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Players collaborate to rescue endangered animals in a new conservation-themed game

Endangered: A Game of Survival

Joe Hopkins
Grand Gamers Guild
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Species conservation evokes visions of khaki-clad antipoaching teams, zoo breeding programs, and volunteer-led beach cleanups. Certain furred, fanged, and feathered creatures may also spring to mind, as do the many fundraising pleas made on their behalf. Endangered is a new board game that brings together these elements of conservation and more as players cooperatively work to convince an international panel of ambassadors to vote “yes” on passing a resolution to save a target species.

This is no simple task, because each ambassador represents a different country with individual demands. They may refuse to support the resolution if the initiative lacks sufficient funds, if habitat destruction is not addressed, or if a large enough population of the species under consideration exists in the wild. However, the need to influence ambassadors often fades to the background as players are immersed in mitigating immediate threats such as oil spills and forest clear-cutting.

Conservation is a highly multidisciplinary and cooperative enterprise. Endangered acknowledges these characteristics by placing all players on the same team, with each person assuming a specific role, such as zoologist, environmental lawyer, or philanthropist. Each role brings special abilities into play, from lobbying power to knowledge of a species’ migration behaviors.

The base game has a two-sided board that allows players to mount conservation efforts for either tigers or sea otters, with each module incorporating species-specific game play. (In three upcoming expansions, players will be able to save California condors, sea turtles, tapirs, polar bears, and more.)

In the tiger module, the board simulates a forest habitat with wooden tiger figurines occupying various spaces on a grid. Deforestation tiles fragment the landscape, multiplying over the course of the game, which limits the creatures’ movement. Tigers caught in deforested regions become collateral damage, which creates incentives for players to strategically move them away from at-risk areas. Players can encourage population growth by moving two tiger pieces to the same square, although mating success is not guaranteed. The game even incorporates some basic tiger biology. For example, because tigers are solitary creatures, pairs must separate after reproductive events and occupy their own spaces on the board. Offspring similarly require their own spaces within the shrinking habitat, which creates spatial puzzles for players to solve.

Player actions, animal reproductive success, and habitat destruction are all determined by dice rolls, an agonizing reminder that the best-laid plans can only bring one so far. Adding to the uncertainty, a random “impact” card is revealed after each player’s turn. One such card, the “clear-cutting” card, hastens the rate of deforestation. The “poachers” card, meanwhile, instantly removes tigers from the board. In a darkly humorous imitation of life, the mundanely named “bureaucracy” card packs one of the stronger punches in the game: It continuously slows the pace of actions that players can take.

Facts printed on the impact cards educate and provide fodder for discussing conservation. The “government upheaval” card, for example, describes how strict anti-poaching controls of Siberian tigers loosened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Players who scoff at the seemingly random “shark attack” card in the otter module learn that human fishing activities can deplete otter prey sources, leading them to expand their range into more dangerous territories. As they do in real life, indirect human activities can act as the final nail in the coffin for species imperiled on multiple fronts.

It is tempting to pour one’s efforts into addressing the most visible issues, such as widening swaths of ocean pollution in the otter module, but the all-important vote by the international panel determines whether the players ultimately win or lose the game. As the game makes clear, in the end, influencing international policy is just as critical for saving species as local efforts.

Despite its cooperative nature, Endangered sets a high bar when it comes to strategy. The trade-offs that players are forced to make between staving off imminent species extinction and working toward more sustainable long-term goals create tough but satisfying team decisions. The game is by no means easy, but it feels accessible and would likely be enjoyable to board gamers of all experience levels. Its obvious educational component also makes it a promising candidate for classrooms and appropriate to pair with discussions on conservation challenges.

The take-home messages from this game are clear: Long-term conservation cannot be carried out by a few lone actors, habitat restoration cannot be maintained without funding, and nothing is sustainable without long-term solutions.

About the author

The reviewer is at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center and the Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of Florida, Lake Alfred, FL 33850, USA.