Rolling Out The Best Science Board Games

16:47 minutes

three people sitting at a table with cards playing a board game
SciFri staff members learn how to play Evolution. Credit: Xochitl Garcia

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Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing “go.” Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts.

Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. 

Read more about some of the games we mentioned on this segment:

1-5 players | 40-70 minutes | ages 10+

In this game, you play as a bird enthusiast and your goal is to attract birds to your aviary. There are 170 birds in the game and each get their own card, complete with accurate illustrations, diets, fun facts, and, of course, their wingspans. If you play your food tokens right and match the bird’s diet, you’ll attract it to your aviary where it can lay eggs and you can get points. 

Terraforming Mars
1-5 players | 120 minutes | ages 12+

It’s the 2400s and you play a corporation competing to terraform Mars. You contend with other corporations to transform the cold, unbreathable, inhospitable planet to a temperate world filled with plants, oceans, and breathable air. Besides earning victory points for your terraforming efforts, you get awarded for advancing human infrastructure throughout the solar system.

2-6 players | 60 minutes | ages 12+

It’s a tough world out there, and you need the best traits you can get so that your species survives. That’s the goal in Evolution, a game where you can acquire traits like Hard Shell and Horns so your species can adapt, evolve, and not go extinct. The game was even used by the evolutionary biology department at the University of Oxford.

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer
1-4 players | 30-120 minutes | ages 14+

Bee Lives places you in charge as the queen bee of a colony. It is your responsibility to ensure the hive’s survival by collecting pollen, making honey, hatching new brood, and building more honeycomb. But as your hive grows bigger, so does the competition from outside the hive. Play your cards right and you just might survive through the winter.

Lovelace and Babbage
2-4 players | 15-30 minutes | ages 14+

In this game, you can play as a pioneer of early computing like Ada Lovelace or Charles Babbage. The code you write can unlock new knowledge of subroutines and impress potential patrons, getting you to the next step of the game. The goal is to compete against other ambitious, real-life computing geniuses and become the most famous and influential of them all.

We also asked our Twitter audience what your favorite science board game is and there were some great responses.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Elizabeth Hargrave

Elizabeth Hargrave is a board game designer and the creator of Wingspan. She’s based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Angela Chuang

Angela Chuang is a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. OK, listen up. I want to know if you can recognize this sound.


For you board game nerds, you know it as the Pop-O-Matic. It’s that little plastic bubble you push to roll the dice. Let me play it again.


Yeah, well, board games have come a long way from the Pop-O-Matic era. There are board games where players create narratives and all sorts of worlds and use complicated strategies to build the story or outsmart one another. And they don’t just involve dungeons and dragons.

There are lots of board games focused on science and STEM. Some involve building a bird preserve or figuring out how to terraform Mars. My next guests are here to talk about some of their favorite science board games. And we want to hear from you also.

Elizabeth Hargrave is a board game designer, and she created a game based on her birding hobby. The game is called Wingspan. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Angela Chuang is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. And her board game reviews have appeared in Science. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I want to invite our listeners. If they have a favorite science or STEM board game, give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255, you can tweet us @SciFri. And you can find all of the science board games are going to talk about on our website at sciencefriday.com/boardgames.

Let me begin with you, Elizabeth. You created the game Wingspan. And before you worked in public health, you were a birder. Why did you want to create this game?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: I had been playing board games for years at the point that I decided to start designing. And really, it came out of a desire to see a game that I wanted to play that didn’t exist yet. A lot of board games do have sort of that Dungeons and Dragons theme or medieval Europe trading in the Mediterranean, people say a lot. And so it really came out of a question of, what would it look like to have a board game that was about something that I really cared about?

IRA FLATOW: So how do you start? Where do you start designing the game? What went into Wingspan?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: I think a lot of people start in a lot of different places. For me, it was literally just making up some cards with pencil on scraps of paper and sort of playing against myself a bunch until I had a system that seemed to be kind of working and then going out from there playing with friends, finding a community of folks that were willing to play test it here in the DC area, taking it to some conventions, and getting even more feedback. It’s really a very iterative process. I think a lot of people don’t realize that board games go through hundreds and hundreds of play tests sometimes before they ever make it onto the shelf of a store.

IRA FLATOW: And give us an idea of how you play the game.

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Sure. So in Wingspan, you have a board in front of you. Each person has their own individual player map that sort of represents their nature preserve, like you were talking about. And you are playing birds out into three different habitats. There’s a forest and a grasslands and a wetland that are depicted on the board. And those each help you do different things in the game.

So one helps you get food. One helps you get eggs. One helps you get more cards. And as you’re playing birds out, they help you get better and better at those three things.

IRA FLATOW: Angela, Wingspan was on your list of games. Why do you like this game so much?

ANGELA CHUANG: Well, for me, I think it very accurately portrays aspects of bird ecology but in a very accessible way. I think it’s easy to explain to players what’s going on in the game in terms of you’re trying to attract birds to your preserve, but you just need to get the resources that represent their diets. And I found that it’s an easy game to explain, but there’s also a lot of depth. And the types of table conversations that have arisen from this game have just been fantastic.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. You are a big board gamer, correct? That would be correct in saying that.


IRA FLATOW: What makes a good science board game?

ANGELA CHUANG: Well, I think, first and foremost, you want to have a fun game. You want some sort of game that people are willing to come back to. And I think part of that comes from games that have multiple strategies for victory, maybe an element of surprise, maybe some sort of puzzle-like component that you have to solve in a different way each time. And I think games work best as science games when they not only have a science theme, but they also incorporate the educational component as part of the game mechanics. And so it’s not just about assigning certain names and jargon to the game pieces, but hopefully the act of playing the game actually teaches the scientific process to the players.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to some of our gamers out in our audience. Let’s go to Orlando, George. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

GEORGE: Hi, thanks. I wanted to mention a game called Evolution. Evolution uses resource management, which can bring in non-science-interested people. But then it really cleverly introduces the idea of natural selection to build new organisms to compete for those resources.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s a good game. Thanks for bringing that up. We played that. Our Sci Fri team played it in the office as research yesterday for this. Elizabeth, describe the game for us, if you can.

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Sure. In Evolution, you have control of species. And each one starts out with any particular traits. But you can play cards onto them that give that particular species a certain trait, like a long neck, which helps it get food, or burrowing, which helps it resist predators, and things like that. So you can modify the animals that you’re controlling over time in reaction to how many other players have carnivores or how much food is available in the system. And so you’re just competing to eat the most food over the course of the game with your different species as you have adapted them.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Angela, you have a PhD in evolution and ecology, right?

ANGELA CHUANG: That is correct.

IRA FLATOW: This board game, there’s a version of Evolution where you can throw climate change into the mix.

ANGELA CHUANG: Yeah. That’s an expansion to the Evolution game that Elizabeth just described. And to me, I really enjoy that extra layer. And so I enjoy Evolution a lot. And I still play it, actually, as the video version on Steam a lot these days.

And I think we’ll find, over time, that in the base game, it’s kind of hard to take down a really big predator that’s got these really great complex traits. And so the cool thing about the climate change expansion is that it brings in these in an abiotic component, so climate. And in general, larger species tend not to do as well with heat, and smaller species don’t like the cold as much. And so by manipulating the climate, players can actually– there’s a way. There’s a strategy to actually deal with these large species as well. And so it kind of changes your strategy a little.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that these are teaching materials? If you want to teach kids about climate, you play the game. Or are they just merely for fun?

ANGELA CHUANG: I think Evolution is maybe a little complicated to bring into a classroom. It depends on how much time you have. And as I mentioned, it does have a video counterpart. And so I think that one might be– if there’s some way to bring that into a classroom, you can definitely fit it in within the timespan.

IRA FLATOW: I have to get my Steam up on that one. That sounds like an interesting one. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Cherryville, Connecticut, and Kyle. Welcome to Science Friday.

KYLE: Thanks so much for taking my call. I highly appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

KYLE: The game I wanted to bring up that I got into about three years ago was called Pandemic. And it’s all about viruses spreading across the world, and you’re trying to work with the other players that have special rules to eliminate these viruses from the world. And if viruses appear too many times in the game, it’s game over, and you have to start over from a brand new game.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, we had a couple of tweets of people who were just tweeting and they recommended that one also. Elizabeth, what do you think about that game?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Oh, I love that game.

IRA FLATOW: Were you the advisor on that game?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: No, that’s not the field of health care policy that I was involved in at all. But yeah, I think the caller described it well. And that was probably one of the first games that I played that had sort of a more real-world, modern-day feeling theme to it, with that STEM component to it.

And I just love that games for us serve as escapism, but I also really enjoy when that escapism links back to something that’s real in the world and that you’re sort of experiencing something that you might not otherwise experience. So you get that feeling of tension of like, oh, my gosh, we have to save these people. These pandemics are raging across the world but within the confines of your table.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let me go to our go to our Science Friday VoxPop app. And we had some comments there, like this one from Scott from Reno.

SCOTT: My favorite STEM board games are from a publisher called Genius Games. There is a sequence of biology-themed games. There’s Peptide, Virulence, and Cytosis, Cytosis being my favorite of those three, and then some sort of physics and chemistry games called Covalence, Ion, Subatomic, and Periodic. And my favorite of all of those is Periodic.

IRA FLATOW: Periodic– Angela, do you agree, good game?

ANGELA CHUANG: I’ve played Subatomic and Cytosis. And I agree the games that Genius Games comes out with are really educational, and they are really fun and engaging.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Let’s see if we have another clip from our Science Friday VoxPop. Let’s go to Jose.

JOSE: So I use Fantastic Gymnastics in my AP Physics course. It’s an uneven bar, and there’s a gymnast. And you spin him around. My students have to predict, using rotational kinematics and projectile motion, where the gymnast is going to land. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s fun to watch them do the calculations.

IRA FLATOW: So he uses it in his physics class. I think that’s kind of interesting. That was the game Fantastic Gymnastics. And as I say, a lot of these games, they can be used for teaching, and they can be used for fun. Let me see. We have lots of tweets coming in. Susan says, “a birder for 30 years, and Wingspan, to me, is almost as good as actual birding.” That’s pretty high praise.



IRA FLATOW: Here’s Karen, who says, “it may sound weird, but I love the way that Dead of Winter plays, like a climate change allegory acted out with zombies rather than catastrophic flooding.” Familiar with that one?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: I am. I hadn’t thought about that as sort of a warning parable. But I could see how you would go there with it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see a trend in any games? Are we getting more climate change games or games that are apocalyptic in terms of the future of climate change?

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Well, there was a whole trend of zombie games a few years back Dead of Winter was part of. But in terms of climate change, so we have Evolution, Climate, and I do think there are a couple more coming out in the next year or so that I’ve heard about. And we want games to be fun.

So it’s tricky to come up with a design that people still have fun with and don’t leave totally depressed over well while still addressing some of these issues. And I think Pandemic struck that balance, because you feel really successful when you win the game because you have quashed the pandemic. So I think, to the extent that climate change games can give people that same feeling of this is a thing we can work on together, that might be a really interesting way to go.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Elizabeth Hargrave and Angela Chuang on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And let me go to the phones, because we have an unusual request from Jerry in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Hi, Jerry.

BARRY: Oh, this is Gary.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

GARY: Yeah, I’ve got a grandson who’s almost four, but he’s showing a real bent on things environmental science such as that. Is there a toddler board game that you can use like for pre-K children? Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Yeah, thank you for calling. Do we have any recommendations for a toddler? That’s kind of young.

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: So there are definitely board games aimed at that age group. I’m racking my brain whether any of them you know fit clearly into the STEM realm. One company that I’d recommend that’s really well-known for their children’s games is called Haba, H-A-B-A. And they have a line of games that– their earliest one started recommending, I think, age two or three.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Yeah, Settlers of Catan is a popular board game. It’s one of my favorites. It’s not necessarily sciencey, but I understand there is a version where you can aid in oil spills called Catan Scenarios– Oil Springs. Is that right? You’ve now got oil spills added to that. I missed that add-on.

ANGELA CHUANG: Yeah, that’s correct. And so it doesn’t quite function like some of the larger expansions in Catan that some people might be familiar with like Cities and Knights. So it is a scenario, which means it’s like a small cardboard expansion that you buy and print out. And you just play along with your base game.

And what’s interesting about this scenario is that it introduces a new resource to the mix, to the additional five. It introduces oil. And the kick to it is the more you use oil in the game, the more players progress along an environmental disaster track. And so whenever any player uses oil, everyone kind of moves closer to an environmental disaster. And these disasters can be anything from wiping away all of the smaller settlements along the edges of the board that are bordering the ocean or removing some of the resource hexes in general.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Elizabeth, I know on your list of games is something called Terraforming Mars. It sounds like something Elon Musk might be involved in. Tell us about that.

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Sure, Terraforming Mars is a big, heavy board game. It takes a few hours to play at least your first time. But you literally are doing things in the game that raise the oxygen level and the amount of water and the temperature on the surface of Mars. And you’re doing this mostly by playing cards that are related to actual things that you might do to increase those things. And so even though it’s this very futuristic sort of sci-fi idea, it feels very realistic in terms of the activities that you’re doing within the game.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet here from David, who asks, “how about CO2? It’s a game of managing climate change. It’s not very well-known. Some call it Terraforming Earth.”

ELIZABETH HARGRAVE: Yeah, that’s another big, long, heavy game that’s definitely not for beginners. But that’s true. That’s another one that has approached that issue of climate change. And similar to the Catan expansion we were just talking about, it’s really getting into those issues of the tragedy of the commons. And you want to use oil because it’s good for you personally, but it’s making everything a little bit more dangerous for everyone across the board at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank both of you, Elizabeth Hargrave, board designer and creator of the game Wingspan, and Angela Chuang, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee in Knoxville. All our board game reviews have appeared in Science. Hers are there. And we have all the Science Friday games we talked about up on our website, sciencefriday.com/boardgames.

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