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.
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.
Let’s say you’re making a game about the Renaissance. Not merely a slice of it. Not patronage of the arts, the rise of science, Florentine or Venetian city councils, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, trade routes and the tension between East and West, or the exploration of the New World. I mean all of it. The entire thing. The whole loaded ball of wax. Where do you start? Where do you finish? Perhaps most importantly, who are you, the player?
Pax Renaissance is a game with aspirations no less grand than capturing the entire ideological struggle of the Renaissance, the churn of ideas about religion, state, art, science, law, and every other little thing that produced Western culture as we now see it. Which isn’t actually all that surprising, given its pedigree. Both Pax Porfiriana and Pax Pamir were ambitious games as well, functioning as statements and simulations and playthings with equal mettle. This is the broadest topic yet for the Pax series, however, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the entire thing going up in flames as surely as Girolamo Savonarola’s attempt at governing Florence.
And yet, while Pax Renaissance is forced to make a few compromises in service of its gameplay, the final result is nothing short of a triumph.
In more ways than one, Pax Pamir is essentially my Platonic Ideal of a board game. It was even my favorite game of 2015. It’s deep and multifaceted, yet lean. Political, but careful to prevent alliances from lasting more than a few moments. Mean, but… well, it’s mean. That’s a good thing. Victory in Pax Pamir nearly always meant you had stripped everyone else’s aspirations of ruling Afghanistan to the bone, one assassination and taxation and military campaign at a time. Ruthless.
And from now on, I’ll never again play Pax Pamir without its expansion, Khyber Knives. Let me tell you why.
In the second quarter of the 19th century, the crown jewel of the British Empire was unexpectedly placed under threat when the Russian Empire began a period of aggressive expansion into Central Asia. India had been the linchpin of the British Empire’s interests abroad for nearly a hundred and fifty years, so the prospect of a Russian frontier bypassing the khanates and the Afghan emirate that had previously stood as a buffer zone between the British Raj and the Russian Empire sparked a flurry of activity. Spies, armies, diplomats, and traders poured into the region. Just like that, the tribal leaders of Afghanistan found themselves squeezed between two desperate empires.
Welcome to what came to be known as The Great Game.
By this point in their evolution, most dice games have become kindly creatures. Gentle, even. They want you to have a good time, to roll some bones and chuckle at your fortunes, to relax and have a straightforward and undemanding evening. They may have descended from wilder ancestors, but they’ve become tame, domesticated beasts along the way.
Neanderthal, the prequel to Greenland, is anything but that sort of dice game. It doesn’t care about staying late. Nor does it plan on playing fair. It embraces player elimination — or, perhaps worse, making the unlucky player sit around for rounds at a time with nothing to do. It’s complicated, rough, talks loudly about sex at inappropriate moments, changes the rules halfway through, and sometimes slaps you on the back so hard that you end up with Dr. Pepper charring your sinuses. In short, it has no interest in seeking mainstream appeal. And that’s precisely why I find it so fascinating.
Like so many of Phil Eklund’s games, including the hit Pax Porfiriana, the cards transform after a couple games. At first, they’re cluttered with text and competing symbols, so many that they’re nearly impossible to parse. After sending your tribe to hunt polar bears, you’ll reach out to pick up your failed rolls for another try, only for another player to bark at you, “What are you doing? You can’t reroll those.”
“Yes I can!” you’ll insist. “It says so right here.”
“That’s a Sage,” they’ll point out. They might even reach across the table and tap your tribe elder card. “Your Sage lets you reroll fours, yeah, but only for metallurgy rolls. See? See the difference? You’d need a Tracker to reroll fours while hunting on land.”
After a while you’ll spot them, the tiny symbols that represent metallurgy and land hunting. You’ll nod slowly, staring at the cards spread across the table. Then your opponent will clear his throat. “Oh, and hey, threes mean the polar bears ate your guys. So you just lost two hunters.”
If that makes you picture that darn video game series, get out. Right now. Just git. If, on the other hand, you picture something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, windswept and sun-beaten, rolling clouds of dust over shimmering broken earth, set to the hum of lawlessness and opportunism — well, then you just might be the sort of person to appreciate Phil and Matt Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana.