Undergrove is another nature-based experience co-designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, the designer behind hit birding title Wingspan. Trading wings for pine needles, Undegrove launched a Kickstarter campaign on November 7th in partnership with Alderac Entertainment Group and is already degrees of magnitude beyond its funding goal.
It would be a mistake to reduce Hargrave and co-designer and Legends of the Five Rings steward Mark Wootton’s upcoming board game to the simple description above, as it boasts a fascinating scientific foundation - trees communicate with each other and mushrooms through a process called mycorrhizas. In exchange for nutrients, trees give some of their carbon to the forest fungi and create a symbiotic relationship that is, apparently, ripe for board game design.
In Undergrove, two to four players act as Douglas Fir trees in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Their goal is to grow the most successful crop of young trees by trading with nearby mushrooms, engender beneficial partnership with nearby mushrooms and help the seedlings take root in the soil. Victory points come from a number of different sources, but the most important goal is understanding that giving to your fungal neighbor comes back to you in spades.
The game board is composed of mushroom tiles with carved out circles at their corners. When aligned in rows and columns, a neat little spot for a seedling appears. Players will need to drop seeds, promote the growth of roots so they can activate the abilities of nearby mushrooms and channel enough carbon into the nascent fir so that it can grow into a self-sustaining member of the forest.
Activating a mushroom’s unique ability costs carbon, which is either gained through a photosynthesis action or derived through Nitrogen - handily enough, those fungi sprouting from the undergrowth have plenty to spare (along with Phosphorus and Potassium). Making the best use of available resources will require careful planning and up-front hobnobbing. Foster a diverse collection of shroom abilities through partnerships to make the most of your limited activations on each turn.
Seedling will need three infusions of carbon to transform into trees and earn points for their player, but individual infusions unlock helpful bonuses on a separate Carbon Track along the way. Random public goals will vary the course of play and provide different victory point avenues for each session. Seedlings and trees will score more points at the end of the game according to the variety and value of their symbiotic connection to the mushrooms on the board.
Hargrave has made a bit of a career translating her lifelong hobbies and interests into successful board games, and Undergrove nods towards her years foraging and appreciating the frilly, puffy and sometimes slimy treasures of the woods. Rewarding mutual success between different plant species and an eye towards preparing the next generation for success is an interesting subject for a competitive title and proves the value of looking beyond human industry and society for models of ‘winning’.
The Kickstarter campaign for Undergrove runs through December 9th and aims to publish a physical box that will begin shipping to backers by November 2024. Retail distribution to local game stores and physical location is being handled outside of this particular campaign.