Singapore team's bird migration game highlights Asia's endangered species

Fly-A-Way is the first and only board game in the world centered around Asian birds and their migration.
PHOTO: Playlogue Creations

The black-faced spoonbill is in trouble – she has flown into a window. The board game players can only hope to draw a card that takes her to a patch of sustainable farmland to set her on her way again. Meanwhile, the imperial eagle is soaring ahead: cards representing reforestation have helped him along the way.

In Fly-A-Way, the world’s first board game to feature Asian birds, the players act as conservationists who work together to save the bird species that migrate annually along the cross-continental East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).

There are nine flyways in the world and this one, running from Russia in the north, across Asia, and on to Australia in the south, is said to be the most used – a route for nearly 400 land bird species. Hong Kong’s Mai Po marshes and Inner Deep Bay is an important site along the flyway, with over 80,000 birds wintering in its marshes and wetlands.

Fly-A-Way, created from an idea born during the coronavirus pandemic by the bird-obsessed team at Playlogue Creations based in Singapore, was launched in August 2021.

The Fly-A-Way board game.
PHOTO: Playlogue Creations

“The first step was to find the right mechanics to fit all the information we wanted to include, like the events – good or bad – the birds face during their journeys, the map to depict the flyway, and the bird species,” says Lynette Lee, Playlogue’s co-head of projects.

The 42 bird species in the game are distributed across three different habitats – wetlands, open country and forest landscapes.

Each species is represented by a card that provides details about its ecology, habitat and conservation status, as well as information relevant to the game, such as the start and end points of the bird’s migration and the points earned by the player for saving the species.

Shortlisting birds suitable for Fly-A-Way from the hundreds of species migrating along the EAAF was difficult.

“From the design perspective, we had to balance the visuals,” says Lee. “We had to have some endangered species but also some birds which were colourful and visually appealing. It was very hard to choose.”

A black-faced spoonbill is featured in the board game.

Ding Li Yong, Asia Advocacy and Policy Manager at BirdLife International (Asia), was asked to prepare the shortlist.

“In addition to having a good selection of threatened species, we also had to identify migratory birds that travel all across Asia to ensure they are spread out across the board game,” he says.

Five species familiar to birders in Hong Kong – the Dalmatian pelican, the black-faced spoonbill , the yellow-breasted bunting , the imperial eagle and the fairy pitta – are featured in the game. Using scenarios from bird migrations meant the rules of the game had to be detailed and layered.

To move the game along, players take turns drawing Wing It! and Fowl Play cards, which provide instructions on the next steps. These cards correspond to the natural and man-made events the birds face during their migration.

Wing It! cards depict conservation actions such as government interventions, reforestation, or sustainable farming: all improve a player’s chance of winning. Fowl Play cards represent threats – hunters, natural predators, wind turbines, forest fires, window collisions and other setbacks, which reduce a player’s chances of winning.

Each link placed on the migratory route is worth one point. The player who places the last link to complete the route saves the bird and earns points based on the number of links they have contributed to the route. Other players who have contributed links also earn points.

“It is actually a very collaborative game,” says South Korean environmentalist and board game enthusiast Yeonah Ku. “Instead of competing to win, players work together to save a bird. It’s so much fun.”

The game ends when a player saves six bird species or when all the Fowl Play cards are used. The player with the highest number of points wins.

Fly-A-Way has become popular with gamers, who are intrigued by the strategy of the game, and nature-lovers who relate to the bird species or the conservation challenges they know, say the Playlogue team members. “Most of our customers so far have been from Singapore and the US,” Lee says.

The board game is sold in 13 markets, including Hong Kong, Singapore, the US, Canada and Australia.

“Playing Fly-A-Way changes the mindset of people who think that conservation is boring or that it is distant from them,” says Hong Kong-born bird conservationist Vivian Fu. “It creates an understanding of conservation among all age groups.”

Fly-A-Way is suitable for ages 10 and above and can be played by up to four players. According to Fu, the game provides many lessons, as well as hard facts about migratory birds.

“Birds are not limited by man-made borders,” she says. “Playing the game helps people realise that ecosystems in different countries are linked by these migratory birds. What happens to their habitat in each of the countries along the flyway affects them tremendously.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.