Happy Holidays! I hope everyone is doing well. Here, in the East Coast of the United States, it's unseasonably warm for December. While we may be enjoying the spring-like weather, up in the Arctic, the polar ice is at its lowest point ever. This is why 2/3 of the polar bear population is expected to die off by 2050. :( The climate change card game, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis, which was funded through Kickstarter and a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, hopes to bring attention to this global issue.
I was recently sent EcoChains for review on this blog and I thought what better place to bring it than to NYC Playtest, the monthly meeting of board game designers. They vigorously playtest board games to get feedback from other designers. I played a game of EcoChains with the board game designers and then I played a round with people who play board games or tabletop RPGs with kids every day.
It's a fairly quick game, estimated 30 minutes long, for up to four players. We played it incorrectly both times, despite multiple people reading the directions repeatedly. We also did not use the advanced cards, which probably would have made the game more interesting.
Initially, we got some polar ice cards and starter animals. Throughout the game, we built food webs, indicating which animals consume other animals. For example, a seal can survive on arctic cod, but in turn, a polar bear can eat the seal. Some animals, generally the higher order ones, require polar ice in order to remain in the food web. When the polar ice melts due to climate change, the polar bear would have to migrate or die. In the first game, we did not realize there could be more than one node in the food webs, meaning 2 seals can build on 1 arctic cod card, so we quickly reached a stalemate, whereupon we were continually passing around cards (to simulate the migration) around the table. The second game, where this was rectified, did run much better. While making food webs, players try to hit goals, such as sustaining 3 whales.
In both games, we did find it hard to keep track of our cards, as the food webs can get quite large. You almost need some kind of placemat to organize your cards. In the second game, we didn't realize that the "good" polar ice recovery event cards weren't played out immediately like the "bad" polar ice melting event cards. I suppose this was to simulate the situation of positive externalities in that if one party makes the effort to help recover polar ice, this helps all parties. However, the benefactor would have to choose between taking the "good" event card or selfishly continuing on the path of accumulating points. The player who has accomplished the most goals and has the most animals generally wins.
On the education front, the game does make it clear through the gameplay that polar ice is necessary for animal survival. Players do learn about food webs and different arctic animals. However, my playtesters did not feel that this was a card game that kids would pick up and enjoy on their own for fun. Rather, the game seems like it would fit in better as a classroom activity where teachers can provide context.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.