Planetary Pioneers from the Game-Framed Math & Science project by Hostos Community College and Colmena Design creates fun from chemistry and fractions, two STEM concepts that often cause students anxiety.
Rather than dealing with abstract problems and numbers without relation, Planetary Pioneers creates a vivid scenario in which players race to be the first to terraform their newfound planet. The classroom concepts then become game mechanics, and students will master them on their way to astronomical success.
In one of the most sci-fi settings of any tabletop game, Planetary Pioneers presents players with planets in need of terraformed atmospheres. The method of terraforming is to trade compounds with other atmospheres, maintaining conservation of mass while radically altering composition. While knowing the qualities of each gas is not necessary for play, being introduced to gaseous argon and methane will give students familiarity with chemicals they otherwise might study only in theory.
Planetary Pioneers begins with each player being dealt a planet card. Rather than all seeking the same earthly atmosphere (mostly nitrogen, some oxygen, bits of other gases), each player has a planet that’s different both in its original state and the intended goal. For example, Gaurain has a wild mix of gases with no more than three parts in 16 of any given one. Ekrates, meanwhile, is mostly stable krypton, helium, and xenon with just a touch of neon and nitrogen. The player with Gaurain needs steadier nitrogen and helium in its atmosphere while Ekrates needs more active carbon dioxide and methane.
A player’s goal in Planetary Pioneers is to be the first to change his or her atmosphere from the original state to the new created mixture shown on the back of the card. Players terraform by trading with each other and a few neutral planets, rolling a die to see whether they will call the shots, an opponent gets to make the deal, or if an agreeable trade must be struck. As the rules explain, “all trades must be in equal portions,” so players will never be out anything, although they may be elbowed off-track by a crafty opponent giving Zania nitrogen oxide when they need less of that and more straight nitrogen.
Planetary Pioneers is a board game for two to nine players aged 10 and up. It takes about an hour to play, depending on the number of players since each is making a trade. The rules are straightforward enough to be mastered within a minute, while the problem-solving and social aspects of the game will keep players constantly reevaluating their next step on every turn of the game. Rees Shad, Humanities Chair at Hostos, writes that implementing the games doubled the number of students passing remedial classes and increased retention from about half to more than 95%, a rate unheard of in higher education that shows the effectiveness of engagement.