Sci-Me! – A Science-Themed Board Game

Nikolas Mariani

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum has a single purpose: To provide some of the brightest minds in mathematics and computer science with the space and time to make connections and find inspiration. Some of the connections made at the HLF will echo into collaborations and projects, with some of those efforts leading to concrete developments. The HLFF Spotlight series unpacks a few of those examples.

Michal Jex is an Assistant Professor in Mathematical Physics at Czech Technical University in Prague. He first attended the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in 2014 for the 2nd HLF during his time as a PhD student, and again for the 4th HLF during his postdoc. Finally, he returned as an alumnus at the 10th HLF in 2023. He is one of the most engaged members in AlumNode, the networking community for alumni of the HLF and various programs and institutions funded by the German foundation Klaus Tschira Stiftung. We sat down with Michal to talk about the science-themed board game he has co-developed called “Sci-Me!”, in which players can simulate the everyday life of a researcher.

Part of the challenges of working in more complex fields of research is trying to effectively communicate the essence of that research to a general public – or even explaining to individuals outside of academia what the everyday life of a researcher is like. This can also be essential in interdisciplinary research, where finding common ground can be difficult when approaches, methodology and terminology might all greatly differ from one another, depending on your discipline.

Trying to find common ground between disciplines is something not unfamiliar to Michal Jex, who began his academic career by completing a full Bachelor’s and Master’s in Chemistry, as well as simultaneously earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mathematical Physics. He would go on to earn his PhD in Mathematical Physics. This puts him in an interesting role when it comes to how his colleagues see him: “To mathematicians I’m a physicist, to physicists I’m a mathematician and to chemists I’m … who the hell knows?” he tells us during our conversation.

Michal’s research is in the field of quantum physics, where he looks at many-body problems and weakly bounded states. When asked how he would explain his work in layman’s terms, Michal sums it up:

“I’m trying to describe matter from a theoretical point of view … One can think of essentially any object around us. It is composed of a lot of elementary quantum particles – or not really elementary, but protons, electrons, neutrons. They just make this huge mess when they are close and far, and they hit each other, and they interact with each other, and I am trying to make sense out of this soup of particles.”

He is employed at the Faculty of Nuclear Sciences and Physical Engineering of the university, which, he says, “is a really unfortunate name … because everybody just thinks that … you are doing nuclear reactors. So I’m always saying to people, ‘no, you really don’t want a nuclear reactor made by me.’”

While he says his academic background has helped him bridge the gap between various disciplines (“I had more tools in my toolbox”), it did not necessarily always allow him to help both sides to communicate better with each other. Particularly for mathematics, he felt that researchers outside of mathematics would often have difficulties concretely imagining what his day-to-day work might look like.

The same holds true even more so for many outside of academia, for whom it can often be difficult to picture what a mathematician spends his days with. Such a lack of insight into the scientific process can often lead to misunderstanding and misinformation around scientific results and achievements. This became especially evident during the COVID pandemic, where mistrust towards scientists and misinformation regarding the virus were rampant.

At the same time, however, Michal reflected on why scientists, even if they encounter colleagues from other disciplines, tend to trust in each other’s work: “I trust their results, because I’m convinced that they during their work do several steps which are universal … that other scientists start with certain hypotheses, and then we need to go through some series of experiments, or prove authoritative calculations to show that our hypothesis is either correct or wrong.”

He says, “I wanted to convey this message and was thinking, ‘people hate to learn new things in general’ … But if you make it the byproduct of some activity, they are usually fine with that.”

So it came that during a ‘Sciathon’ at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, which took place online due to the pandemic, Michal – along with Lena Schorr (German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg), as well as Vindula Shakthi Kumaranayake Magurawalage (University of Münster) and Mark Christian Guinto (Nara Institute of Science and Technology) – came up with the idea for the board game “Sci-Me!”. After the Sciathon, Michal and Lena continued the project and created a working prototype. The goal of the game was simple: to show the public what the daily life of a researcher was like, and have a little fun along the way.

“Sci-Me!” – A Scientist’s Life for Me

The board game puts players in the role of a researcher whose goal is to publish a set amount of papers before the other players can do so. You begin as an assistant professor with a full lab, hiring PhDs and postdocs to work for you. To pay your employees, however, you need to secure funding – this can be through either grants or patents. Certain random events can give players advantages – receiving a coveted prize, ensuring more funding in the future – or disadvantages – like having to deal with the unexpected flooding of one’s laboratory. There are occasional bits of silliness – often inspired by real life events – such as one event card that has players keep their lab employees motivated and happy by installing an ice cream fridge in the office.

Players go through all of the essential steps needed to create and publish solid research, taking into account the typical checks and balances that serve as guardrails for that process, such as having one’s work be peer-reviewed.

The “Sci-Me!” board game. Image Credits: Michal Jex

Ironically, Michal points out that developing the board game was a lot like conducting research: You have a concept and form a working prototype (read: ‘hypothesis’), then go out and test it; if you do not achieve the desired results, you adjust accordingly. Michal stresses that the feedback one gets during testing can be essential.

He notes that in playtesting the game, one of the first reactions came as part of the players’ requirement to secure funding: “When we were first at a board game fair, and we were showing the game to the first person, we found out that people don’t understand also the funding of science. ‘What do you mean? Getting money for doing research? You just do research, right? It’s for free.’”

In fact, Michal and Lena came to realize something else as well: The game did not resonate that much with a very general audience. Perhaps the process remained too arcane, too abstract, to players unfamiliar with the academic world. The groups that did respond very well were usually familiar with the scientific process in one way or another, whether that meant they were already researchers themselves or undergraduates at the beginning of their studies: “If you are really in academia, it’s fun. Because in a way, it’s your everyday life, but without the risk of actually affecting your everyday life … You can do crazy stuff without risking your position … I think if you are at the start of your potential academic career, this can really help you. ‘Hmm, do I really want to go into academia? This sounded like fun! So that might be a good idea.’”

For those immersed in an academic environment, Michal says it really resonated with them, since they felt their own experience so well represented in the game:

“What we found really fun when you play with people from academia or research is that … they start to kind of create their own personal stories, based on things they are doing on a board. For example, when you hire people, it’s like in real life. You don’t know how good they are. You might see their CV, but the CV might not tell the full story.”

“It feels like a bit of a Stockholm syndrome that you work in this environment the whole day, and then there is a free evening, and you are like: ‘Hey Let’s do it again just in a board game version.’”

Michal Jex and Lena Schorr promoting “Sci-Me!” at a board game fair. Image credits: Michal Jex

In another example of the parallels between the scientific process and developing a board game, Michal and Lena found the process of finding a publisher quite difficult:

“If you try to pitch it as educational, that’s usually game over,” Michal tells us, because publishers “are really scared of the topic,” especially if it has “limited business potential.”

“During our first pitch we started with ‘educational board game’, and then, essentially, we knew that we could just leave. During the first sentence we knew that we’d lost immediately.”

Michal explains that they very quickly learned they had to adapt and developed what he jokingly called the “’Dictionary of Forbidden Words’, or words which you might mention as a footnote on a second page of a one pager which you don’t turn around.”

So, for now at least, the target audience of “Sci-Me!” seems to be shifting more towards academic insiders. Thankfully, the game is highly adaptable itself, with numerous physical prototypes for different disciplines already developed. These stretch from an arithmetic-based edition, over physics (classical mechanics), all the way to logic and German. There is even a travel-sized version that functions as a card game.

The development of the board game was not without its obstacles. The COVID pandemic meant that Michal and Lena had to work on the project remotely. But after two years of working on it, Michal says it was a real pleasure to finally be able to meet up with Lena in person. The occasion could not have been a more joyous one: to present the finished prototype of “Sci-Me!” to the public for the first time at a board game fair.

You can learn more about the board game here. If you would like to try it out for yourself, get a friend (or several) and try out the online test version!

If you would like to reach out to Michal with any questions or comments about “Sci-Me!”, you can do so at

The post Sci-Me! – A Science-Themed Board Game originally appeared on the HLFF SciLogs blog.