Bios: Mega-fun-a

The unceasing demands of their respective biologies calls to them, urging them forward. TRY TO MATE, TRY TO MATE, these unheard voices shout. The centipede is down; the mouse-thing is more wary. Last time it listened to those voices, it made some very bad memories that haunt it to this day.

One of the most-repeated criticisms of Phil Eklund’s designs is that they hew closer to simulations than proper games, complete with persnickety rules exceptions, icon-strewn layouts, and overly dense rulebooks crammed with scientific and historical footnotes. And that’s to say nothing of the gameplay itself. If Eklund feels that the outcome of the Renaissance was due to some nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism, then by hook or by crook his game on the topic is going to contain a nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism.

At first glance, the second edition of Bios: Megafauna — which Eklund co-designed with Andrew Doull and Jon Manker — appears determined to prove the stereotype, with a rulebook liable to make even a veteran gamer’s mind wander somewhere between defining Cheshire cat mutations and the sprawling glossary where certain rules have been sent to wither in obscurity. And don’t even get me started on the mental gymnastics necessary to forge your way through that first learning game.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that this just might be Phil Eklund’s most accessible game since… scratch that. Most accessible, full stop.

Now guess which is which. Big tip: the plants are the ones with the snail.

Two cratons have collided, creating a continent and bringing plants and insects into contact.

For those who don’t know what Bios: Megafauna is all about, it picks up right where Bios: Genesis left off. Evolution has been successfully crowdfunded, Earth’s budding microbial life has survived oxygen death, and those first few multicellular organisms have developed organs and begun to crawl out of the ocean. You can even dovetail one game into the other, exchanging the organic compounds of Genesis for the phyla of Megafauna.

The differences, however, are immediately apparent. Jettisoning its predecessor’s abstract investments and wagers, Megafauna focuses on far more concrete matters. Taking on the role of plants, insects, mollusks, or vertebrates, it’s your job to evolve new traits, spread across the planet’s wobbly landmasses, and compete for limited space and resources. Maybe you’ll develop language or embed yourself into the planet’s fossil record along the way.

And for the most part, the game manages to distill its heady source material into a set of rules that’s as streamlined as it is deep. There are two halves to manage: your tableau of species, complete with mutations, organs, and developing personalities, and the cratons where they’ll try to avoid natural disasters and competing lifeforms long enough to thrive.

It uses its tusks to nudge its jelly eggs fondly. Gross.

A species of vertebrates has developed the ability to feel jealousy.

The concept is so natural that it’s hard-coded into our DNA. The broader your coverage and the fewer your competitors, the more likely you are to be successful in the long term. It’s essentially an area control game, but with the additional twist that the bits you’re seeding across the map are anything but generic pawns. Even your starting blob might one day become a venomous two-ton slab of sex pheromones and budding thoughts about maybe using a rock to smash those snails it’s been competing against. Eventually, your creatures can split off into new varieties of subspecies — armored, swimming, burrowing, or flying — each with their own advantages that will help them find prey, avoid competitors, and further spread across the planet.

For the most part, this is surprisingly easily done. Each turn’s decision space revolves around five main actions, none of which require anything too radical. Growing larger or smaller to increase your mobility or set up the right body type for a mutation is as easy as ticking your species’ size-die to a different face. Placing new “creeples” onto the table is done by piling spare pieces onto a card for later distribution. How many? Even that’s an easy one for anyone who’s played a board game before: one freebie plus however many sex organs you’ve developed. The more ovipositors and courtship dances you’ve developed, the more babies you’ll produce. Who knew mating was so easy?

This is Marvel's upcoming sell sheet for the New X-Men. Just wait till you meet Gastric Glands Man or the Incredible Windborne Seed!

Potential mutations, including their upgrades along the top of each card.

Speaking of sex organs, your creatures’ innards are similarly easy to fiddle with. New mutation cards place additional cubes onto your species, expanding their nervous, digestive, circulatory, and reproductive systems, while flipping them over for juicy upgrades shifts those cubes from the card down onto your species itself. It’s important to note that there’s no “currency” involved in this process. Instead, the more unborn creeples a species has, the more mutations it can choose from — a trade-off between spreading yourself across the world and arriving at a pleasant equilibrium that might spell stagnancy and eventual failure, or struggling to survive and therefore pushing yourself up the evolutionary ladder.

And climb you must, because upgraded mutations are where things start to get interesting. By flipping over a basic mutation, you’ll gain access to new creeple types, shifting from the land into the water, taking to the air, or simply hiding behind armor or beneath the ground. There’s no shame in being eaten — a herbivore’s primary rival tends to be a second encroaching herbivore — but greater diversity often makes it easier to carve out a niche and stick to it.

Other traits from upgraded mutations are desirable in as many ways as they are numerous. Monster genes protect you from certain events, mutualism with a rival species will lock away one of their creeples to your scoring benefit, venom will make it harder for something to eat you, and emotions make it easier to continue developing along particular paths. One brand of emotion in particular, curiosity, will even let you develop tools to hunt outside of your usual niche and avoid predators.

With deserts along its equator choking life to the fringes. Man. First-era problems.

Everyone competes over the Pangaean super-continent.

It isn’t long before the board becomes replete with species struggling to find their place, and this is where Bios: Megafauna springs to life. That blob you’ve been merrily preying upon for thousands of years will develop squirmy bits and burrow beneath the soil; fortunately, you’ve evolved a liver and can migrate to another clime before starvation sets in. With the entire craton being choked by a super-herbivore, you’ll sprout wings and follow the winds to greener shores. Two rivals will simultaneously take to the seas, only to find themselves in an arms war of escalating mutations.

But Megafauna doesn’t stop there. Not content to let your survival revolve around competition alone, the game also introduces a number of events that throw everything into chaos — or achterbahn, “roller coaster,” as Eklund calls it.

These are the trickiest part of the design to both understand and prepare for, potentially endangering entire swaths of the map at once. Every round opens with at least one card being drawn, and usually two, a combination of an extraterrestrial event — solar flares, comets — alongside a climatological event that springs from one of three decks depending on what the weather is like this era.

And the PLANTS are the ones who begin in control of it. I always knew they were evil. Let's all vow to never go outside again.

Climate determines your action limit and which deck of events is used each round.

There are two seemingly contradictory things that you need to understand about these events. The first is that they can be utterly bananas. Comets will slam into the planetary surface! The equator and polar regions will transform into hot or cold deserts! Entire continents will collide, pushing up uninhabitable mountains! Radiation will kill off particular types of organs! Atmospheric oxygen will run wild, allowing extra actions but also sparking wildfires!

It’s a lot to take in, constantly reshaping the game’s geography and even how many actions or organs you can have. But that’s where the second thing comes in, because despite the ups and downs of this particular roller coaster, Megafauna is careful to never diminish your control over your species’ fate. Whenever a species gets hammered by its environment, it isn’t driven extinct right away. Instead, it’s marked as “endangered” by being flipped onto its side. You then have an entire round to mitigate or repair the damage you’ve suffered. Maybe you evolve a survival organ that will allow yourself to migrate to safer climes. Maybe you populate and use the dying creeple as a “mother” to propel yourself into new areas. Maybe you simply accept that a species’ time has come and let it die off, sending it to the fossil record so that you can try something new.

It isn’t impossible for an event to force you into a corner, but this is nearly always because of inadequate preparation or diversification on your part. The game’s strategy is twofold, pitting you against rival phyla and asking you to prepare for anything that might fall from above or push up from below. Whatever you choose to do, you are choosing.

And unlike Eklund’s dice games, Greenland and Neanderthal, much of the heavy lifting of determining which locations are affected by natural disasters is undertaken by the “Medea Supervillain” rather than strictly by chance. This card, representing the anaerobic microbes trying to drive your gigantic interlopers extinct, effectively grants superpowers to its holder. When moving discs between the map and the atmosphere, it’s the Supervillain who decides where they go, potentially manipulating the atmosphere and landscape to their advantage. The downside is that certain uses will forcibly pass the card to someone else, and disgruntled players can skip their turn to steal it. There’s no revenge quite as sweet as weaponizing Mother Nature against the player who’s been voodooing mountains onto your head all game.

Oh, fine. Two mutations with those little "emojis" can be placed side by side to create an emotion. Three emotions in a single "chain" will develop language — and also end the game prematurely, with a lot of bonus points for the species who can now organize mental concepts. Here, this mollusk feels jealousy (blue), curiosity (purple), and happiness (green).

This invertebrate has developed the power of language! Don’t ask me to explain.

Then again, this carefully established control occasionally bites Megafauna in the round steak. One of the game’s most interesting ideas is contests, where two species clash to see which will dominate a space and which will be driven to the brink of extinction. It’s a fantastic idea in theory: two herbivores (or carnivores) find themselves grazing (or hunting) in the same spot, so you go through this little flowchart to determine who will survive. The right combination of organs, the fittest size, whether you’re edible by the local predator or not, it’s all pitched as a nail-biting check for evolutionary supremacy.

In practice, however, there’s very little reason to engage in a contest unless you’re already certain you’ll emerge on top. Since all information is public, the only way to step into a fight you can’t win is because you didn’t take enough time evaluating the species you were planning to compete against. Once the game’s early diaspora is complete, Megafauna slows to a plod whenever it’s time to distribute creeples across the map. Then begins the season of craned necks and squinted eyes and questions like, “Wait, is that species venomous? You’ve covered up the symbol with your organ cube.”

I’m exaggerating somewhat. Megafauna can never rightly be called slow, and contests are still useful for providing ways to direct your evolution. But their lack of pizzazz does feel like a missed opportunity.

Man, just looking at this makes me want to play right now.

Swimmers take advantage of bounteous plankton blooms, while winged creatures spread far.

In the grand span of evolutionary biology, downsides like an underwhelming contest or some complexity in the event stage represent dodo-esque blips beside the majesty of everything else it accomplishes. For the most part, the second edition of Bios: Megafauna is a masterclass in how to craft a science-minded game that refuses to compromise its depth while still remaining utterly playable. The result is a potent combination of tightrope control, tooth-and-nail competition, and roller coaster wildness — and also proof that even a seasoned designer like Phil Eklund can learn new tricks.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Every contribution helps Space-Biff! evolve into something that can survive all these dang comets.)

Posted on May 2, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    I will admit that I never tried a single game from Phil Eklund or Sierra Madre. Not one… And they top my personal list of games to try: Pax Renaissance or Pamir, Bios: Genesis, Neanderthal. I am scanning the skies for a reprint of High Frontier. Still, I never tried any of them.
    Maybe this is the one I should start with?
    Thanks again for covering games that fall under the radar of many reviewers, Dan.

    • Happy to do it! As for where to start, the easiest ones are either this, Pax Porfiriana, or Greenland. Though really, it’s probably best to begin with whichever theme strikes your fancy.

  2. I’ve played Genesis a few times solo. I love the concept of the game and strongly suspect I’ll greatly enjoy playing it multi-player, but found the solo variant missing any real challenge after just one or two plays (when the challenge was _really_ just in learning the game).

    Have you any experience with Megafauna solo? Knowing my group it will be a great struggle to get it to the table with anyone other than myself. Even still, I’m very interested.

    I also jumped on the semi-recent Neanderthal KS largely as a result of your article, so thanks for that too.

  3. HermanTurnip

    This was my first Eklund game, and I have to admit to being a bit overwhelmed by the rulebook at first, but after spending a few minutes absorbing the material I come to appreciate how streamlined it actually was. This is a great game, and kudos to the excellent write-up!

  1. Pingback: A Handful of Excellent Sandbox Games | SPACE-BIFF!

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