Birds of a Feather, by Teale Fristoe, Nothing Sacred Games (http://nothingsacredgames.com), 2015 [ages 9+, 15-minute play time, 1-7 players] $20.00
If you are looking for the perfect gift for the birder in your life, know this: holding this game in the hand is worth two in the bush. Birds of a Feather, Teale Fristoe’s latest game (a Kickstarter campaign success story) under the Oakland, California-based independent game studio label Nothing Sacred Games, is sure to drive birders to consider counting cards this Christmas instead of birds.
The premise is simple: you and your fellow birders are out to bag your big year, collecting as many unique bird observations as you can. The ‘birds’ in this case are 60 illustrated playing cards, each depicting any one of 35 different bird species across a range of habitats (desert, ocean, wetlands, forest, mountains). The birds vary from the scarcer ‘aces’ (spotted owl), raptors (prairie falcon), and rarities (varied thrush, rhinoceros auklet) to the more common (Brandt’s cormorant, spotted towhee).
To play, each player selects a card from their hand and places it face down in front of them. Then each player reveals their card simultaneously, divulging the place they chose to visit and what they saw there. The game play and scoring revolve around the various habitats and their associated birds. If you want to park your dusty VW Microbus camper in the desert to bird for the day, you can do so by playing a cactus wren. If anyone else played a desert bird that first round, you can also record their desert species on your score card (but mind that they in turn can record your wren). During the next round, the cards from the previous round stay in play. So if another player (say, one who played an ocean species the last time) wants to bogart your wren, they can play a desert card of their own during the next round to nab it and any other desert species left on the table. But remember, you only get one second chance – birds don’t stay put for ever. Once a card has been in play two rounds, that bird species (and your chances of life-listing it) vanish like an ivory-billed woodpecker.
The scarcity of a species determines its point value, and while there may be three chances to see a common black-throated sparrow, there’s only one northern goshawk to witness in the woods. So arises this game’s subtle strategy: achieving a balance between the quantity and quality of birds seen in each habitat, knowing when to follow the crowd and when to strike out into a new habitat, and succumbing to temptation when a rare bird makes an appearance. With each of these too-true subtleties, Fristoe magically captures the rapture of birding and big years in a simple deck of cards, no small feat in itself. But his true ace in the hole are the illustrations – the entire deck painted by Fristoe’s brother Trevor, with each bird portrayed playfully and artfully in spectacular renderings that bring the birds and the game to life.
If you are itching to DIY, you can also download the game and print your own cards for a nominal fee ($5.00), which is great if you are impatient to play but sidesteps the overall presentation and quality of the finished game. As a bonus, Fristoe has also made the score card available as an app (Android, iOS, and web) or a printable .pdf, doing away with the frustration sure to arise when you complete your last paper score card.
It’s true – no game can truly capture the experience of being outdoors. But if you’ve hung up your binoculars for the night because the birds aren’t the only thing Old Man Winter has put to bed, consider reaching instead for Birds of a Feather.