Posts Tagged book review

Game Review: Evolution

evolution_box_rt_2nd_edition_1024x1024Evolution (2nd Edition), by North Star Games (, 2015 [ages 12+, 30-minute play time, 2-6 players] $54.99.

In the game of life, survival is key. And that’s not so different in the board game Evolution, the breakthrough Kickstarter success story in its second edition by North Star Games whose very DNA mimics our dog-eat-dog world.

As the game begins, each player takes charge of a new “species.” During each player’s turn, the species in their hand can be enhanced by playing or trading trait cards. Trading in a card to level up a species’ body size or population size makes them harder to be attacked or driven to extinction, but doing so comes with the added burden of needing additional food to sustain them. Playing a trait card confers that species with unique abilities that help them collect extra food (e.g. “scavenger,” “long neck,” and “fat tissue”), fend off attacks (e.g. “climbing,” “hard shell,” and “warning call”),  or attack other species (e.g. “ambush,” “pack hunting,” or “carnivore”). Each species is limited to three unique traits, but these cards can be swapped throughout the game to “evolve” in response to the competition as new species come and go.

In lieu of leveling-up the prehensile proto-llama or feathered faux-ferret you’ve created, each player also has the option of instead adding a new species to their hand to create various amalgams. And with every new species spawned (and their numbers grow), the food begins to dwindle as the watering hole gets that much more crowded. Because Evolution‘s game mechanics allow enough plasticity to repeatedly reboot or rebrand any number of species combos, the game play continues to change as different species thrive or fade to extinction. With a swap of one trait card you can transmorgify your seed-gathering arboreal pocket mouse into a blood-thirsty carnivorous arboreal pocket mouse who, because strength lies in numbers, may be the downfall of an opponent’s saber-toothed salamander.

Especially for those with a science background, it’s hard not to try and imagine real life examples of the pseudo-species you’ve created in the petri dish that is your “hand” of species. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you had better hope it has teeth because when the food runs out, no one is safe.  As players fight to evolve or eliminate the competition, they may have to cannibalize their own creations to become the last pygmy manatee standing in a playing field truly red in tooth and claw (or, if you play your cards right, hoof and trunk).

Evolution’s game play is so carefully crafted and expertly executed, it appears to have been lifted straight from the pages of Biology 101. Inhabiting a unique niche among board games as both tool and toy, Evolution has no equal. Imagine a lesson plan so addictive and so illustrative, the act of learning – a journey of enlightenment about species interactions, competition, and survival – unfolds unconsciously. One can only imagine the trajectory scientific progress might have taken if the Beagle’s own Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy had sat down to tinker with this board game in the captain’s parlor during their long voyage at sea instead of frolicking after a few fickle finches.


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Game Review: Birds of a Feather


birds_boxBirds of a Feather, by Teale Fristoe, Nothing Sacred Games (, 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.

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Book Review: Painting the Cows and Adventures in Conservation

Painting the CowsPainting the Cows: Twenty Years of Wildlife Conservation in California and the West, by T.A. Roberts, John Daniel & Company (, 1998, 176 pages, $14.95

Adventures in Conservation: Painting the Cows and Other Tales, by T.A. Roberts, Stone Wall Press, Inc., 1989, 174 pages, $12.95

I first discovered the work of Thomas A. Roberts several years after I settled in as a wildlife biologist. I can’t remember how I came by Painting the Cows, but I still recall my delight as I devoured and relished his writing. Later, when I loaned my copy out, I did so reluctantly – eager to share with friends a new author, concerned the book would get lost in circulation (… it did). Even though it gathered dust on a friend’s shelf for several years, upon its return Painting the Cows reassumed its rightful place with the other formative books in my personal natural history library – titles like Song of the WhaleMind of the Raven, and Never Cry Wolf that first breathed life into the job title ‘wildlife biologist’ long before I ever set foot in the field.

Roberts, wearing the hat of both wildlife biologist and forest ranger in Adventures in Conservation and its successor, Painting the Cows, revisits his years in the field with wonder, humility, and self-effacing honesty. Whether he’s setting controlled burns or smothering tempers (sometimes his own), driving a desk or driving a pickup, Roberts’ ruminations on the field of wildlife conservation are tempered by his insight into Nature and the human condition. In each story about the wild outdoors, Roberts lets slip how too often his battles are fought in the untamed wildland-urban interface of town hall meetings and written reports.

Roberts’ crisp writing is both evocative and grounded, describing a treed mountain lion “yawning improbable ten-penny fangs,” or decrying Idaho’s Snake River as a “century-long experiment to turn southern Idaho into a soil/fertilizer/pesticide slurry” such that “the state had gained world-class potatoes and a motto for its license plates, and lost the kind of locale National Geographic does specials about.” Subjecting himself to the same raw scrutiny, Roberts describes his participation in a mountain lion capture as “the kind of thing I wanted [my son] to think I did for a living,” or admits his personnel management style “was to delegate as much as possible, since I learned so much better from other people’s mistakes than I did from my own.”

AdventuresinConservationAmong the gems in Adventures in Conservation and Painting the Cows are “The Great Mule Deer Smorgasbord,” detailing Roberts’ Rube Goldberg attempts to catch a deer;  “Playing God in Montana,” in which wildlife becomes a straw man for a community’s concerns about the development of a proposed church headquarters along the Yellowstone River; and “Moment of Truth,” where Roberts’ mettle as a biologist is put to the test when the businessman side of the business asks too much of him. But don’t be mistaken. Although those stories stand out, each story in these anthologies is outstanding, making either book an upstanding gift for anyone with a hankering for wildlife biology.

And if you find yourself enchanted with Roberts’ writing, don’t overlook his fiction, an oeuvre of mysteries published over the years (Shy Moon, the Edgar Award-nominated The Heart of the Dog, and Beyond Saru) that peaks with his latest installment, Drake’s Bay, set in the San Francisco Bay Area (reviewed here).


(Disclaimer: Reviewer Matthew Bettelheim and Thomas A. Roberts have recently joined forces as co-editors of The Wildlife Confessional, an upcoming anthology of short stories by wildlife professionals to be published through The Wildlife Society. This collaborative effort was inspired by Mr. Roberts’ original anthologies, but has in no way biased the content of this review.)

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Book Review: Trees of Western North America

Trees of W N Amerk10216Trees of Western North America, by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson, Princeton University Press (, 2014, 560 pages, $29.95

In this latest installment in the Princeton Field Guides series, botanists and ecologists Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson have introduced two new guides to the trees of North America, Trees of Western North America (reviewed here) and its companion guide, Trees of Eastern North America.

With Trees of Western North America, users will have at their fingertips a guide to the identification of 630 tree species accompanied by detailed color paintings, regional interstate range maps, and a Quick ID that summarizes key tree characteristics. For every species, the illustrations depict tree form, branches and twigs, leaves, fruits, flowers, and bark. Given the number of trees tackled here, the text is understandably brief but thorough, drilling down to the bare essentials. Still, most accounts close with notes describing any particulars that make each species unique: conservation status, varieties, hybrids, history. Whether you’re faced with a saguaro or a sequoia, a hawthorn or a hemlock, this easy guide will surely get you to the birch in time.

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Book Review: Astoria – John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire

astoriastarkAstoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival, by Peter Stark, Harper Collins Publishers (, 2014, 384 pages, $27.99

In 1810, less than five years after the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s westward push to the Pacific Coast, entrepreneur and visionary John Jacob Astor approached Thomas Jefferson with a proposition – to establish a trading emporium along the then-unexplored Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, and there build an empire. Recognizing in the fur trade America’s untapped tradable wealth, Astor conceived “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known,” a scheme bold enough to make a Bond villain blush: to (a) import blankets, pots, and beads from London and New York and convey them to the Pacific Coast, where he would (b) exchange the goods for furs from the coastal and inland Indians along established trading posts, so that he could then (c) resell the furs in Canton China and purchase porcelain, tea, and silk, which he would lastly (d) resell at markets in New York and London at an unimaginable markup. All Astor needed was to secure an overland route across the North American continent and seed a colony from which his empire would flourish.

To see his vision through, Astor – a pauper-cum-millionaire made in the fur trade and real estate for whom money was no object – assembled two parties. His Overland Party, led by the thoughtful Wilson Price Hunt, was to cross the Rockies and establish an interior network of trading posts. His Seagoing Party, lead by the mercurial US Naval Captain Jonathan Thorn, was to transport supplies and tradable goods around Cape Horn to join with the Overland Party at the Columbia River. There, along the (more-or-less) unexplored horizon of the Pacific Ocean, the two companies would meet up and break ground for Astor’s great empire. That, at least, was the plan.

What played out next across the North American continent as both parties forged westward reads like a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Fighting off starvation, abandonment, theft, betrayal, inclement weather, scurvy, insanity, paranoia, cannibalism, scalping, vengeful (and friendly) Indians, and the looming threat of war – oh, and death, plenty of death, the two parties struggled against towering waves, unforgiving mountains, and bone-chilling drafts of sea and snow. And those that made it found themselves no better off, stranded in Astoria and removed from the world, wondering whether reinforcements would arrive before their enemies. Replete with tales of derring-do and self-sacrifice, and those more shameful, including a vindictive ship captain leaping into a longboat to beat the daylights out of a sailor with a handful of sugarcane stalks for arriving after the ship’s departure, there is no shortage of white-knuckle moments.

In the years to follow, the paths Astor’s men forged across the Rockies would seed the United State’s westward expansion along the Oregon Trail. But for so great an achievement, Astoria’s history has been inexplicably eclipsed somewhere between the period of Native American occupation and the California Gold Rush. But not so in Astoria. From cover to cover, the labored birth of Astoria is woven together seamlessly and entertainingly by Peter Stark, whose craft as a storyteller makes Astoria a delight to read. Astor, Hunt, and Thorn leap from the pages in fairytale fashion, becoming larger than life as Stark dusts off a chapter of history much forgotten today. Well researched and well told, Astoria intermingles a nostalgia for our once-unexplored continent with an awe inspiring respect for the unforgiving lands and the men and women that braved them.

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