The 3rd Month of #scienceFTW: Pterosaurs!

When I last posted about our first two months #scienceFTW (October and November) I broke it down by session. Now I will shift our focus to the discrete monthly projects, with December focusing on the exciting development of a card game using content from our upcoming exhibit on pterosaurs. In reminder, #scienceFTW is our new science card game program led by Julia Zichello (Manager of AMNH’s Sackler Educational Laboratory), Nick Fortugno (Co-Founder/CCO of Playmatics), with support from J. Shepard Ramsay (NYU intern extraordinaire).

At the began of this segment the teens learned about pterosaurs by traveling to the Museum halls, where we have quite a few:

Taking notes.

Copying a cladogram mapping the evolution of pterosaur traits.

After their research, the youth were shown a list of pterosaurs that will be featured in the Museum’s spring show. Not ALL can fit into the card game, so there were impassioned discussions (much love was shown, for example, to the Quetzalcoatlus) about which to include.

To prepare for the first playtesting session, all of the cards were produced in Phylo, the game system we are implementing for the pterosaurs. It is sort of like making a version of the board game Monopoly. We are not looking to design a new game play experience, just “reskin” the game around our content – in our case, all about pterosaurs. However, some aspects of the pterosaur “flavor” might require some game changes (such as adding a creature’s Mesozoic period and removing its size). My main point is that we are building and will distribute an online version of the final game though Phylo, as one of its many playable decks, and, at the same time, using their card-developed tool to create the prototypes during our development phases.

At the end of our first playtesting session, the board was filled with different problems with our game and suggestions for how they could be fixed:

To get to this point, all of the youth played the game – over and over and over – taking notes along the way.

In the example below, this feedback notes that there are too many fern cards, the turns were taking too long, and many of the cards were not playable:

The feedback below notes that 1) the characteristic of size became irrelevant (and was eventually removed from the game as a result) and 2) the Event cards (which attack your opponents cards) were being placed at the top of the food chain, which was unintended (and thus most were redesigned to attack lower on the food chain):

They also split into groups to work on different aspects of the game. One group, which produced the most detailed and comprehensive feedback, mapped out the game numerically, as a system, to identify its flaws. Since the game is based on building food-chains, and the chains are built on options determined by the characteristics of the available cards and their distribution, the likelihood of being able to play any particular pterosaur card (at the top the chain) might differ from one pterosaur card to another. And the POINT value of that pterosaur card should reflect how hard or easy it is – statistically – to build its required food chain. The more options the easier it is to play, and cards that are easier to play should be worth less. Two teens mapped out THE ENTIRE GAME to determine their final point value of the cards, building this chart by laying out the cards and exploring all possible options:

As a result of this process, we were able to determine the point values, identify broken or challenging cards, and ensure the final pterosaurs’ point values (and, thus, the motivation for a player to decide amongst which card to play) was properly balanced. This was no where near the end of the process, but it was a substantive beginning. And it was completely led by the teens who volunteered for the task.

Below is an image of the charts above being developed:

Another group focused on the event cards, determining that there should be less restrictions determining when they could be played, that they should be played lower on the food chain, and suggested a wide range of brilliant new ideas:

My personal favorite was “migration” which causes a pterosaur to fly in the reverse direction. Since the direction a card faces determine who owns it, and, thus, this card allows you to steal a card from an opponent, it is a perfect marriage between content and game mechanic.

Yet another group focused on both the colors of the different cards (you are building food-chains, so the colors of the connecting cards should be pleasing to the eye) and reviewed the official copy for the upcoming AMNH Pterosaur show to find interesting facts – “flavor text” – to insert into the cards.

All of their feedback was processed by the team and, when they next returned, the playtesting continued. But this time they could see how their feedback and contributions directly changed the play and design of the game.

When Katie saw her pterosaur facts right on the cards she exclaimed, “That is stuff I actually typed. That is, like, unreal!” When they realized people might actually PLAY their game, others added: “I love to see my ownership over it” and “If there’s anything you want to Instagram it’s a card game you helped design.”

There was more playtesting and note taking and feedback generating. Eventually, we were ready for a scientist (and amateur game player!) to check it out. Susan Perkins (Associate Curator & Professor in the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and Division of Invertebrate Zoology) spent a session with us, playing the prototype with the teens, giving them feedback, and then playing/critiquing one of the first games we ever introduced to the program, Parasites Unleashed, since Susan is a parasitologist.

The youth have now moved on from the pterosaurs card game to focus on the final project and work for January: a prototype for a new game – not just a new skin on an existing game, but an entirely new game design – that will focus on scientists advancing knowledge working in a museum. The game will take the player on expeditions, through research, and eventually to publications and exhibits. And it will all be based on real expeditions, exhibitions and science advances from throughout the history of the American Museum of Natural History. Which areas will the youth choose to focus – dinosaurs or meteors, Native American artifacts or mammals? Come back for the final January review post to find out.

In the meantime, we will work to finalize Pterosaurs: The Card Game. A “fancy” design is being created and the text copy-edited. An augmented reality component is being developed (can you handle the pterosaurs flying OFF your cards?) and more. For now, please enjoy two examples of the draft design on Phylo of some new event cards:

Finally, Diane Kelly, who designed two of the games we have been using in the program, posted in December the following blog post about our work, which I am delighted to share with you all here:

The American Museum of Natural History is in the midst of running their first afterschool science card game program for teenagers (called #scienceFTW), and I’ve been delightedly following Barry Joseph’s reports on how it’s going. It’s not just that I’m really proud that they adopted both Bone Wars and Parasites Unleashed for the program – I’m impressed that they’ve gone beyond simply giving kids some science games and passive instruction about “what they’re teaching.” Instead, the teens in the program are learning to analyze game mechanics and graphic design, and think about how those elements can be used to convey information about science.  That experience in critical thinking should be helpful when they start to develop their own deck building games later in the program – they plan to build a pterosaur deck for the ever-versatile Phylo, as well as an original game prototype about museum scientists. And judging from the photos, they’re having a great time.

Thank you Diane!

(view more #scienceFTW photos from December)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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3 Responses to The 3rd Month of #scienceFTW: Pterosaurs!

  1. rik says:

    Very impressive playtesting and iteration by the teens. Seems like it would require a lot of time. How often do these kids come to the museum?

  2. Barry says:

    Thanks Rik. It is a 2 day a week program, each 2 hours long.

  3. Pingback: Hive Learning Network @ #DML14 | Chris Lawrence

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