Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Quick Review - Ion: A Compound Building Game - Kickstarter Preview

Ion: A Compound Building Game
Designer: John Coveyou
Publisher: Genius Games
Quick Review - Ion: A Compound Building Game

As a homeschooling family that loves both science and games, educational science games are right up our alley.  Unfortunately many educational games are just trivia or 'flash card' type questions mashed up with stale roll-and-move mechanics.  So when we find games that purport to be equal parts educational experience and game, we jump on it!

I was fortunate enough to receive a prototype copy of the newest game from John Coveyou and Genius Games, Ion: A Compound Building Game.  If you aren't familiar with John and Genius Games, be sure to check them out.  Ion is the third game in John's collection of science based games.  His first game, Linkage, teaches about DNA Transcription and was listed in Popular Science's list of 10 Best Things for February 2015.  The second game, Peptide, teaches about RNA to Protein Translation and had a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall.  John Coveyou was also involved in the hugely successful Tesla vs. Edison game as well, although not through his Genius Games company.  Ion: A Compound Building Game is all about bonding ions at the atomic level to create more complex compounds and is Genius Games' latest game to hit Kickstarter.  The campaign launches on April 8th here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/geniusgames/ion-a-compound-building-game

UPDATE: Ion has successfully funded!  Congratulations to Ion for successfully funding in less than 24 hours!  The game has already added a number of stretch goals and is well on its way to adding more!  Read my review of the base game below, but be sure to read my UPDATE that includes information on how some of these stretch goals change the game.


So, how does Ion stack up as both an educational tool and a game?  Well, let's start by explaining a bit about the components and how to play.
Set up and ready to play Ion: A Compound Building Game.

The game, as I received it, contains 47 charged ion cards (representing ions like Chloride, Hydrogen, Fluoride, Potassium, Magnesium, etc.) and 18 noble gas cards (Helium, Neon, and Argon).  There are also 8 sets of three action tokens and 7 compound goal cards.  The element cards include a representation of the element's atomic structure as well as game critical information.  The only flavor text on the element cards tells the type of element (e.g. Halogen, Alkali Metal, Noble Gas).  The prototype compound cards have no artwork, but they do have flavor text that tells a little about each compound.  The prototype action tokens only have functional text and a simple graphic of an atom.  While the artwork on the prototype cards is sufficient, the final game will have much nicer artwork, including pictures of what the compounds are used for.
Elements, Compound Goals, and Action Tokens make up the game.
The final artwork on the cards will be much more visually attractive.
Elements show even more detail in the atomic structure, compounds
show what the compound is used in, and everything pops!

Playing the Game

So, how does the game play?  The core mechanic in the game is card drafting.  The secondary mechanic is matching.  Each player starts with a hand of 8 cards and will choose an element (ion) card to add to their tableau and then pass the rest to the player on their left.  After the first turn each element card can either be bonded (matched) to an already played ion in an effort to build a balanced compound (i.e. matching negatively charged ions with positively charged ions to create neutral compounds) or played unbonded (on its own) in the hopes of being able to bond it to something else later.  The only exceptions to this are the noble gas cards, which are already balanced and can't be bonded to any ions.  Play proceeds until each player has a hand of three cards to choose from.  The player then chooses one card and discards the two remaining cards.  Then the player's tableau is scored (each element card has points on it and players score for all balanced compounds they have created).  Then all the cards are cleared away, shuffled, and the whole process is repeated two more times for a total of three rounds.  The winner is the player with the most points.
Two Sodium Chloride compounds are bonded and Fluorine
is waiting for an ion to bond with.

To mix things up a bit, though, there are compound goal cards and three action tokens that each player has.  There are 2 or 3 compound goal cards laid out in each round that give you bonus points if you are able to construct one or more compounds.  These allow for a few choices when playing cards, other than just choosing a card from your hand.  You can work towards compounds that will give you extra points or use an action token to select two cards from your hand, get an extra card from a set of four laid out in the middle of the table at the start of each round, or initiate a reaction.  But the action tokens must be used sparingly.  Each action token gives you an added benefit, but also costs some negative points, and each can only be used once per game.

That's it for gameplay.  It's a very simple drafting and matching game with a few common goals.  I taught the game to my family in about 5 minutes (ok, about 15 after my wife spent 10 pulling out chemistry books and explaining to my 8 and 5 year old boys what ions and compounds are).  The game played fairly quick, with each round taking about 5-10 minutes and even that would have been even quicker without the interruptions of a dog that had to go out, then in, then out, and in again.  The game can easily be taught to a group of students and played during the course of a single class period.
I scored 18 points this round for my two noble gas cards, Hydrochloric
Acid, and Hydrogen Fluoride.  Plus 5 points for building both acids
on the compound goal card netted me 23 points in this round.

The Review - be sure to read my UPDATE that includes information on how some of these stretch goals change my opinion of the game.

So, was it educational?  Somewhat.  It was a very basic introduction to ionic bonding and building compounds.  And the compound cards do have a nice explanation about what each compound is (e.g. HF - highly corrosive acid that can dissolve glass, and many types of metals and plastics.).  But the compounds that you create are very simple; HCl, NaCl, KOH, etc.  The most complex compounds are alkaline earth bases like Mg(OH)2 and alkaline earth salts like Ca(F)2.  So yes, the game teaches the basics of ionic bonding, but doesn't go too far.  It's a fun alternate to your traditional educational game and has a mechanic that most students probably won't be familiar with, which will make it more interesting in a classroom environment than your typical trivia type educational game.  But it's not going to be a great teaching aid for more than one or two lessons on basic ionic bonding principles.  Once the topic advances to polyatomic ions, more complex compounds, and balancing complex equations the usefulness of the game as a teaching aid will quickly be surpassed.

However, there will be some stretch goals in the Kickstarter campaign that will be able to help extend the life of the game in the classroom.  I was unable to preview any of the additional features these stretch goals will add to the base game, but adding in polyatomic ions, radioactive elements, and a ph scale.  These should add in a lot more advanced concepts, as well as more player interaction and game complexity, hopefully in easy to explain increments so that the game can grow as the educational subject matter advances.
Cards have a minimal amount of educational flavor.  Maybe atomic
weights or some other facts about the elements would be useful.

But was it fun?  Yes, we had fun playing.  The game moved quick enough that it kept both of my boys engaged.  My 5 year old doesn't do well with a lot of player downtime and since there really isn't any downtime (especially when you're the slowest one at making the decision of which card to play) this really kept him engaged, plus it was easy enough for him to pick up almost immediately.  However, I can see the core game getting old pretty quickly.  There is very little player interaction and very little decision making in the game.  It really played as if each player was playing a solitaire game of matching.  Cards are either going to match or they aren't.  Everyone is aiming to build the same goal compounds and there are generally enough cards to go around that each player is going to be able to build one or two of the goals without any trouble.  There really weren't any synergies between the cards and none at all between players unless someone decided to play a reaction token.  But even then the reaction only applies at the end of a round and only to unbonded ions that opposing players weren't going to score points for anyway.

My Thoughts - be sure to read my UPDATE that includes information on how some of these stretch goals change my opinion of the game.

So I guess overall I was disappointed in the game.  Yes it's a different type of educational game.  Yes it has more 'gamer' elements in it than your typical educational game.  But it was very light, very simple, and not deep at all in the subject matter or game complexity.  I think my biggest disappointment though is that the game could be so much more.  When I first read the description I had high hopes for the game, and after playing it I still think it has some great potential.  But as it is now it falls way short of what it could be.  Hopefully the stretch goals will change that by adding more complexity and more player interaction, but unfortunately they weren't in the game that I tested and will only be in the final version of the game if some stretch goals are reached.
All the game boiled down to was matching + and - symbols on cards.

What do I think could make it better?  I'd love to see improvements to the mechanics and depth of strategy to the game included from the get-go.  I love the idea of having to build compounds using ionic building blocks.  But each round is essentially the exact same thing.  There is no sense of building toward a bigger goal.  Other drafting games like 7 Wonders grow in complexity each round, allowing you to lay a foundation early in the game, and then build on that in later rounds.  Cards have interactions that give you additional abilities.  What you build depends on what your neighbors are building, so you want to keep an eye on both what you are getting and what you are passing to your neighbors.  The base game of Ion has none of that.  For the most part I couldn't care less about what my neighbor is building.  I know they're trying to make the same matches I am, so if I can grab a card that benefits me I'll grab it.  It all comes down to the luck of a random distribution of cards.  The end score would be pretty much the same if we just turned 32 cards face up and let players take turns selecting one at a time until each player had chosen 6.  Even as a filler or opener game on game night, Ion is too simple to have much replayability.  I don't see it getting to the table more than once or twice outside of a classroom.

The game has so much potential though.  It's a great idea, but it just feels underdeveloped (or maybe oversimplified from a bigger game).  I understand the desire to keep it simple enough to teach in a few minutes in the classroom, but I'm not sure that's absolutely necessary.  Maybe the classroom environment has changed in the 20+ years since I was in high school, but in my history classes we played games like Avalon Hill Civilization and Diplomacy.  They were complex, took a really long time to play (many class periods - the boards would be set up for months), and had everyone absolutely fascinated and engaged.  I don't think Ion aims to be that type of game, but somewhere in between I would think would be a great bridge between quick, overly simplistic educational games that don't leave the classroom and more complex gamer games that people want to play at home with family and friends, too.

Even something as simple as giving each player their own compound goal to work toward each round, instead of having shared goals, would increase the player interaction immensely.  Then I'd have more of a decision to make.  Do I grab this Hydrogen to make HCl, which will give me a bonus, or should I grab the Sodium to make NaCl, which won't give me a bonus, but will prevent my neighbor from making NaOH to get their bonus...  Or maybe bigger changes could incorporate different sets of cards for each round so you could keep your tableau out after each round and work toward bigger and more complex goals.  You could have basic ions in round 1 so you can work on building either simple compounds that you score that round, or unbalanced polyatomic ions that you won't score in round 1, but will help you build much more complex compounds for bigger scores in later rounds.  Have interactions with other players' compounds, too.  Maybe an element you play reacts with a compound that a neighbor has built.  Play Mg and your neighbor's two HCl compounds react to create MgCl2 and H2.  Maybe if reactions are exothermic you get bonus points, or if they're endothermic your opponent loses points.  The stretch goals might add some of this depth and interaction, but I really wish there was more of it in the core game.
The third game in Genius Games' set of educational science games.

There's a lot of potential in Ion that's been untapped.  I'd love to see something bigger and better come of this.  I'd love to see science based educational games that can bridge the gap from classroom to game group, but as it is, Ion isn't that game.  It might get there, but it's not there yet.  Unfortunately I can't recommend the game to hobby gamers, which makes me really sad because I was so looking forward to the game.  For educators, this is a decent game to grab and add to your collection.  Good educational science games are pretty rare and Ion incorporates basic ionic bonding concepts in a game that is quick, simple, and different.

As I said, I love science and I love games.  I like what John Coveyou has been doing to merge science education and gaming, but I feel this one falls short or its potential.  It's good for the classroom, but out of the classroom it'll likely need the stretch goals.  With just a little more depth it could be really great.  Here's to hoping it gets there.


UPDATE: Ion has successfully funded!  Congratulations!
As I mentioned above in my original review, there were a number of stretch goals slated for the game.  These stretch goals were necessary, in my opinion, to push Ion over the threshold to be both a good educational game and gamers game.  And I'm SUPER HAPPY TO REPORT that Ion has reached a whole bunch of stretch goals and is poised to reach a few more before the end of the campaign! These are just what this game needed to make it a good buy for both educators and gamers.  So what are the stretch goals that have been hit?
Target Acquired: Radioactive Elements Expansion in in our sights!
Well, achieved within the first few days were stretch goals for a Noble Gas Goal Card (which was in my prototype copy) and a Neutralization Goal Card.  The Noble Gas card gives players an additional bonus for collecting sets of Noble Gas elements.  The Neutralization Goal Card gives players a bonus if they are able to create both an Acid and Base.

Reached shortly after were stretch goals for Polyatomic Ions and Transition Metals.  Polyatomic Ions are more rare than the other ions, but if you manage to make bonds with them you have the option to score points or flip back over an action token.  Transition Metals have two sides, each with a different charge.  Players can choose which side of the card to use for different amounts of points.  These both add some new mechanics to the game, which adds more depth and complexity.  They're not huge game changers, but they do add enough to give more choice and allow for varied strategies.

More recently a stretch goal for additional Noble Gas cards was reached, which really only affects the rarity of those cards, bu doesn't change the play much.  And almost acquired is a stretch goal for better quality components by having a linen finish on all the cards.  Again, this isn't really a game changer.  But the next stretch goal after that is a HUGE GAME CHANGER!

At $50,000 funded Radioactive Elements Expansion will be added to Ion!  This is a big addition to the game, thus there's a pretty high threshold to get it funded (it actually adds enough to the game that it's pushed into the next cost level for shipping, so the game has to be funded enough to compensate for that).  Radioactive Elements are just what I was hoping for in Ion.  They're elements that stay with players even after the current round.  They allow players to score or lose points based on the number and type of radioactive elements they acquire throughout the course of the game.  So there is some more long-term strategy involved.  I'm not clear on all of the details and mechanics for the radioactive elements (Do they affect other elements?  Can they be bonded with anything else?  How do half-lives come into play?), but having long term decisions will definitely add to the depth of the game.

So, in the course of weeks Ion went from a game that I was hesitant to recommend to anyone but the biggest Chemistry fans and some educators to a game that I'm excited about adding to my own collection.  It's still a casual game and won't appeal to those looking for a deeply strategic game, but it's turning into a great casual filler game that incorporates solid science, which is a huge win in my book!  So, get over to the Kickstarter page for Ion today and back it!  I really want to make sure we hit that Radioactive Elements expansion stretch goal!

Preliminary Rating: 
For Educators: 7/10 8/10
For Gamers: 5/10 (higher if stretch goals are hit) 7/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

Can I recommend Ion: A Compound Building game to gamers?
Unfortunately the answer is "Na" "YES!!!"  It should be a great addition
to science classrooms, too.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  First Play Impression reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first time playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! I actually Kickstarted this game and I have not played it yet. I'm a chemistry teacher, board game nut & designer. I'm always looking something different to do with my students in class. I Kickstarted this game because I thought it would be a great way to introduce my students to balancing ionic compounds (it would scare you if knew how many students have trouble with this). It beats fill out worksheets. Anyway, I haven't played the game yet but your review pretty much encapsulates my first impression of the game. I'm not expecting a very deep game, just one that makes learning fun. I have been working on creating games for my classroom for about 4 years now and it can be very tricky. I think it might be harder than mainstream games because as there is "the desire to keep it simple enough to teach in a few minutes in the classroom" and at the same time keeping the students engaged. This can be tricky because if you make it too complicated students will be turned off (this generation is all about instant gratification) and if you make it too easy then students become bored. Based on your review, I think John may have it that sweet spot. Thanks, Dan