tabletop game that teaches middle schoolers about bacteria
We spent about 10 hours a week for 2 months designing and playtesting a tabletop game to teach middle schoolers about bacteria. After researching Common Core standards, we established four learning objectives for students to walk away with:
- The same type of bacteria can be helpful or harmful in different circumstances
- Killing harmful bacteria may cause collateral damage to helpful bacteria
- Bacteria may gain different traits after conjugation with other bacteria unlike them
- Controlling bacteria is an ongoing battle that requires teamwork
We brainstormed by fiddling with physical parts of existing tabletop games until we stumbled upon a system that seemed promising. We wanted the playing surface to give a big picture view of the situation, much like the board game Pandemic. However, a large board might be unwieldy for teachers to store. Using playing cards to build the arena of play allowed for easy storage, with an added benefit of supporting dynamic gameplay through a modular board.
We laid out playing cards in a grid face-up on the table to represent bacterial colonies, using suit colors differentiate between “good” and “bad” bacteria of the same type (e.g. 4 of hearts vs. 4 of spades). Cards in players’ hands could be played as “antibacterials” to remove corresponding colonies from the board, which might be replaced by new colonies. Colonies would be automatically “conjugated” face-down cards to form super-colonies requiring special combinations of antibacterials to exterminate. Instead of winning or losing like one would in Pandemic, players would receive a collective score at the end when the deck was depleted.
Initial testing of these mechanics proved them to be fun and supportive of our learning objectives, but our games were often lopsided; bacterial colonies would either quickly snowball into invincible masses or never develop into anything threatening. Much of our internal playtesting revolved around tweaking bacterial growth to offer meaningful player choices.
When designing the visual elements of the cards, we had to strike a balance between middle school comprehensibility and faithful representation of subject matter; azithromycin isn’t the easiest word out there. We were tempted to create an icon for each antibacterial, but realized that such a system added another layer of abstraction without being based in scientific practice. Our compromise was to create fake abbreviations for each antibacterial. To avoid having them mistaken for scientific abbreviations used in the real world, we kept the abbreviations lowercase.
Due to being unable to recruit middle schoolers, we tested the game with students aged 18–26, giving them the rulebook and materials without context to see if they could figure out how to play the game. The playtests revealed pain points in the game, such as a higher probability of having a meaningless turn than we would have liked. Overall, the playtesters thought the game was engaging and required thought, but wasn’t always fun. Due to the educational background of the players, it was difficult to measure if learning occurred.
My main contributions to the project were game and visual design. I used Inkscape to create the graphics.