Spreadsheets of Gaia
In my corner of the world, the Great Salt Lake is drying up. Because its bed contains deposits of heavy metalloids, the winds that sweep that portion of the valley have begun to billow arsenic-laced dust. Local politicians have proposed a wide range of solutions, from “Let’s cut down all those water-hogging trees” to “Did you know Victorian women consumed daily arsenic wafers to bleach their skin lighter and show they didn’t work in the fields? It’s time to embrace the wisdom of our foremothers!”
I prefer my apocalyptic wastelands with a splash of eco-optimism. Crud, I’d take a wasteland that wasn’t in thrall to the alfalfa lobby. Until then, Ian Cooper and Jan Gonzalez’s Shapers of Gaia is about reseeding the desert after everybody’s arsenic consumption made them too pale to keep on living.
Then again, does it count as eco-optimism if it requires mega-robots and efficacious cloning?
At least Shapers of Gaia leans into the idea that we can tackle the anthropogenic climate crisis with some good old-fashioned human ingenuity. Starting from a central vault, it casts two or three players as genetic wizards determined to make the desert blossom once more with life. And it offers a couple of genuinely thrilling ideas, both as components of its sci-fi setting and via its gameplay.
The first, oddly enough, is that player count. Three is the loneliest number in board games. Everything gets a solitaire mode these days, and we’re drowning in two-player titles, but everything else seems tuned to that golden count of four or five. Shapers of Gaia, on the other hand, feels right at home with three people, its hex map expanding into slices that would feel too thin with more players, while still offering plenty of wiggle room for the aforementioned genetic wizardry.
There are only two actions in the game, although both are flexible and contain multiple steps. The first, terraforming, sends your giant robot across the land to seed forests, fungi, and crystals for your creatures to inhabit, not to mention the occasional wild space or marsh — which in this game is unintuitively worthless unless you’re playing as the sole character who recalls the biotic virtues of wetlands. This is the simpler of the game’s two actions, although don’t let that fool you. There’s plenty to consider, not only the placement of tiles and the benefits they provide to both you and your opponents, but also the risk of any terrain being seized upon by your opportunistic coworkers. Much like an actual biosphere, everything is interconnected, and there’s nothing stopping a rival from populating their own scavengers onto the fungal mat you just spored into existence.
Populating is the second action. It’s also the more robust of the two, demanding piles of resources — spores, seeds, crystals — alongside careful placements and bonus selections. That latter consideration is where the game’s meat can be found. Every character offers the same selection of scavengers, herbivores, and predators when it comes to map placement, gradually dotting the landscape with handsome wooden blocks. Everyone is chasing identical placement bonuses. Say, that scavengers are worth points on the periphery of the biosphere, while predators like hanging out near herbivores. Meanwhile, every populated creature also adds a card to the corresponding ecosystem next to your player mat, gradually building chaining bonuses. Put together, it’s a lot to take in.
And that isn’t the half of it. Where these creatures differentiate themselves is on a character’s individual mat. It’s almost blasé to note that every character offers their own powers, but Shapers of Gaia works to emphasize the many trades these fantasy geneticists ply. The insects of the Oraplexis Terraria can metamorphose into more durable forms, scavengers rearranging themselves into herbivores and predators. The Telrin Aviary hovers around wild biomes, bypassing their extra costs and triggering perks whenever they populate. There’s the Rastar Nursery, with its creeping plant-animal hybrids, and the Maldera Rivers, the only faction that can introduce animals to wetlands. There are six in total, and much of the game’s pleasure revolves around unlocking each character’s synergies and strategies.
That knottiness is both its greatest strength and its sharpest shortcoming. Shapers of Gaia offers an uplifting perspective. It feels good to remake the wild places our species has been so effective at paving over. The game even asks its players to carefully balance their needs. Two special resources, energy and nutrients, are essential for enhancing your abilities, but might also run at a shortfall and result in toxicity. In a fine twist, toxicity obliterates your points in the endgame, but is actually useful in its own right if you leverage the proper bonuses. Meanwhile, DNA tokens can be earned while expanding biomes. These are necessary acquisitions, allowing your species to score, but gathering too many of them will also result in significant hits when the game wraps up. Even the act of repairing the environment is destructive, so it behooves players to take care where they tread. Or where they bulldoze with a giant terraforming robot.
At the same time, Shapers of Gaia can’t help but conform to New Euro sensibilities. The problem isn’t so much the game’s plentiful scoring opportunities — although there are so many points in this point salad that it abrades the tongue. Rather, it’s that the game’s approach to competition comes across as obligatory. There’s no direct confrontation as such, but it’s packed with the passive-aggressive tendencies that are the genre’s hallmarks: swiping desirable spaces out from one another, nabbing species cards, triggering tiles precisely when nobody else can benefit from them, dumping a predator in between opposing herbivores. It isn’t unpleasant, but there is an abruptness to the process that belies the game’s setting. It’s hard to reseed Gaia with both eyes glued on your rivals.
Case in point, the decision to end the game by depleting the stack of biome tiles is a significant one. It’s easily accomplished at any point in the game’s back half, and more often than not leaves players floundering to maximize their last one or two actions. Whether your terraformed landscape will overflow with new life or appear patchy and malnourished is entirely dependent on when somebody realized they were slightly ahead in points and so decided to ring the recess bell early. As conclusions go, it’s oddly artificial. Really, that’s the case for the game’s entire competitive streak. It’s stacked with contrivances, more interested in providing a setting as a “theme,” in our hobby’s disappointingly anorexic sense of the word, than enlivening itself with actual themes. You are not genetic wizards remaking the world despite the excesses of the previous age. You’re competitors compiling the best spreadsheets. And because we’ve compiled hundreds of spreadsheets in the past, there’s no escaping the feeling that we’ve seen this dance performed many times before, but at double the tempo.
Still, I’m fond of Shapers of Gaia on the whole. It’s the characters who do it. Those vibrant, fully realized characters, with their strange and unique approaches to rebirthing our Mother Earth. Perhaps, with a squint, one might interpret this as a game about feuding ideologies. About how there’s no such thing as a unified cause, only hundreds of smaller causes that are aligned enough to make change. Maybe when the gene wizards emerge from the vault and boot up their ten-story robot, they’ll quibble over whether to jumpstart the terraforming with bugs or dinosaurs. They’ll still be only human, after all.
That’s where Shapers of Gaia leaves me. It’s only a board game, after all. Isn’t that what we say when somebody cares too much? “It’s only a board game.” Only a board game, and not one especially interested in pushing boundaries or exploring its own ideas. It’s good for a few plays. Enough to see each of the characters in action. Really, they’re its lifeblood. Once they’ve been spilled, there’s nothing left in the sack but the wish that it held more. Like so many games these days, too many, it’s meant to be purchased, played a few times, and then passed along. It is a finely crafted disposable thing. I hope we can extend better treatment to our planet.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on February 21, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Shapers of Gaia, WizKids. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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