How to make a climate game actually fun

When I first started thinking about the Solutions board game, I knew it needed cards for each of the climate solutions, a thermometer, and to be matched up with reality as closely as possible while still remaining fun. But I didn’t know much else. So I started by brainstorming the experience I wanted players to have from the game. 

I wrote three lists: 

I want players to feel:

  • In peril
  • Like they understand climate change – everything is realistic
  • Like they have a chance if they get things right
  • On a team

I hope I’ll get testimonials like:

  • ‘I’ve never had so much fun learning about climate change!’
  • ‘This game makes me feel empowered to go out and do something.’
  • ‘After playing this game, my 12-year old daughter decided to start an online business in sustainability.’
  • ‘I came up with my climate startup idea by playing this game.’
  • ‘This game is intense. You feel the constant pressure of climate change knocking, never a dull moment!’

My goals:

  • For people who don’t know climate solutions well, teach them
  • For people who know climate solutions well, provide a guided outlet for creativity and brainstorming
  • For people who just want to have fun and play with climate change
  • Learning about the magnitude of the climate problem and what’s needed to solve it

Early on, a friend asked me if I had played Terraforming Mars, a game about causing climate change on Mars. I went out and bought it the next day. When I opened the box, my friends teased me because I would just go through the card deck and exclaim at every few cards: ‘this card is so awesome!’ or ‘look at this card!!!’

Some of my favorite cards from the Terraforming Mars board game

The cards in Terraforming Mars are creative and magical. However, when playing, I was incredibly disappointed that no one cared to read out the cards when playing them. They would completely ignore the magic of the card, and focus only on what mattered: the effects. This card does -1 this and +2 that. 

While I do absolutely love Terraforming Mars and am in no way trying criticise it, I quickly decided that I wanted my players to have the opposite experience. If you play one of the magical climate solutions in my game, you will need to not only engage with the card, you’ll need to think critically about it.

Rather than the words on my cards being ‘filler text’, they would become the most important part. But asking people to discuss the text on a card isn’t really a game mechanic – it’s homework. For people to care, there needed to be an incentive within the game to not only have a discussion, but to actually care enough to really think about the card and have the best discussion possible. This is where using the groundbreaking research of Project Drawdown became a huge strength. Since they analyzed the solutions and came up with tangible numbers, I could actually claim a ‘correct answer’ for each solution. Now, players had a reliable source to compare their discussion to. 

I printed the first prototype on cardstock and cut it out by hand. The cards were huge, Tarot-sized cards, since I needed an absolute wall of text to give people enough context on each solution to have a meaningful discussion. I tested the game over Christmas with my family, and while it was incredibly crude, it was clear that the core gameplay was fun, and my family, who didn’t have any particular background in climate, thoroughly enjoyed having an excuse to discuss the solutions.

The very first Solutions prototype – man, those cards are HUGE!

While the game evolved greatly since then, the core gameplay has remained the same. 

The next challenge was to cut down the wall of text on each card – they took too long to read and really slowed down the game. It took thousands of hours to condense the pages of research material on each solution into 20-30 words on a card, while still retaining enough meaning to allow players to think deeply about each solution. I couldn’t have done it without my amazing girlfriend who spent many patient hours reviewing the cards with me. 

Reducing the massive hunks of text on each card to fit on a standard poker-sized card was a ‘sizeable’ improvement.

With countless revisions, well-deserved criticism, and well over 500 playtesters, the game is finally ready for the world.

Here are three of the larger evolutionary steps between prototypes. More improvements are coming soon! Expect the mini cards to get a makeover.

I hope it generates meaningful discussions about an important topic in a lighthearted way, all while having fun. I also hope it will inspire meaningful climate action, which I will write about in the next post…