Gut Check was created by David Coil, a self-professed 'board game nerd' and a microbiologist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis in California. Several years ago, Eisen’s lab was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant focused on science communication and engagement. In a lab meeting at the time, they found themselves discussing the shortcomings of teaching materials about microbe communities. That’s when Eisen gave Coil the go-ahead to create a game.
“We didn’t want a bunch of random microbes, with interesting facts about those microbes,” says Coil. “The structure of a game is what gets people engaged with a topic.” This led to a game in which players regularly compare their gut health, gaining points for microbes such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and losing points for pathogens. The goal: maximizing health and avoiding death (otherwise known as ‘zero health’)!
When Coil set out to create Gut Check, first and foremost, he wanted to make a good game. “I've seen a lot of educational games,” he explains. “But because I'm a board game nerd, I was usually disappointed in the game part of it. I've seen games that are beautiful, that have lots of good information, but they're not actually fun.” Yet the task of constructing a game of challenge and strategy was more intensive than Coil had anticipated.
“We went through this long process of play-testing and development,” he recalls. Early on, he would often gather a few of his labmates to play Gut Check. If they discovered an awkward play or a card combination that didn’t make sense, Coil would rework that part of the game. “That's what it takes to work out the kinks,” he says. “You have to find all permutations and possibilities, and the only way to do that is by playing over and over and over again.” For weeks on end, Coil played Gut Check daily, during lunch hour, with various members of the Eisen lab, and later on with his regular Friday night board-gaming group.
“I'm sick of the game,” Coil laughs. “I don't ever want to play again.”