Salve for a steep learning cuve

When Justin Weisz and Maryam Ashoori were expecting their first child in 2017, they spent numerous evenings and weekends playing board games together. Not unusual; a lot of couples play board games. But most of those couples aren’t IBM Master Inventors with a combined 60 patents between them.

As you might expect, the pair brought an abundance of high-level thinking to their playtime, as well as the intellectual residue left over from days spent in the IBM Research lab, where they specialized in human-computer interaction. The combination led to the creation of Entanglion, the world’s first board game designed to teach players the basics of quantum computing.

“At that time, Maryam and I and a bunch of other people in the department were trying to learn about quantum,” said Weisz. “I was working my way through a book designed to teach quantum to computer scientists, and Maryam was reading another quantum computing book. Quantum has a very steep learning curve, especially for someone without a strong physics background. Once you wrap your head around the fundamental concepts, like qubits, superposition, entanglement, measurement and error, you then have to learn how those elements combine to perform useful computations.

“Both of us felt overwhelmed, but we also knew it was important. Quantum will be a key knowledge area for IBM as we move into the future, and it encompasses a lot of new terms and a lot of new ideas. We started thinking about how we could make it easier to introduce someone to the basic concepts.

“We realized that a lot of the board games we were playing, like Power Grid and Pandemic Legacy, have fairly complicated sets of rules. These aren’t games you can just sit down and play. You have to really study the manual, sometimes for hours, in order to figure out how the game works. We figured that if people were willing to put in that kind of time to learn a board game, then maybe we could use that time productively and teach them some of the basics of quantum computing. Plus, board games are fun!”

Entanglion box cover

 

It was great. A very playful way to get into a quantum mindset, especially for people like me who have little background in the area.

If at first you don't succeed...

Using components borrowed from their collection of board games, Weisz and Ashoori got to work building prototypes. “We would come up with play mechanics that we felt were interesting, and then we’d show it to our quantum scientists. More often than not, they’d yell at us and say, ‘That’s not quantum, that’s classical!’” remembered Weisz. “We play-tested a bunch of prototypes with them, and they would say ‘Yes, this works,’ or ‘No, that’s not right.’ We really wanted to make sure that what we were doing in the game was accurate with the science.

“For me, a lot of the fun in creating the game was in building fun and interesting game mechanics while ensuring that our science was correct. We worked hard to include elements that made the game exciting and challenging. You go through moments where you’re like, ‘Oh no, I’m gonna lose, there’s no way out of this,’ and then, working with your partner, you can find a way out.”

Unlike many games, which pit players against each other, Entanglion is cooperative. Players learn about quantum computing as they work together to navigate the three galaxies of the quantum universe, avoid detection by the defense mechanisms left behind by the ancients, and rebuild a quantum computer.

Weisz explained, “We feel that a lot of learning will come from the discussions players have with each other as they learn the mechanics of the game and devise strategies to win. Through this process, they will also implicitly learn terminology and concepts from quantum computing.”

After evaluating the game, each participating Westlake student received a copy of Entanglion.

 

It was complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fun to play.

After reviewing five major iterations of the game, the quantum scientists gave it their seal of approval. Weisz and Ashoori released Entanglion on Github under an open-source license, allowing anyone to download the game’s assets in order to print and play it. They also identified a board game manufacturer and had a number of high-quality copies created for participants of quantum events such as ThinkQ, an IBM conference about quantum computing.

“We really wanted this game to be a valuable learning tool for people new to quantum computing, and releasing it on Github enables anyone to experience it,” said Weisz. “This way, anyone can download all the game assets, print them out, and play it with their friends. Plus, we made 3D models for some of the components, so if they have a 3D printer, it’s even more fun.”

The team also gave some games to the Westlake school district in Thornwood, NY, where school media specialist Mary Knopp tried it out with 8th grade and 12th grade students. “We’re really passionate here about the world of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math),” Knopp said. “We try to expose our students to as many opportunities as possible.”

“We tested the game with 70 students altogether, and they seemed to enjoy it. The eighth graders had a little more difficulty understanding the concepts, but they all seemed very engaged with the game. It was a good experience all around.”

Justin Weisz (top left) looks on as IBMers playtest the game. In the foreground, IBM Fellow Charles Bennett, a pioneer of quantum information science, ponders his next move.

Build your own quantum universe

Visit GitHub to download the design files and print your own copy of Entanglion.

Spreading the word

More than 4,000 boxed copies of Entanglion were distributed to schools and at IBM conferences. Game materials have been translated into Czech, and translations into Polish and Japanese are in the works. An expansion of the game, called Entanglion: Space Pirates, introduced new gameplay elements. In addition, the game’s core element—the map of transitions between quantum states—has been used by multiple university professors as a “cheat sheet” for their students to learn how to manipulate quantum states in 2-bit quantum systems.

“We would love to see quantum programmers in the future cite this game as the reason they got interested in quantum computing. That’s exactly the kind of spark we are trying to ignite in students by creating this game,” said Weisz. “We see the game as a gateway into our online quantum experience.”

Inside each game box was a special code players were able to use for extra credits in the IBM Q Experience, an online quantum computing sandbox where programmers, researchers and others can try their hand at programming a quantum computer. Weisz explained that Entanglion fills a gap in quantum education.

“The IBM Q Experience makes quantum programming accessible, but it still has a steep learning curve for someone who has no background in it. I see this game filling that space — before you get to the IBM Q Experience, you can learn the fundamentals through the game. Then, when you do go into the Q Experience, you have a better foundation to build on.

“The IBM Q Experience excels at making real quantum computers available to people doing research in the field, such as PhD students and professors who already have a basic understanding of quantum computing,” explained Weisz. “But quantum computers still have a ways to go before they become powerful enough to use in mainstream applications, and students who are in middle and high school right now will be among the first ‘quantum-first’ programmers. So now is the time to familiarize them with quantum computing and guide them toward studying the field. By the time they finish their education, quantum computers will be more mainstream, and we will need a strong population of quantum programmers.”

Players engaging over a game of Entanglion