Tabletop Biodiversity: Exploring Science and Nature Through Gaming

Cover photo: Working hard to save the tigers in the game Endangered
Blog and photos by Stuart Long

Over the last five years, I have been involved in the Ontario BioBlitz as a volunteer. My time with the Blitz has seen me work at everything from hauling boxes to registering attendees and selling swag. I’m happy to see so many families experience the natural world when attending the event. But what can those families, so eager to learn about biodiversity and nature, do at home?

When I was a kid, I loved to learn about the natural world. Whether it was dinosaurs, plants, animals, minerals, or the stars, I was eager to take it all in. Lucky for me I had a parent who knew the value of interactivity in learning and play.

Today, it is so much easier to find interactive – and fun – ways to introduce and inspire kids about STEM subjects. With computers, tablets, and smart phone apps it’s impossible not to learn. But what if you want a less digital experience? What is out there for you? Below I’ve outlined some great board games for kids (and adults too!) ages 10 and up.

Evolution in action!

Evolution: Evolution is a great family game. It has nice components and is fairly easy to learn for up to six players. The game balances the needs to feed the different species you create with the needs to grow their population against a variable food source. Species survive by adding cards that allow them to evolve beneficial traits like hard shells, and long necks, helping them to avoid being attacked by predators, and collect more food to win the game. There is a Flight expansion for the birders out there and a climate expansion for those interested in the impact of climate change on evolutionary traits and species.

All the little forests back in their box.

 

Photosynthesis: I have literally recommended this game to everyone I know! It’s a four player game with little cardboard forests inside the box that are so cool to look at. Players compete for limited sunlight and space over 24 turns to grow seeds into trees, let them fall from age, and start all over again. The strategy required will appeal to those players more interested in a game of chess, and like chess can be taught easily to beginners. This game is within everyone’s grasp, and gives an elegant way to play through some biological processes, like forest succession.

Victory earned by the barest margin!

Arboretum: Arboretum is a very simple game of counting and card playing for 2-4 players. You play trees of various species (like oak, poplar, and dogwood) with the numbers 1-8 on them. Card numbers – regardless of species – must ascend from left to right and top to bottom. That’s about it! The cards you keep in your hand at end game determine your ability to score points. This is another title that is easy to learn, fun to play, and visually appealing, while also developing some tree name vocabulary. In a time when children’s dictionaries are removing words related to nature, keeping them present through game play can help maintain and foster connections with those trees in real life, or spark lifelong interests.

These are just three titles out of so many more on the market. Wingspan, designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, has taken the market and board game community by storm. In it, you are a bird enthusiast attempting to bring more birds to your wildlife preserve. The game’s design is deeply rooted in real world science while still being relatable. The game was released in early March 2019, and is already going into its third printing – it is an essential game for any birder trying to get their friends to join them on a birding excursion.

I was recently given the chance to play test a game prototype that will be coming out on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter called Endangered, from Grand Gamers Guild. This game requires players to work together to save species from extinction. As a player (I was the lobbyist character) I found the game was nail biting and quick, and highlighted how hard it is to get people on side for wildlife conservation. This is a game that will definitely be on my “Must Own” list for its content and implementation. It captures a complex real world theme in a challenging but fun cooperative board game.

If you want games that talk about the building blocks of life, Genius Games is a publisher that puts out fantastic games that make chemistry, molecular biology and cell systems approachable and entertaining. With titles like Cytosis, Covalence, and Periodic, these games have the potential to engage even the most reluctant high school science pupil.

 

Some non-biological games, like Planetarium, focus on planets and the solar system.

Other titles focus on non-biological science; games like Planetarium and Planet are designed around the mechanisms of the stellar formation of planets. Planetarium involved consultation from NASA scientists. Planet uses a unique polyhedral game board where you mount planetary features onto your own personal planet. Both games don’t overdo the science, but are not uninformed either.

I think board games can help inspire people because they are subtle. The important message of science, conservation, or the world in general exists just below the surface of a well put together package and a good game mechanic. Using tools like board games to help people become interested in the natural world around them is great for families, classrooms, or just a night in with your friends. I hope some of these titles inspire you to go to a museum, a conservation area, or a science centre soon!

Whatever you end up doing, always roll the best dice you can.

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