Biodiversity open card game, like Pokemon for science

David Ng, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, has created an launched a free/open card-trading game that uses Pokemon-style mechanics to teach biodiversity. It's a wonderful concept and it really looks like a great game, too!
Phylo (or if you rather use the preferred term of endearment, Phylomon) is an an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full "artistic" wonder, and all via a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way. This means that it thrives on contributions from folks who are artists, folks who are scientists, folks who like games, folks in the business of educating children, as well as folks of other expertise as various situations arise. Essentially, every step of game development, from imagery to the rulebook(s), is an exercise in crowd sourcing.

On the site, you can even check out the phylo project's origin story. Here, you'll learn that it was essentially inspired by Andrew Balmford, a conservational biologist who in 2002 published a curious paper in Science that showed that children as young as 8 were able to identify and characterize up to 120 different Pokemon characters. Yet, by the time they entered secondary school, they still couldn't identify half of the UK's 100 most common plants and animals. In the paper, Andrew was understandably troubled by this, and simply asked "Why is this?" and "Is there anything we can learn from this?"

In any event, the project has just started off with 12 cards, so that people can get a sense of what the site is all about, but there are plans to roll out new cards at a rate of at least one per weekday starting next week. Anyway, do go check it out, tell others about it, or better yet, get involved. Currently, the two biggest requests is to have more artists submitting their work (drawing and/or photographs), and for gamers to have a crack at a prototype rule set, or to even come up with alternate rules.

Interestingly, there are some who currently estimate there being roughly 1.9 million different species that have been classified by humans. Wouldn't it be cool to have a biodiversity card game with the potential to have that many cards?



  1. How likely is this to run afoul of the patent granted in 1997 to Wizards of the Coast for collectible trading card games?

  2. I’m an enormous fan of TCGs, so this is something I could see myself loving. However, crowdsourcing the rules seems like a bad idea– having a game designer (or a well-organized team of designers) seems essential for gameplay balance.

  3. Good luck, but it reminds me a lot of the attempt to create “educational comics” in decades past when comic books were the in thing among kids. Educators surely thought: “If kids can remember the origin stories of dozens of superheroes, why can’t we use the medium to teach them about the causes of the first world war?”. It didn’t work so well. Fantasy just is more appealing to youth (and a large part of adults as well) than is reality.

  4. Hey Shazbot, I totally agree. In fact the ideal scenario is to actually have that “well organized team of designers” step in to start working on a set of rules. Or better yet, have this team be the primary moderator of gaming ideas.

    As well, we’ve taken the notion that there isn’t necessarily only one set of “official” rules. Just like a normal deck of 52 playing cards, we’re hopeful that since the cards are just scientifically literate content holders, there are potentially a wide range of different ways of playing. These hopefully will get a chance to be presented on the website because they (1)show good potential, (2) because they been tested and have gotten good feedback, or (3) -as the case may be right now – because it’s the most polished set of rules available.

    For instance, I would love someone to come up with a compelling gameplay that works with very young children, or a gameplay that can really use the biological classifications (like an evolution sort of game?).

    Anyway, thanks for the comment! You should register on the forum!

  5. It sounds great, and I really like the use-generated content aspect of it.

    However, if I know anything about Humans, and how they perceive other species, I’m guessing that the number of species picked will be something like this: 90% of species drawn will be animals, of those, 90% will be vertebrae, of those, 90% will be mammals, of those 90% will be cute mammals.

    There was a number that I read, but haven’t verified, that has always surprised me greatly: If you measure the total biomass of the planet (measured by mass of carbon in living things), the total biomass is pretty roughly evenly split: 50% is single-celled organisms, and 50% is plants. When we think of biodiversity, however, all we think about are animals.

    1. Yes — as a microbial ecologist I can confirm that both in biomass and genetic diversity, bacteria and archaea dwarf all other life forms. Unfortunately for visual depiction, their genetic diversity is mostly in their metabolic pathways, not their exterior appearance.

      1. Differentiation via metabolic pathways? Sounds like an idea for a add-on phylo card set just for microbial species? Looks like there could be ways to have some of that info on the card (or even in the image itself?)

        (That would be brilliant)

      2. The metaphor I heard was if you took all life on earth as a glass of beer, the bacteria (etc) would be the beer and everything else would be the froth.

        This game looks like a good project. Imagine the swapsies in the schoolyard with a million cards!

      3. So, here’s a question: right now there are more recognized species of beetles than bacteria. How much does this reflect our poor understanding of bacteria, and how much does this reflect their ability to spread to diverse habitats without as many specific adaptations?

        1. Well, I’m not sure if it is really true that bacteria can spread to diverse habitats without as many specific adaptations, but it is true that that the notion of a bacterial species is complicated by the fact that bacteria can exchange genes from quite distantly related species — so a bacterial species isn’t the classic Mayr “biological species concept” of a population of interbreeding organisms that don’t breed outside the group.

          However, another reason for the greater number of recognized beetle species is that beetles have been classified for hundreds of years based on their exterior characteristics. While a few species of bacteria were recognized as distinct under the microscope, it has only been the last thirty years with the advent of sequencing methods that bacterial classification has really taken off.

  6. Hey SamSam, we do need more microbes (and even plants, reptiles, insects, right now for that matter). So far, we only have one microbe, a virus – but it’s an awesome one.

  7. While shazbot has a point, crowdsourcing the playtesting can work extremely well. Ideally a small group of solid game designers will spot the potential in the idea and step forward. (If I wasn’t extremely deep in work right now, I’d grab the opportunity and design a variation myself.)

    1. Hopefully someone will design just such a game! In fact, in the forums, discussion over inclusion of extinct species has come up here and there. And I think that sort of thing would make a really cool addition to the project.

  8. Sweet! I’ve been working on a kid’s book on endemic animals, so I have a truckload of fauna illustrations. I’m glad to share, so I’ve uploaded a few already. Too bad I don’t have any plants/bacteria illos… If I get some spare time, I’ll work on some (I don’t often get the occasion to draw micro-organisms; sounds fun!) :)

  9. This looks an awful lot like the commercial trading card game “XEKO“, which has been around for a few years (I’ve seen it advertised in the magazines my kids read.)

    XEKO has some pretty great artwork by Michel Gagné (who’s contributed to the Flight anthology series and did some work on Pixar’s “Ratatouille”.)

  10. Ok, that’s so sweet.
    I wouldn’t have my children buying or trading the cards, however. My children would have cards with pictures of the real things, not some artistic rendition.
    Then, when my active, environmentally friendly children were out experiencing nature instead of hacking away in the poisonous and deadly man created unnatural environment at pokemon this or that, they would know for certain if they saw in person, any of the cards life.
    It’s ironic, that for the marketing game, profit, hiring artists who “love nature”, or to hook in pokemon image friendly kids, they have these FAKE artistic equivalents.
    Shows me just how far even the watchers, protectors, and fixers have slid on down the scale.
    Sorry for the downer folks, but that’s exactly what I think. What a S H A M E.

  11. BTW –
    the little hottie here thought the racoon card was a DOG.
    See what I mean!

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