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The quantum realm comes to life in a fast-paced new board game

Subatomic: An Atom Building Game

John Coveyou
Genius Games
2018
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The rise in popularity of tabletop board games as a mainstream adult hobby has introduced players to a correspondingly wide breadth of unlikely subjects, from exploding cats to top-secret chili recipes (thankfully not in the same game) (1, 2). Following the notion that no subject is off limits in board gaming, Subatomic sets out to add particle physics and chemistry to the milieu.

Despite its modestly sized box and kid-friendly artwork, Subatomic is more complex than appearances suggest. It incorporates an impressive array of different game-play mechanisms, not to mention components: 135 cards and 93 wooden, glass, and cardboard pieces. Players compete for the highest score by racing to build various elements from protons, neutrons, and electrons and claiming the corresponding element card.

The points earned match the atomic number of each element. For example, claiming a boron card earns a player 11 points, whereas a helium card only yields a measly 4 points. But, as the heaviest element available, boron requires the most protons and neutrons to build.

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Therein lies one of many strategic decisions that a player faces in Subatomic: Should I try to build heavier atoms to earn more points or focus on lighter atoms and end the game early by being the first to collect five elements? Only three element cards are available at any one time, which further fosters competitive spirit.

The subatomic particles used to build elements are gained through the game’s main deck-building mechanism. Each player begins with a starter deck containing the smallest subatomic components: up quarks, down quarks, and photons. Players can use the right combinations of these cards to purchase proton, neutron, and electron cards. On each turn, a player’s hand can be used to purchase more subatomic resource cards, to build an atom, or to create energy, the latter of which is required for various actions.

Careful deck management becomes key for long-term success; every subatomic card that is added will cycle through a player’s hand many times because the deck is reshuffled when all of the cards have been played. Players must therefore determine when they have purchased just the right amount of protons, neutrons, and electrons in order to build the elements they desire. Building a well-balanced deck is no easy feat, and this challenge is what will galvanize players to revisit this game again and again.

Appropriately enough, real scientists make an appearance in Subatomic. “Scientist” cards can be purchased within the game and added to one’s deck, providing powerful special abilities when drawn. Most players will recognize Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, but by including other eminent historical figures, such as Paul Dirac and Maria Goeppert Mayer, the game provides an opportunity for nonscientists to learn about other influential scientists and their contributions.

Genius Games, LLC

Dirac, for example, is cleverly featured on the game’s main board itself, describing both his pioneering concept of annihilation and the identically named game mechanism. In Subatomic, annihilation is an action that allows players to permanently remove two cards from their deck, simulating the collision and resulting disappearance between a particle and its antiparticle. This clever integration of real science and game play is arguably Subatomic’s greatest strength.

For those who are unfamiliar with up quarks or only have the foggiest memory of how photons are related to electrons, fear not: An accompanying booklet—“The Science Behind Subatomic”—defines various terms, describes how they are used in the game, and reveals how the underlying concepts affect our lives. Thus, the game achieves pedagogy over pedantry by covering simpler concepts in game play while providing greater detail in a separate, accessible resource.

Overall, Subatomic sets a strong standard for future board games co-opting scientific themes, introducing a potentially intimidating topic (atoms and what they are made of) through intuitive game play. In the end, even young players will likely be able to understand that the game boils down to bringing various parts together to make a whole.

References

  1. Exploding Kittens (The Oatmeal, 2015).

  2. The Great Chili Cookoff (Jolly Roger Games, 2006).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.