Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
For Darwin Day itself, developmental biologist and geneticist Yelena Bernadskaya spoke to friend of AIPT Science, John Coveyou, about his new board game all about genetics and heredity!
Chances are you’ve taken a basic bio class at some point in your life, and you have some foggy recollection about Gregor Mendel and his pea plants. Now Genotype: A Mendelian Genetics Game, from Genius Games, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, thrusts you right into the middle of Mendel’s garden and provides an opportunity to understand genetic inheritance on a more intuitive level.
AIPT spoke with the creator of Genotype, John Coveyou, about his inspiration and goals. The conversation is edited for clarity.
AIPT: Where did the idea for the game come from? Why did you think that this genetics concept would be a fun one to gamefy?
John Coveyou: I think it’s because I’m a big nerd and I think stuff like that is really cool. I remember reading through a textbook, which is where I get a lot of ideas — just opening up a biology textbook, a chemistry textbook, and go[ing] through different topics to see if there’s any that I get really interested in and want to make a game out of. And I was looking at basic heredity and the Punnett genetic squares, and I thought, “I can make a game out of that.”
So I had some Punnett squares and was trying to roll the outcome, see what the distribution would be, and try to figure out how to make a game out of it, and it didn’t work well at first. I thought, “If I work on this long enough, I could actually make a game out of this.”
AIPT: Can you walk us through the basic gameplay of Genotype?
Coveyou: Genotype is a worker placement and dice drafting game. The worker placement aspect of the game is more to influence outcomes and position yourself, rather than just building something or gaining resources. What you’re going to be doing when you’re placing workers is getting a higher pick of the dice or modifying the outcome of the dice that you roll. You’re positioning yourself for better options and quicker picks.
The dice drafting is there to simulate Mendelian genetics using Punnett squares. A Punnett square gives you two traits of a parent, and we’re crossing them and the dice [that] are rolled to identify what distribution of traits the children of the parents will have. The dice are a great way to simulate the randomness, but also the probability that exists within Mendelian genetics and Punnett squares.
What you’re trying to do is to be able to verify the most research by completing the most pea plants by the end of the game … That’s how you actually score points, because the pea plants all have different numbers of traits on them that you try to verify.
AIPT: How long did it take to have a draft of the game?
Coveyou: The first draft took about a year and a half, but we started working on it five, six years ago.
AIPT: Why did you specifically focus on Mendel’s work, rather than the work of other geneticists, for example Thomas Hunt Morgan, who worked on genetic inheritance in fruit flies?
Coveyou: Actually, I had another idea for a game called Drosophila (scientific name for fruit flies), that would have been about those types of genetics. I think the main reason was that Mendelian genetics with pea plants was the very typical way to learn it in biology class. And I thought, first I’ll tackle the topic of genetics through the channel that most people are familiar with, and if it works out and people like it, then I’ll throw in a bit more nuance with things like Drosophila. I think it’s the public nature of it that really attracted me to that.
AIPT: Who was your target audience? Did you think that all the biologists are going to run out and buy it and nerd out over it?
Coveyou: My goal is always to design for the person who is a gamer, someone who enjoys playing hobby games, and someone who also either has an affinity for science or actually works in the field in some way. Or maybe even a teacher, because I want to make games that are a bit heavier and a bit deeper. So, that’s mainly my target audience.
A lot of people think what we’re doing is making educational children’s games, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of what we’re making is games for scientists, for gamers, and we think they replicate the science pretty well. They can also be used as educational tools, but a lot of times the mechanics are overwhelming to people who are not used to playing hobby games. We get a lot of feedback about that. If they wanted something easier, maybe this isn’t for them.
AIPT: The game uses very accurate terminology that biologists actually use, for example de novo mutations, which refer to mutations that newly arise in the genome. Did you have any geneticists consulting on it, or did you research it yourself?
Coveyou: Early on it was my own research, but I hired an expert who was a geneticist, and they actually worked on the game, and that’s where the term de novo mutations came from. So we needed something to simulate mutations and we weren’t exactly sure what to do, so we had an expert figure out some more of those details.
AIPT: The Kickstarter is doing amazingly well. Are you surprised? Did you expect this response?
Coveyou: It’s always tough to judge how a game like this is going to do. With this one, I feel like the level of success so far is far greater than what we originally thought. I thought this would not be one of our best-selling games, but one of the games that people who understood Mendelian genetics would be interested in.
But it seems like everyone likes the game, and I think part of that might be how approachable the art is. Yes, Mendelian genetics, but the game is also really beautiful; the artist did a very good job. So far this is [our] largest first week launch on Kickstarter. It might not end that way, but it definitely started that way.
AIPT: What are some of the stretch goals?
Coveyou: We went through a lot of them already. We’re doing custom engraved dice, so instead of having standard numbers, we’ll have Roman numerals, which match the Punnett squares better. We’ve increased the size of the dice. Instead of the cardboard shovels, now they’re little wooden shovels. Soon we’re going to be 3D-printing the shovels, so they’re actually painted pieces. A lot of interesting stretch goals are on the page now, and we’re hitting them on a regular basis.
AIPT: Would you even play this game against a professional geneticist?
Coveyou: Oh yeah, for sure. I would definitely play.
AIPT: Are you thinking of doing expansions that introduce gene-editing into the game? Like a CRISPR expansion?
Coveyou: We have some ideas for expansions. Although other topics in genetics, like Drosophila or CIRSPR, or even human genetics, we actually have entirely different games we’re working on. Specifically CRISPR. It’s not a huge priority right now.
The two high priorities right now is a plant cell version of Cytosis, which is our best-selling game, about a mammalian cell. Following that we have a game about immunology, where the players are the human immune response system and there’s a cut or a wound that bacteria are trying to get into, and they’re defending the body from pathogens.
AIPT: What do you hope the people playing the game will take away from it, in relationship to biology?
Coveyou: There’s a few things. I think if nothing else, just the idea of what Gregor Mendel was doing, we hope to popularize his research a little bit. I remember so often in high school biology class, sitting around listening to other students just complaining about how boring Punnett squares were, and how hard it was. It seemed like none of it is hard at all, there’s just an intimidation factor that comes with genetics. It’s not so hard when you find competitive motivations to keep pushing, and this game provides that.
Maybe the most important [takeaway] is that science is in some ways a predictive tool, but even though things do follow the rules, there’s still a lot of randomness and chaos in genetics, and that’s what creates the beauty of it. It’s that nature behaves in some predictable ways, and also some very random ways, and the beauty of science is that we combine predictability and randomness.
Genotype: A Mendelian Genetics Game is fully funded on Kickstarter, but you can still help make those last stretch goals a reality!