On The Brink: A Demand For More Ecology Board Games

This weekend I’ve got some friends coming around to play Evolution: Climate with my wife and me. I’ve never been much of a board game type, but my friends learned recently that if you slap an ecology (or comic book) theme on anything I’ll be there with bells on. Evolution looks like it’ll be fun, but first I wanted to get weirdly passionate and talk about a childhood game that really drove me towards ecology as a kid.

On The Brink

When I was younger, I had a subscription to the CSIRO’s monthly magazine The Double Helix. In every issue, there would be four prizes you could win on the back page. You’d have to write in your name, address and a short sentence about why you liked an article or a quiz question from that week. I’d write in almost every issue for some cool toy or book, and a couple of times I managed to win. The first was a solar-powered remote control car that did not work NEARLY as well as advertised. The second was a board game called On The Brink, pictured below.

You want depressing? Check out the thylacines in the top left corner. (Image Credit: Sam Perrin, CC BY 2.0)

The aim of the game is this: you need to land on as many species as possible and save them from extinction. There are 48 different species spread around eight different Australian ecosystems, from the Mallee to Swamps & Rivers. To save a species, you need to find a successful management solution to a hypothetical situation. The situation is particular to the ecosystem, but the different management options you’re given affect each species from that ecosystem differently. First person to save eight species wins the game (more or less). It’s fairly straightforward.

Needless to say I bloody loved this game. My despair was that not every 10 year old is obsessed with Australian animals, and I didn’t really have anyone to play it with until I started my Masters in Ecology up in northern Germany six years ago.

Noteworthy Features

  • This game is absolutely brutal to cats and foxes. There’s no debates about ethics here: if there’s a situation in which a fox or cat is threatening your species, you can always almost get maximum points by having the foxes or cats hunted down and killed, often in oddly creative ways.
  • I still get a happy tingle when I play this game. Mainly because while the species used here have all been threatened by human activity, most of them have clung to life in the 27 years since the game was first made. Species like the pygmy bluetongue skink were actually thought to be extinct until the early 90s. Orange bellied parrots have walked a fine line, but are still around, and humpback whale populations have rebounded since then.
  • The Bilby (basically an Australian rabbit but cuter for you non-antipodeans) is the central animal of the game, with Bilby cards being given out when you land on a red species and players having to shout ‘Bilby’ once they have collected eight species. Australia has tried to market the Bilby before, most memorably as an alternative to the Easter Bunny. I can’t tell you if Easter Bilby chocolates are still a thing, someone living in Australia please let me know.
The Orange-Bellied Parrot, Dinosaur Ant and Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, all of which feature in On The Brink (Image Credits: Ron Knight, CC BY 2.0; CSIRO, CC BY 3.0; Don Sands, CSIRO, CC BY 3.0)


Why did it even disappear? I’m guessing the answer to this is pretty simple. If a toy doesn’t sell, they don’t keep making it. This game was funded by the Australian Nature Conservation Agency, which shut down in 1998, doubtlessly replaced by some similarly named office. I loved this game as a kid and I thought it was a lovely science communication tool, with some important lessons about conservation and wildlife management. But I was already well on board the ecology train when this came out, and clearly it didn’t take with the rest of the public the same way. Possibly it’s the same reason Yowies stopped being made in Australia.

With the resurgence of environmental board games (I’ve just watched a how-to video on Evolution and I am SO excited for Saturday), I really believe that someone should have another crack at making this game, or something like it. Yowies have come back to Australia (seriously Google Yowies they were my childhood), and with the public’s growing awareness of the Biodiversity Crisis, I think the time is ripe for a revival of On the Brink. Market it better this time for god’s sake. It shouldn’t be hard, seeing as the rise of interdisciplinarity since the 90s means more ecologists have better skills in visualisation and public outreach.

If anyone has any similar memories of toys or games from their childhood that inspired them, please share below. I love this stuff.

Also if someone could send me some Yowies in the post that would be great.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is really bloody excited about Saturday. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.


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