Vertebrate Classification

by Dave Lewis

Besides being an Educational Technology graduate student, Dave is currently working as the Web Editor for Grossmont College. His obvious interest in biology is shown in this game, which is designed to teach phylogentic relationships of the major vertebrate classes.

Instructional Objective - The learners will be able to correctly classify contemporary and extinct chordates according to physical characteristics.

Learners/Context - The learners are either high school or college biology students with some prior knowledge of vertebrate characteristics. This game will serve as a practice tool and is designed to be played after an introductory lecture about phylogentic classification.

Rationale A game is an appropriate format for this situation because memorization of this type of material can be boring. A card game is useful in that it makes the material much more interesting and easier to grasp. This kind of game is easily portable and can be played by one or more players just about anywhere.

Competition is the primary motivator used. Since the learners are battling one another to complete the classification hierarchy first, they are inspired to learn the material in order to become more proficient.

The game is played in the following manner: This game is played like solitaire by a single player, or (preferably) as a face to face double solitaire, with two players. The Order cards are placed on top of Genus cards as shown below to produce an Order stack. Order stacks must be placed below the correct Class card. This creates the classification hierarchy. Players must correctly identify which Genus belongs to which Order, and which Orders belong to which Class. This can be done from memory, or by reading the Genus characteristics on the cards and matching with them with correct Order characteristics.


  1. All cards are shuffled at the beginning of the game.

  2. Players are then dealt ten cards which creates their intial hand. The remaining cards are placed in the play area as the deck.

  3. If there is more than one player, the player to the left of the dealer draws from the deck first. Players may chose to draw a card, if they are unable to lay a card in the play area.

  4. Players do not have to take turns drawing cards and may do so at will. They may chose to lay cards on the play area at any time. As players obtain cards they will be able to place them in the play area if a higher card has already been placed in the play area. (for example a Genus card can only be placed in the play area if and only if it's Order card is available.)

  5. The game is won when a complete hierarchy is built.

Card Design

Each card has a picture of a representative of that classification on one side of the card. On the other side of the card is a list of it's characteristics. This side of the card is color coded. as shown in the hierarchy diagram shown above. Class cards are blue, Order cards yellow, and Genus cards are pink.

Deck Design

The deck has a total of 126 cards. There are 21 Order cards, 35 Class cards, and 70 Genus cards.

Design Process I started by reading our assigned reading How to design a card game and then consulted a vertebrate anatomy book. The idea is something I came up with a couple of years ago when studying vertebrate classification. I never actually follow through with the idea until now. But it seemed like it would make a good card game.

I tried to make the rules and cards as simple as possible. That's why I went with the simplest of all card games the happy family or snap category.

Related Web Sites

Introduction to Vertebrates
NMNH Vertebrate Zoology Page
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
Vertebrate Paleontology

References - Ellington, H., Addinall, E., & Percival, F. (1982). A handbook of game design. London: Kogan Page.

Last updated by Dave Lewis on September 28, 1995.

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Educational Technology 670, Fall 1995.