From Soup to Seaweed
Two of my favorite games by Phil Eklund, Greenland and Neanderthal, also happen to be two of my favorite games full stop. One of the reasons is their willingness to employ a particular scope, which in turn gives their subject matters room to breathe. Greenland, for example, takes place over the course of approximately four hundred years. Neanderthal sprawls over four hundred years per turn. Both are about a lot of things, from the way cultures or brains develop in response to environmental pressures to the profound unfairness of how a group might rise or fall into extinction through sheer luck. They’re narrative masterclasses, micro history seminars, and compelling play experiences rolled into one.
Bios: Genesis takes this broad view and stretches it, taking place over the course of, oh, four billion years. That isn’t a typo. Billion. Four of them. This is a game that will cast you as primordial soup, single-celled bacterium, all the way up to the grandeur of sea stars and trilobites. As a next step in Eklund’s “survival” series, it’s a bold one.
It’s also a huge pain in the ass to learn.
Being a huge pain in the ass to learn isn’t something new to Phil Eklund’s output. Even relatively simple titles like Pax Porfiriana can be tough, let alone Pax Pamir or Pax Renaissance, where individual pieces might be shared between multiple players at any given time. It would be fair to say that these are deeply experiential games, the sort of things you have to see in action to understand. Or, more accurately, the sort of things you need to grapple with like a blind man groping his way through a maze, feeling out the edges bit by bit until everything slides into order.
But where those games hit their stride in their ability to relate — they’re about yearning for power, or frustration at the status quo, or despair, or any number of very human things — Bios: Genesis is about chromosomes and primordial soups and refugia and amino acids. What motivates a pigment? Bios: Genesis has some idea. Mostly that they want to become macroorganisms. That’s where the big points are.
However, leaving aside the pages of microscopic text detailing how a cube might be a chromosome, organ, mutation, disease, or manna — and how disks and domes sport similar variety, all depending on where you’ve placed them — this is a surprisingly elegant little game. Just don’t go in expecting to understand it without pounding out a few fumbling plays.
Here’s the short-form synopsis. Buckle up.
Each player is an organic compound, whether amino acid, pigment, lipid, or nucleic acid. Your goal is to, well, make life, if you want to be frank about it. It largely plays out across three interconnected stages, though at any given time you might have irons in any number of fires, ranging from the frothing goop where compounds and enzymes might coalesce into something resembling a bacteria, to the bacterium themselves, and eventually the multicellular organisms competing for survival on both sea and land. This isn’t as simple as one-two-three; while any given organism will travel a fairly straight line, it’s possible to invest all over the place. Which is to say, while your arrow worms are struggling to crawl up onto some beach, you might be shepherding a chemolithotroph marine bacteria out of the crushing pressure of a geothermal vent, or hitching a ride on somebody else’s pond scum.
The first stage centers around refugia, the breeding grounds where organic compounds might decide to come together. Whether a briny pond or Martian paleo-ocean, your task is to assign bionts — your colored domes — in order to organize as many organic building blocks as possible.
Gather enough and you might push yourself over the brink to the next stage. Here, your building blocks are transformed into chromosomes, the governing bodies of your bacteria. This stage is all about surviving the ravages of the Great God Darwin, who chucks nasty fistfuls of dice in an effort to kill off your budding microorganism. By spending disks to purchase or upgrade mutations, you can gradually insulate yourself against even the worst events. Assemble the right ones and you might even qualify to become something larger. Maybe even seaweed.
This final stage presents its own difficulties, especially once you enter into competition with other macroorganisms. There’s only room for a handful, which might eventually push some onto land to find new niches to occupy. It’s survival of the fittest, so you’ll have to toughen up by purchasing new organs. The closer we get to our dystopian future of black market cyber-organs, the more our primordial history repeats itself.
As you might expect, there’s a peculiar economy chugging along in the background, all those disks for organs or chromosomes earned by the dismantling of refugia-dwelling manna or the biosynthesis of your bacterium. I’m not going to get into it, in part because it won’t make sense anyway, but also because holy balls this is a lot to explain. Suffice to say, it’s a good idea to have a way to generate disks once you’ve got a multicellular creature in play. Diversify, diversify, diversify. Where Greenland or Neanderthal pushed your tribe to embrace certain historical watersheds from which there was no return, there’s nothing wrong with taking the occasional step backward in Bios: Genesis.
Okay, so this is all a bit bananas. Scratch that, it’s plaintains. Scratch that, it’s musa basjoo. Seventy percent of the struggle is understanding the vocabulary. The other third is about maximizing your compound’s, uh, penetration.
One of the most significant twists in Bios: Genesis is that nothing operates in isolation. Just as a healthy bacteria or macroorganism will sport chromosomes or organs of many colors, it’s also possible for players to invest in other people’s stuff. You might, for example, hitch a ride from primordial goop into somebody’s bacteria. Your little dome will now sit there as a foreign gene. When it comes time to purchase mutations, you can totally use that player’s disks to help guide their development, eventually even becoming an endosymbiont in their full-fledged macroorganism. You’re beneficial to them, yes, providing little bonuses to their hardiness and whatnot, but you also reap half of their organism’s points for reaching that particular stage of evolution.
Or, if collaboration isn’t your game, it’s also possible to drain somebody’s points by attacking them as a parasite, turning their hard-earned chromosomes into your easily-earned chromosomes. Just be careful you don’t drive your host into extinction. While holding an extinct organism is worth a pity point, there’s no bonus for being a failed parasite.
If this all sounds overly complicated, it’s only painful for the first play or two. Much of the game comes down to managing uncertainty. Dice must be rolled at pretty much every stage, from the formation and decay of manna to your poor land-crawling creature suffering from cancer. And for the most part, these odds aren’t terrifically difficult to parse. Stable refugia are easy to spot, the chromosomes that will halt your bacteria’s dissolution are clearly labeled, and most negative events come down to a simple glance at how many “shields” your organism has. The trick is in juggling these odds with limited resources, deciding when to jump aboard somebody else’s life raft, and evaluating the right moment to compete with an opponent. Not simple, not in the slightest. But doable? Elegant? Even thrilling? Absolutely. Sometimes soul-crushing when the dice don’t go your way? That too.
Phil Eklund’s approach to design has always generated some minor controversy, and this isn’t any exception. Is all this fuss in service of simulation worth the hassle? Of course it is. Bios: Genesis is dynamic and exciting, presenting its hard-science subject matter in a mostly approachable way. The result revels in the majesty of creation, of nature, of the processes by which life functions.
Try to play with somebody who knows the rules, though. That will save you an enormous headache.
And if Bios: Genesis doesn’t attract my fancy as completely as Greenland or Neanderthal — well, I’m a historian, not a scientist.