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Designer Diary: Creating Animalia: Preventing Extinction

M.J.E. Hendriks
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Board Game: Animalia: Preventing Extinction
Only the sound of our footsteps was audible, each crunch of snow shattering the silence of the blanketed Baltic forest. We had been tracking the Eurasian lynx for hours already, collecting urine, scat, and hair for our research. The idea was to keep a distance of at least three kilometers (approx. two miles), so as not to spook the feline hunter, and so far our study of lynx behavior and ecology had proven successful.

We had been studying the lynx around Europe, in Slovakia, Germany, Finland, Russia, and now here we were, in eastern Estonia, near the lovely shores of Lake Peipus. Suddenly our guide, Aitamah, a local forest ranger, held up her hand. We stopped short, forgetting to breathe. Out of the misty depths of the forest the lynx, the very cat we had been tracking, emerged, silently, crossing our path before disappearing again among the trees.

Animalia: Preventing Extinction is a co-operative card game for one to three players in which you are working for the Institute for Wildlife Conservation (IWC). As a researcher, you want to contribute to the protection of endangered animal species. You will be sent out on missions around the world to collect data on various animals and gain funding in an attempt to save animals and establish a level of awareness among the people of the world.

Players decide on a continent to play, after which they're expected to fulfill the missions belonging to that continent. Each mission is an individual undertaking, with the researcher needing to collect (data on) the animals stated on their mission card. The mechanism used for this is trick taking.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You might be wondering, of course, how we got here in the first place? Well, I'll tell you.

In the beginning there was nothing. Well, not quite nothing. There were two gaming friends obsessed with everything board games: playing board games; discussing board games; even hosting a board game podcast. And from this was born a germ of an idea: "Have you ever heard of a co-operative trick-taking game, and how do you think that would work?" asked Gerben (Gerben Ernst) in an email to me in April 2017. I immediately started to look into this and found Familiar's Trouble, a game we were able to play a few years later, but nothing much else to speak of. It seemed like it was worth the trouble of working something out and I set off designing, coming up with a theme and trying to see how this would work. A day later, we got together and the design process had begun.
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
When I design a game, I try to make it as thematically correct as possible. Therefore, I find myself contacting specialists in the field.

When researching the European wolf, I was trying to find out what national park to use for this in the description, so I contacted Ilka Reinhardt, who has done research into wolves in Western Europe. This is why, for the wolf in Animalia, the location is Lusatia as the wolf lives pretty much everywhere in Lusatia, including in active military training grounds, which are — odd as that may seem — the most secure areas for wolves. (The Society for Conservation Biology)
We started with a card game, then switched to a board game with an actual map of the world, then switched back to cards, using them as a route along which the researchers would travel from country to country. In the end, we opted for cards with artwork depicting the countries. Originally, though, the order of the countries as we traveled through a continent was important and something a lot of thought went into. It's strange to think about this now as the order doesn't really play a role in the game anymore. Somehow it's a shame as we enjoyed the idea of the game being not only educational from an animal conservation perspective, but also geographically.

As stated, when we started, there were no major co-operative trick-taking games, but the landscape has changed. Co-operative trick-taking games are popping up like mushrooms left and right. One of the most popular of these is The Crew, but whereas The Crew and most (all?) others allow little to no communication, Animalia is quite different as it revolves around communication. Animalia has no rules on or limitations to what information can be shared, making it a "paradise" for players struggling with AP (analysis paralysis), you might think...

In fact, the opening up of all information — without showing each other your cards since that would allow for an alpha player to just take over and play the game by themselves — has allowed us to make the game goals considerably more difficult (or at least complex) to achieve, without the risk of the players failing all the time. At the same time, this approach eliminates the rules of having to be quiet during a game. This is something I personally always feel is somewhat opposite to what a good (co-operative) game should be; you want to "co-operate", don't you?
From gallery of W Eric Martin
If you have a family-friendly game, you might want to take children into consideration as well as people with certain...phobias. This was something we struggled with when considering the inclusion of spiders. Arachnaphobia is a thing, right?

In the end, we just decided to go with it. Spiders, too, are a part of the natural world, and why not include them, however scary. Still, we had numerous testers exclaim at the sight of one of our arachnid cards.
This brings us to one of the first problems we encountered with the design: What do we do with perfect information? Do we divvy up all the cards, like in Klaverjassen, a well-known Dutch trick-taking game that uses eight cards from each suit? Do we work with decks, where you start out with a number of cards, but after each trick you draw a new card until you've drawn all your cards (similar to Claim)? Or perhaps we simply remove a number of cards from the equation, like Haggis does.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
It took many tries, but in the end we decided to opt for an innovative method of causing confusion among the players. Each color (suit) represents a continent and consists of a number of animals. Each card has a number and an animal type associated with it. The 1s, for example, are the arachnids or spiders. We were working with eight cards for each color, but now the trick was to use have just eight types of animals, but ten types. Each continent has two animal types that aren't represented that well (or aren't really well known). For example, the 10s are the "gentle giants", and Europe has long since gotten rid of all gentle giants from its shores. This way each color has different numbers missing, making it more difficult to figure out which animal cards are still in play and what the exact distribution is.

Another design issue was the continents. We planned an order to the continents, starting in Europe, then moving to North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and finally the Arctic. The idea was, initially, to allow for one to six players, with the number of players determining the number of continent cards used. Each player would receive eight cards, and a dummy hand would have to exist, as in bridge, so the number of continents would be the number of human players plus one. Quickly, we determined that the dummy's cards needed to be open information, so they are laid out face up, neatly ordered, with the human players collectively deciding which card the dummy (the IWC!) will play. In the published version, we had to cut the number of cards to make it fit the format (a small box game), and now it's currently a three-continent game, with all animal cards always being used. Strictly speaking, therefore, the game is a two-player game, which is why there are two added variants: the solo game in which you play all hands at once (but will have multiple missions to accomplish for different hands), and the three-player game in which the dummy is played by a player.
Romania is home to over half of Europe's bears. The wildlife reserve and rewilding efforts in the Carpathian Mountains are one of the main reasons for this, yet the situation is less clear cut than it may seem as man encroaches on nature, and nature encroaches on man, and there is probably no better place to highlight this than here. The bears require a huge habitat and are free-ranging creatures. Intensified farming has a detrimental effect on the bears and their habitat, forcing them ever higher up.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
(Credits: Lesniewski/Wild Wonders of Europe/NPL/Alamy Stock Photo)

Farms, however, with the accompanying farm animals, are attractive prospects to the bears, and therefore humans find themselves face to face with these huge creatures more often than they'd like. Should we fence the animals in (and out), or should we learn to live with them? How does one "manage" such a large creature on such a densely populated continent?
So how interesting is it to include a dummy player? Any games that require a dummy for a certain player count are generally considered less good and less interesting than when you can just play without. A dummy player will never play at the level of a human, and by necessity it'll require its own rules to be learned. However, here the dummy player was assigned its own role — but to explain that, I have to first tell you about the differences with the cards.

The animal cards range from 1 through 10, with two numbers missing. In a trick-taking game, you can have a trump suit, which was an option for a while — the current continent (for which you are doing missions) would be the trump color — but in the end we went with the 10 cards, the gentle giants functioning as trump. (For the first continent, to make it easier to understand the rules, this is not yet the case.) Other than trump, or "dominant animals" as we like to call them, the higher card always wins the trick. So what if you have only low cards? How do you win tricks? I really like the idea, just like in games with dice, that the low results (cards in this case) also do something special. Thus, we added special actions for the 1 to 3 cards, used "funding" for the 4 to 6 cards, left the 7 to 9 cards alone as they are high enough to win a trick, and kept the 10 cards also functioning as trump cards.
In Berlin today there live approximately 2,000 foxes. They traipse around the streets, often unafraid, living off the waste and litter of the Berlin residents.

From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Source: Berliner Zeitung

In bygone days, these red foxes were hunters, preying on live prey, but these city foxes have adapted, becoming gatherers, with smaller habitats and different lifestyles. They aren't hunted by man, aren't preyed upon by larger predators, and even traffic isn't really a threat.
Funding, you will ask? Indeed, this brings us to the IWC, which functions as the dummy in the game. The IWC is always looking for more funding, so any trick it wins that contains a 4, 5, or 6 results in $1m of funding. This money counts as your determiner for how well you're doing, but can also be spent on the action cards, which each cost $1m to activate.

Perhaps this is a good place to quickly discuss the mission cards. Each continent consists of six missions, and depending on the difficulty, players collectively receive 1-3 mission cards. Yes, this means that on the easiest level, in a two-player game, one player has a mission and the other does not. Each mission card consists of one animal that needs to be researched, as well as a number of other animals that are similar either by type, region, burrowing habits, or whatnot. (In essence, researching them gives you data you can compare.)
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Another interesting example of reaching out to the experts in the field was when our American editor found there was an actual Institute for Wildlife Conservation in Hungary and advised us to change the name.

Instead, I did some research of my own and found a researcher there with a Dutch-sounding name: Hanna Bijl. I contacted her via Instagram, and she told me that the name of the institute had been recently changed, but that it would probably take another couple of years before all the sites had been updated. Furthermore, she pointed out there was no copyright on such a name, so that that wouldn't be a problem. Hence we decided to keep the IWC.
Now, back to the cards: the action cards! Indeed, in a card game, the cards are shuffled and distributed randomly, so it is always possible that the missions can simply not be achieved, however hard you try and talk things out. For this reason, when you play any 1, 2, or 3, you can pay $1m to immediately take the corresponding action. The 1 allows you to trade a card from your hand with someone else's hand. The 2 allows you to take a card from someone else's trick pile and add it to your own trick pile. And finally, the 3 allows you to take the special continent action, which differs per continent.

Animalia comes with three difficulty levels, three game variants (one for each player count), and two play modes. These play modes existed from the beginning and make the game extremely interesting. You can play a continent (six missions), or a campaign of multiple continents. Whenever you fail any mission, the game ends and you have to start again, but generally players should be able to find out the game difficulty that fits them best pretty easily, and then you should always be able to do well for most of the missions, even if it is on easy difficulty. Each round is a challenging puzzle that lends itself to first discussing what your goals are and how you feel you're going to achieve them.
From gallery of Mr Mjeh
Credits: Kate Small
"Nice shooting, bro!" The Instagram account of the hunter is filled to the brim with dead animals, devoid of life, of soul. Each photo sees a hunter, often someone other than the account holder, standing over the dead animal. Holding it. Gloating. A trophy.

"I just have one more dream. One more item on my bucket list that I would like to tick off before I die. Shoot wolves from a helicopter. If only they'd legalize that, then I'd be on the first 'copter out."
Additionally, we have added a table with achievements so you can track how much funding you have collected for a specific continent or in a particular campaign. This way you can tick off the "difficulty levels" and will always still have new achievements you can then chase (for the more difficult achievement, even on easy, can be extremely difficult to attain).
When you're having artwork done for your game, you really need to pay attention and make sure everything is correct. (Of course, this counts for everything — one iteration of the game box even had my name misspelled!)

With animals that can be an additional challenge. One of the animals for which this was the case was the toucan. We referred to Parque Nacional Tortuguero in Costa Rica for the toucan and used a photo from the internet for our prototype, but the artist painted a toco toucan rather than the keel-billed toucan that should've been used. And how was he to know? The description simply said "toucan". Luckily we were able to spot this in time.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Toco toucan (l) and keel-billed toucan
In the end, it took us five years to get Animalia designed, tested, and published, but we are now absolutely delighted with the final product, with the wonderful artwork by Loïc Billiau. Hopefully, provided we get a good reception, we can start working on the standalone expansion of Africa, Asia, and Oceania as those are pretty much ready to go given that those continents were part of the original game, so many years ago.

I would like to thank you for reading. Enjoy the game, and don't forget to post about your achievements on social media using hashtags #animalia, #animaliapreventingextinction, and #animaliaachievements!

Michiel Justin Elliott Hendriks
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