Ever wonder where GUT CHECK: A Microbiome Game came from? Read about the background of the game by the creator David Coil.
“Just to be clear, and in front of multiple witnesses… you want me to spend my time, at work, designing a microbiome board game?”
Like most projects, it started innocently enough. Our lab had created a series of educational “trading cards” of bacteria that we were sending the International Space Station. Then someone (jokingly I think) asked if we could gamify them… maybe make something like Pokémon. I thought about it and decided it wouldn’t work. Then Jonathan Eisen, my supervising professor at UC Davis, said “you know, we really should make a microbiome game” and the rest is history.
From the start I wanted to make a game that was a “real game”, meaning actually fun to play and requiring some modicum of strategy/tactics. I had played too many educational games that were plenty educational but not any fun to actually play. I also knew that I wanted the emphasis of the game to be on the positive aspects of the microbiome, not viral plagues or terrifying outbreaks. Finding the balance between playability and biological reality turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of designing the game.
I began with scraps of paper with little notes and names like “good bacteria #1”, “bad bacteria #3” etc. I still remember that first game, with a couple of undergraduates in our lab, Hannah Holland-Moritz and Ruth Lee. It didn’t really work at all. So I made new scraps of paper. Again, and again, and again. As the game took shape I realized that scraps of paper weren’t going to cut it. So a graduate student in our lab, Russell Neches, found a card template online, wrote up some software, and taught me enough Python and LaTex to be able to create something that actually looked like a card. Now I could take an Excel sheet containing card information and mass print a new set. Which was good because basically every single time we played, we found numerous problems.
Lunchtime in the Eisen lab became “playtest the microbiome game”. Everyone got dragged into it, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians… even people from other labs. Later I expanded the play testing into my board game group who had a totally different perspective on game development. Each time I took notes, then made changes and printed out another set. I grew to hate the paper cutter with a passion. The irony of myself at the lab bench spending hours cutting out cards while the undergrads that I supervised performed research all around me was amusing.
At some point, it started to feel like a really workable game. We had a lab meeting where we discussed names and someone suggested “Gut Check” which was perfect. Since I have no artistic talent we decided to find an artist and I took to Twitter asking for one. I got contacted by a freelance artist, Erin Johnson, who was interested in working on the project. She created a fabulous set of printer friendly designs for the cards and also gave invaluable feedback on reducing the text on the cards and having visual representations of the rules/details. This version of the game became the free “print-at-home” version, released on our website in 2015.
Then the game became stuck. I wanted to get it printed commercially, especially after hearing from a large number of teachers who would much rather pay for the game than spend their limited time printing and cutting out cards. But printing a board game is both complicated and expensive. We considered Kickstarter, which is often a great funding mechanism for board games but is a major investment of time and energy.
Then I decided to contact MO BIO out of the blue. I’d always been a huge fan, our lab uses a significant amount of their products and I think I own the majority of t-shirt versions they’ve ever produced. When a new box of MO BIO DNA extraction kits would arrive in the lab it was kind of a feeding frenzy as people in the lab fought over the shirts. So I sent them an e-mail asking if they’d be interested in producing the game as a MO BIO promotional product. I was both surprised and delighted when they responded in the affirmative.
MO BIO hired a designer, Wendy Ochoa, who kept the concepts of the print-at-home version but created a whole new look for the commercial version, as well as new player sheets and a new board. The biggest single change at this point though was the rulebook. I had never been happy with the rulebook and had gotten several complaints about it, particularly from people who didn’t play a lot of board games. MO BIO redid the rulebook, along with some great illustrations, and created something much more useful.
The final commercial version was printed by Delano Service and arrived at MO BIO headquarters in August 2016. The official release was September 19th and as far as I can tell the game appears to be doing well. It’s been so wonderful to receive tweets from people who have enjoyed the game and to see pictures of them playing. The support and encouragement from others along the way has been what made this actually happen.
A final big thank you to everyone who helped make this game possible. Especially to Jonathan Eisen, Erin Johnson, Wendy Ochoa, the MO BIO folks, and all the people who put up with years of playtesting!
(David Coil received a B.A. in Biology from Carleton College in 1999, worked for a year in an engineering lab, and then received a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Washington in 2005 (studying viral vectors for gene therapy). After teaching for a year as a Lecturer he did a post-doc in Belgium studying the virulence of the Legionella bacterium. Since 2011 he has been a post-doc, then Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at the University of California, Davis. There he studies microbial ecology and bacterial genomics with a focus on public outreach and undergraduate education in microbiology). Twitter: @davidacoil