When did your child last give you the black plague? A fecal transplant? Mine did the other night when we played– Gut Check: The Microbiology Game. A fabulous fun, educational, and scientifically correct board game. Here’s a typical conversation:

“Mama, I’m going to give you a fungal infection.”

“That’s fine – with 4 beneficial microbes in my gut it won’t affect me.”

“hmmm – well, if I use the antibiotic tetracycline on you – you’ll lose half of your helpful bacteria – then just wait till the next round! ”

Two moves in Gut Check. Four lessons learned by my 6 year old daughter: 1) high bacterial diversity has a protective effect against pathogens, 2) the word “beneficial” means helpful, 3) not all bacteria are pathogens, and 4) antibiotics kill all bacteria – helpful and harmful.

WOAH –isn’t that just awesome?!

The beginning hands of a new family favorite.




Gut Check cards
The designs are really well done and the text is often funny, as well as informative.

We first tried out Gut Check when two friends from our PhD program days visited a few weeks ago. Granted, it’s not too hard to get 4 biologists and a 1st grader avoiding bedtime to play a microbiology based game, but it’s really fun. My husband and I have played it a few times since too. I’m printing out a copy for the IGS interactive space to see if it catches on some late Friday afternoon.

The game’s goal is to get through the intestine by building a beneficial gut microbiome and gaining “health points”. A beneficial microbiome gives you good health points when one of the 6 “Gut Check” cards is drawn. Points are also earned between “Gut Checks” during food “events”. Have Lactobacillus acidophilus in your beneficial microbiome? Play a “milk event” and gain points.

You can also lose health points and even die – as my husband and I learned one night after he gave me a pathogen, a round of antibiotics, and a fecal transplant within the first three hands of play before I’d really built up my beneficials! However, antibiotics and fecal transplants can remove pathogens, which count against your gut health during a “Gut Check” and with antibiotics you gain DNA plasmids that give you antibiotic resistance. With the antibiotic treatment you lose part of your microbiome diversity. Perhaps something to add to the game would be to gain beneficial microbiome diversity when you get a fecal transplant.

What I love about the game is that the “events”, “microbes”, and “infections” are all founded in microbiology. You’re learning about actual pathogens and their consequences. When Clostridium botulinum, which causes food poisoning, is in play, no one can play a food event. Opportunistic microbes are present that switch between being beneficial and pathogenic depending on the number of other beneficial microbes present or during “health events”. There’s even one my favorite bacteria – Micavibrio aeruginosavorus – the “vampire bacterium”. M. aeruginosavorus sucks the cytoplasm out of pathogens, thus destroying pathogenic biofilms. It and other predatory bacteria are being investigated as an alternative to antibiotics. Check out the cool photos in the biofilm paper to see what a bacterial predator can do! Of course lateral gene transfer and acquiring antibiotic resistance are just icing on the cake.

Back to the game – I could see this game being played in a diversity of different settings: Family/friend game night, lab meetings, secondary schools in class or STEM nights/science club, and university classes ranging from introductory biology classes, to ecology, and of course, microbiology classes.

The concepts taught with this game are fundamentals of biology and microbiology. Resilience of a diverse ecosystem to pathogens, opportunistic microbes, and events like antibiotics. The acquisition of microbes from environment during travel. The effects of antibiotics on microbiome diversity and function, on the evolution of resistance through plasmids, and on nosiocomal (hospital acquired) infections. The importance of microbial diversity in allowing a host to feed on a variety of foods or acquire vitamins. The amazing flexibility of bacteria to acquire new abilities, like antibiotic resistance, by transferring plasmid DNA between bacteria. Opportunistic bacteria that are beneficial when at least 4 other beneficial microbes are present and pathogenic otherwise, teach the importance of context in bacterial-host interactions. Finally, the use of fecal transplants as a method for removing pathogens is also pretty fun. I’m assuming playing that event card can lead to a few poopy words being said.

We had a lot of fun playing it and are looking forward to purchasing the actual game when it comes out. With just printing it out, it’s a little hard to shuffle the cards well. It’s really becoming a favorite at our house, though so maybe I’ll see if I can get it laminated or something. The only other downside to it was that we had a little trouble figuring out the instructions at first, but think we have it figured out now. David Coil designed the game with inspiration from Pandemic, Magic The Gathering, and Dominion. I’ve never played those games and perhaps if I had it might have been easier to understand at the beginning. Of course, after figuring it out I wanted to add on another level of complication. I’d love to add rolling a die or something along those lines to determine your birth mode and first foods (formula or breastfeeding), which then would influence your starting microbiome instead of slowly building the microbiome card by card. Maybe those could be event cards? I appreciated that in the instructions the designers specifically say that this is just a little bit of what might be going on in the human microbiome, but what they do have is based on our current understanding.

Leave it to microBEnet, the microbiology of the Built Environment network, to design an educational and fun microbiology game! microBEnet is an amazing group of scientists funded by the Sloan Foundation to study the microbiology of the built environment. Hospitals, schools, homes, airplanes, subways – different structures built and occupied by humans have their own microbiome that can influence the people living and working in them. It’s not really surprising that microBEnet would develop and produce a microbiology board game. microBEnet has two goals: 1)have microbiologists and building scientists working together, and 2) to educate the public about the microbiology of the built environment. If you’re curious, they have developed a lot of great public resources and publish all their research in “open-access journals”, so that the research is freely available for anyone to read. Jonathan Eisen, at University of California, Davis heads the group and is one of the top microbiologists communicating science to the public. He’s also a strong advocate for women in science and open access journals. Along the lines of open-access, the game is freely available for download.

Will Gut Check become the next hottest board game for every family game night? I don’t know about your house, but it’s mighty high on the list at ours. Oh yeah, and instead of the youngest player always going first, it’s the person who last ate yogurt. At the end of the first game, our daughter said, “And tomorrow morning I want some yogurt.” HA – love it!

Hope you enjoy it too.

I would love to hear what you think about it and in what context you play the game!



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