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!

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.

Throughout the pilot year (2018-19) we evaluated uptake, engagement and learning gains for Biology undergraduates at York, and results from the pilot studies will be linked here as soon as they are available. In the meantime, 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. Please let us know how you're using it by getting in touch, through this website or via social media.