Azteca Chess Game

Engaging Farmers in Ecological Complexity

Ecological games: taking a participatory approach to rural land use planning

Ecological role-playing games can be effective methods for engaging farmers in sustainable land management. These games use a participatory approach to land use planning; they increase stakeholder awareness of management challenges and outline solutions. Games can be considered integrated natural resource management tools, in which management consists of both increasing the adaptability of the ecosystem and addressing the social processes leading to the desired ecological state (Bousquet et al., 2007).

Ecological games can take many forms, such as cooperative game theory, spatially explicit lab and field common pool resource experiments, role-playing games, agent based models, companion modeling, and policy simulation (Garcia-Barrios et al., 2011). The style of these games can range from highly controlled, generic, and abstract to context-dependent and realistic. However, the common goal of this bottoms-up management strategy is to promote communication, reflection, and social learning among stakeholders. Workshops are often held as the method for sharing these games with stakeholders.

SIERRA SPRINGS is an example of a role-playing game that addresses dilemmas surrounding common pool resources. It is a four-player board game that explores the challenges that individuals often face regarding competition for land and watershed resource use. The outcome of the game is to fix a collective vision and open channels of communication negotiation for stakeholders involved in watershed planning (Garcia-Barrios et al., 2011).

Azteca Chess is another example of an ecological game, which was specifically designed to increase farmer awareness of complex ecological interactions within coffee agroecosystems.

Azteca Chess

Azteca Chess is a 2-player board game meant to engage participants in discussion of the importance of biodiversity for pest control. Its design and components are based on more than 20 years of research into the ecological dynamics of coffee agroecosystems in Chiapas, Mexico. This research has provided a greater understanding of the species that autonomously regulate pests and diseases associated with coffee production. The complex coffee agroecosystem includes at least 13 components (insects and fungi), six ecological processes (competition, predation, parasitism, hyperparasitism, disease, and mutualism), and important spatial dynamics (Vandermeer et al., 2010), many of which are captured in the Azteca Chess game.

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Finca Irlanda, Chiapas, Mexico
Photo Credit -- Shinsuke Uno

Some Key Components

How to Play Azteca Chess:

The game pieces and their movements capture the interactions of several of the components mentioned above. Players choose either to play as the adult lady beetle and larva lady beetle or as the Azteca ant and larva-killer wasp. The lady beetle player wins the game by attacking all six scale insects before the ant and the larva-killer wasp can remove all beetles from the board. The Azteca/wasp player wins by attacking and removing all lady beetles from the board (thus successfully defending the honeydew-producing scales). However, an autonomously moving game piece representing the phorid fly limits the movement patterns of the ant, which gives the beetle an advantage.
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Game design credit -- Luis Garcia-Barrios, Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer, John Smith

Outcome of the game

Azteca Chess reinforces the relationships between key components of coffee agroecosystems by allowing farmers to role-play as both the lady beetle and as the ant and wasp that antagonize the beetle. The complex interactions of the system are communicated through the players' constrained movement patterns based on the real ecological processes. Through this exercise, participants become more aware of the insects that have crucial relationships to the health and production of the coffee farm. Further, management decisions could have great impacts on this complex web of interactions that can be traced back to the coffee rust disease.


García-Barrios, L., García-Barrios, R., Waterman, A., & Cruz-Morales, J. (2011). Social dilemmas and individual/group coordination strategies in a complex rural land-use game. International Journal of the Commons, 5(2), 364-387.

Bousquet, F., Castella, J. C., Trébuil, G., Barnaud, C., Boissau, S., & Kam, S. P. (2007). Using multi-agent systems in a companion modelling approach for agroecosystem management in South-east Asia. Outlook on Agriculture, 36(1), 57-62.

Vandermeer, J., Perfecto, I., & Philpott, S. (2010). Ecological complexity and pest control in organic coffee production: uncovering an autonomous ecosystem service. BioScience, 60(7), 527-537.