More Than Merely a Civilization Game
When I complain about civgames, my harping comes from a place of deep affection. It’s just that civgames tend to be very good at one model of how civilizations flourish, and very bad at every other model. If it isn’t steady border expansion and technological growth, with very little diversity or ideological synthesis, it doesn’t usually rate. Because really, how many civilizations have spanned from remote BCE to far CE without redefining who they are? Without changing languages, dynasties, ethics, goals? I’ll give you a clue: not many. Even fewer were captained by Sid Meier’s immortal and nuke-happy Gandhi.
Enter Phil Eklund and Jon Manker’s Bios: Origins. As the third in the Bios trilogy, set after the multi-cellular life of Genesis and the prehistoric beasts of Megafauna, Origins is a civgame right down to certain familiar trappings. Tech tracks, cities, and special resources are all present and accounted for. But these trappings are only part of the story. What makes Origins special is the way it answers the questions that other civgames don’t even begin to think about. Questions like who you are — you, the player — what you want, and how very different peoples and civilizations can prosper across the ages.
To describe what I mean, let’s slowly zoom in from globe level. First you see the continents framed by water, vegetation and mountains and sand almost dull against that lapis lazuli backdrop. Then the sphere rotates into near-total darkness. Closer, there are pinpricks of light. Not the modern planet, then, but far enough along in human development that there are hubs of activity, places where torches and lamps burn and smoke through the night. Closer, two civilizations, grown into and around each other like interlaced fingers, are locked in conflict. Cities are traded. Some are destroyed. Refugees flee, settling nearby or far away. Those cities, too, trade hands back and forth.
This is a conflict. But as we move even closer, it’s very much unlike the conflicts presented by other titles. Rather than being a mere struggle for the usual candidates, resources or land or, heaven forbid, victory points, this is an ideological struggle. This is a clash between two very different beliefs. And one of them isn’t so much a belief as an economic model.
The first ideology is, however, a belief. A very strong belief, bolstered by a centuries-old priestly class. These aged men — that they’re men is a safe guess, as is the guess that they’re gray-haired and heavily wrinkled — are the power behind the throne. And their preferred method of warmaking is appropriately underhanded. Rather than surrounding a city, starving it into submission, and burning everything and everyone within, they send preachers. Holy men. Prophets. These missionaries take root like worms in fruit. Add a few decades of mere talking, the city is now theirs.
If that sounds pernicious, wait until you get a load of their opposition. The rival empire isn’t so patient. They don’t intend to wait around for people to change their minds. There’s no time for blabbering about the soul and the cloud-fellow when there’s work to be done. Which is why their method is more blunt: slavery. They walk in, herd everyone into their fields and their brick-drying camps, and after a while it’s only natural that the depleted city will strike a bargain.
What’s striking about this story can be broken into three details. First, both of these civilizations are in a tight spot. The former depends on the superiority of its priestly class, and is desperately trying to nurture enough of an urban population to put a stop to its rival’s predation; its rival, meanwhile, would love to hire some priests to explain why its citizens shouldn’t worry so much about their eternal souls. It’s an arms race, but waged along two non-parallel tracks, and neither seems able to catch up to the other. Instead, they’re trapped in place, like a dance with complicated footwork that takes its partners nowhere. Second, these civilizations didn’t sprout from the ground fully-formed, but developed their ideas and strengths over a very long time, growing more powerful and more entrenched. And third, this is one story in a string of stories, from cave paintings to mythologized epics to meticulous history, all in a single sitting.
Oh, and that story is about to bend out of necessity. Because the religious state has been working overtime to promote a concept that might seem counterintuitive: that every soul is free, beholden to no man, capable of determining their own course. As this idea takes root in humanity at large, their more industrious rival is going to feel some pushback on that whole enslavement thing. Enough pushback that it will shatter the core principles of their civilization. What emerges from that reshaping might be tame or terror.
Sound complicated? It is, to a degree. Like many of Eklund’s designs, Origins is a cyclone of icons and terms, terms and icons. What’s the difference between domesticating a reindeer and a camel? Between a quiet and a chaotic revolution? Between migrating through the jungle and through the desert? Between suffering chaos and quelling chaos? Between a city being destroyed by a rival army or the Yellowstone eruption? Taken on their own, none of these concepts kick up any fuss. They’re like being stuck with a pin, a moment’s sting and they’re done. It’s only when blended together that everything swirls into a mess. War animals like camels let you ignore the blitzkrieg rule, quiet revolutions let you change your ruling class more flexibly, jungles and deserts require different technologies, quelling chaos means killing an elder or destroying a city to get rid of dissidents, and Yellowstone doesn’t cause chaos because it was an “Act of God,” the game’s way of saying not your fault. Hope you were listening. This will be on the test.
Of course, this is to be expected of a game that hopes to simulate something more involved than the usual civgame model. This isn’t extraneous verbiage. It’s exactly enough to portray city-states that can compete against expansive empires, religions that struggle against science, even bronze-using navigators that somehow circumnavigate the globe. With so much going on under the hood, the surprising thing is how Eklund and Manker have compacted all those concepts into a streamlined system. It’s reminiscent of a jumbo jet. Just because it’s heavy doesn’t mean all those pieces don’t fit together just so.
To that end, nearly everything important in Origins revolves around two decks: foundations and ideas. The manner of their acquisition is different, but their commonality is that they’re always oriented in one of two ways, slotting into columns representing the game’s three-way emphasis on culture, politics, and industry. Domesticating dogs, for example, unlocks a cultural idea in which your good doggies help you domesticate other animals. Or that same card can be rotated for its political advantage — enslavement. Bad doggies.
The caveat is that your civilization can only inhabit a single column at once. These aren’t so narrow that you’ll be shoehorned into a single approach for sticking with industry over politics, but there are tendencies to observe, like culture favoring religion or industry eventually birthing science. The trick is that while foundation cards stick around pretty much forever, ideas disappear whenever you hit a certain limit, research an obsoleting idea, or switch from one column to the other.
This last detail is crucial, rewarding players for specializing until the moment they’re forced to switch to another government. One time, my people were enthusiastic industrialists, with a huge stack of foundations and ideas. A big stack generally translates to a big turn, since you start at the bottom foundation card and work your way up to the most recent idea, triggering one icon from each. This meant I was merrily founding two or three cities per turn. My competition looked on in envy, unable to keep up with such maddening disregard for anything but the fires of industry.
But even the hardest iron can be made to rust. It started out slow. Pollution hit when my cities outnumbered my ability to generate energy. A war on my borders left a fledgling city smoldering. Because my cards were plentiful, there was no need to placate the dissidents spilling into my tableau. Sure, they were blocking some abilities with their demonstrations. But when your civilization has more factories where that closed-down one came from, what’s the harm in leaving some portion of your population unhappy?
You’d think I never learned any history. Another player challenged the gods, the game’s nomenclature for risking a draw from the event deck. These spark all sorts of terrible incidents, including sweeping climate change that can leave Southeast Asia underwater or the equator choked in jungles. They also, after being auctioned, become foundations.
The Labor Unions card is an exception. Instead of being auctioned, Labor Unions are immediately given to the player with the most dissent. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, was my hyper-industrialist utopia. Not only was I forced to change governments, but these upstart workers overthrew the remnants of what I’d had in that column before, one of the very few ways that foundation cards can be removed from the game. Some of my ideas were flexible enough to come along, rotating from industrial red to cultural white, but most were discarded. In the span of a single short revolution, I’d gone from the most potent empire in human history to a backward theocracy that had never developed any actual theology.
It helps that such moments are framed with uncommon care. Instead of donning the robes of most civgames’ immortal leader — or the lingering question mark of a designer who didn’t feel the issue was worth considering — Origins casts your people as its protagonists. Early on you’re a subspecies, then a language, then a religion, and lastly an ideology. Rather than being handy tags, these inform the governing decisions of each epoch. Those first turns are about wandering nomads and the development of your brain. Later, cities sprout around whichever resources you’ve learned to cultivate, domesticate, or mine. This eventually ignites conflicts over living space and spoils. By the end, despots and runaway ideas, like those Labor Unions, pose as much threat as external factors. It’s a long tale, the very definition of an epic, yet it’s consistent in the telling despite shifting perspectives and values and goals.
Speaking of goals, it’s possible that nothing is more reflective of what Origins is striving toward than its three victory conditions. Rather than tallying up a single score, each epoch sees its civilizations chasing a shared, but changing, objective. The first epoch is all about forming a religion; whoever has the most priests earns a VP token for every player with fewer priests. The second epoch is similar but with cities, generally seeing a boom of construction and takeover. And lastly, you’re judged on your civilization’s diversity, earned only through foundation cards.
The brilliant part, however, is that you can entirely opt out of two of these contests. Oh, it isn’t wise to do so. But if you’re happy with your cities, you can make like a racist secular humanist and tell religion and diversity to shove it. When the fourth epoch concludes, only the highest of your three scores is worth anything. If you’re a dominant religion without any cities, no big deal. Diverse city-state? Sure. Or, yes, you could play as the usual empire-builder that controls most of the map. The only danger is that someone might mobilize the global philosophy against your chosen sphere, knocking it out of the running entirely. This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors. While specialization is supreme, diversification prevents your theocratic state from looking silly when everybody turns agnostic.
One would be overly discriminating to expect any game this ambitious and this broad to be without flaws; indeed, that there are so few is almost miraculous. Still, its sandbox nature yields the occasional stinking clump. A strong early religion can award lots of foundations to a single player, often leaving others frustrated. Similarly, the game only moves forward by increments when civilizations challenge the gods — and this is a testy process that often takes a backseat as players jockey for position in that epoch’s race.
Impressively, some of Origins’ weaknesses are also advantages. The trade action, for example, lets players exchange technology, release pawns from less-developed segments of their brains (hmm), or suppress dissent. This is a common irritant for leading players as a rival in second place elevates those trailing behind. Annoying and game-delaying, perhaps, but this is far more than a catch-up mechanic. It’s symbolic of developing nations brought into orbit around powerful patrons, effectively becoming counters in a game far above their heads — until they’re caught up and poised to become a world power in their own right. At times this, along with the deterministic victory conditions, can make the game’s early moments feel somewhat trivial compared to those of the final epochs. But this is also a mercy, keeping everyone invested for the entire four- or five-hour duration.
I asked for something different and Bios: Origins delivered. This is far more than a civgame. It’s a game about civilization. About disease and disaster, about domestication and cultivation, about herdsmen and explorers, artists and artisans, priests and philosophers. About how cultures can be hijacked or realigned. About a species in ascendance. If Genesis traced A to B and Megafauna traced B to C, Origins goes from C all the way to here. This is a game about humans. For better or for worse, Origins is about us. The scope of most civgames just shrunk a few inches.