Getting to the Top of the Food-Chain

Natural History Museum Nepal, Book Bus, Quixote's Cove

Students playing the food chain board game at the Natural History Museum.

Kathmandu’s Natural History Museum is something of a park – leafy trees, a wide lawn thick with grass, and stone steps built into verdant slopes. Further up the hill and of great significance to the museum is the Swayambhu stupa, a World Heritage Site. In a trip to Nepal in 1802, the Scottish explorer and botanist Francis Buchanan Hamilton had reputedly discovered and named 27 species of plants in Swayambhu alone.

The sheer number of specimens labeled and stored away in the single-floored museum building is surprising, as is stepping into the cavernous lobby from the big and bright outdoors: birds of prey looming with wings spread, deer heads with branching antlers mounted on the wall, and riverside reptiles with their triangular jaws agape, staring with fixed glass eyes into the half-dark.

This still and slightly ominous atmosphere calls to mind the brooding forests of literature: cool, dark, and unknown, full of secret information. As most of the windows in the building are blocked off by displays or infographics, the starkest source of light is the grill gate at the other end of the museum. Moving from the entrance into the thick of the embryos suspended in viscous liquid, snake skin wrapped in plastic, and baby deer mounted on tiny pedestals, towards the gate feels as though one is moving towards a magical clearing in the woods.

This inspired the initial idea of our board game, ‘A Quest to the Magical Forest.’ The game would follow the rules of Snakes and Ladders. Playing as a pangolin, an owl, a frog, or a turtle, players would move with the roll of a dice across a layout of 24 boxes, colored with what each of these animals eat and the predators that hunt them, which were at the time snakes and hunters. On landing on a square with food, players would be able to move forward, but on landing on a snake or a hunter, they would have to move back – sometimes all the way back to the beginning of the game. On choosing which character they wanted to play, players would receive a card addressed to them, telling them what they could eat and what would eat them. Moving through the ‘Dark Forest’, where predators lurked, the first player to reach the ‘Magical Forest’, the 24th square, would win.

This game was pulled from a top hat of ideas the Book Bus team had conjured up, one of which imagined an interactive display, complete with puzzles, following the story of an intrepid mama ostrich, whose communal nest had been wrecked by a wind storm. As the story progressed, painted onto separate sheets of plywood, the puzzles would grow incrementally complex. Many other throw-away ideas like these crowded our notebooks. When we had been feeling around in the dark for what would be exciting to visitors of the museum, all ideas had seemed, at least to me, equally plausible. Many of my ideas, however, fell apart under examination, the culprit often being logistics: where would the multiple parts of the story be set up without blocking museum traffic? Which surfaces would the puzzles occupy? Would the visitors have the time or the interest in reading the entire story for the meager reward of solving some puzzles? Our most important visitors would be, after all, young, finicky students, glad to be out of the classroom for a day and on the hunt for excitement.

Children can be fickle with their enthusiasm, so we were nervous when we piloted the game during our first week of programming. Fortunately, the enthusiasm blew strong. I was grateful for the unending energy with which students from grades five and above played the board game, although the inadequacies of the game were glaring. The students abandoned my over-complex how-to-play manual and the cards addressing their characters, choosing instead to play the game as they would play Snakes and Ladders, waiting to roll that elusive one on the dice to start the game. The learning outcome of the game – the food chain – had entirely evaporated, but yet another player would once again fail to roll a clean “pote”, or land on a huge snake taking them all the way back to box number two, and their competitors would scream with excitement.

Children are experts like no other at making up their own games. Where the board game failed, the students made up their own rules. Some players decided the hunter was to be ignored if they had rolled a six, others decided the square colored blue for water would drown all the characters but the frog, or the owl, who could simply fly across, throwing them out of the game to be reborn by rolling a one. The Book Bus team, while testing out the game, had ignored the water entirely.

After the disheartening first week, I had two weeks left to turn the game around to meet our requirements: create an immersive learning experience for visitors. I’d gotten the immersive part down, but what slight hint of a learning experience I had thought up for the game had been discarded by the players.

Carelessly shoving aside other responsibilities, I redid the game from square one. On a campaign to remove all traces of Snakes and Ladders from the game, the snake itself was removed as a predator. The food chain had now truly entered the playing field, the game now sporting squares of corn, fruits and berries to be consumed by the rabbit, the new primary consumer character that had displaced the turtle. Predators ranged from lions and barred owls to small cats, paired with prey like mice and termites. Toxic chemical dumps, areas of the forest cordoned off for construction, and polluted lakes now littered the squares on top. The game could no longer be won by reaching the top – winners would have to scrape together the greatest number of primary, secondary, and tertiary consumer cards while shrewdly navigating the forest. Though the game was now complex, and the workload on the artists greater than ever, the instructions were devoid of every unnecessary word, carefully tweaked at the end of each day at the museum.

We worried that the game was far too complex for most children, and even went as far as to design a simpler one. We needn’t have. Though it took a moment for the kids to scrutinize the game, turn over the character pieces, which, at the time, were simple hand-drawn images of a rabbit, an owl, a pangolin, and a frog stuck onto bottle caps, and inspect the instructions, the kids caught on once they started playing, whooping at winning cards, laughing at each other’s mishaps, and at the trappings of the game.

The enthusiasm was infectious. They answered each other’s questions, traded tips, and haggled over valuable cards. One player asked a question that I too had been confused about for a long time: “If the least amount of energy is lost between the primary producer and the primary consumer, does that mean the rabbit is the strongest animal in the game?”

The game, now titled ‘The Magical Forest: A food-chain game’ is now ready to be handed over to the Natural History Museum, owing to the tireless work by the team of artists on the Book Bus and all the keen students who played the game. I am certain that new rules will continue to be invented and players might disregard parts of the game they disagree with, but all’s well as long as young visitors can play the game under one of the shady trees on the museum grounds, eating, getting eaten, squabbling over the points, remaining curious about the place every creature occupies in the ecosystem and knowing that even games can be meant for learning.

Shefali is a reader, writer, and a team member at Quixote’s Cove. 

Join the other adventures of Book bus at the Natural History museum! We would like to invite you on 24th September, 2019, 11 a.m. at the Natural History Museum for an afternoon of games, quizzes, and interesting exhibits. 

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