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As days shorten and darkness dominates, even the hardiest Minnesotans retreat indoors. While getting cozy inside with a hot drink and close friends or family isn't a bad thing, those who love to get out and enjoy nature may find themselves a bit despondent.

While not a perfect substitute, one proven pastime can offer a small taste of outdoor activities, even while waiting out a blizzard: board games. But not the type many people think of, with their stereotypical themes of science fiction, historical economics, colonization or fantasy.

"Those themes are awesome; they have good player bases," said Paul Zenisek, owner of Heroic Goods and Games in Minneapolis, "but they've also been intimidating for a lot of people to come into."

In recent years, board games with nontraditional themes have emerged to find critical and commercial success, embracing interests beyond what a newcomer might expect. In fact, said Zenisek, the game that's been the hardest to keep on the shelves this year is Wingspan, which celebrates birds and bird-watching.

"I think [the board game industry] is much more varied now than it has been," Zenisek said, noting these new themes have made the hobby "much more accessible" for newcomers.

With the doldrums of winter around the corner, we've picked out five nature-themed board games for outdoor-loving Minnesotans to consider — options that are beginner-friendly and may offer a bit of relief until the sun comes out.


For whom? Minnesotans who miss the splendor of migration

Players: One to five

Time: 45-90 minutes

Publisher: Stonemaier Games

Description: Wingspan was the surprise board game hit of 2019, selling out even months after release, while capturing praise from gamers and birders around the globe. The game features 170 different bird cards, each with hand-drawn art, plus traits and abilities inspired by the species' real-world behaviors. Players take turns placing these birds on their habitat board, which allows them to then gather food tokens, lay eggs or draw additional cards. A pleasant game with little direct confrontation between players, birders will get a kick out of seeing both familiar faces (or beaks) and reliable migrants, as well as some rarities. While Wingspan may be the most complex game on the list, new printings come with a quick-start guide meant to help green players get going.


For whom? Minnesotans fond of foraging

Players: Two

Time: 20-30 minutes

Publisher: Two Lanterns Games

Description: Every spring, residents hit the woods in search of Minnesota's state mushroom: the morel. The game Morels, designed by Twin Cities resident Brent Povis, attempts to capture some of that magic by sending its two players mushroom hunting. After collecting sets of varying mushrooms, players have two options: sell them for sticks that allow the player to forage fungi deeper in the forest, or cook them for the points needed to claim victory. The game moves constantly, with new mushroom cards cycled into the available draw pile every turn. Players have to be decisive or risk being left with worthless, uncooked mushrooms. Morels is a quick game, offering a compelling back-and-forth without ever being combative, and may be a strong choice for those who love collecting.


For whom? Minnesotans who can't wait to hit the hiking trails

Players: One to five

Time: 40-60 minutes

Publisher: Keymaster Games

Description: The vivid artwork is the first thing most people will notice about Parks, a game that sees players competing to visit various U.S. national parks. The package includes 48 oversized cards featuring licensed artwork from the Fifty-Nine Parks print series, with stunning images reminiscent of vintage national park posters. The gameplay is fairly simple, as players do one thing each turn: Move one of their two hikers down an evolving trail, collecting wooden resource tokens (sun, water, trees, mountains and wildlife). Players can then use these resources at the trail's end to visit national parks, earning them points. The art and components are the true wow factor, but there's also a compelling board game underneath. One downside? Voyageurs was one of the handful of parks that didn't make the cut.

Cottage Garden

For whom? Minnesotans already plotting spring planting

Players: One to four

Time: 45-75 minutes

Publisher: Stronghold Games

Description: Those who enjoy spatial puzzles will feel quite at home with Cottage Garden. The game features dozens of Tetris-like tiles featuring colorful plants, gardening supplies and yard features. On each turn, a player selects one of these tiles from the constantly shifting supply and places it on one of their two gridded flower beds. The goal is to fill each bed without covering the cloches or flower pots, as those score points. The game has a pleasingly tactile aspect, and features lovely, calming art, including tokens with curled-up kittens and a 3-D wheelbarrow that helps track the game's progress. One tip: Though the rules are actually quite simple, the included rule book is vague. Online "how to play" videos offer a quicker, clearer explanation.


For whom? Minnesota arborists looking for some quiet competition

Players: Two to four

Time: 30-40 minutes

Publisher: Renegade Game Studios

Description: Arboretums are generally areas of peace and tranquillity. The artwork in this game suggests the same, but that's deceptive. The game is a single deck of 80 cards, with 10 different tree species (such as oak, maple and willow). Each of those species includes a card numbered one through eight. The goal is to create pathways that start and end with the same type of tree, but only with increasing number values. While that sounds lovely, players quickly finding themselves competing for the same tree species while holding back cards in an attempt to pull the rug out from under opponents in the final turns. It's simple, a bit dastardly, and a good bit of fun.

Shaymus McLaughlin is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.

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