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Clone wars: A game of metastatic strategy

Are you smart enough to be a cancer cell?

Do you have what it takes to outcompete your neighbors, strategically cooperate take over the population and metastasize? In this interactive game your group or class gets to try their skills at being a cell and facing the temptation to go rogue and become cancerous. All you need is a classroom or auditorium with rows of chairs, some construction paper, a few simple rules and a few dozen participants willing to get into the fray.

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Where did this Clone Wars game come from? I invented it with Carlo Maley back in 2012 as an activity for the Evolutionary Medicine Summer School at Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory where we were both teaching about cancer evolution. I took the picture above near the end of the game play when the red clones were about to metastasize. In case you're interested, this is what Carlo and I looked like back then:

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So, how do you play? First you set up the game. Full instructions are on the google doc link below. First you start with about 10 initial players in the first row (and at least 15 on the sidelines). The players in the front row are the initial seeds for the clone. You'll give each of them a pile of unique color construction paper which they then share with their cellular offspring as they proliferate. The colored construction paper lets you keep track of all the offspring of each initial clone.

The rules are pretty simple. Basically there are two winning conditions. One is a cooperative win where everybody cooperates and coordinates to create a health uniform tissue and keep out cancerous cheaters. How often does that happen? Exactly never. At least in the times I've played it with groups. The other condition is a competitive win, where one clone team manages to invade to the back row and then escape the seats entirely, metastasizing.  It's up to the participants to play towards whichever goal they choose.  And to reach their goals, your cellular participants have only three actions they can choose from:

  1. Divide: recruit new cell into open adjacent seats or with permission from 2 neighbors if no open seats
  2. Move: move 1 seat in any direction only with
    permission from 2 neighbors
  3. Kill neighbor: kill neighbor at any time for any (or no) reason 

The game play is continuous and somewhat chaotic. Don't be alarmed if half of the players don't understand what is going on for the first few minutes or if not everyone is following the rules properly right away. As long as the instructions and winning conditions are on the board or on a projector and you understand the game enough to answer questions, it will probably be alright. Also, a warning, I've never played this with more than about 100 people so I have no idea if it would degenerate into complete chaos if you have a huge group.  But why not give it a try anyway?

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When we first played it with the Evolutionary Medicine summer school in 2012, we had about 40 people.  Above is a photo from just a few minutes into the game. If you look carefully you can see the red team looking conspiratorial in the top corner, foreshadowing their eventual takeover. Infectious disease expert Andrew Read appears to be the source of the rouge cellular signaling in the red clone.

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We gathered some data during the game, stopping every few minutes to count the number of cells of each type and measure the depth of invasion (i.e., the furthest row reached by each clone). Every one of the clones started with just one cell (those are the initial individuals from the front row). Over time some clones went extinct and other stuck around but didn't grow much. But the red clones grew steadily and by the end of the game more than half the cells were red. How did the red cells grow so much? Part of the explanation is that they escaped from some of the constraints of nearby cells by invading into rows further and further back where they escaped from control by competing clones.

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The red clones started invading right away and continued to be the most aggressively invasive clone throughout the game. It won't necessarily always be the case that the largest clone is also the most invasive, but you can see how size and invasiveness can go hand in hand because the more invasive cells are able to escape from neighbors that might limit their proliferation. If you want to collect and present data to your group as you play you can download the spreadsheet below, fill it in with your own data and even project it while you play it with your group.

All these descriptions of the game and data are all well and good.  But I know you really want to see a video of some very highly regarded and serious scientists playing the game and chanting "Blood! Blood! Blood!" as they reach the final row and metastasize.