Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized Board Game

Rowan Martindale, The University of Texas at Austin and Anna Weiss, Midwestern State University
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: December 3, 2019 | Reviewed: December 2, 2020


Incorporating games in teaching can help students retain material and become innovative problem solvers through engagement and enjoyment. Our board game, "Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized" can be used as an active learning tool in a class or lab to promote understanding of fossilization and taphonomy.

The educational objective is to teach the player about taphonomy and fossilization, while the gameplay objective is to preserve and recover the best fossil collection. Through competitive gameplay, students learn how physiology, chemical, physical, and environmental factors, as well as discovery biases can influence an organism's preservation and collection potential.

All materials for the game can be found here

Instructions for how to play the game can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnJae8uMN9Y

The High School version of this activity is availableat this SERC site.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This game can be used at a number of different educational levels from lower-level undergraduate "Life through Time" or "History of Life of Earth" classes through to upper-level undergraduate or even graduate classes on Paleontology, Sedimentology, and Taphonomy.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

A general understanding of the fossilization process and taphonomy is useful. We have played this game with students who had no paleontology background and they still understood the concepts, but it is better as an additional exercise once the topics have been introduced.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is designed to replace or take place in a 2-hour lab period (although we provide instructions for shortening/lengthening the activity.
The game takes approximately 1.5 hours to play, although depending on how engaged and competitive the players are it can take between one and two hours; thus, we suggest guaranteeing two hours for gameplay (especially the first time it is played). That said, the game is highly modifiable.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

"Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized" is a physical board game; the player is a time traveler whose mission is to create the best fossil collection. Players travel back in time to the Early Jurassic (when their fossils were alive) with ten Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers that allow them to claim an organism. The players compete against each other and elements of chance to create their collection. Through the game, players must protect their specimens from taphonomic factors that reduce their specimens' potential to be preserved in the fossil record. They can also damage or degrade other specimens on the board (making the fossil worth fewer points) to make their collection more valuable. At the end of the game, players time travel back to the present, collect their GPS tagged specimens (and other specimens) and complete their fossil collection. The winner of the game is the player with the best fossil collection.
As an educational exercise, the goal is to help players understand taphonomy. Ideally, this game helps the player comprehend the factors associated with an organism's taxonomy and physiology (Student Learning Outcome #1, or SLO#1), the environmental setting (SLO#2), the physical and chemical changes during exposure, burial, and decomposition (SLO#3), as well as the biases in discovery that influence whether or not an organism is collected by a scientist (SLO#4). Ultimately, the goal is for players to be able to synthesize multiple factors that affect a specimen during fossilization (SLO#5).

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Upon successful completion of the board game (without modification), the player will be able to:

  • Identify physiological characteristics that make an organism more or less likely to become fossilized (Student Learning Outcome #1).
  • Identify the climate, oceanographic, and geological events that occur in different marine environments and describe the effect they have on the preservation potential of fossils in that setting (Student Learning Outcome #2).
  • Describe multiple taphonomic factors that would impact an organism as it fossilizes in a marine setting and determine if they would enhance or diminish the preservation potential (Student Learning Outcome #3).
  • Describe how chance and sampling biases affect fossil collections (Student Learning Outcome #4).

With the included follow up activities or a discussion, the player will also be able to synthesize how physiology, mode of death, depositional environment, environmental conditions or events (e.g., decay, storms, anoxia, acidification), burial, decay, exposure, diagenesis, and collection bias influences our understanding of ancient marine communities. Specifically, players will understand why the fossil record is not a perfect representation of ancient life (Student Learning Outcome #5).

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Working in groups
  • Quantitative assessments of faunal assemblages
  • Discussion or Write up (depending on the chosen synthesis activity)

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity is described in our article: Martindale and Weiss, 2020, "Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized": A new board game designed to teach college undergraduate students about the process of fossilization (the Journal of Geoscience Education, doi: 10.1080/10899995.2019.1693217).
All game materials can be downloaded from doi: 10.18738/T8/NQV2CU.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching notes can be found in Martindale and Weiss (2020).


A follow-up student worksheet and discussion questions can be found with the game materials and are described in Martindale and Weiss (2020).

References and Resources

This activity is described in Martindale and Weiss, 2020, "Taphonomy: Dead and Fossilized": A new board game designed to teach college undergraduate students about the process of fossilization (in the Journal of Geoscience Education, doi: 10.1080/10899995.2019.1693217).