[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype demo of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product may feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]
Step 1: Gather some ATP and mRNA nucleotides
Step 2: Attach an amino acid to a tRNA molecule
Step 3: Figure out what that means
Step 4: Wait, I thought there were only three steps. Did I do it? Did I do some science?
Science is an area that is greatly underrepresented in board games. There’s a rich history to draw on, look no further than The New Science which cast the players as the giants of the scientific revolution. There’s the feeling of actually being a scientist in the lab that Compounded recreates. Or if you want some adventure maybe you can save the world from disaster in Pandemic. Then there’s the nitty gritty science that borders on another underrepresented area, educational games. Peptide: A Protein Building Game takes on the challenge of being an educational science game that can make the transition from the classroom to your gaming group. I’ve got some good news for teachers and gamers alike, it succeeds in that task.
How It Plays
I’m absolutely serious when I say that Peptide puts the science of RNA Translation front and center. I don’t normally do this sort of thing but let me demonstrate by sharing the game’s objective straight out of the rulebook. This is literally the first thing that you read when you open it up. If you’re a biology buff then get ready to be really excited. Otherwise, just try your best to follow along.[plain]Players compete to link ammino acids side-by-side, forming what’s called a Peptide Chain (in biology, this process is called RNA Translation). In order to do so, players must first select from a number of available Organelle Cards. Each Organelle Card rewards players with either molecular resources or cellular actions. Molecular resources include ATP for energy and mRNA nucleotides, while cellular functions include attaching an amino acid to a tRNA molecule, matching an amino acid to its mRNA codon, or connecting an amino acid to your growing Peptide Chain.[/plain]
Reading that makes me smile every time. The thing that I love the most is how accurately that description summarizes the game. It almost sounds like someone opened up a biology text book and started reading straight out of it. This is a game about protein building in all its scientific glory. Peptide isn’t messing around, it’s true to the source material and if you play long enough (or at least read the manual) you may just learn something. Unless of course you’re already a molecular biologist. In that case you’ll feel right at home.
Luckily the gameplay itself is quite a bit easier to take in than the description. Peptide is essentially a set collection game that has you gathering RNA (cards) and matching those to Ammino Acid (other cards) in order to complete them and score points. First, let’s take a step back and look at how you’re going to go about doing this.
Recruiting Help – The Right Organelle for the Job
Over the course of the game you’ll be using Organelle cards to help gather basic resources and construct your peptide chain. These organelles have unique roles that corresponds to what they do in the actual process of RNA Translation. They can be broken up into two groups: Gatherers and Spenders.
The Gathers will help you acquire the two basic resources in the game: ATP (which lets you fuel Spenders) and RNA cards (which help you build your chain). First up are Mitochondria which simply give you 2 ATP, plain and simple. Then there are Nucleus that let you draw from a selection of available RNA cards. In between the two are Vacuole which do a little of each, providing 1 ATP and a random RNA card.
Once you’ve gathered some ATP you can fuel the Spenders. AminoAcyl cost 2 ATP and allows you to draw an Amino Acid card from the top of their deck. Each Amino Acid requires three specific RNA cards in order to complete, it could even require two or three RNA of the same type. Last up, with the most important role of all, are the Ribosome. A single Ribosome can either place an Amino Acid along with the required RNA cards next to your Peptide chain or flip over an Amino Acid that was previously played (connecting it to your chain and scoring points).
Taking Action – Putting Your Organelles to Work
Each round will begin by dealing out two Organelle cards per player to a central area. The players will then, in turn order, select from the available organelles until everyone has two. As an alternate action, one of the players may forgo taking an organelle to instead become the start player. Following this draft, players will then use the two organelle cards that they selected to gather resources and construct their chain according to each organelle’s function.
Randomly shuffled in near the bottom of the Amino Acid deck is a Stop Codon card which, when taken, signals that Translation is complete. Compare your peptide chains by adding up the points from all attached Amino Acid cards and losing points for any uncompleted ones. The player with the most impressive chain wins!
Vetran Scientists Welcome – The Advanced Game
For those seeking a more challenging experience, the advanced rules add in a restriction to the amount of ATP and RNA cards that you can have. Players are given a card that tracks their limits, starting at a maximum of 3 for both ATP and RNA. When using a Vacuole organelle card you are given a choice between its normal action or increasing the limit in one of the two restricted categories by 1.
Translating Science Into Fun?
First and foremost I’d like to talk about the educational aspect of Peptide. This is a game that can (and should) be used for its educational purpose, and it serves that purpose well, but this won’t create a barrier for enjoying the game. It’s set up to the point where you can immerse yourself in the scientific side of things: the terminology, the process of building your chain, the reason why each organelle card does what it does. These concepts can be taught and are reinforced by the game itself, the kind of thing that’s perfect for the classroom. But just as easily, everything can be abstracted and explained mechanically for any gamers that might not be so interested in getting a science lesson when they sit down at your table. The player aids clearly demonstrate what each card does and the game can be explained and played without actually using any scientific jargon (though I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to play that way). Personally, I think the game is best suited for those that already love science or are eager to actively participate in the game’s theme and perhaps learn a thing or two. Before the end of your first game you’ll be racing to grab the all important Ribosome, pivotal for its role in protein synthesis. Or perhaps you’ll be looking for Mitochondria, the cellular power plants to fuel your translation process.
RNA Translation – An Enriching Theme
Since Peptide has education in mind the mechanics are designed to support the theme, hence the theme is well integrated into the game. Everything you do makes sense from a scientific perspective and also works naturally within the context of the game – simply use organelles to build a peptide chain. When I initially read through the rules I wondered why there wasn’t any iconography on the ogranelle cards themselves. There’s a (somewhat cluttered) player aid to remind you what actions they perform but why not have those actions right on the card? It only took one game to realize that it wasn’t entirely necessary for multiple reason. First, you’ll quickly learn what the organelles do. There are only five of them and they each have a clear and distinct image that you will gradually associate with their actions. Once you’ve used an organelle a couple of times or anxiously waited for them to show up during the initial draft it should become second nature. Still, I can see how it would be helpful to have a reminder on the card itself rather than having to form that association through repetition. But forming that association is part of the educational nature of the game or, if you want to look at it another way, thematic immersion. When you’re low on ATP you’ll be watching for a Mitochondria and you’ll know exactly what it looks like. Hey wait, you just learned what Mitochondria’s role in RNA Translation is! It’s still a bit abstracted but if you couldn’t name an Organelle before playing Peptide then you’ll probably leave your first game knowing at least at little more.
Simple Rules For a Teachable and Accessible Game
One of the reasons why you’ll learn what each organelle does (mechanically and thematically) so quickly is because Peptide has an incredibly simple rule set. It’s essentially an action drafting, set collection game. The Amino Acid cards tell you which RNA to collect. Then simply gather ATP to acquire, complete, and add those Amino Acids to your chain. Each attached Amino Acid is worth points at the end of the game. That’s all you need to know to get started. This makes for an incredibly easy to teach and accessible game. Your goal is clear and how you’ll set about achieving it is straightforward.
Yet Pepide still manages to seperate itself from the standard “collect sets of cards and spend them for points” model by including action drafting. Rather than being limited by only taking any one action per turn you are instead limited by what actions the available organelles let you perform. Things end up being a bit more tactical because you can’t plan out specifically what order you’ll be taking your actions.
The Surprising Depth of Flexibility and Interaction
Despite the fact that you can’t control exactly what actions show up the game provides flexibility of choice and interaction. During the organelle draft for instance, you have several options to consider if the organelle that you wanted isn’t out. You can spend ATP to clear out the organelles and deal out new ones. You can become the start player and have first choice of organelle cards next round. Or you can select any card and simply take 1 ATP instead. All three of those options provide a form of interaction with the other players. Two of them can be used to deny the other players the actions that they want (by flushing or taking them) and the other one alters the turn order. The alternate uses for ATP provide players with incentive to stock up for added flexibility but you’ll also want that ATP for gathering Amino Acids and constructing your chain. This adds in a form of resource management and provides you with the option to push your luck if you’re desperate for a specific action (flipping up new Organelle cards) or want to conserve your ATP (using the Nucleus to draw of the top of the RNA deck rather than clearing out the available ones).
An element that I particularly liked is how the end game in Peptide is handled. I never cared much for scoring or a game end that occurs when a specific card is randomly revealed from a deck. Not knowing when scoring will occur creates uncertainty and keeps tension high but ultimately puts the game in control rather than the players. Peptide puts an interesting twist on this concept that alleviates my disdain for the game randomly deciding when it will end. There’s a Stop Codon card hidden in the Amino Acid deck that can be used to immediately end the game but it isn’t a matter of when it reaches to top of the deck, someone has to actually draw that card to trigger the game end. Since players get to look at the top two cards of the Amino Acid deck when drawing they always have the option between taking the Stop Codon card or a standard card once it reaches the top of the deck. If you decide to return the Stop Codon card then you’ll know the next player to draw an Amino Acid card will be faced with the same decision. However, the other players won’t know that this option exists until they attempt to draw an Amino Acid card. There’s still the sense of uncertainty until you actually see the Stop Codon card. The great thing is that once the Stop Codon hits the top it’s up to the players, not the game, as to when things will end.
Starting and Ending Your Chain
Although Peptide achieves a suspenseful ending that still leaves players in charge I didn’t find the beginning of the game to be quite as thrilling. Since the players start out with no ATP or Amino Acids you’ll be forced into using the Organelle Gathers before the Spenders will even be a viable option. AminoAcyl aren’t usuable in the first round unless you grab a Mitochondria first. Even worse, Ribosomes are dead cards until you can get enough ATP and RNA to collect and fulfill your Amino Acids (which takes quite a few rounds). Once you are ready to build your chain Ribosomes suddenly become the most important organelle in the game. It’s odd to have an option switch from being useless to essential over the course of the game. Luckily you still have options even when the available Organelles aren’t useful but it’s not very ssatisfying to select a useless organelle and not use it to take 1 ATP. This emphasizes the importance of selecting start player or having ATP stored up to provide better options but you don’t necessarily even have those options if you go late in the turn order during the first several rounds. I would have liked to start with some ATP or an Amino Acid so that all the organelle cards would become useful sooner. Rounds go quickly so it’s not a major complaint but it would have been nice to simply start the game at the point where things get really interesting (several rounds in).
Advanced Rules = The Real Game
I find it interesting when games include advanced rules which improve the game so drastically that I would rarely introduce someone to the game without them. Peptide falls into this camp. Unless accessibility is a priority the advanced rules should be the standard rules. I’d go so far as to suggest the standard rules be referred to as the “family” or “educational” game. The reason why the advanced rules are so critical is they provide an excellent source of tension. You now have to waste a very power action (1 ATP + 1 RNA card) in order to give yourself more flexibility down the road. Having an RNA hand limit of 3 cards is brutal when you consider that each Amino Acids requires 3 specific cards. It’s even harder when you go after the higher scoring Amino Acids that require two or three of the same RNA. This also makes it even more crucial to select exactly the right RNA card with a Nucleus which could mean spending several ATP to clear out the offering until you find what you need. The ATP restriction is less taxing but creates its own tension by making Mitochondria extremely important if you decide to leave your track at 3.
I can’t stress enough how much the simple Vacuole Track improves this game.
Conclusion – The Tactical Game of RNA Translation That You’ve Been Waiting For
Peptide proves that you can make an educational game with an underutilized theme and come out with a fantastic and fun experience. In an educational setting it can be used to teach the process of RNA Translation through the use of repetition in utilizing organelles to build your chain. At your game group you have an easy to teach and tactical game that offers a unique take on set collection and action selection. It serves as a great filler with a novel theme that science enthusiasts can get behind.
Peptide: A Protein Building Game is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter. The project will run through Tuesday, November 11th. $25 gets you all the science you can handle, it also gets you one copy of the game (within the US).
This article is a paid promotion.