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Best wildlife-themed board games

Read BBC Wildlife's reviews of wildlife-themed board games, including Wingspan, Cryptid and Photosynthesis.

Four adults playing a board game
Published: June 14, 2022 at 7:00 am
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Board games have surged in popularity over the last few years, and we're thrilled to see plenty of wildlife-themed games amongst them – perfect for connecting with nature if it's just a bit too cold or dark to venture outside, or for encouraging non-naturalist friends and families to connect with nature.

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The majority of the games in this article are aimed at players aged ten years or above, and we have a separate article available on wildlife-themed games for children, which includes Butterfly Wings: A Matching Game, Poo Bingo and The Wild Bunch.

These reviews are in order of the games' releases, with the most recent at the top.

If you're looking for more even board games to add to your collection, our sister magazines BBC Good Food, BBC History, BBC Sky At Night and BBC Science Focus have also reviewed appropriately themed games!


Best wildlife-themed board games

Mariposas (2020)

Mariposas Box
  • By Elizabeth Hargrave. Alderac Entertainment Group.
  • Age 14+, 2-5 players, 45-75 minutes playing time.

From award-winning game designer Elizabeth Hargrave comes another excellent wildlife-themed board game. Based again on flying animals, this time the attention is turned away from the birds of her Wingspan game (review below) to the Monarch butterflies, renowned for their multi-generational migration from central Mexico across northern America and back again.

The game is played across three seasons, starting off with spring in Michoacán in Mexico. Players migrate their first generation of butterflies into continental North America, feeding on five types of flowers along the way. Butterflies can hatch when they land next to milkweed and can stop off at cities to collect waystation cards (extra flower tokens, a lifecycle card or a bonus card).

Mariposas set up for three players

There are additional points to gain at the end of each season, with the summer and autumn goals revealed as the game progresses. However, these can be ignored if it doesn’t fit with your overarching strategy. Importantly, players must remember to return as many of their fourth-generation butterflies as they can to Michoacán before the end of autumn.

Oceans (2020)

  • By Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, and Brian O'Neill. Northstar Games Studio
  • Age 12+, 2-4 players (5-6 with deluxe edition), 60-90 minutes playing time.

A standalone game to the award-winning Evolution series, the aim of this marine-themed game is to create and evolve marine species in an ever-changing ecosystem, and try to stop them from going extinct. The first half of the game is relatively slow, as you gradually evolve your species using the 12 ‘Surface’ traits available, and feed from the reef to build their populations.

There can be quite a bit of interaction with other players' species, with the ability to passively gain food from neighbouring species when you apply parasitic or shark cleaner traits to your species. If you want to be more aggressive, you can play predatory traits that allow you to attack other species – if they don't have defensive traits to block your attack that is. You'll likely lose some species along the way, and in fact, you may find that it's a handy strategic move.

Then the Cambrian explosion occurs, and suddenly everything becomes a lot more extreme, with random scenario cards activating and deactivating (such as asteroid impacts!). After the explosion, players can starting using powerful trait cards from ‘The Deep’, which stray from reality into the world of the unknown, with cards such as ‘Abyss Dweller’, ‘Electric Discharge’ and ‘The Kraken’. Each of ‘The Deep’ 100 cards is unique, so each game will be different.

If the latter half doesn’t appeal to you, the game can be made more family-friendly by playing the Reef variant and avoiding the ‘The Deep’.

There’s also a deluxe edition available, which a 5-6 player expansion, acrylic fish tokens, foiled scenario and ‘The Deep’ cards, card sleeves and food bags.

Aqualin (2020)

Aqualin box

If The Little Mermaid had played Connect Four using the starfish, crabs and seahorses around her, the resulting game would look a lot like Aqualin.

The boardgame’s concept is relatively simple: two players compete to collect groups of sea creatures by placing tiles in adjacent squares. One is hoping for groups of the same creature, while their opponent tries to arrange the board so that colours are grouped together. But, with every turn, a player is allowed to move one piece already on the board before placing their next tile – a twist that is truly satisfying if you manage to mess up a group your opponent has been plotting for a while.

Aqualin game components

Aqualin makes for short-but-sweet playing, though I could see how dedicated players could develop their own strategies and starting moves to gain an aquatic advantage.

As someone who is fascinated by the world beneath the waves, I was expecting the ‘get schooled’ by the included pamphlet, but was left wanting more information about the reef and its inhabitants. When I bring this out at my next game night, I’ll need to bring along a copy of BBC Wildlife to quench that thirst!

Reviewed by Amy Barrett, editorial assistant, BBC Science Focus

The Lost Words (2020)

  • By Robert Hyde, illustrated by Jackie Morris. Thames and Kosmos
  • Age 8+, 2-4 players, 15-30 minutes playing time

Based on the bestselling book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, this is a relatively straightforward card game, the object of which is to be the first to pair the cards in your hand with those on the table.

There’s an edge to proceedings, as certain cards allow you to mess with your opponents – draw a magpie, for example, and you can steal a completed pair. One hand took about 30 minutes, and it was something of a delight to play with such beautiful illustrations of the natural world, and to hear 10- and 12-year-old boys talking about brambles, wrens, otters and larks.

Reviewed by Sarah McPherson, section editor, BBC Wildlife

Wingspan (2019)

Wingspan game
  • By Elizabeth Hargrave. Illustrated by Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, and Beth Sobel. Stonemaier Games.
  • Age 10+, 1-5 players, 40-70 minutes playing time.

Wingspan landed on the board gaming scene in 2019 and was soon picking up awards left, right and centre. It has since encouraged scores of board game players to discover the joy of birdwatching, and introduced many birdwatchers to the thrill of board games.

The premise of the game is to attract birds to your nature reserve, where they will feed and lay eggs – and in doing so, activating ‘powers’ which tie in nicely to their real-world behaviour and ecology. For example, some birds don’t lay eggs in their own nests but in other birds’ nests, some predators will try to predate other birds, some birds will cache the food tokens. A lot of thought and planning has obviously gone into these powers, and it’s a really nice touch. You’ll also end up learning about the birds too, including where they live (both in terms of habitat and global range), their behaviours and their wingspan, plus there’s an additional fact about the species at the bottom of the card.

The popularity of the game has meant that’s it has been swiftly followed by two expansions, with more planned for the future. So far, the two expansions are European (£21.75) and Oceania (£24.75), and each adds more bird and bonus cards, end-of-round goals, differently coloured eggs and new types of powers. The Oceania expansion takes things a little bit further and introduces nectar as a new food type, which changes up the gameplay a bit and also means using new player mats. The next expansion is due to be released in late 2022, though the theme has not yet been confirmed, and is likely to be released alongside the Wingspan Nesting Box, a big box storage solution for storing all current and future expansions.

Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon (2019)

  • By Bruno Cathala. IELLO.
  • Age 14+, 2-4 players, 45 minutes playing time.

In this game from award-winning designer Bruno Cathala, players compete to grow the best flower gardens within the desert and create the legendary Lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon for the queen.

Vegetation tiles come in three configurations and must be carefully placed on the board, using the waters from the sparsely located fountains to grow the gardens. Turn grass tiles into flower spaces and join them up to create beautiful flower beds, tended to by assistant gardeners.

Precious gems are available to collect as the desert spaces are transformed, worth varying amounts of points according to colour. These gems can be used to move on from the available vegetation tiles to preferred shapes, to buy trees for the gardens or to upgrade the skills of the gardening assistants, all of which can help with increasing the final tally of victory points.

Players must avoid their gardens joining up, so what starts as peaceful tending of the soil quickly leads to jostling for space on the board, competition for gems, and control of the fountains and flowerbeds. The sparkly gems and meeples (assistants, trees and a watering can) are a nice touch and satisfying to use. With different point-scoring strategies to pursue, this game can be easily replayed, but isn't overly complex.

Monopoly – RSPB edition (2019)

  • Age 8+, 2-6 players.

I hardly ever win at Monopoly, so this bird-watching themed version instantly endeared itself to me when I triumphed over an avid player (who, unsurprisingly, was less enamoured with the format).

Instead of the traditional London locations, avian species – from gannet and puffin to nuthatch and skylark – and their habitats are accrued as you make your way around the board. Instead of houses and hotels, hides and visitor centres can be constructed to draw more money away from your opponents.

Community Chest cards may see you parting with your hard-earned cash for binocular repairs or reward you for winning second prize in a wildlife photography competition, for example.

While the theme could, perhaps, work a little harder in some areas, it’s a great way to introduce younger players to a variety of species.

Reviewed by Angharad Moran, former production editor, BBC Wildlife

Cryptid (2018)

  • By Hal Duncan, Ruth Veevers. Illustrated by Kwanchai Moriya. Osprey Games.
  • Age 10+, 3-5 players, 30-50 minutes playing time.

Aband of crytozoologists have come together to find the Cryptid, an elusive creature that has never been found. Each player has a clue as to where the species could be on the map, such as in certain types of habitat, but players don't know each other's clues.

On their turn, a player has two options. They can 'Guess' and directly ask another player whether the Cryptid could be in a certain space, to which the other player must answer truthfully and place a block (cube for 'no' or circle for 'maybe') on that space. If a cube is placed, the player whose turn it is must also place a cube onto the board in another space and must also tell the truth.

Alternatively a player can 'Search' a space they think the Cryptid could be, whereupon each player must put down a block until a cube is put down. The first person to 'Search' a space and correctly guess where the Cryptid is located is the winner.

Sounds easy, but players need to find out the clues that their opponents have, without giving too much information away about their own clue. And typically, what happens is that as information is gathered and clues are guessed, a newly placed block will throw everything into confusion.

Two layers of difficulty are available, the one described above, and another version where inverse clues are also provided (i.e. the species is not found in set habitats), thus doubling the number of clues available and to try to work out.

Bärenpark (2017)

Barenpark box
  • By Phil Walker-Harding, illustrated by Klemens Franz. Lookout Games.
  • Age 8+, 2-4 players, 30-45 minutes playing time.

Can you build the best bear park? In this game, players compete to build their parks and fill them with bears such as polar bears, brown bears and pandas, plus facilities for your guests – play areas, toilets, food stalls and pretty rivers to look at. The tiles come in a variety of shapes to place onto your building area, you start with just one of the latter, and must lay tiles over certain squares in order to expand.

Barenpark layout

There isn't much player interaction in this game, you're competing to finish your park first and to lay down the highest scoring tiles (both for bear enclosures and bear statues) – so if someone nabs a specific tile you're after, it can be a little frustrating, especially if it's the only tile of that shape. But overall, you're focused on putting down your tiles, which is satisfying in itself, particularly if you can get it just right!

The game isn't too heavy (both literally and in terms of gameplay), which means that once you've got the hang of the rules, it's a nice game for when you don't want to be battling with too many rules and strategies. I like to play it as a light appetiser or dessert to playing a more complex game.

There are objective card that you can add in for additional complexity, and an expansion has been released which allows you to add more objectives, add a new type of bear (grizzly bear), and to add a monorail to your park for your visitors to enjoy (I've not played with the expansion but this monorail sounds completely adorable).

Photosynthesis (2017)

Photosynthesis box
  • By Hjalmar Hach. Illustrated by Sabrina Miramon. Blue Orange Games.
  • Age 10+, 2-4 players, 30-60 minutes playing time.

The aim of Photosynthesis is simple, to grow trees using sunlight. The sun travels around the board (with three or four full rotations per game), and the bigger your tree, the more light points it collects. When one of your trees completes its lifecycle, you gain additional points. However, you may find that your seedling or tree is overshadowed by another tree and unable to photosynthesise and collect light points, which provides an additional competitive element to the game.

There’s a number of trade-offs to be thought of whilst playing, including when to spend your accumulated light points on growing your trees or sowing seeds, and even when you want to complete a tree’s lifecycle. Timing is key, as the longer a mature tree stays on the board, the more light points it accumulates, and it may be overshadowing other player’s trees. At the same time, location is also an important factor as the board is split into four sections, with the middle board spaces scoring higher when your trees complete a cycle there. As trees mature in a section, the number of points available to gain in that section decrease.

Each player has their own type of tree (and associated seeds), which are different colours and shapes to help tell them apart on the board. As with anything requiring assembling, it's good fun to pop the cardboard parts out and put them together.

Photosynthesis layout

Photosynthesis has one expansion, Under The Moonlight (£15.64), which was released in UK in spring 2021. This enhances the base game with the addition of a moon, the Great Elder Tree, moonstones and the ability to collect lunar points for your forest animal (each of which has a special power). This will inevitably mix things up a bit when it comes to planning your strategy.

Indian Summer (2017)

  • By Uwe Rosenberg. Stronghold Games.
  • Age 10+, 1-4 players, 15-60 minutes playing time.

Designer Uwe Rosenberg is a big name in modern board games, known for some of the most popular strategic titles available. In Indian Summer, considered the most complex in his trilogy of tile placement games, players compete to cover their forest floors in tetris-like blocks of colourful leaves.

The race gets more interesting as you uncover treasures such as berries and mushrooms that tweak the rules. On the downside, the pieces are fiddly for less dextrous players, and it requires plenty of brain power – especially once the animal tiles come into play. Overall, the autumnal artwork makes this a spectacular option for fans of strategy games.

The other two games in Rosenberg's trilogy are Cottage Garden (Amazon), and Spring Meadow (Amazon).

Reviewed by Ella Davies, nature writer

Unstable Unicorns (2017)

  • By Ramy Badie.
  • Age 14+, 2-8 players, 30-45 minutes playing time.

One of the most backed games on Kickstarter's history, the aim of Unstable Unicorns is to build an army of unicorns in your Stable, starting with an adorable baby one. The winner is the first person to reach seven unicorns, which sounds simple but it is far from it. Some of the unicorns are destructive, and help you destroy unicorns in your opponents' Stable, or vice versa. Sadly even the baby unicorns aren't safe from such cruel actions, although they do get returned to the Nursery rather than be killed off, which is a relief.

Magical unicorns with special powers, as all as upgrade and downgrade cards, allow you to protect your unicorns, collect ones from the discarded pile, and effect how your opponents can play unicorns. The addition of 'Neigh' cards (and even a 'Super Neigh' card) provides another layer of fun – or frustration, if they are played against you – as they allow you to prevent your opponents playing cards.

As wildlife lovers, we were thrilled by the inclusion of narwhals and even a rhino – real life unicorns!

Multiple versions and expansions have been released in the years since the games original publication: the Unicorns of Legend expansion, the Dragon expansion, the Rainbow Apocalypse expansion, Adventure expansion, a NSFW (Not Safe For Work) version, plus a travel-sized version with only 82 cards (compared to 135 in the original).

Squirrel Rush (2016)

  • By Krzysztof Matusik. Tailor Games.
  • Age 6+, 2-6 players, 15-30 minutes playing time.

Squirrel Rush is a tile placement game that casts you as competitive squirrels, trying to collect as many nuts as possible before winter arrives. The game is simple to set up and quick to play but gets tactical as you choose the best path through the glade for the maximum haul of acorns.

It’s a fun family game, the wooden squirrel player pieces are satisfyingly tactile, and the cards feature adorable illustrations of red squirrels in action. Consider adding a copy to your cache if you’re a fan of logic puzzles, need a ‘filler’ between more involved games, or you’re catering for shorter attention spans.

Reviewed by Ella Davies, nature writer

Arboretum (2015)

  • By Dan Cassar. Renegade Games Studio.
  • Age 8+, 2-4 players, 30 minutes playing time.

If you dream of planting trees, you might be attracted by the prospect of Arboretum, a card game for 2-4 players that requires you to plot a path through a beautiful collection of your own creation. In truth, it’s not suited to dreamers, as things quickly become very competitive and players eventually wipe out each other’s arboricultural efforts.

While the cards can teach you about the shapes and shades of some of the world’s most flamboyant tree species, the game overall feels like a slightly harsh lesson on how to read your opponents. That said, it’s ideal for analytical thinkers, particularly when played head-to-head.

Reviewed by Ella Davies, nature writer

Birds of a Feather (2015)

  • By Teale Fristoe. Nothing Sacred Games.
  • Age 9+, 1-7 players, 15 minutes playing time.

You don’t have to know much about US bird species to play Birds of a Feather, though you might pick up a few facts from the game. Playing as a twitcher, you manage your hand of cards to tick off as many species as possible, earning extra points for full groups from differing habitats including wetlands, deserts and mountains.

It’s a great game for getaways, packed in a neat little box and with beautifully clear artwork sure to cheer up any rainy days. It’s also quick to play, suitable for all ages and can be played solo - but is best in bigger groups of up to seven.

Reviewed by Ella Davies, nature writer

Hive (2000)

Hive game box
  • By John Yianni. Gen42 Games.
  • Age 9+, 2 players, 45-75 minutes playing time.

This abstract game involves 22 different hexagonal tiles being placed and moved, each engraved with an animal motif. Like chess, there are black and white tiles (11 of each), and the different characters can move in different ways – spiders by three spaces, bees by one, grasshoppers jump over over tiles etc. And also like in chess, the aim is to capture a specific piece – in this game, you're aiming to surround the queen bee on all six sides.

Hive game layout

It's a neat little game, that requires no set up of the board – the game starts as soon as the first tile is placed down. As well as the movement rules for each type of animal tile, there are a number of other rules in place:

  • When placing down a tile for the first time (except your very first tile), it must touch a tile of your colour and must not touch a tile belonging to your opponent.
  • You must place the queen bee tile down within your first four turns.
  • Tiles cannot be moved until the queen bee is in play.
  • The larger hive (including tiles of both colours) can never be split into two (or more) parts, this is the ‘One Hive Rule’.
  • Tiles (with the exception of certain animals) can only be moved if they can slide out of position without moving any other tiles to do so.

This combination of rules means that there can be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as the game progresses – you must also think about how to block your queen bee from being surrounded whilst aiming to surround your opponent’s queen bee.

The game comes with a travel bag, meaning that you don't need to lug the board game box around with you – ideal if you want to take it camping or the like.

There have been expansions introduced with additional tile pieces: ladybug, mosquito and pillbug. These three pieces have different movement abilities to each other and the existing pieces. Two other versions of the game are available, including the completely black and white special edition Hive Carbon (£24.95) and the smaller version Hive Pocket (£16.95), both of which include the ladybug and mosquito expansions (and the pillbug is available to buy for both versions as well).


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Main image: Friends playing a board game. © Getty

Authors

Megan ShersbyEditorial and digital co-ordinator at BBC Wildlife Magazine, and countryfile.com
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