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A pair of climate-focused board games promises smart fun for gaming enthusiasts

Evolution: Climate

North Star Games
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Catan Scenarios: Oil Springs

Mayfair Games
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Board games are growing as a popular hobby in mainstream culture and academic circles, thanks, in part, to the rise of “Eurogames,” which emphasize strategy and individual development over luck and conflict. Given their wide appeal, board games also represent a media form ripe with potential for science education. This review presents two board games with environmentally themed expansions that can help kick-start discussions on the effects of climate change.

Evolution: Climate is the newest stand-alone expansion by North Star Games, released on 1 November 2016. In the titular base game (Evolution), reviewed by West (1), players create new animal species by combining trait cards designed to maximize survival. The result is a frenzied evolutionary arms race, as players add and discard traits in response to starvation risk and predation by other species.

The game even comes with a sheet of proposed scientific names that tip their hat to traditional Latin nomenclature while borrowing from modern vernacular. A climbing carnivore, for instance, may have the cheeky name of Ascendo nom-nom.

Rachael Yost

Food scarcity, predator threats, and a volatile climate incite an evolutionary arms race in Evolution: Climate.

In the new expansion, climate oscillates between an “Ice Age” and “scorching” temperatures, driving evolution by selectively reducing populations of maladapted species that are too large or small in body size. One-time events, such as volcanic eruptions and glacial thaws, reduce food availability or select for certain body sizes. New trait cards bring with them new trade-offs and decisions: Should one invest in heavy fur for freezing temperatures or horns to discourage an opponent’s carnivore?

The species created in this game may raise questions during and after play. Just how adaptive is a long neck on a burrower? How can an ambush carnivore realistically cooperate with a hibernating climber?

Another gem is when players discover the Red Queen hypothesis on their own. “I’m just trying to keep up!” is a common refrain, as players struggle to keep their species alive amidst ever-evolving predators and prey.

The addition of climate not only adds another layer of complexity to players’ strategies but also emphasizes its role as a vehicle for evolution. Players witness firsthand how species with small populations suffer greater extinction risks when climate changes, especially with major shifts.

Evolution: Climate positions players to discuss current challenges to conservation efforts. Biotic and abiotic factors regularly place pressures on populations, and environmental stochasticity can be the proverbial nail in the coffin for maladapted species. Extinctions can spell further changes in community assemblage, a reminder of the interlinked nature of living systems.

Catan Scenarios: Oil Springs, by Mayfair Games, is an expansion of the critically acclaimed game The Settlers of Catan. The base game centers on a race to colonize the fictional island of Catan. Placement of a player’s initial settlements determines his or her access to resources, which in turn fuel further development of roads, settlements, and, eventually, cities. The first player to cinch 10 victory points wins.

Oil Springs introduces a new resource (oil) to the mix. One unit of oil can be converted to two of the original resources or spent to upgrade cities to metropolises, allowing for faster development. The flip side is that its overuse wreaks disasters, either by flooding coastal settlements or corrupting resource tiles into unproductive wastelands. Too many disasters will prematurely end the game with an island-wide deluge, encouraging players to stem their collective usage.

Using oil to accelerate development is not the only strategy for advancement. Sequestering it permanently removes it from circulation and earns players victory points. The player who sequesters the most oil is crowned the “Champion of the Environment,” also worth a point, providing further incentive to make environmentally sustainable decisions.

The Settlers of Catan is a notoriously contentious game, and this expansion is no exception. The allure of oil’s quick payoffs proves hard to resist, and well-endowed players can exploit it to the brink of collective destruction. This imbalance means the rich get richer and lagging players are affected the most by natural disasters wrought by others.

The Oil Springs scenario creates an interesting social experiment among players, because it perfectly illustrates the tragedy-of-the-commons dynamic, raising the question of how best to incentivize individuals to cooperate, especially when payoffs favor decisions that leave the environment on the brink of disaster.

By showing the link between the economy and the environment, Oil Springs asks some hard philosophical questions. How much is the natural world worth, and who is responsible for its welfare? Should blame be apportioned to parties that contribute the most toward environmental degradation? Or those that actually trigger a disaster?


  1. S. West, Nature 528, 199 (2015)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.