Saturday, 26 May 2012

Elephant No. 237: Board Game

I don't really know what possessed me to think of making an elephant board game today. It's not as though I play a lot of board games anymore; nor have I seen any recent references to board games. But I felt compelled, so here it is.

Board games have existed for millennia. The earliest board game is thought to be the Ancient Egyptian game of senet, which dates back to at least 3500 B.C., although there may have been board games in other civilizations of the same period.

Board game in shape of scorpion, ca. 2000 B.C.
Jiroft civilization, Iran.

Over the centuries, board games became more sophisticated, relying less on simply moving a marker from square to square, and more on skill, strategy, and even psychology. Examples of ancient board games still widely played today include backgammon, chess, parchisi, mancala and go.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries arguably represent the golden age of the board game. It was common for large groups of people to play games such as charades and cards on social occasions, and the popularity of parlour games led to the development of board games that could also be played by multiple players at a time. Games such as Snakes and Ladders, Candyland, Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue, Sorry and Risk were all developed between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth.

Snakes and Ladders game from India, 19th century.

Board games can be relatively straightforward—like the one I made today—or quite complicated. Complexity in a board game can be rule-related, strategy-related, or even result from the universe in which a roleplaying game is set. Many board games now have online versions as well, allowing people to compete against a computer or against one another in virtual games of Scrabble, chess and many others.

For today's elephant, I started by sketching out the general outline of the board, including a snaking path from the starting point to the finish line. I decided that the board should have about twenty-five squares, and that the path would look best if it meandered a bit.

To create the board surface, I was originally going to tape two pieces of bristol board together, each of which measured 28 x 35.5 cm (11 x 14 inches). When I tried this, however, it made a surface that was far too large, so I stuck with a single sheet.

Next, I drew on the path, making it about 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) wide, and making each space about 2.5 x 3.5 cm (1 x 1.4 inches), to allow room for two game pieces to sit in a space at a time.

Once I was relatively happy with the look of the path, I added various bits of decoration around the path in the form of greenery, water, other animals, and so forth. I also added a couple of small squares for the game's "Caution" (orange) and "Full Speed Ahead" (green) cards. I may change the names of those categories at a later date, but it was the best I could think of today.

I went over everything with a black pigment liner, heat-setting it with a hair dryer. Then, because it's a kid-oriented board game, I coloured everything with watercolour pencils. I didn't feel like painting today, but if I want a more painterly effect later, I can just wet the colours with a paintbrush.

Next, I started on the Caution and Full Speed Ahead cards. To make the cards, I cut up oblongs of orange and green bristol board—orange for the Caution cards, and green for the Full Speed Ahead cards. I made twelve of each colour.

For the Caution cards, I wrote things such as, "There are poachers over the next hill. Go back two spaces and hide." Or: "A road has just been built across your path. Skip one turn to let traffic pass."

For the Full Speed Ahead cards, I wrote things such as, "Local villagers have prepared a feast for you and your friends. Jump ahead two spaces." Or: "The rainy season has started. Jump ahead one space to reach the next waterhole." And so forth.

For a game piece, I used a tiny polymer clay elephant I made. Eventually, I'll make make three to five more tiny elephants to use with this game. For a die, I bought a single small die at the dollar store.

The rules of the game are simple:

1. All players roll the die to see who goes first. The player with the highest number starts. Play is counter-clockwise (or clockwise, if you prefer) after that.

2. Each player advances the number of spaces rolled. If you land on an orange space, you must pick up an orange card and follow the instructions on that card. If you land on a green space, you must pick up a green card and follow the instructions on that card.

3. The first player to cross the finish line wins.

I tried the game on my own, and it took me about ten minutes. But I didn't have to wait for anyone else to take a turn. I did end up having to go back and forth quite a lot by landing on orange and green spaces, which both pleased and surprised me.

If I'd had more time, I would have made a custom box for the game, but for now it will live in a large manila envelope.

This was obviously relatively time-consuming, taking me about four hours from start to finish, not including making the little elephant, which was from a previous blog post. But it was kind of fun, and surprisingly easy. I had thought that making a board game would be difficult, but I guess I've played enough of them in my time that the basic concept is somewhat ingrained.

Because of the time this takes, I won't be churning out masses of these, but it's actually not a bad idea as a custom gift, and it really is a lot easier than you think it will be. 

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 1999, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his team from Save the Elephants tagged 14 African elephants with GPS collars, and monitored their movements over a period of several months. The resulting data revealed an interesting phenomenon: elephants sometimes plan their migrations with almost military precision.

Some of the most interesting data came from a small herd in Laikipia in northern Kenya. The three members of this herd—a male and two females—remained in one place during the day, grazing happily. At nightfall, however, they often sprinted as far as 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) under cover of darkness.

At first, researchers were mystified. Elephants will normally move just a short distance away once they've exhausted a grazing area. These elephants were making mad late-night dashes. Although elephants often range across vast distances, it is highly unusual for them to run so far and so fast at night.

Then the team realized that the places in which the elephants stayed during the day were usually national parks or game preserves, where anti-poaching patrols are frequent. The places they crossed in a hurry were places where heavy poaching had occurred.

It is still unknown how elephants can tell the difference. There are no fences or demarcations to indicate areas in which poaching is prohibited, and encounters between a specific herd and poachers are not frequent enough to allow the elephants to develop an accurate map of where danger lies.

It is believed that elephants are likely combining their own experiences with the experiences of others. This knowledge is then communicated using a large repertoire of vocalizations, often over vast distances. Researchers are still astonished, however, at how precisely elephants stay within safe zones, suggesting that their conversations and spatial knowledge are far more sophisticated than anyone realized.

Elephant running, Savuti, Botswana.
Photo: iStockphoto/Liz Leyden

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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