Friday, April 22, 2011

The Healing Blade

by Randy

Hey, everyone! The kids are all tucked in and I wanted to hop on and share some feedback on a game I was able to try out. Are you interested in hearing about it? Good! The game in question is The Healing Blade from Nerdcore Learning, who were kind enough to provide a review copy when requested. I think you'll find the game fascinating; I do. Want to know why? Read on!

The Healing Blade is a game about battling infectious diseases. Yes, you read that right. It is a two player game where one side plays the Lord of Pestilence (the diseases) and another plays the Apothecary Healers (the medicinal agents for countering the diseases). It was developed by two medical doctors who also happen to be gamers, Francis Kong and Arun Mathews. From what I've read, it is growing in popularity with medical students.

When I first heard about this, the first thing I thought of was an academic paper my wife had ran across and told me about by Richard Steinman and Mary Blastos called "A trading-card game teaching about host defence" from 2002. The paper concluded concluded that the game was super-effective for teaching the concepts. The two are unrelated, to my knowledge, but share the same conceptual space. Both the game in the paper and The Healing Blade are games... that teach. But on to this game.

It's a beautiful game. It has high-quality components, and great art. There are 20 green glass beads included to track the energy resource used, ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Each player has a full-color playmat. And most of the 90 cards have unique art. The art is definitely worth mentioning here... it would definitely hold its own against Magic: The Gathering art. Gorgeous illustratiuons. Altogether, a very impressive set of components.

And then... the cards. Okay, here is where the diseases come in. Each Lord of Pestilence card has the full scientific name of the disease (Streptococcus pneumoniae or Helicobacter pylori, as examples), its abbreviated common name (S. pneumoniae, H. pylori) and a fantasy-style piece of art that represents it, plus flavortext that puts a magical spin on its real-world effect. Each Apothecary Healer card has the name of a medicine (ie, Doxycyclene) and its own art and flavortext. Aside from a small font, they are very well put together.

As for gameplay... let's say that this was the funnest study session I've ever had on infectious diseases. Which is to say that as a game, the mechanics do leave a little to be desired. The rules are pretty concise and simple, but in playing we found a couple situations not covered in the rules. For instance, as the Lord of Pestilence, I found my hand of cards clogged with high-cost diseases that I was unable to play. The result was that my Apothecary Healer opponent was able to build up and have a healer combatant that could counter most diseases I could play. It could have just been a bad run, and I noticed on their site a rules revision is in progress. So... the current gameplay isn't tight, mechanics-wise... but as I see it, that's not an issue. Because mechanics are not the point.

What this game represents is a great step in the right direction for games that teach. If I were a medical student, I would absolutely love this game. This beats the heck out of a dry textbook. Granted, it doesn't replace the textbook, but it is a great supplement that presents the material in a way that activates different parts of the brain. This would be a great supplement to a class on pathogens. It slaps a fun theme on the subject of infectious diseases and how to fight them, and runs with it. I hands-down recommend this for any med student out there. For gamers? Not so much. But keep your eye out: the next rules revision may very well put this mechanically closer to the games we play just for fun. I suspect we may start seeing more hobby-quality games whose primary purpose is to help us learn. And I like that!

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