Digital Playground: Bone Wars – a Paleo Card Game

As part of our recent Digital Playground series on science card games, Nathan, Ariam and I followed-up Parasites Unleashed with the rollicking Bone Wars: The Game of Ruthless Paleontology. Published by the same company, Zygote, this game was a winner.

The game is based on the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction early history of paleontology and the public fights between major figures. You start by selecting one of those figures and fighting against your paleo-opponents as you collect bones in the field, build dinosaurs for museum exhibits, and finally, during the controversy phase, destroy your rival’s prestige while building your own.

This game is playfully mean. This is no live-and-let-live German-style Settlers of Catan. This is a pure American PREPARE TO BE DEFEATED fun-fest. “Oh, you thought that skull belonged to a Camarasaurus? Ha!” Perfect for parties. Lots of laughter.

Do I think this will engage youth? Absolutely. But how’s the content? Well, yes, the rough historical context is provided, which an informed instructor should be able to tease out post-game through good processing questions. But more importantly, the core mechanic of the game – matching physical characteristics of the fossils with dinosaur descriptions – is strongly aligned with the paleontological practice of comparative anatomy. I might read on one card that a T-Rex had hollow bones; do I have any heads in my hand with hollow bones? Unlike with Parasites, where the content is only in the story, Bone Wars requires the players to pay close attention to both the content and practices of concern to the real scientists. A perfect match.

The three phases of each round I referenced above – Field Work, Museum, Controversy – are interesting and provide the mechanisms for a balanced game. Should I use this vertebrae now to build a pterosaur and put my reputation on the line or save it for the next phase to revise my opponents exhibit and attack their credibility? In a good game, decisions need to have consequence to be meaningful and keep play engaging.

Nathan, who has a minor in Paleo, said that just to play it teaches you the history of paleontology. He saw it offering a nuanced take on the process of science. Ariam didn’t like it much at first – even though she excelled at the unexpected take down – but enjoyed learning through the game. It made her observe differences amongst fossils and ask why. I particularly liked learning about the anatomy of dinosaur.

What could have simply become a simple game of matching anatomy characteristics used excellent design to offer a much deeper, complex, and engaging game. Next week, when we launch Capturing Dinosaurs, I look forward to our using five decks to introduce the topic to the youth participants. My only complaint is the lack of a strong tool for counting points. In response, for next week, we are printing small and large Dino eggs, and bones, to serve as chits.

About Barry

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