Digital Playground: Parasites Unleashed! Card Game

Recently, in our weekly Digital Playground (the exploration place in Education where we try out new and interesting digital tools and explore their educational affordances) a team of Museum educators began a multi-session series playing card games to explore relevant mechanics that can connect to science content. Sometimes this will mean playing mobile and web games, but we figured it would be best to start with the analog, specifically the delightfully cringe-heavy PARASITES UNLEASHED! by Zygote Games.

The weather was warm and beautiful outside, if not a tad breezy, so my colleagues Nathan, Ariam and I headed to a table by the Arthur Ross Terrace fountains and set up the game right outside its sprays. In the game, players compete to be the first to build a complete life cycle for your parasite, focusing on mating, moving, and hatching. But the real action is with the moving. “Do all the entertainingly gross things real parasites do,” the website prompts. “Bore into vital organs, hide inside a blood cell, hitch a ride inside a mosquito, even take over your host’s brain!” Whoopie!

The game was perfectly entertainingly gross and weirdly fascinating–are all parasites this bizarre?–and used a mechanic adapted from dominoes. In dominoes, you discard your tiles by matches numbers available on the center stem; if the outside numbers are 2 or 5 you can get rid of a tile if one end is also a 2 or a 5. PARASITES turns numbers into colors: if the ends of your life cycle are brown and blue, you can add a card if you it also has a brown or blue stripe. A simple idea and quick to learn.

The cards are fun, focusing on a particular movement you can make based on how a real parasite actually moves. The drawings are humorous, and we all found the straight-faced descriptions of the odd goriness captivating. So the light game play and humor felt like the right mix to introduce basic concepts about the parasitic life cycle of breeding, hatching, and moving. We could all see using it in a related program, but not as it stood.

We found three problems (and perhaps that was due to the rules being unclear, in which case, we have an additional problem):

  1. If the goal is to be the first person to build a complete life cycle, then the person who goes first always has an advantage. It is like a foot race in which each person takes turns starting but all are running towards the same goal. It felt unfair. We modified the rules so the game ended at the end of the turn, which seemed more fair.

  2. It was over too fast, even when we made that game mod. In two rounds, someone won. That didn’t feel right. Theoretically, I think you can even win on the first move. It shouldn’t be that easy. Nathan suggest that this issue be turned into a strength, making it be a “best of two out of three” game. Still, the game seemed to lack a strong way for players to constrain others. (There is a way to add your cards into your opponents’ cycle but unlike in dominoes, where you can count the numbers and determine the odds, there is no way to know if my adding a card to your hand helps or hurts you).

  3. Finally, the main lure for the game isn’t the game strategy but the fun of building out the narrative of your parasites life cycle. For example, first I mate, then take over the brain of my host and make it drown so I can get into water, and once in water I get eaten by a fish and hatch in its belly. However, the cards made that process a little disjointed. The specific information about real parasites on each card should come across as illustrative, to suggest the inspiration for your movement strategy, but instead the design makes it read as if you are the specific parasite, which makes no sense as you link them together. I don’t think it was intentional and can be fixed through design.

Next in the science card game series? Zygote’s BONE WARS: The Game of Ruthless Paleontology!

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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