader of the hive. Each insect moves in a unique pattern, and you’ll have to master the strategy of adding new insects to the hive and moving the existing ones to trap the enemy queen, while simultaneously ensuring your own has adequate escape routes in case of a Beemergency. Interestingly, the game doesn’t feature a board, instead you grow a dynamic hive around the insects you place and move, while remembering to never break the hive.

If you enjoy the head-to-head battle of wits that chess has to offer, but are looking for something more thematic, or something that your nerdy friend/significant other has not memorised hundreds of openings of, this game is an excellent choice. It’s also very portable and can be played anywhere, with its sturdy pieces even being able to withstand the hazardous spillages of your local Wetherspoons.

Accessibility: ★★★★

Science factor: ★★ (bees)

Fun: ★★★ (but ★★★★★ for the chess fans)

Who should buy this? People who like chess. People who like bees. People who want a good two-player game to play.

Image from https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-the-game-hive-the-next-chess-1431102799

Photosynthesis

It all starts with a tree. Your tree collects a little bit of sunlight. The sunlight gives your tree the energy to plant a seed. The seed starts growing into its own tree. You’re very excited about your cute little new tree. Then your ‘friend’ Bob comes along and plants their great big oak right in front of your baby tree. Now it has no sunlight. With no sunlight you have no new trees. With no new trees you have no way to gain more sunlight. Curse you Bob. I hope all of your trees burn down. 

Beautiful, yet deceptively cutthroat, Photosynthesis is a charming-til-it’s-not game of planting your trees to strategically gain as much sunlight as possible across the different seasons, while simultaneously trying to deny your opponents’ trees and leaving them stunted as your trees stand tall and proud.

Accessibility: ★★★★★

Science factor: ★★★★

Fun: ★★★★

Who should buy this? If you like starving your friends and family of sunlight, this is for you. If your heart can’t take the stress of your trees being deprived of sunlight, this is not for you.

Image from https://www.ehgaming.com/product/photosynthesis-board-game/

Terraforming Mars

You play as one of the corporations tasked with making Mars habitable for mankind. Your aim is to raise the temperature, increase the oxygen levels and provide enough water for survival. Your corporation starts small, but by investing in projects to increase Mars’ infrastructure as well as to boost your own profits, you can end up with a well-oiled machine that can achieve a huge number of things in a single turn. Build cities, crash asteroids, exploit the natural Martian resources, or – very rarely and with a great deal of luck – even find life on Mars.

The biggest appeal of this game is the sense of accomplishment you get at the end, regardless of if you were the winning corporation. Over the course of the game, you build something glorious and efficient, and ultimately each player takes on a key role in making the red planet habitable for a new generation of mankind. You always walk away from it feeling like you accomplished something long lasting and grand, not bankrupt and hating your friends.

Accessibility: ★★★

Science factor: ★★★★★

Fun: ★★★★★

Who should buy this? Those who like the idea of starting with something small and seeing it grow into something incredible and are willing to put in the time and thought required.

Image from https://geekandsundry.com/terraforming-mars-one-of-the-greatest-board-games-in-the-galaxy/

Pandemic

The most household name of this list and for good reason. The premise is simple, the world is infected and you work as a team of researchers, doctors and specialists tasked with saving it. You must figure out how to work together to save humanity while a constant stream of new epidemics puts a strain on both your resources and your collective minds. The setting of the game scarily rings a little too close to the current state of affairs, but maybe you can show off how much better (or worse) everything would be if you really were in charge.

Easy to pick up, incredibly thematic and a very stressful experience that will have you shouting at your friend about why they didn’t deal with the outbreak in Washington, this game is both accessible and has hours of replay value. If you fancy yourself expert world saviours, there are tonnes of extraordinary expansions that let you be health workers in 16th century Iberia or even have one player as a bioterrorist pitting their mind against everyone else’s. If this isn’t enough, you can find a group of four to delve into Pandemic Legacy, where your carefully assembled team (and your unenthusiastic flatmate who got dragged in to make up the numbers) play several games charting ‘humanity’s worst year’. The game board changes depending on the outcome of each of your games, with the final result being a Pandemic board that’s personal to your group, telling the stories of the decisions you made, the upgrades you unlocked and the cities that fell to despair as you were unable to treat them. 

Accessibility: ★★★★

Science factor: ★★★★

Fun: ★★★★★★ (yes, this is still out of 5)

Who should buy this? Everyone. You. Right now!

Special authors note: The game that got me into board gaming.

Image from https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/3/12/21175738/pandemic-board-game-coronavirus

Alchemists

You are alchemists trying to understand the effects of making potions using bizarre ingredients such as birds’ feet and whole frogs. You can test them on yourself, but risk the negative effects of a bad mixture including poison, paralysis and insanity. Much better to test on your unsuspecting student, though if they’ve become insane drinking someone else’s potions they won’t be of much use to you.

After long, hard and careful experimentation you finally understand the fundamental nature of a feather and excitedly go to publish, before realising someone else has already taken a wild stab in the dark and stumbled into the truth about feathers. Sadly, there are no points for publishing second. Of course, if another one of their theories was published a tad too rashly and you can prove it false, you can find another way of making a name for yourself and much more importantly, discredit your alchemical arch-rival in the process.

This is a game you’re likely to spend the first half of hunched over your notepad as you use your very limited pool of ingredients to attempt to figure out the structures of all the different substances. This then descends into chaos as the first publication is made and suddenly it is a rush to publish, prove and disprove anything you can. If the idea of puzzling out information with limited testing and blind leaps of deduction doesn’t sound fun to you, this isn’t your game. But to those of you that are excited by the prospect, you already know that you’ll absolutely love this game.

Accessibility: ★★

Science factor: ★★★★ (strangely accurate representation of the publication rush) 

Fun: ★★★ (but ★★★★★ for the puzzle fans)

Who should buy this? If you like intense brain-scratching, telling your friends they’re wrong or have real world experience of the struggles involved in getting papers published.

Image from https://www.shutupandsitdown.com/review-alchemists/

Wingspan

A game where you play as bird watchers, collectors and enthusiasts, trying to amass a growing collection of birds that you can display at ornithology competitions. The game features a very clever mechanism where each bird that you play gives you a bonus whenever birds of its type are ‘activated’ in the future. Whether you’re trying to get your birds to lay eggs, finding food for them to eat or just trying to find new birds in the wild, each action you take gives you a wealth of bonuses depending on the habitat and type of the birds you have already. 

With very charming and realistic artwork of over 150 birds (each with its own fun fact at the bottom of the card), the game also presents a very enjoyable mechanical challenge as you try and collect birds with synergistic special effects, while also trying to ensure you beat your friends in the end of round bird-scoring competitions. And of course, there’s tonnes of points at the end for all of your eggs, so definitely make sure to not get cracking.

Accessibility: ★★★★

Science factor: ★★ (★★★★★ if you consider ornithology a science)

Fun: ★★★

Who should buy this? People who like birds (duh), collecting pretty eggs or clever card-driven mechanisms.

Image from https://www.boardgamequest.com/wingspan-review/

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