Habitable: More than just a game

25. October 2023

What makes a planet habitable? How do you keep it habitable, how do you develop life, and what strategic decisions put it in danger? Astrophysicists at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) have tackled these existential questions to playfully test the habitability of planets. The result is a board game that combines astronomy and the climate crisis. The international team was awarded a prize for the idea in a competition for the German Science Year “Our Universe” 7 months ago. Now the online version of the game is available worldwide and free of charge. The prototype of the board game will be completed soon.

Members of the Habitable team during a press presentation (f.l.t.r.: Eva Laplace, Vincent Bronner, Jan Henneco, Dandan Wei (Photo: HITS)
Members of the Habitable team during a press presentation (f.l.t.r.): Eva Laplace, Vincent Bronner, Jan Henneco, Dandan Wei. Photo: HITS

“Just one year after the initial idea, we are happy and relieved to have reached the home stretch,” says astrophysicist Eva Laplace, on whose idea the game is based. She is a postdoctoral researcher in the Stellar Evolution Theory research group (SET) and member of the Habitable team. Together with her colleagues Dandan Wei, Jan Henneco, Duresa Temaj, Vincent Bronner, Rajika Kuruwita, Simon Speith and Julian Saling, she developed “Habitable”, which explains the habitability of planets in an entertaining way and at the same time draws attention to the critical state of the Earth. In the process, the researchers benefited from their passion for board games. “A lot of heart and soul goes into it,” says Vincent Bronner, a PhD student in the research group. “Without the personal commitment of all team members, such a complex game would never have come about.”

The target groups for Habitable, in which players can explore exoplanets and create a habitable planet, are families, game fans, astronomy enthusiasts and educators, who have been able to test the game extensively during various events organized by the team and have repeatedly provided valuable suggestions for improvement through their feedback.

The online version is now available worldwide at this link and can be played free of charge for one year:  https://tabletopia.com/games/habitable
Playing the game, people can interact and give feedback on the Discord platform. The group also produced a game rules booklet in English and German that explains the rules of “Habitable”, and an explanatory video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/LytHF-71OTE

In search of habitable planets

The Habitable Game (detail). Photo: HITS

What is the scientific background behind “Habitable”? Jan Henneco, a doctoral student in the SET group, explains the scientific background of the game: “To date, more than 5,000 planets have already been discovered orbiting other stars in the universe, so-called exoplanets.” So far, so exciting. “But only some of them are in a specific region called the habitable zone”, says HITS Independent Postdoc Rajika Kuruwita. “In our own solar system, there are three planets within the habitable zone, but there is only one planet known to host life: our Earth.”

However, humans are changing the average temperature and other important properties of our planet through their way of life – a real threat to the habitability of the Earth. So the basic question for the players is: How do you keep a planet habitable, how do you develop life, and what strategic decisions put it in danger?

“Our goal is that families and friends can enjoy a fun game that inspires its players to think about climate change, the habitability of our planet and humankind’s impact on it”, says team member Dandan Wei, a postdoctoral researcher in the SET group.

An award-winning idea

With the idea of a board game in mind, the HITS astrophysicists applied to the competition of Wissenschaft im Dialog (WiD) for the German Science Year 2023 “Our Universe.”  At the beginning of the year, they received funding of 10,000 euros to implement their idea. The scientists first acquired theoretical knowledge about the design, structure and possibilities of board games in a workshop with an experienced game developer. Then they developed “Habitable” step by step with game test events at HITS and elsewhere. The prototype of the board game will soon be completed and professionally printed.

The game: Competition and cooperation

In this strategy game for three to five players, the aim is to make planets sustainably habitable and to enable and develop life on them.  Whoever achieves the most “life points” at the end is the winner. However, the players can also cooperate and support each other. What distinguishes “Habitable” from many other board games is that it is based entirely on scientific findings – from astronomy, but also from climate research.

Habitable Team Contact:
Dr. Eva Laplace
Stellar Evolution Theory group (SET)
Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies

Media Contact:
Dr. Peter Saueressig
Head of Communications
Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS)
Phone: +49-6221-533-245

About HITS

HITS, the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, was established in 2010 by physicist and SAP co-founder Klaus Tschira (1940-2015) and the Klaus Tschira Foundation as a private, non-profit research institute. HITS conducts basic research in the natural, mathematical, and computer sciences. Major research directions include complex simulations across scales, making sense of data, and enabling science via computational research. Application areas range from molecular biology to astrophysics. An essential characteristic of the Institute is interdisciplinarity, implemented in numerous cross-group and cross-disciplinary projects. The base funding of HITS is provided by the Klaus Tschira Foundation.

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