Using Board Games to Teach Science: Carbon City Zero

Next up, in this board game series about how board games can be used to teach science (to children’s adults and families alike), is the environmentally conscious deck builder, Carbon City Zero. If you’ve not seen the series before, then you can find out more about it here, and if you missed the last one about Covalence, then you can always go back and read about it here.

Carbon City Zero is deck builder (mostly cooperative) where the aim is to reduce your carbon emission levels to zero. You have 9 or 10 rounds to get your carbon tracker down to zero and achieve a carbon neutral state, otherwise you will all lose collectively (the competitive mode plays slightly differently). The game has a lot of mechanisms that are similar to other small deck builder games, such as Star Realms, Hero Realms and Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne, but it adds in some extra mechanisms and ways of playing that significantly enhance the thematic factor of the game.

Scientist’s Perspective

Carbon City Zero is not the most science heavy game out there (or in this series), but its not intended to be. While there are a lot of scientific factors that go into both producing carbon and removing it from our atmosphere, there are also a range of other societal factors that play a key role in our carbon footprint. So, while the game does bring some clear scientific elements to the table, it also showcases the political and societal impacts (both good and bad) that are also major factors in the levels of carbon that we emit to our atmosphere.

The game is very well-rounded and doesn’t lean on one area over another. The game was actually created by science communicators—Sam Illingworth and Paul Wake—so you can be sure that the scientific aspects are factual, and because it’s been designed by communicators, the different scientific aspects are also very clearly laid out – the card design is also very clean and doesn’t over complicate matters.

Fig 1. A selection of some of the scientific and political cards in the game.

Overall, from a technical perspective, the science and political/aspects are very sound and accurate, so you get an educational game without it feeling like it’s ‘educational’ because it’s been designed to not be in your face with too much flavour text and descriptions. However, by just using the cards, linking them together to offset emissions, and playing the game, you still get a feel for a lot of the different factors that need to be balanced in today’s society when we’re talking about carbon neutrality and how our actions affect our carbon emission levels.

Board Gamer’s Perspective

Anyone familiar with deck builders such as Star Realms, Hero Realms, Ascension, or any other ‘central moving market’ deck builder will understand the core mechanics of Carbon City Zero easily, at it leans heavily on them but with some interesting and thematic changes. For those who are not aware of these types of games, in Carbon City Zero, you have to build your deck up by spending money to obtain new cards from the central market (to improve your deck), while trying to offset the carbon you start with and subsequently produce, so that it reaches zero (and then you win).

The game has been designed to be cooperative, where you all win, but can be played competitively where it’s a race to zero. The game can also be played solo, where you control 2 decks – I actually think for experienced gamers, using and manipulating 2 decks makes it too easy to win, so perhaps trying with one will make it more challenging if you fall in this category (I have yet to try this approach), but for gamers who are newer to the area/less experienced, using 2 decks should provide a more balanced challenge.

Fig 2. An example of the central market during play

In terms of different mechanisms, the first interesting one is how you obtain money. In most games, the victory points/health etc (depending on the game) are separate from your money-making mechanisms (gold, trade etc), but in Carbon City Zero they are linked. So, if you want to make money to buy other cards, the primary way to do this is via factories, which also increases your carbon count (putting you further away from your goal).

It’s very thematic in this sense as it recreates society where factories are used to generate money but at the expense of the environment. While you can offset it later on once you have built more cards up (and certain link cards can also prevent carbon being produced in factories), there is definitely a sense of you have to do bad to do good in the first instance—a bit like in societal development where older technologies were worse for the environment, but newer technologies and modern ways of thinking are much better.

Another interesting aspect to the game is the addition of snag cards. These represent some of the challenges that people face from funding cuts (which is prevalent across science and other areas) to political interference. These then have negative effects on your deck from losing money to increased carbon, and many more in between. These are in the main market deck and you must take them if they come out on your turn. Now, there will be some gamers out there who don’t like this luck element, however, in cooperative mode it is not as important (in competitive, it’s a bit more unfair and luck-driven), but it does add another thematic element, as in many cases, these things in real life can also be out of your control.

Fig 3. Some of the pesky snag card that you don’t want to be added to your deck

One of the other things that is pretty novel in this type of deck builder is the implementation of rounds. Most of these types of games end when someone reaches a certain score (or zero in a battle-style deck builder), and while it is true that the game is won when the carbon level reaches zero, the game is actually lost if you don’t manage to do it in a certain number of rounds (9 or 10 depending on the level of difficulty you choose). This brings another thematic aspect to the game, as it represents that we as humans only have a limited time to bring our carbon levels down (and reduce our carbon footprint) before it’s too late and everyone loses.

There is also a limit on the amount of carbon you can reach. While you start the game on 50, the maximum you can go up to is 65. At this level, if you add more carbon to the carbon tracker, you start to lose rounds instead of increasing the carbon level. So, while it’s important to build up money in the game, you have to balance it with the carbon levels (especially early on before you get good cards), otherwise it can go downhill very quickly, as you can’t get those rounds back.

Again, the implementation of this mechanism is tied highly to the theme as it represents that carbon levels getting to ultra-high levels are going to cause a swifter downfall of the planet and that we have less time to act (something which has been showcased in the real world by global warming and climate change). So, like in the real-world, if you have too high carbon levels in the game, you will have less time to act and get your carbon levels down, making it easier and quicker to lose.

Fig 4. The starting hand, which you need to try and improve quickly before your carbon level goes too high.

Parent’s Perspective

Carbon City Zero is definitely a good option if you’re looking at a smaller and simpler deck builder to play but want something less ‘attacking’ and more friendly than the likes of Star Realms. Likewise, if you’re looking for something that brings together science, politics, and societal aspects to show how different factors are affecting our environment—from the carbon footprint of our factories to the restrictions by humans themselves—then Carbon City Zero does a great job of showcasing all these.

But it’s not all negative, and Carbon City Zero also has a positive side, and shows how new technologies, behavioural changes and sticking a word into the right people (looking at the ‘lobbying ministers’ card right here) can have a positive effect on the world and our carbon footprint.

It’s definitely a game that is family friendly, that showcases the different types of issues facing the planet, as well as a range of solutions, but doesn’t bring into play some of the more upsetting environmental issues. So, if you’re looking (as an adult or a parent) to play something that’s a bit lighter (game complexity wise) but is still educational about some of the factors affecting modern-day society (without being overbearing), then Carbon City Zero is a good choice for you.

Even if you’re not to set on the theme, the cooperative nature of the game makes it a much friendlier entry point to the deck builder space—so if you’re looking at getting yourself (or your kids) into board games or new game mechanics, the Carbon City Zero is a good entry point in this respect as well. Even though my family plays a lot of games (including a lot of deck builders), Carbon City Zero regularly hits the table as a quick game to play—especially because it has a very quick set up and tear down time—and will likely continue to do for some time.

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