Get Playful With These Six Environmental Board Games
The world of board games was once dominated by war games (think Risk), economy games (think Monopoly), and civilization games (think Settlers of Catan). Now, though, you can’t walk into a game store without being greeted by colorful images of birds, trees, and woodland creatures. Over the past several years, the industry has seen an explosion of new board games focused on nature. More than just using the outdoors as window dressing, many of these environmental board games have begun to incorporate ecological principles into the game design itself.
Board games are a space of play—they are meant to be fun and spark creativity. As such, games offer a unique space for players to explore nuanced and emotionally resonant topics in a lighthearted, playful context. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that board games have taken up nature and animals as common thematic material. The cuteness, tranquility, and relaxation that can be evoked by landscapes and wildlife are a perfect fit for board game imaginaries, and many players are drawn to the nonviolent themes of conservation rather than destruction, plant growth rather than economic growth, and a fantasy of returning to calm and simplicity amid the hustle and bustle of modern life. Additionally, board games provide a unique opportunity to enjoy and interact with visual art in a day-to-day setting. Nature games especially tend to have high-quality art and feature it prominently, marrying gameplay with art appreciation.
But it’s not all roses. These games can reflect problematic assumptions about how ecosystems operate, the way animals interact, and even what counts as “nature.” They often assume an uncomplicated human–nature divide, with players taking on the role of tourist or scientist (and all of the colonial baggage that brings). The complexities of ecological systems are difficult to express through the rule-based predictability baked into most games. And, of course, environmental board games still struggle with the core problem of gamification—with winners and losers, rewards and penalties, and player competition as an assumed fact. All of this generates a rich space for analysis, as each game offers its own take on the environment and humans’ place in it. Over time, these games’ engagement with ecology has evolved, moving from using nature as a way to cute-ify difficult or abstract ideas to more deeply centering ecological principles in game design and play.
The earliest game on the list, Arboretum (2015) invites players to take on the role of arborists designing pleasant paths for visitors to follow. The goal is to create a more stunning garden walkway than the other players, but the paths are quite abstract, represented by number sequences on cards. The game emphasizes the color variety of domesticated trees, with purple jacarandas, pink cherry blossoms, and bright yellow cassias arranged in neat columns and rows that are pleasing to the eye. The details of tree care are abstracted out of gameplay—after a tree is planted, it lives statically until the end of the game, not requiring water, sunlight, or trimming. Instead, the game deals mostly with the aesthetic experience of looking at trees; both the theme of an arboretum and the detailed artwork emphasize the human pleasure of observing trees and walking among them. The serene aesthetics of the game are notoriously in tension with the gameplay experience, which rewards tight card-counting and denying resources to your opponent.
Designed by Dan Cassar
Art by Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams, Beth Sobel
Looking at the artwork of Root (2018), it’s hard not to be reminded of the Redwall series, a children’s classic that features woodland creatures fighting battles of good versus evil. In this game, players control different anthropomorphized animal species that are at war with each other for control of the forest. Root is functionally a war game, with supply lines, battles, and soldiers. But the harsher edges of this war-like theme are tempered by the cute animals, with adorable, wide-eyed cats, mice, and birds standing in for conflicts between empires and ideologies. The game leans into predator–prey conflict, with the mice and squirrels standing in solidarity against the cats while the omnivorous raccoon acts as a mercenary above the fray. And it draws on political metaphors: the cats are economic overlords, the birds are dynastic traditionalists, the mice are insurgents, and so on. Here, the nature theme is indirect. The animals wield human weapons, wear human clothes, and imitate human squabbles. Root trades in the more violent aspects of nature, providing a good illustration of how board games can interpret “nature, red in tooth and claw” as a stand-in for cutthroat competition more generally.
Designed by Cole Wehrle
Art by Kyle Ferrin
Wingspan took the game world by storm when it was released in 2019, breaking records as it sold one million copies within its first three years. In this game, players take on the role of ornithologists enticing different species of birds to their habitat for observation. Player positionality is not emphasized in the game; gameplay mostly consists of arranging bird cards on the player board, with a tenuous connection to the actual work of a field ornithologist. The bird cards incorporate real-world details about each species of bird: nest type, food preference, habitat, and typical clutch size are all laid out and incorporated into gameplay. This style of facticity, while fun and educational in its own right, can lead to some problematic places. For example, each bird card includes a habitat map and fact at the bottom, but sometimes the fact is about the (European) naturalist who “discovered” the species rather than about the bird itself. The game also emphasizes the idea of collection: each bird species has one card in the game, and once a player claims that card as theirs, no other player has access to it. Overall, though, the gentle aspect of the birding theme matches the gameplay experience. It’s very difficult to discern the winner before final scoring, which means that no player ever feels like they are losing. Wingspan felt like a breath of fresh air in the board game world, inviting new audiences to the table and paving the way for designers to think beyond the heavy civilizational tropes of architecture and war that had previously characterized the most popular games.
Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave
Art by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, Beth Sobel
Much like Arboretum, Photosynthesis (2017) makes trees the stars of the show, but in a more dynamic setting. Here, players vie for access to the sun as they plant different species of trees in a forest. The game trades in imagery that creates feelings of relaxation, featuring beautiful tree pieces that decorate the game board in a satisfying panoply. But underneath the peaceful exterior is a cutthroat game of competition for sunlight, as players try to grow their trees in such a way that their opponents are constantly in the shade. The game portrays forests as a place of vicious competition between tree species, where one species’ gain is another species’ loss, but it also invites the player to contemplate the experience of tree-ness: trees cannot be moved once placed (an unusual feature in board games, where chess-like piece movement is commonplace), and this rootedness is contrasted meaningfully with the predictable but dynamic movement of the sun as it circles around the board.
Designed by Hjalmar Hach
Art by Sabrina Miramon
The sequel to a popular 2014 game called Evolution, Oceans (2020) has players build out a tableau of different underwater animal species as they compete in an oceanic ecosystem. The gameplay emphasizes adaptation and food chains, as species develop different traits to have greater access to food, whether that be the shared pool of fish or other player-controlled species. Whereas Evolution has a distinct “eat or be eaten” vibe, Oceans offers more than just predator–prey relationships, with parasitic, commensalistic, and mutualistic interspecies relationships available for players to consider. It’s not merely a race to consume the most food either; players have to avoid overgrazing and population collapse if they want their species to flourish. Oceans creates a fantastical ecology, with no human presence in the game world and a host of imagined species. In that way, it evokes a sort of idyllic ocean free of pollution or the threat of human-caused ecological destruction while showcasing a complex understanding of environment that includes harsh realities like extinction without resorting to a simplistic “survival of the fittest” mentality.
Designed by Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Brian O’Neill
Art by Guillaume Ducos, Catherine Hamilton
Released in 2021, Meadow is the newest game on the list and arguably the most sophisticated in its incorporation of ecological thought. Here, players act as observers walking through a meadow, taking note of what they see. The gameplay emphasizes food-chain relationships: songbirds eat grubs and are in turn eaten by birds of prey. But it also gestures toward cyclical food relationships—players can replace those birds of prey with mushrooms and begin the chain again. As with many of these environmental board games, nature as an aesthetic experience is front and center, with art that takes up the majority of space on the card and an elaborately decorated gameboard that displays the community cards. Unlike Wingspan, the scientific name and fun facts about each species are not part of the card design but tucked away in the manual for the curious player. This mirrors the experience of seeing an animal during a walk, where identification has to be done later, if at all.
In this game, the border between nature and civilization is quite porous; fences and houses are as likely to feature in its gameplay as birds and mice and can themselves yield to new wildlife like cockroaches or house cats. There is a distinct earthiness to the experience of playing Meadow: different types of soil and species of mushrooms are as prominent as charismatic megafauna like foxes and wolves. While the game does indulge a bit in competitive collection (players can be rewarded for adding card types to their meadow before their opponents do), the overall design of the expanding meadow tableaux showcases the interdependence and connection of all living things.
Designed by Klemens Kalicki
Art by Karolina Kijak, Katarzyna Fiebiger
Nate Carlin is a writer, freelance radio reporter, and board game enthusiast based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently producing an audio series for WORT 89.9 FM called Waste Lands that investigates where stuff goes when we dispose of it. Contact.