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I am a geneticist by day, and a gamer by night. I decided to combine these interests to develop a card game that is fun to play, nice to look at, and sneaks a tiny bit of science in as well. So, ‘Niche: Master of Adaptation’ was born.
I got the inspiration for this game from you, the students, because you often asked me whether humans would ‘evolve’ tails, or whether we would ‘evolve’ other interesting features, like X-ray vision or superpowers.
Through ‘Niche’, I wanted to show that yes, a creature can develop interesting traits, but this takes a long time, and a lot of trial and error. Also, the usefulness of each trait very much depends on the circumstances – a thick fur coat or layers of fat are not going to be of much help in a hot, dry desert, for example. This is exactly what ‘survival of the fittest’ is all about – those who survive are the ones that fit their environment best. And if that environment changes, the creatures that used to thrive may find themselves at quite the disadvantage.
So how did I go about creating the game? Well, it started with blank cards and dry-erase markers.
This was not very pretty. I am terrible at drawing, and nobody was going to draw 64 different illustrations for me for £500. So I got in touch with Gavin Willshaw, who works for The University of Edinburgh’s Library & University Collections. He gave me loads of great tips about obtaining images that I could freely edit, so I transformed old textbook-style drawings into the illustrations you see on the cards in ‘Niche’.
Since I used freely available resources, I thought it fair to also make ‘Niche’ freely available so anyone can download, print of modify it. But you don’t need to print it to play it, since it is available online through Tabletopia (for free!), as well as TableTop Simulator!
Altogether, £10 was spent on blank cards and dry-erase markers for initial playtesting, £40 on drinks and snacks to bribe playtesters and image sourcing advisers, £45 on TableTop Simulator 4 pack for online playtesting and £200 on printing and cutting the prototype cards (4 decks).
I had £200 left over after accomplishing what I had planned, and after speaking to one of my colleagues who organises it, I chose to donate this to Oxford for Romania, a local 100% volunteer-led multidisciplinary summer school (with a large focus on STEM subjects) for underprivileged school children from Romania (where I am from). The summer school courses are taught by professionals in their respective fields, and the topics range from genetics to ethics to data science to robotics to astrophysics, and in addition to these, also teach kids how to carry out debates, how to write CVs, and how to think critically. They have organised very successful summer schools for the past 4 years so I am sure they will put the money to good use!