Habitable planets? More than just a game

The Habitable team (l-r) - Eva Laplace, Vincent Bronner, Jan Henneco, Dandan Wei. Image: HITS

An award-winning game where players try to find planets and make them habitable has been created by an international team of astrophysicists working at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS).

Fittingly, the game is called Habitable, and the researchers - who all love board games and also care about the Earth - say it helps explain the habitability of planets in an entertaining way. The starting conditions for habitability are temperature, water and magnetism.

"To date, more than 5,000 planets have already been discovered orbiting other stars in the universe, so-called exoplanets, but only some of them are in a specific region called the habitable zone”, says HITS independent postdoctoral researcher 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."

The researchers say 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 questions for the players are - how do you keep a planet habitable, how do you develop life, and what strategic decisions put it in danger?

Habitable board game. Image: HITS

Habitable is intended for play by families, game fans, astronomy enthusiasts and educators, who will be able to explore exoplanets and create a habitable planet. Some players have already been able to test the game extensively during various events organised by the team and an online version is now available worldwide and can be played free of charge for one year. A game rules booklet is available in English and German.

Vincent Bronner, a PhD student in the research group said, "A lot of heart and soul goes into it. Without the personal commitment of all team members, such a complex game would never have come about."

The HITS astrophysicists entered the original concept into the Science in Dialogue competition - Wissenschaft im Dialog - for German Science Year 2023, which had the theme 'our universe'. At the beginning of the year, they received funding of €10,000 to implement their idea.

The scientists first acquired theoretical knowledge about the design, structure and possibilities of boardgames in a workshop with an experienced game developer. 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.

“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 Dandan Wei, another team member, and a postdoctoral researcher.

Habitable is a strategy game for three to five players, and 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 boardgames is that it is based entirely on scientific findings - from astronomy and climate research.

"Just one year after the initial idea, we are happy and relieved to have reached the home stretch," says astrophysicist Eva Laplace, who first came up with the idea.