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Niche - a genetics survival game
Pros: Unlimited ways to play, clear genetic traits, realistic outcomes.
Cons: Lacking enough in-game help, short animal life spans make for a steeper learning curve.
Bottom Line: This hands-on genetics game allows students to experiment, explore traits, and come away with a sophisticated understanding of the subject.
Niche is a very involved, time-consuming game. To make the most of its inherent lessons, build in plenty of time for students to explore and build their animal tribe(s). Start with a lesson in basic genetics, if needed, and make sure you're well-versed in the game options and strategies yourself before introducing the game to your students.
Start your students in Story mode, but then quickly set them free to explore the Sandbox mode, beginning with the Easy level. For students who intuitively grasp the gameplay strategy and subject matter, encourage them to try a more difficult level. For younger students, or for those who struggle, encourage them to find a niche that works well for their tribe of animals, and then just work to stay alive. Have students share tips and strategies with each other, since the game includes so many different options. Remind your students not to rush through the game: They should take their time making choices while weighing all of the options as they go. You can also create goals for students, such as having a large tribe, exploring the most islands, or breeding the most generations, all while keeping their species alive. If students get stuck or need some guidance, the publisher's website includes forums for the game, as does the game's page on Steam.
Niche is a turn-based, strategic genetic simulation game where students create a tribe of animals that can adapt to their environment and survive for the long term. Through selective breeding and gene manipulation, students can shape their very own species of animal. They then work to keep their species alive, generation after short generation, battling predators, illness, injury, and climate change while keeping their population fed and thriving. Turns are organized into "days," with each animal having a few actions available per day. They can move, find food, look for nesting material, mate, attack other animals, heal wounds, and more. At the start, players choose between Story mode and Sandbox mode. Story mode will take new players through the tutorial steps and then players are on their own. Sandbox mode has more options, where players can choose their difficulty and terrain type.
With game mechanics inspired by population genetics, Niche provides a somewhat realistic experience. Animals only live about 25 in-game days, and if your species goes extinct, you lose. Animals can die from old age, not enough food, injury or illness, or predators. The game includes over 100 genes, and there are four different biomes, each with its own predators, prey, and plants. The available genes include physical characteristics, fertility, immunity to disease, speed, strength, and traits that help with hunting and foraging. Many more can also be unlocked as animals experience new surroundings and events.
Niche is completely tied into many aspects of genetics, including its mechanics, dominant and recessive genes, co-dominant inheritance, genetic drift, genetic flow, mutations, natural selection, and sexual selection. Lessons on these are all naturally built into the gameplay as students work to keep their animals alive, explore their environment, and see their species evolve. Also, since each animal is an alpha, a beta, or an omega animal in the tribe, changing this setting can greatly affect the tribe's outcome.
Though the game's topic is genetics, learning good strategies is vital to keeping your species alive. Since each animal needs to eat every day, keeping everyone fed is important. Because breeding is important for your species' survival, building nests for giving birth is just as important. Players need to keep a number of goals in mind at all times, balancing strategies for long-term success. Niche could be improved by giving more instruction on how to best make use of the genetics options. Instead, exploration, trial and error, collaboration, and reading the online forums are how students can improve their skills in the game.