New Science, Old Tricks

A new board game takes on the Scientific Revolution.

By | March 30, 2014

One Friday afternoon our magazine staff played a game. Was it work or was it pleasure? That’s hard to tell.

In The New Science board game each player takes on the role of a great scientist from the Scientific Revolution, competing to assume the mantle of the first president of the Royal Society. The means to that end is prestige, and you gain prestige primarily by publishing your research. But publishing is just as likely to help your rivals; that’s the game’s hook.

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The New Science board game

In The New Science board game each player adopts the role of a scientific great from the 17th century. The goal is to gain as much scientific prestige as possible.

Mariel Carr

So on that Friday afternoon these collaborators—who normally treat one another so well—turned against one another, each desperate to one up his or her rival. The game compelled us to act a lot like a certain type of scientist, one driven by glory as much as curiosity. To be blunt we behaved much like some of the great scientists we played that afternoon—looking at you, Galileo and Sir Isaac. What follows are four takes on The New Science from that day’s participants:

Lee Berry, a source of reason and creativity for the magazine, is also a board gamer. There’s no one better to break down the mechanics behind The New Science. (We made her read the rules.)

Players must allocate their limited time and energy each turn among several key strategic options, placing small cubes on the board to indicate their choices for that turn. Players can choose to spend their turn researching, experimenting, publishing, or gaining influence in government, religion, science, and enterprise. Scientific discoveries are grouped by discipline—astronomy, physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry—and successful research and experimentation lead to more advanced work. While each character has strengths and weaknesses, an element of luck does play a part in experimentation, where a roll of the die can mean the difference between success and failure. More randomness is introduced with the deck of event cards, which can help or hinder players. Publishing gains the player prestige—the victory points of the game—but also allows rivals to use that player’s discoveries as the basis for their own research.

The magazine’s production editor, Clay Cansler, hampered by a string of bad luck early in the game, got it together enough to take second place. Achieving that moral victory proved more educational than enjoyable.

Looked at thematically, The New Science might best be considered an accidental success. Much like the pursuit of science, playing the game is a long, tedious process, and odds are all your carefully planned efforts will come to nothing. Advantage is fleeting; you spend a great deal of time blindly staggering around the different academic disciplines. Any discovery you make is just as likely to help your competitors as you.

I imagine this role-playing is what game designer Dirk Knemeyer had in mind: there’s not much thrill in climbing the ivory tower, and the joy of success—publishing a new paper or making a new discovery—is usually fleeting and mostly serves to push the scientist onward. The same is true for players of The New Science. I found myself less interested in my goals than worried about who’s mostly likely to use my shoulders as a ladder to bigger and better things.

If nothing else, the game cheered the hearts of the magazine’s underclass. Befuddled by the game’s “framework,” Michal Meyer, editor in chief of Chemical Heritage, came in a stunningly distant fourth. That is, last place. But game play wasn’t the only thing Meyer struggled with that day.

A historian of science may not be the best person to review a board game focused on some of the major figures of the Scientific Revolution. My first thought was that the makers had missed an opportunity for drama and tension in ignoring the overturning of the old Aristotelian way of understanding nature. Galileo, one of the five scientists in The New Science, expended much effort in real life in attacking Aristotelianism and some of its associated assumptions, especially the earth as center of the universe. It was left to Newton, another figure in the game, to reassemble the broken bits and pieces into a new understanding of motion and matter.

The game focuses on what was important to the great thinkers. But knowing some history occasionally distracted me. Two cards in particular took me aback. The first stated that “organized religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, was an impediment to the early Scientific Revolution.” Where did the game makers get this distorted little nugget from? The second card put forward this gem: “Beliefs about the importance of balancing bodily fluids confused great thinkers in chemistry and medicine.” Our modern framework for understanding illness is very different from that of the early moderns. But they found theirs useful. What would have been confusing and useless to them was to imagine tiny, unseeable living creatures as the causes of illness. I might as well complain that the early moderns were confused by Newton’s gravity because it did not allow them to imagine general relativity. Science is not done in a vacuum; it is a process that can only be carried out within frameworks of understanding.

History is written by the victors. With that, we’ll give Jacob Roberts, intern for Chemical Heritage and winner of The New Science, the last say.

I can confidently write that it is the greatest game ever made. The New Science rewards intelligence and long-term strategic thinking. Some people are more blessed with these qualities than others, clearly reflected by the outcome of our game.

The New Science is, as far as this group knows, the only board game with a history theme in which players can learn about major scientific figures. Still, our band of players ultimately found playing the game to be a less than satisfying experience. While we were excited by the theme and found it well integrated into the game’s design, most of us found the pacing and basic mechanics of The New Science—advancing along what is essentially a big flowchart—dull. Those looking to find chemistry to accompany their gaming might try Compounded, a new game in which players collect elements to build compounds.