In brief: Catastrophic is a card game (1) designed to support joyful learning in the biosciences, (2) aimed at students 16+ to undergraduate level, but (3) awesome fun for all ages to play! Just make sure you agree to stay friends with your opponents once the game is over...

Example of four of the card illustrations.


Catastrophic is designed to help players make connections across large spatial and temporal scales in biology. Plant and Animal Trait cards (e.g. thick waxy cuticles and evaporative heat loss) help Species to withstand environmental Conditions that they must face in an onslaught of Events such as global warming, drought and habitat fragmentation. Interaction cards help players to support their community of Species through reproduction (by using the pollination card, or perhaps cross-breeding), protection (e.g. with the Doomsday Vault), collaboration (e.g. reciprocal altruism and obligate mutualism) or stab other players in the back with cheating, brood parasitism, predator ecesis and more.

A (not very) Catastrophic Story

Catastrophic arose from a desire to support the length and breadth of a large module in Stage 1 Biology at the University of York, and to stimulate discussion, engagement and excitement about course content without adding more formal teaching or assessment.

Catastrophic has been developed through a collaboration led by Dr Pen Holland (Biology) with Dr Kerry Knox (Education) and Dr Ben Kirman (Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media) at the University of York. Much of the credit for version 1.0 (2018) goes to a team of five undergraduate summer students working with the Biology Teaching and Learning Exchange (BTLE) and the Digital Creativity Labs (DC Labs). Thanks to another two TFTI undergraduate students on the DC Labs summer school, version 2.0 (2019) had a total artistic makeover with bespoke illustrations across the deck. The concepts of population and evolution have also been separated to improve gameplay, using Population Tokens crafted in the Department of Biology workshops.

Each card includes some flavour text, to elaborate on a biological fact. But learning is reinforced through the game mechanics, rather than just information on the cards. Tough skin? Any Animal species with that Trait is able to withstand parasite invasion. Shallow root systems? Plant species with this Trait are well adapted to cold conditions, so are better able to cope when the Ice Age Event card turns up. Continental Drift? Continents move relative to each other, exposing species to new conditions and resources. Players' hands are passed to the left, exposing everyone to new conditions and resources.

Future Directions

The Catastrophic project continues, involving co-production between students and staff. After initial development and launch in 2018-19, Catastrophic 2.0 was co-produced with two interactive media students in summer 2019, with support from one of the original student developers, and launched in 2019-20. Additional cards are being created by current module students through a related assessment, while a number of biology undergraduates who used Catastrophic 2.0 in 2019-20 developed their own ‘expansion packs’ of additional cards, indicating support and enthusiasm for the game. We're working on some really exciting ideas for expansion in the future, supported by our crowd funding project on the University of York YuStart platform in June 2022.

Catastrophic has been successful in terms of student engagement and perspectives. Engagement with the game remained high during 2018-19 with more than half of the 200+ strong cohort claiming expansion packs that were made available throughout the year. Positive comments in module feedback related to Catastrophic supporting different ways of revising, being motivating and engaging, and (crucially) helping students to understand links between topics. The game will remain a central part of teaching in animal and plant biology at our institution for the foreseeable future, and is also being played elsewhere, with copies sent to colleagues at two UK universities for testing, and others downloading cards from the website for printing around the world. We even made a digital version on Tabletopia to facilitate play during remote/socially distanced learning in 2020-2021, which you can play via our Play Online links.

We want you to play Catastrophic too - you can download the latest cards or go into the archive, and play for education or for fun. Watch this space for news on availability of the printed game, and please let us know how you're using it by getting in touch, through this website or via social media.