Geeks at play

Great science board game gift ideas

H. Dominic Stiles 21 December 2017

It's catching: Pandemic fever rages a decade on

If you’re still stumped about what gift to give the science-y person in your life, there are many exciting board games available that are sociable and fun

Did video kill the board game?

Thankfully, no. And if you’re still stumped about what Christmas present to get for the science-y person in your life, it turns out there are many exciting science-related games that are both sociable and fun.

When I was a child, board games featured strongly in my life. At one point I refused to play Kingmaker with my little brother as he was such a bad loser. He soon abandoned me to play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends, but I never got into that. In my early twenties I spent many long and involved sessions with some Roman Empire game that I cannot recall, and learnt two versions of the Viking age game Hnefatafl. Now I have to borrow other people’s children.

The queen of modern science board games has to be Pandemic. First released in 2008, and scoring highly in all reviews, the premise is that there are outbreaks of four diseases across the world, and players have to work together to fight them, each taking on different roles. Recommended for those aged eight plus, this is a good family game. As it is not competitive, it could well be a way of getting you together if you’re the sort of family who always ends up quarreling over the holidays – you either all win, or the diseases wipe the floor with you. It lasts about 45 minutes. For those with shorter attention spans, a faster play version is also available: Pandemic: The Cure.

Since its launch, Pandemic has been updated (including an app version), and has spawned a lot of add-ons and spin-offs that can complement your original version. The In the Lab expansion is set “behind sealed bio-hazard doors” where your team works to find cures, and it can accommodate six players. If you like Pandemic, you may want to try Pandemic Legacy, which scores very highly on Board Game Geek. The spin-off game Contagion can have up to five players, but in this case you play the diseases and your aim is to wipe out humanity.

There are similar games outside of the Pandemic family. For example, Plague Inc: The Board Game has a related set-up to Contagion, asking “who will be the ultimate plague?“.

The Exit series of games involve you being trapped in a room, and having to solve various puzzles in order to escape. They can be played by one to four people aged twelve and over, lasting one to two hours. In Exit: The Secret Lab you are a volunteer for a medical research study, but there is no one there but you. In Exit: The Polar Station you are a climate scientist left locked in the research centre after everyone else has been evacuated. The problem reviewers have with this game is that solving the puzzles involves drawing/cutting some of the parts, so it is not reusable – unless you are very careful.

For the megalomaniacs among you, in The Manhattan Project you aim to produce atomic weapons. But a 2016 spin-off, Manhattan Project: Energy Empire might be more appetising. This is what is called a ‘worker placement’ game, where you are managing resources. There is a good YouTube review here if you want to see what is involved. It takes a couple of hours to play but garners great reviews from players.

Ephemeris first appeared in 1978. It calls itself a game of astronomical strategy and it looks fairly simple but fun. It places the Earth at the centre of the board, and the idea is to align the planets. It does use astrological symbolism, which might possibly bother the scientific purist.

Terraforming Mars, a two-hour game for one to five people, takes us 400 years into the future. In it, players are corporations who aim to make Mars habitable by forming an atmosphere and oceans. It gets very good reviews from players.

For the botanist in your life, you might consider Photosynthesis – “plant and shape the ever-changing forest as you cultivate your seeds and your strategy.” This game is quite strategic – where do you sow your crops, avoiding the shade of surrounding trees? It is for two to four players aged eight and above.

Evolution: Climate Stand-Alone is also from a family of games. “Give your species a long neck to get food that no one else can reach, evolve a coat of heavy fur for protection against the bitter ice age, or feed at night... to avoid the heat of the cruel desert sun.” It is for two to six players aged above twelve, and lasts about an hour.

Finally, Dr. Eureka is a short game that would be fun to play with children. “Transfer your molecules between the test tubes, in the right order and faster than the other players, to become the best and brightest Scientist in the laboratory!” There is a nice video review here – it’s a game that everyone has a chance of winning.

The Smithsonian reviews some of these games, and you will also find reviews on YouTube and Board Game Geek. All you need now is some willing friends or family.

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