Ben Kirman


A card game to support students' systemic learning in Biology (2018)

This is a project led by Pen Holland in the Department of Biology, along with Kerry Knox (Education), Florian Block and myself (DC Labs/TFTI).

Catastrophic is a game to support student learning on concepts of Biology, especially incoming undergraduates. As with most degree programmes, the first year of Biology study is often about ensuring students have a solid grounding of subject knowledge. However students can perceive that as "bitty" as they cover lots of topics very quickly. However, all this knowledge is important, and it is all connected within the larger systemic/synoptic understanding of biological processes and relationships. Catastrophic is designed to reinforce this synoptic aspect of the first year of higher education in Biology, through a card game that is made available to all students.

2018 Version

In the summer of 2018, we brought together a group of students from the Biology programmes (Katylily Westbury-Hawkins, Matthew Topham and Rosie Murton), and a couple of students (Matthew Shepherd and Ruta Czaplinska) kindly funded by the DC Labs Summer School, to design and build the game.

They did excellent work, investigating lots of existing board and card games about biology, and designing their own that fits within the syllabus. The design went through multiple iterations, blind playtests and, as you can see, did excellent work with the graphic design and production. In October 2018 we had over 200 copies professionally printed, and these were distributed for free to all new students on the Biology degree programme.

Catastrophic 2018 game box

In addition, a set of three small expansions were developed, that were slowly released to students over the course of the year to coincide with topics being introduced in formal teaching. Students were also invited to regular play sessions to engage with each other around the game.

Catastrophic 2018 cards, showing the game being played

2019 Version

After a successful first run, we collected a lot of feedback from students about their experiences with the game, what they valued and how they used it. This formed the basis of a further iteration, again kindly funded by the DC Labs Summer School programme. Emily Martin and Leia Massey, two excellent designers from the Interactive Media programme, spent the summer refining, revising and simplifying the rules to the game, and reworking the visuals with their fantastic graphic design work.

Catastrophic 2019 in play on Tabletopia

You can find the game, and download the files needed to print it, for free at the official website. There is more information at BoardGameGeek, and the game can be played online at Tabletopia (thanks to Steve Barker).

Catastrophic 2019 landscape illustration