Using Board Games to Teach and Communicate Science: Covalence

Here’s the first of many articles in this series dedicated to how board games can be used to teach science—including children in both an educational setting and at home, as well as the general public who want to learn more about science. With 2020 and 2021 bringing about unprecedented levels of home and alternative learning, using board games is a way of both establishing and cementing scientific concepts in a way that’s fun for the whole family.

If you missed the first article about what this series is about, then you can check it out here. The game being spoke about here today is called Covalence and is an organic chemistry themed game published by Genius Games. It’s a small and fairly portable game which on average takes about 30 minutes to play (plus a few minutes to organise the tokens). So, it’s a game you can definitely play if you’re short on time. Below, I’m going to look at the game from different points of view.

Fig. 1- The Covalence box (it’s only a small box)

In Covalence, you work as a team to build organic molecules using clues. In this game, one person acts as the clue giver and the rest act as guessers – each with their own set of molecules to deduce. The aim is to guess 4 molecules right, but you only get 5 guesses for them all, so using your clues wisely and going with your intuition are key in this game. There are a range of hard and easy molecules to deduce and there are plenty enough within the game to ensure replayability.

Scientist’s Perspective

From a scientific point of view, Covalence does a good job of introducing basic organic chemistry principles, particularly around covalent bonding. It’s also not too complex. Each molecule only has a backbone of three atoms—which are either carbon, hydrogen, or oxygen—with there being easier and harder structures to deduce (the easier ones tend to be those with fewer oxygen and nitrogen atoms as the structural positioning of the atoms are harder to predict with increasing nitrogen/oxygen counts). If you play with the built-in expansion (known as ‘The Chemist Expansion’) then chlorine gets added into the mix as well.

During the game, you position the atoms yourself, linking up the bonds between the different atom counters, and because each atom has two sides (one all single bonds and the other with a double bond) it makes it straight forward to construct a molecule—even if you’re not a scientist. Aside from building molecules, some of the clues tell you about how many electrons are involved and introduces the concept of isomerism (same molecular structure, different spatial orientation). So, with the molecules that you can make and the atoms/clues available, it is entirely possible to make a molecule that has the right chemical formula but the wrong structural formula.

I personally think it makes it an interesting way to introduce isomerism and how a chemical formula can make multiple structures, and from a scientific point of view, I think this is one of the more interesting things that has been implemented into the game. It also makes the game trickier because there are often multiple ways of orientating the molecules (especially if nitrogen or oxygen are involved). Obviously, when talking about organic chemistry, you can always go into more depth, but I think that the game strikes a good balance between being introductory enough for non-scientists and there being enough of a challenge for scientists. If the molecules were any more complex, I think that people from a non-scientific background would struggle more and the learning opportunities would be fewer.

Board Gamer’s Perspective

Covalence is a game that both gamers and non-gamers can play. If you are a ‘gamer gamer’ who doesn’t like elements of luck, then it may not be for you. However, if you’re like me who likes both luck-based and strategy-based games, or if you have an interest in chemistry, then it is something that you would likely enjoy. While it is a card game, I’d say that its mechanisms are more puzzle-like in nature and you do need to piece the ‘chemical puzzle’ together to win. The game primarily relies on deduction skills from the guesser, whereas the clue-giver needs to survey what’s already been formed and formulate the best possible clue based around the information available.

The elements of luck in the game mean that there are instances where it’s not easy to give a useful clue. Some may not like that there are times when you can do nothing, but that’s just the nature of this type of game. There are, however, different ways of mitigating this. One way is that you can give a clue from one of the two options (numbers or elements) or both. For example, if you choose the numbers 3 and 4 to make 7, you will intuitively know that it must refer to 7 hydrogen as you can’t have more than 3 carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen atoms in the molecule. Likewise, if a 2-carbon clue has already been played and then an oxygen clue is played with no number, it can only be 1 oxygen as each molecule is three atoms long (not including the hydrogens). You do also get the chance to remove some of the cards in between molecules, and draw new ones, which is useful when you have a lot of the same cards on show.

Fig. 2- An example of the types of clues you get to give in a game.

So, there are ways of mitigating the luck, and the more you play, the more you can pick up the small subtle clues and make an intuitive guess (not always – even as a chemist I still get a few ‘intuitive guesses’ wrong). If you get good at the game, The Chemist expansion can be used to increase the difficulty. It gets a lot trickier here (even for us chemists) as you don’t know if some of the hydrogens have been replaced with a chlorine (or where they have replaced the hydrogens). If you’re playing with really young children, or people who don’t know much chemistry, then you can also omit the harder molecules in the base game and just use the easy molecules to get started.

Parent’s Perspective

While it helps to have some chemistry knowledge, it isn’t essential thanks to you giving clues to each other. If you do have chemistry knowledge (even at a basic level) it will help you to fit the ‘pieces’ together easier, however, it is not necessary as you can use the clues as a guide and you will pick up the way in which the atoms fit together anyway.

From a parent’s perspective, Covalence is a great little game. It not only teaches about organic chemistry principles, from covalent bonding and molecular arrangement, it also teaches logical and critical thinking skills. On one hand, if your child is giving out the clues (which is the easier option to ease them into the game), they need to think which are going to be the most useful for the current situation and how they can best help. On the other side, they need to take the information from the clues to formulate a solution. In either case, it helps to build to logic and reasoning skills but applied to chemical principles.

So, like many board games, you can factor in the educational side with critical thinking skills. As the nature of the game is co-operative, it’s definitely less harsh if any children are more on the sensitive side. While not many of the science games are ‘take-that’ in nature, some are more competitive than others, but the cooperative nature of the game enables everyone to work together to achieve the goal, while learning about how organic molecules are built and arranged.

Fig. 3- Is it ethanamine or could it be dimethylamine? The isomerism clue will hopefully tell me if I have it right or not before I choose to use one of my guesses.

Overall, it’s a great game for scientists and non-scientists alike, and while there may be a bit more of a learning curve for non-scientists, I can guarantee that you will learn something. From personal experience, my child (who is relatively young) has picked up concepts around covalent bonding (single and double bonds), isomerism and how electrons are involved in chemical bonding—something they wouldn’t have otherwise learned at their age. So, if you have a younger child, it helps to introduce new concepts, and if they are older, then it helps to cement concepts and provide a visual representation (much like Molymod kits do) of molecular structures.

It’s definitely something I’d recommend if you want the family to work together and learn some chemistry in a fun way.

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