Get wild on your game nights.
If a board game falls in the forest, the sound it makes is definitely going to depend on whether you picked up the deluxe Kickstarter edition. Those metal coins are heavy, you know? But in solving that philosophical conundrum, another has presented itself: what about forests within our board games? Which games best recreate the feelings, sensations, and maybe even sounds of losing yourself in the great outdoors? It’s about time we investigated some of the best nature-themed board games hiding in the wilds.
Board games about nature
As we hack through the undergrowth to uncover some budding board game beauties, we’ll rate our choices on two key pieces of environmental evidence: how well they represent the idyllic scenes they claim to depict, and -- just because we can -- how woody a thunk they deliver when dropped onto a forest floor. Never tell us we don’t deliver rigorous analysis.
Great for lovers of: Trees (and tense, tactical showdowns).
The best season to visit an arboretum -- which is basically a meetup for lonely trees -- is unquestionably fall. As golds and auburns emerge amid the stubborn greens of perennials, our barky brethren’s leaves start to fall down upon you in a seasonal crescendo of aesthetic bliss. In Arboretum, the literal becomes metaphor: It falls on you to establish the finest tree-reserve the wooded world has ever seen.
With a stacked hand of saplings, your aim is to place tree cards from several species (suits) in ascending pathways through your personal play area. The longer the path, the more you’ll score. Build a route comprising a single species, and you’ll nurture a bounty of double points. Or rather, you might, because Arboretum has nearly as much bite as it does bark.
Scrape off Arboretum’s veneer, and you’ll uncover a cold and calculating scoring mechanism. Hands are kept hidden, and come the end of the draw pile, only the player holding the most of a given suit will be able to score it. The result is a game fraught with tension. Everyone will be desperately holding onto cards valuable for both themselves and their opponents, too afraid to play or discard them.
Environmental essence: Stunning artwork relays the majesty of mother nature, but you’ll likely be too tense to actually appreciate it -- 5/5 for beauty and stress
Natural noises: A forest in your pocket sounds pretty dense, doesn’t it? Slimmed to a single deck of cards, however, Arboretum woodland offers only the subtle plonk of fledgeling failing its first attempt at flight -- 1/5
Keystone: North America
Great for lovers of: Animals, particularly those who’ll fit into an orderly grid.
We don’t often think of animals as holding down jobs, but the locksmith trade of the wild must be booming. We’re assuming so, anyway, given the need for so many keys in the food chain. In Keystone: North America, bullish biologists compete to craft the best biome in the business by adding animals and habitats to their four-by-four grid.
Slotting an animal in next to their suitable habitats scores you points and so too does establishing a pseudo food chain of numbers across the rows and columns. Of course, being nerdy researchers, you’ll find the allure of science is strong. You can also invest your time in research that can add value to tiles or recruit a raccoon removals team to shift a tile to another slot.
Keystone: North America ran a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year and should be venturing into the wilds mid-2022. Given the positive reception to the game thus far, it’s one well worth making room for in your nature board games reserve.
Environmental essence: Along with food chains and fantastic looks, the game enlisted a conservationist as a lead designer. You spoil us, Keystone -- 10/5
Natural noises: Given most copies currently reside in the ethereal realm of Kickstarter production, we’ll just have to assume that the box would deliver the true weight of the edifying themes contained within -- 4/5
Great for lovers of: Filling their home with plant pots instead of people.
Cultivating nature is a worthy aspiration, but what about the space-limited of us? For that purpose, Gaia provided the humble herb. Not only will these hardy souls grow in a tiny pot on your window shelf, they’ll even spruce up the meals you cook. The danger, as set-collecting card game Herbaceous knows all too well, is that once you get one, you’ll begin craving them all.
Herbaceous is about as straightforward as games get. Each turn you draw two cards, choosing to place one in your private garden and the other in a shared allotment. Your eventual aim is to pot them. Grab a handful from your private garden and the shared space, and you can stuff them into one of four containers. You only get one shot per container, though, meaning careful timing is required to maximise your herby haul. Act too late, and that thyme will be snatched by another player’s thieving mitts.
The best rule of Herbaceous only comes into play should anyone manage to pot all three levels of special herb within their glass jar container. Achieve such a feat of mint mastery, and you immediately claim the right to devour the herb biscuit -- that’s a scone, for our confused European audiences. Tasty and worth bonus points.
Environmental essence: Herbaceous is light and breezy. Coincidentally, that’s how you should be keeping your real herbs, too. Don’t try watering the cards, mind -- 4/5
Natural noises: Herbs don’t exactly weigh much, and neither do these cards. A forest-floor thump barely loud enough to disturb a snoozing squirrel -- 2/5
Ecos: First Continent
Great for lovers of: Ecosystems and/or god complexes.
It’s time we blossomed from plant pots to the planet itself. Ecos: First Continent is about guiding the early habitats of Earth. Expanding a shared grid of land and oceans, you’ll be filling this world with splendors like mountains, trees, and animals. It’s a beautiful premise. But like a gaggle of disagreeable gods, you all have your own goals for the paradise you’re creating. Your planned array of pyrenees mountains isn’t going to mesh well with the flood of hippos that the player across from you is attempting to unleash.
Each round of Ecos sees one player pull elemental tokens from a bag. Anyone with cards matching the symbol has the chance to trigger them and add something new to the continent. If you’re unable to utilize an element, don’t worry! Its power can be put towards resources or greater rewards for the future instead. There’s a bingo element to Ecos’ bag-pulling, which makes every successful match feel like its own miniature victory.
Environmental essence: The overhead view disconnects you from the experience, but pop on the “Lion King” soundtrack, and you’ll soon lose yourself in the birth of a blissfully human-free world -- 3/5
Natural noises: The responsibility of an entire world offers a solid, fern-crushing size but a lighter burden than you’d expect! -- 3/5
Great for lovers of: Hiking, bears, and stress-free scenery.
When park rangers warn you about approaching wild bears, the truth is, they’re just trying to keep all the freebies to themselves. That’s according to the relaxing strolls of Trails, anyway. A smaller-scale, complexity-lite sequel to the much-loved Parks, Trails sends you and your tablemates forth on a jaunt through mother nature. Stopping in forests and on rocky mountains, you’ll collect resources before splashing out on various victory point scouts badges at either end of your journey.
Trails, much like Parks, features stunning artwork from the Fifty-Nine Parks series. There’s even more beauty to admire here, however, as the route slowly shifts from day to night, revealing dreamlike stars in the skies above. And that bear we mentioned? Land on the same space as his adorable meeple, and you get to roll the dedicated Wildlife die. This sends him scampering off like a furry minion to gather the reward for another tile. Eschewing challenge in favor of chill, Trails is about as relaxing and welcoming as board games come.
Environmental essence: Would be perfect but we can’t honestly recommend exploring bear country alone in the middle of the night -- 4/5
Natural noises: This tiny box is more likely to draw attention for its tasty acorn tokens than any sound effects when slung into the undergrowth -- 1/5
If you’re after more board games that’ll get you out and about without ever stepping beyond the front door, explore our list of intercontinental board games here. Got your own nature-themed board game picks? Reprimand us for forgetting Wingspan via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And while you’re in the gaming mood, you should definitely stick the Going Analog Podcast in your ears.
Author bio: When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Gloomhaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found gobbling up all the latest and greatest party games, then wondering why he can never find the time to actually play them with friends. Share your love of deck builders with him on Twitter @Fernoface, or drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.