In ‘Landscape Game,’ greed is good—but being ‘green’ is better

Unlike other games, both economic and environmental “side effects” are taken into account in the Landscapes Game.
The Landscape Game lets players experience the complex decisions that go into managing a landscape.

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Say you have a plot of forested land in Amazonia to invest in.

Do you log it for quick cash, or preserve it for carbon credits? Do you clear it for oil palm or dig in for the long haul and build a tourist eco-lodge? Poultry farm or coffee agro-forest?

These are actual decisions being made daily throughout the tropical world—and they have global ramifications for the climate, for biodiversity and for economies. And now you can get in on the action.

Virtually, at least.

In 2007, Herry Purnomo, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and professor at Bogor Agriculture University in Indonesia, invented “Landscape Game,” a board game designed for players to maximize revenue while balancing the economic and ecological trade-offs of the “landscape approach” to sustainable development.

“The purpose of the game is a learning tool, to understand that in the landscape, there are many actors with legitimate interests,” Purnomo said. “It’s for academia, community members, policy makers—anyone who is interested in balancing conservation and development, including climate change.”

Games created explicitly for educational purposes don’t always get the same following as your typical board game. Purnomo’s board game, however, sold 1,000 copies.

A few years later, he thought of creating an online version. “I wanted to do [the digital version] because the technology was possible, and to reach a wider audience,” Purnomo said.

For the past year, he has been working with a team of developers and testers to bring Landscape Game to (digital) life.

The beta version is finally ready.


At first glance, the Landscape Game seems a bit like Monopoly: A player lands on a property, invests in it, and the richest player wins—with extra considerations for investing “green.” Right?

It’s not that simple, Purnomo says.

“Monopoly only talks about buying property and getting a return,” he said. “There’s no concept of time. In resource management, you invest now and it takes time to get a return. Investing in teak plantations, for example—in real life, it takes 30 years to get a return. Invest in a coal mine, your return is sooner. In this game, we introduce the concept of time.”

Translation: Investing in that rubber plantation now means you don’t reap the benefits for several turns—and rubber prices could have fallen by then.

Games like Monopoly and its distant digital cousin, SimCity, also don’t account for externalities—the economic or environmental “side effects” of the actions taken in game play.

One billion people have played Monopoly, but Monopoly actually doesn’t teach you anything about sustainability

Herry Purnomo

“Look at carbon emissions,” Purnomo said. “These considerations exist in the real world, but not in most games. The same goes for biodiversity—it’s different if you invest in REDD+ versus logging. This is not available in Monopoly or SimCity.”

“And SimCity is very sad, actually—you can cut the forest and build the city without having to compensate for losing the environment. This is one of the important ideas we introduce in the Landscape Game.”

Therefore, logging every plot of land you land on for quick cash is not the way to win—carbon emissions, biodiversity and food production are tracked, and players who lead the pack in these categories receive payment or awards that factor in to the final score. This gives the game an extra dimension beyond the ruthless capitalism that Monopoly rewards.

“In general, it is difficult to win without paying attention to ecosystem services or environmental sustainability,” Purnomo said. “The smart player will try to combine eco-friendly investments with extractive ones.”

And built into the game is a powerful impetus to play “smart.”


In the best games, there is a wild card, an external force that helps (or hurts) players throughout the game. In Monopoly, it’s a stint in jail, or a bank error in your favor. In SimCity, it’s tornadoes or earthquakes. Even in Settlers of Catan, a game in the same spirit as the Landscape Game, there is a robber that steals your resources.

In the Landscape Game, the wild card is the government—not an all-powerful or malevolent force, imposing its unshakeable will from above, but one that responds to (and guides) the run of the game. Too little food production? The government will subsidize it to encourage investment. Too much logging? The government will tax it.

An added twist: You can play as the government.

“If you play as a policymaker, you can see how your decisions affect others,” Purnomo said. “You are able to experiment with making policies and adjusting them, giving incentives and benefits as the game goes on.” At the game’s end, the player who plays as the government is judged on the productivity and sustainability of the landscape in terms of income generated, biodiversity conservation, food production and carbon stocks.

Occasional random market swings—such as fluctuations in the price of rubber mentioned earlier—help to keep players on their toes.


The online game is an improvement on the board game in more ways than one, Purnomo says.

Whereas the board game focused primarily on forests, the online game adds agriculture and climate as larger considerations. “The game reflects what we now know about landscapes over seven years ago, when the board game was conceived,” he said.

The computer game also enables the inclusion of more variables, such as carbon emissions, and offers more different locations and types of landscapes to play in, including Java, Amazon and Congo, as well as peatland and mangrove forest.

We had to make the complexity of landscape management and governance simple. So the game has a good mix of simplicity and complexity

Herry Purnomo

While the game has a multiplayer option, it also lets you play against the computer—something that a board game can’t match. This is where Purnomo’s experience was brought to bear—he has (among others) a master’s degree in computer science and helped to design the artificial intelligence algorithm for the computer opponent.

One of his biggest challenges of this, he says: Ensuring that the game wasn’t too easy—or too difficult.

“We had to make the complexity of landscape management and governance simple. So the game has a good mix of simplicity and complexity,” he said.

Purnomo is confident that the game similarly blends the fun and the educational. He wouldn’t mind it being popular, either, he says.

“One billion people have played Monopoly,” he said. “But Monopoly actually doesn’t teach you anything about sustainability. This game provides a new platform for how to learn this.

“If a student only played Monopoly … they would just want to get rich. They don’t think about anything else.”

Watch the video above to learn how to play, then go to cifor.org/landscapegame. Find a bug in the game? Let us know in the comments section below this blog post.

For more information about the Landscape Game, please contact Herry Purnomo at h.purnomo@cgiar.org.

The Landscape Game was produced with the support of CIRAD, the CGIAR Fund and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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