Creating a research lab is tough. You’ve got to recruit people of complementary talents, give them the resources to be successful, and keep them just happy enough to not want to leave but, you know, not too happy. That dynamic of recruitment and opportunistic head-hunting is at the core of Luana Games‘s latest educational card game: Women in Science.
It’s a notion that propels what would ordinarily be a collection of informational cards detailing 44 female scientists into an actual game of strategy with a narrative pulse at the center. Often, educational games are either transparently flash cards with an underthought gaming mechanism tacked on, or remakes of popular game formats with a vestigial educational element that children inevitably find a way to avoid. To see if Women in Science found the happy middle between these two, I sat down and played it with my daughter Anna-Sophia and her friend, both scientifically disposed 6th graders with some hefty board game experience behind them.
THE PREMISE: The deck consists of 44 female scientists divided up by research area, and several different types of action cards that come in handy to protect your lab and attack those of others. When you collect four scientists in the same research area, you can form them into a “lab.” The first person to form three labs wins.
THE CARDS: The action cards are of four types: “Prestige” lets you steal two members from a competing lab, which then falls apart without its star players, forcing that player to start over from scratch. This is wonderfully frustrating and terrifically accurate. “Enrollment” lets you dig a scientist out of the discard pile. “Discovery” lets you protect your lab from Prestige attacks (also a great idea – “Oh, you’re a prestigious institution? Well, we just cured cancer so step off). The odd one is “Clone” which lets you make a copy of any scientist in your hand. It’s a fun card and leads to discussions about which scientist would be the most awesome to have two of, but it also pulls you out of the neat realistic premise of the game a bit.
The scientist cards feature an illustration of each scientist and a bit of a blurb about their main discoveries. The scientists chosen are a great cross section featuring a few of the usual suspects (Meitner, Kovalevskaya, Franklin, Lovelace..) mixed in with a great number of fresh faces that represent the depth and variety of female contributions to science, including solar pioneer Maria Telkes, artificial intelligence programmer Rose Dieng-Kuntz, and environmental toxin analyst Theo Colborn. What I especially liked about the choices was the bold move of not using Marie Curie or Jane Goodall – taking out two great and inspiring people that you can readily find out about anywhere in order to make room for two more great and inspiring people you might be discovering for the first time was a bit of gutsiness I wish happened more often in collections of this sort.
THE GAMEPLAY: So, the three of us sat down to play (the game is designed for 2-4 players) and unfortunately ran into some problems right away about just exactly how the game works. There is a little card of rules that comes with the set, but it’s not clear from that sheet how the turn order works. You start with a choice of taking from the face-up discard pile or drawing a random card from the main stack, but after that it’s not evident what restrictions there are on playing action cards or forming labs, or if there’s a set order that that all needs to happen in. Luckily, Luana Games has a game demo on their website that cleared up most of those issues for us and so we got underway.
Here’s where things get tricky. The way you know that two scientists are considered to be in the same field of research is through color coding. Biologists are in green, psychologists are in pink, astronomers are in orange, and so forth. Some scientists who did work in multiple fields have two associated colors and can be used to form either type of lab. So, to assemble your lab, really all you need to do is match four colors together. This helps make the game more accessible to younger children who might not want to read through a bunch of text to see what a scientist did, but it also means you can play the game perfectly well without reading anything about anybody, which might make it more difficult to use in a classroom setting where the teacher can’t guide every group at every moment.
That, however, is basically the same problem that any educational game has, and if you’re playing it with your kids, you can easily use the unveiling of each new card as a fun teaching moment. I had a great time using each new card as a chance to tell a little story about some crazy rad science fact or biographical event for each person, and used that way I think it can be a great gateway to these scientists and to inspire further reading about them. It means you as the parent or teacher have to do a bit of homework ahead of time to keep the kids from cunningly short-circuiting the learning, but the potential is definitely there.
Our game took about 30 minutes but if you just played it without all the story-telling it would probably come out at about 15. I see a lot of potential for repeated play to really get these names in kids’ heads and allow them to develop favorites to compete for, adding another layer to the gameplay. I’m also considering creating a house rule to allow for a trading round that would make it easier to build up a personal Dream Team (I almost had it with an Ada Lovelace – Grace Hopper – Mary Keller team of programmers but just ended up cloning Hopper to complete the set).
Really, there’s a lot you can do with this game as the base (they’ve even printed standard deck numbers and symbols in the corners so you could use these as, say, Solitaire or Poker cards) to create a neat and highly replayable family experience. The kids’ verdict was that the scientists were neat, and learning all the diverse things they accomplished likewise, but that, left to their own devices, they’d concentrate more on the color collection and action card aspect of the game than on reading the text and that, if you’re not paying attention to that content, it becomes basically a matching game which isn’t quite challenging enough for their Catan-hardened spirits. For younger kids, however, the complexity of the game play would be perfect, and for adults, who would be more inclined to read the cards and make meta-games from the information there, there’s probably a pretty darn fun drinking game to be had. It’s really just the in-between years, the middle and high schoolers, that the balance seems a bit off for.
CONCLUSIONS: I enjoyed the heck out of this game, trying to put together my perfect lab and protect it from academic scavengers and debating with myself what team would be the ultimate matchup (there’s not a game scoring mechanic for that, but it’s impossible not to think that way). The kids learned some things about some great scientists even if the gameplay itself didn’t particularly keep their attention. Best of all, it brings into common currency a few dozen names that are in danger of sliding into darkness otherwise, using the format of the game to make us aware of these dazzling contributions, putting vanishing greatness back into everyday memory, and anything that does that gets my vote.