Thirst for Power card game

Michael Mayhew, Science Education Solutions, Inc.
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Developed by a team of scientists from two national laboratories, education researchers, gamers, and a professional game developer, Thirst for Power is a challenging, fast-paced, fun-to-play resource management card game in which players acting as governors of different regions of the country compete to be the first to meet their citizens' energy needs. Through game play, players come to understand how three manifestations of the extreme amplification of the human population—exploding worldwide demand for energy, increasing exploitation of water resources, and alteration of the planet's climate—are tightly intertwined at the nexus of energy, water, and climate; one cannot be considered in isolation from the other two. Development was supported by the National Science Foundation.

keywords: energy, water, climate, environment, technology, policy

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Thirst For Power can be strategically embedded within courses at the undergraduate and high school levels such as Earth and Environmental Science, Geography, or Government.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Inevitably, students will bring some degree of understanding of concepts around carbon-based vs. renewable energy sources, consumption of water resources, and anthropogenic climate change to the game play. The more such knowledge, the more comfortable the students will be with game play. However, few will likely have grasped the Nexus concept: the energy-water-climate interdependency and its many manifestations.

How the activity is situated in the course

Much depends on the strategy for embedding the game within a course. It might be used at the beginning as an introduction to concepts and gauge of prior knowledge. Or it might be used at the end as an application of knowledge gained via the course.

The For Educators section of the supporting website ( has sections explaining how game play aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core Curriculum, and the National Research Council's Strands of Science Learning.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The primary concept to be gained by game play is that of the "Nexus," that energy demand, water resource exploitation, and climate change are tightly intertwined. This can be summarized as follows:

All processes for generating energy require consumption of water, for some processes enormous quantities. It takes water to get energy. The inverse is also true: it takes energy to get water. It takes energy to move water from where it is stored to where it is needed. An exponential increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels is causing a gradual increase in the average temperature of the Earth. But the response of the climate system to an overall warming is exceedingly complex. Changes in atmospheric circulation patterns due to global warming are altering weather patterns and changing the distribution of water on the planet. The frequency of certain extreme weather events is on the rise. Some areas are experiencing prolonged heat waves—and associated drought—while other areas are experiencing torrential rainfall—and associated catastrophic flooding. Such climate-related events alter availability of water and impact energy supplies and demand.

In addition to the primary concept, students learn about the many manifestations of the Nexus, this mainly via the ACTION cards. For example, one of the CLIMATE cards titled "DROUGHT!" states, "Regional drought due to climate change causes rivers to be too low to provide water needed for nuclear and coal-fired power plants. Players with a NUCLEAR or COAL source discard 2 [water cards]." One of the POLICY cards titled "CARBON TAX" states, "A national carbon tax on fossil fuels is levied to raise investment in solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, and wind, which produce no CO2 and so do not impact climate. Player discards 1 [water card] for each fossil fuel source (all OIL, COAL, or GAS)." One of the TECHNOLOGY cards titled "WATER TREATMENT" states, "Installation of energy-efficient technology for wastewater re-use greatly cuts energy use and carbon emissions for this utility. Invest 1 [water card]. Draw an extra [water card] each turn."

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Traditional science classrooms promote the idea of scientific knowledge as a series of facts and acquired knowledge rather than a product of reasoning and rigorous discussions based on evidence. Game play offers a way to change learning dynamics and promote active learning and critical thinking.

Through playing Thirst for Power, students must pursue an energy goal for their region using multiple energy sources, each of which consumes a certain amount of available water and has a particular environmental impact. Students must therefore continually synthesize and critically evaluate data from multiple sources.

Playing Thirst for Power teaches and strengthens skills needed for assessing information, thinking logically and creatively, weighing trade-offs, making decisions, and anticipating outcomes.

Other skills goals for this activity

An instructor could base writing assignments on the Nexus concept and its many manifestations on which the game is based. It could be the basis for debate and development of argumentation skills. It could promote skills in adaptability and strategy.

Description and Teaching Materials

In game play, a region's governor can choose from a wide variety of carbon-based or renewable energy sources, but each source uses up water and has an environmental—in particular climate change—impact. Players must meet the region's energy needs—both for transportation and electricity—using only the region's available water resources, while staying within the region's environmental impact limit.

ACTION cards (TECHNOLOGY, POLICY, AND CLIMATE) change the course of the game. A player needs to think quickly and adapt his or her strategy to changes in technologies, regulations, and climate change impacts. Another player may uproot a promising strategy and send the player scavenging for an alternate approach to meet the region's needs.

Analysis by scientists on the development team from the national laboratories ensured that the relative numbers in the game for energy output, water consumption, and climate impact for all energy sources is solidly based in the science literature. The game has been extensively playtested with teens and adults—including instructors—and has received a formal evaluation. From the Conclusions section of the evaluation report: "[M]ost participants could see playing the game in class, emphasizing that the game made learning both more fun, more meaningful, and more durable.... The development and testing of [Thirst for Power] illustrates both the power and the challenge of creating compelling educational games. Data gathered from a combination of focus groups, surveys, and observations strongly suggest that educational games grounded in real life problems stimulate authentic, meaningful learning. There is also some evidence that if games are played in an educational context (formal or informal), learning can be furthered when bookended by related lecturers and discussions.... [F]eatures of compelling learning games are likely the same ones that make any game compelling: competition, risk, challenge, and an engaging premise."

Thirst for Power and a companion Nexus-based game, Challenge and Persuade, are backed by a website, In addition to descriptions of the games, the website contains sections on guidance for instructors, an extensive set of relevant Resources, and a page titled "What is the Nexus?" The games are commercially available at modest cost via the website, with a significant discount for educational organizations..

The boxed game is all that is needed for this activity. Each box contains the basic rules for game play; a section of the website contains a somewhat more elaborate explanation of the rules. An instructor might want to assign a selection of readings from the Resources section of the website ( in advance of game play. A single game can accommodate up to five players.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Thirst for Power is a challenging game, but extensive playtesting has shown that players "get it" after one round of play. Instructors may want to reinforce what students will learn from game play, that a successful strategy will almost always require a mix of carbon-based and renewable energy sources, much like society today.


Thirst for Power can enrich and extend learning achieved within a course. A post-game guided, reflective discussion is a strong means to evaluate content and concepts learned through Thirst for Power. A quiz or writing assignment could also assess the degree to which concepts integral to the game have been learned. The types of learning outcomes expected involve a systems-level understanding of the intricacies and interrelationships of energy, water, and climate issues. Players should recognize relationships between energy types, energy generation, water usage, and environmental impact and the impacts of policies and climate events on strategies for reaching energy goals. Prompting questions within a discussion may be used to get at the heart of how the players strategized and their thought process throughout the game. Some questions that could be used are: "What was your strategy to achieve your energy goals, and how would you change that strategy?" "What types of energies did you invest in, what energies did you choose not to invest in, and why?" "How do different energy types compare in water usage, energy output, and environmental impact." Other questions might link concepts from the game to specific learning modules in the larger course.

References and Resources is an extensive collection of Resources that will further understanding of the inter-dependency among energy, water, and climate and its many manifestations. A deeper understanding of the Nexus will enrich the game play experience by relating game content to real world scenarios. The Resources are stand-alone articles that complement the content in the games and are a basis for assignments and classroom discussion; they are in three parts:
The Resources are updated periodically.