... ew.

My daughter wants to be an entomologist. Normally we’d chalk it up to passing whimsy — she’s only eight, after all — but that’s been her consistent answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” for something like four years now. She loves the things. Potato bugs, caterpillars, earthworms, she’ll dig ’em out of the ground and care for them, but only for a while before insisting they need to be returned home lest they perish in a mason jar.

Bios: Mesofauna, designed by Phil Eklund (yes, that one), acts as a sister title to Bios: Megafauna, this time focusing on bugs rather than ten-meter sloths. It treats its insect playthings with significantly less gentleness than my kid.

... ew.

Check out all those bugs!

If you’ve played Megafauna, there’s a good chance you know what to expect from Mesofauna. Like the rest of Eklund’s Bios series, Mesofauna puts the science of evolution front and center by asking players to mutate, speciate, and spread a particular phylum of bug across the map. In the process, it incidentally gamifies a hybrid of evolution and intelligent design that’s become the compromise position of religious folk who no longer want to assert that the world is only six thousand years old but also don’t want to give up on the idea that a deity prodded the biosphere into its current state. Which is to say, Mesofauna affords significant control over the proceedings. Fair enough. Random mutations probably wouldn’t make for the most enjoyable play experience anyway.

The basic arc of the game resembles a mushroom cloud. Early on, everybody begins with a single archetype that’s spread across one or more spots on the map. From there, your species will adopt and refine new traits, develop new body types altogether, and stretch their legs, wings, and probosces into new niches. Every so often something terrible will occur: a burst of radiation, an extinction-level impact, a crowd disease, something that reduces your species’ effectiveness or perhaps even drives them to extinction altogether. That’s before we discuss competition. As ever, your creations are locked into a never-ending struggle to claim and hold onto various niches of the ecosystem. The map is parceled accordingly between herbivore and carnivore slots. Contrary to what you might expect from games like Evolution and Oceans, developing into a predator is something of a pity prize, achieved only when your prey proves to be a superior herbivore, and prone to collapse when your newfound prey develops a tougher exoskeleton or learns to fly out of reach. Such tumbles come fast and hard in Mesofauna. Even robust species might find themselves disappearing into the amber record thanks to an ill-timed event and the appearance of a burrowing competitor.

... ew.

Picking bug parts.

Yet life, uh, finds a way. Despite a dozen setbacks, it isn’t long before each player has three or four divergent species jostling for space. Hence the mushroom cloud metaphor. There are bottlenecks aplenty for whittling nascent species down to size, but there’s enough wiggle room to flourish on the other side. By the end of the game, you’ll be doing three times more than your earlier turns could accomplish. They don’t call it the Cambrian Explosion for nothing.

A big part of this is thanks to the way Mesofauna positions itself as a streamlined version of Megafauna. Back when I reviewed Megafauna, I noted that it was already one of Eklund’s smoothest titles. Mesofauna is even easier to break into. This is largely accomplished with a handful of minor but significant tweaks — mutations, even — that make it suitable for anybody who’s been curious about Eklund’s scientific titles but intimidated by his tendency to get lost in verbiage and simulation. Mesofauna holds its players’ hand through two introductory games, tones down the jargon, and jettisons some of the weirder concepts.

Not all of them, thankfully. To give my favorite example, one of the game’s possibilities is the parasite, a species that can only survive by attaching itself to rivals. This is brilliantly rendered as a game piece that saddles its fellow “creeples,” carving a new niche into the innards of its rivals rather than competing for food fair and square. Other flourishes sharpen enough of the game’s edges to make it feel like a glimpse into evolution’s delightful weirdness. There are special organs that make you more likely to survive extinction events, wings for catching wind currents to disperse to far-off continents, venom for paralyzing prey even if they develop new escape methods, and the odd ability to capture rival young to serve as slaves in your burrows. Despite the game’s sky-high perspective, it stridulates with life and motion.

... ew.

Making bug bods.

It helps that Mesofauna is more generous than its sister title. Unlike the cards in Megafauna, which were as much a struggle to cope with as its procession of disastrous events, every trait in Mesofauna’s card market is valuable in some way. It’s easier to craft working bodies for your insects, complete with functioning traits and insulating pheromones, or peel them off into entirely different species altogether. This wealth of workable cards also keeps flimsier players in the game longer, makes recovery swifter, and centers the focus on the map rather than its periphery. Even though you’re still on the hunt for desirable traits, the membrane between Mesofauna’s tableaux and its area control is thinner and more porous. Despite being more or less the same game, its structure feels entirely distinct, more a game and less an exercise in showing off how many specialized terms can be crammed into one rulebook.

It loses some fidelity. There is that. Apart from the aforementioned flourishes, it didn’t send me down many avenues of inquiry. I shrugged my way through the footnotes with nary a double-take, which could be considered good or bad depending on what you’ve come to expect from Eklund’s marginalia. The same goes for the game’s overall approach to scoring and events. These are triggered together, usually some combination of a bad event hitting you for a penalty and an opportunity rewarding the phylum with the greatest population or most pheromones. Although these are streamlined, they couldn’t be considered “fair” in the slightest, and behave like a vestigial organ from the game’s more simulationist predecessor. On the one hand, I’m happy to play hardball, and often wish Eklund would follow up his notoriously unfair titles Greenland and Neanderthal. On the other, it’s odd to play a game that’s both striving to be more welcoming to newcomers and determined to murder a species before it can develop any protective organs. At times, it will reward a pile of amber to the most populous species three turns in a row. Mesafauna’s arms are wide open, but it hasn’t shed its fangs.

This is the least ew of all these images. Take that, bugs.

When bugs go bad.

The result is sometimes jarring. Maybe that’s the point. It’s easy to see how Mesofauna might have been totally declawed. I’m glad it wasn’t. Its best parts are all sharp corners are jagged edges, the strange creatures and barbed interactions that make its primitive landscape such a wonderland to explore. Not only in the sense that it’s wondrous but that, like Wonderland, it’s tinged with mortal danger.

That’s the right call for a game about evolution. Although Mesofauna doesn’t prove as original or expansive as it might have been, it still holds a worthwhile microscope over a diminutive topic. Maybe my daughter is right about all those wriggling things after all.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 5, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Are there Eklund’s footnotes in the rulebook?

  2. I think it was decided the footnotes may remain if they are factual and peer reviewed

  3. This was an excellent review.
    As a biologist let me tell you that I need to try this, and that I’m sorry about your daughter. Hopefully, she will recover.

    About the Intelligent Designer role you play, maybe we can imagine a workaround where you are the Natural Selector. You know, several random mutations happened, but this one is the only one that stuck.

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