Friday, April 27, 2012

My Personal Holy Grail... Found at Last? (Bios: Megafauna x2)

Professor Henry Jones: Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she'd found a prize.
Indiana Jones:
And what did you find, Dad?
Professor Henry Jones:
Me? Illumination. 

- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Reflections on Perfection

So, a few years back (edit: Holy Schnikes! It was EIGHT years ago. Time flies.) I wrote this blog entry on the idea of the perfect (Euro) game:

The Perfect Game

For those who can't be bothered to follow the link, in it I expounded on the elements that, to me, made up the perfect (Euro-style) game. Note: I love wargames as well, but the "perfect" wargame and the perfect Euro-style/designer game would be quite different, so in this entry, whenever I type "perfect game", substitute mentally "perfect Euro/designer game".

Eight years after writing that entry, thirteen years after rebooting my boardgaming hobby by buying Settlers of Catan and thirty-odd years after developing a keen interest in boardgaming in the first place, I've finally found a game that satisfies (to varying degrees) every criteria I set for choosing the perfect game.

Amazingly, the game is one I hadn't expected to be more than a passing interest - a curiosity or a niche game. It just goes to show that you often find things in the last place you look (a truism - but that's another discussion).

What's the game that matches all my "perfect game" criteria?

Bios: Megafauna

Is this the perfect game for everyone? No, not at all. In fact, were I to choose criteria that to me would define the best possible game for the largest possible audience, it would be a game much different than Bios: Megafauna.

But, by the criteria I first wrote down eight years ago and on reviewing them, largely still feel right today, I've found my "Holy Grail".

Before I go too far off the deep end, I do want to caution the reader that I am a self-confessed enthusiastic dilettante. I will often get really quite enthusiastic about something, engage with it with a laser-like focus for a few weeks or months, then gradually lose interest. I don't "drop" the interest, and I seldom lose fondness for it, it's just that I'll spend less time obsessing about it.

So, I've learned to try to temper my enthusiasm for something with the need for "sober second thought". I will need to play Bios: Megafauna at least a dozen more times to better test its limits and breaking points. I'm sure, in time, some wrinkles will appear in its radiant countenance. But for the moment, I'm pretty smitten. Thus, take what I've written with a grain of salt.

To the review and the criteria I've set for the perfect game.

Evolution and Me

Bios: Megafauna is a reworking of Phil Eklund's American Megafauna, a game which I've been interested in for some time but have never found an owner or anyone interested enough in playing to actively hunt down a copy on eBay to buy.

I've always been fascinated by the arms race of evolution - the survival of the fittest and the jaw-droppingly vast time periods, geographical changes and sheer biomass involved. Why were there once Sabretooth Tigers? Why did they die out? Are wooly mammoths the ancestors of elephants (A: no, not really - their genus is extinct). What on earth is a Terror Bird? How on earth would land animals ever manage to grow to over 30 tonnes? And how does something hunt something that weighs 30 tonnes?

These sorts of questions and their answers are fascinating to me. Since re-entering the boardgaming hobby again in 1999, I've cast about for a game which captures this fascination in a playable but scientifically respectful way. By "scientifically respectful" - I mean that the game doesn't have to be bang on with the science - a simulation -, but an effort to be accurate and a sort of "if you squint it still looks right" effect is desired.

The Proto-Evolutionaries

One of the first I came across was Evo, but while cute and entertaining, hard science it ain't. Later I found WildLife, which I still quite enjoy and think is a bit of a overlooked gem - the science isn't too bad, but for game balance reasons, you can only really play it best with four or six people, which is sometimes a hard number to hit in my gaming group. For my young son, I picked up Trias, but it was also somewhat light on the science, and didn't really satisfy on a "mutate the individual creature level". I also bought Dominant Species with high hopes and, while it also is a well designed game (it also has a few faults for me) I find that it largely abstracts the finer details of evolution, the physiology of individual species and genera, which is of interest to me, and it also has some scoring/randomness issues which I find somewhat problematic.

I put American Megafauna on my wishlist before Dominant Species was in development, and even after buying and playing Dominant Species, it remained on my list. I loved High Frontier, also from Phil Eklund, and it remains one of my top five games. When I heard that Bios: Megafauna was in the pipeline, I was interested, but I didn't order a copy because I didn't think anyone in my weekly playing group would be into it. When I already had WildLife and Dominant Species, neither of which generally hits the table unless I pick it, it was hard to justify buying another evolution-based game that was based on harder science than either.

To my surprise, a fellow gaming group member, Agent Easy, bought it a few weeks ago. I knew he was mildly interested in American Megafauna, but I didn't think he was keen enough to pick it up. "Well," I thought, "here's my chance to try it. It should be good to play once."

Entering the Presence of the Grail

Agent Easy pulled out the game box. To be honest, the cover, while glossy and relatively professional looking, is a little hokey. A velociraptor holding a bow, pulling an arrow out of a quiver with its other hand, reflected in the eye of some sort of reptilian? I know it's the Sierra Madre Games logo and all, but come on.

The board is sturdy, if a little gaudy - it looks very Illustrator-drawn (if you've used Illustrator or similar DTP programs, you know what I mean) - lots of hard edges and geometrical shapes. The colours are a little garish and there's a proliferation of different typefaces (at least seven or eight, by my count) which give it a bit of a uneven appearance, as if another "pass" would've smoothed it into a more coherent-looking whole.

In play, it's actually a little mis-sized - the roadrunner DNA tracks (more on that later) are a little too big and the actual play spaces are a little too small. The board feels small, but actually there is room for everything - as long as you don't mind tiny point sizes.

Overall, it's very functional, if a little unattractive. To paraphrase a movie about a Archaelogist/Fortune Hunter who is on a quest for his own grail, "Truly this is the gameboard of a scientist."

The cards are very nice, good cardstock and quite well designed in general; they are clear, with excellent icons and illustrations. The wooden "creature" pieces (creeples?) are excellently cut and coloured, with surprisingly sharp detail. As representation of the various genotypes, they're great.

Seeing the Light

I had read the rules earlier in the day. Having heard what a simulation American Megafauna was supposed to be, I was expecting a much heavier ruleset. Although the terminology is dense (Eklund coins his own term for genetic characteristics that help one catch prey or avoid being caught as prey - "Roadrunner DNA" - you know, like the Warner Brothers cartoon, with Wile E. Coyote always chasing the Roadrunner? Eh? Eh?) with terms like genotype, speciation, dentition, genome, biome and orogeny sprinkled throughout the rulebook, the actual mechanics, once you get past the fancy names, aren't that difficult at all. Others have describe the game turn in more detail, but simply put, you choose one of four (or six, if you're using the optional living rules additions) actions, carry out the consquences of that action, and then pass play to the next player.

The original actions are buy a card from a shared display of five (or ten, if you're using the living rules "two display" variant) which starts a new genotype or mutates one of your existing species - and then resolve an event on the card which replaces the one you bought; resize, which makes a species bigger or smaller, allowing it to develop (or lose) attributes and hunt or avoid being hunted by other creatures; acculturate a species, which gives a species advanced, primitive human-like abilities which enable it to survive more readily in wider types of environments (and also banks VPs) and expand, which allows you to add additional figures of a species to the board, or alternatively add a new species which inherits some of the genetic traits of the parent species.

The actions added in the living rules are Roadrunner action which permits a player to put two genes (the currency of the game) on one of the first cards in the display row and develop or improve a roadrunner DNA trait. This was apparently added largely as a fix for the possible start-game condition where a player might be surrounded by impassible marine biomes and consequently find it impossible to expand. The last added action is Genetic Drift a way for a player to steal genes from the player with the most genes... a sort of evolutionary rob from the rich to give to the poor scheme that I suspect Eklund added as a balancing feature to avoid a situation when someone might hoard genes and not release them back into circulation (genes are zero-sum).

I would be remiss to mention the little nuggets of scientific facts footnoted or sidenoted throughout the rules. These are catnip for me - I just can't get enough.

Struck by the Chixulub Bolide

Gameplay turned out to be fast, actually much faster than I had expected. We blew through a game, including a brief rules explanation, in just over 90 minutes. I immediately wanted to play again; everything was falling into place. We played again immediately. The second game was a little longer at 110 minutes,(people, knowing what to look for and what to avoid, took a more time to consider their moves) but just as enjoyable for me. Decisions are challenging but not paralyzing, you can directly affect other players in a competitive, predatory or somewhat parasitic way, and the theme permeates the entire game in a positive, constructive way, instead of interfering with or slowing down game play.

So, how does Bios Megafauna satisfy my Perfect Game criteria?

  1. PLAYING TIME: Playable in 60-90 minutes – 120 minutes at absolute outside. The game can be finished in 90 minutes. Slightly shorter or longer games are also possible, depending on variants used (we used the two display variant) and gaming group play style. My gaming group seemed to "get it".

  2. PLAYER LIMIT: Playable by 2-6 players, and scales well at all player numbers. To be fair, this game does not play with 5 or 6 players, so it doesn't quite meet this criteria completely. However it does have a solo option, and 2, 3 or 4 players seem quite playable. Call it a partial match?

  3. DOWNTIME: Has low levels of downtime and low amounts of “move paralysis” – that is, the number of action options available to a player during any given turn or turn phase should be neither so numerous nor so complex as to be daunting. With some groups, the dreaded analysis paralysis (AP) might set in, but the chance of this happening compared to, say, Tikal, is much, much less. I never felt like I was "waiting" for my turn - I was always engaged in what was going on.

  4. BUILDING: Involves “building” in some way – creating and improving on something, so that you end the game with something “better” than you started. For example – more money, better city, more powerful character. The game is about evolving - the most biological way of building possible. On top of building more "fit" creatures, over-specialized creatures can be wiped out by extinction events, letting you/forcing you to build another creature suited for the new reality.

  5. CONFLICT: Involves “conflict” in some way – either actual fighting or economic/qualitative/quantitative competition. Survival of the fittest, baby! If your creatures can't compete, they won't thrive.

  6. NOT TOO RANDOM: Minimizes randomness – players should never feel as though the luck of the die/draw is the only factor in success. Some have pointed to the events as causing too much randomness. I didn't experience this. Careful play and anticipation of catastrophe will reward a player who diversifies and doesn't put all of her genotypes in one basket.

  7. SOCIAL INTERACTION: Involves enough player interaction that a social atmosphere is created, while avoiding interaction which otherwise slows down the game. There was much discussion and amusement over comparing and describing the creatures being created - long-necked elephantoid creatures with beaks and tusks, or super-speedy, horse sized raptor-creatures who could sing to each other and relied on adrenal glands for bursts of speed.

  8. EASY TO TRACK: Minimizes calculation or the need for extensive record/bookkeeping – i.e. everything is at your fingertips or in front of you and does not have to be closely tracked by a complex process. Points are simple - tiles you've won from the tarpit, cards you've put in your fossil record, and creature meeples on the board.

  9. SCREW YOUR NEIGHBOUR: Gives the opportunity for “screw your neighbour” tactics – a way to play to thwart the plans of others, but in a manner that is otherwise avoidable by careful play and not overly frustrating. All the time - snatching a juicy biome or buying a card at exactly the right moment was a constant feature of our games. You can even go so far as to purposefully out compete an opponent's species.

  10. DOWN BUT NOT OUT: A mechanic for dealing with the possibility of being knocked out of the game – that is, if someone is in a losing position, there is a way to fight back if carefully played. There is a specific mechanic for a player whose species have all become extinct - Lazarus Player, which actually occurred. The player involved came back to win the game! The living rules also added the genetic drift rule, which seems to level the playing field. In addition, extinction catastrophes can easily take out a species which has become over-specialized, allowing other players to take over those biomes.

  11. LEADER REWARDS: A mechanic to address the standard “kill the leader” situation that rewards being in the lead without making being the leader unstoppable. The leader gets a substantial share of the tar-pit. I can't immediately think of other aspects, but a method to specifically "kill the leader" seems like it would be trickier in this game.

  12. VICTORY CONDITIONS: A victory condition track (victory points or score) which permits the fun of being able to see how roughly how close other players are to each other (fostering competition) while maintaining some element of surprise. Players can see how many tiles are received from the tar pit each round. Genotypes can be bought and buried in the fossil record, lending some element of surprise .

  13. THEME/FEEL: Game has a strong and interesting theme that is colourful but also relates to the game mechanic without bogging down the game. Execution of the mechanics of the game and the theme should mesh well at all levels. It should “feel” right. Yes, yes, YES. In spades.

  14. REPLAYABILITY: Game should have enough “depth” that it can be played more than once – conversely, it could be simple enough that complex strategies are possible (like chess or bridge) even given relatively simple rules. Not sure yet, but the random placement of starting biomes, the random assortment of cards, the random occurrence of events and the very variable consequences of player interaction while competing for specific biomes and configurations of biomes (which, as noted, are determined randomly) make this one look like it could have really long "legs".
Wow. Just wow. Depending on how you count, a game which hits 14 out of 14 points (13 if you dock it marks for being 1-4 players instead of 2-6). Amazing. Whereas some of the games which have come closest before had 10 or 12 points satisfied, this one has 13.

I'm really excited about playing this one again. I'm not sure if the novelty of the 108 mutation cards and 144 tiles will wear off, or if I'll tire of imagining sail-backed bipedal giraffes with disembowling claws or massive underground communities of tool-using insectivore lizards with wings.

I've played (euro) games which were more fun. I've played games which were more satisfying on an intellectual level. I've played games which felt more clever from a game-design point of view. But seldom have all of these factors come together for me so cohesively in a single game.

Taking it on Faith

There may not be any such thing as a "perfect game", but Phil Eklund has managed to make something which, for my money, is a close as anyone has gotten.

Once again, and I want to make this abundantly clear, it won't be perfect for everyone. Some people will be put off by the technical jargon. Others will find the mutation mechanic and the long strings of letters to be confusing. Still others might dislike the idea of a random event potentially smashing their carefully created empire of hyper-specialized critters into bone fragments and dust, or having their marine animals find their seas dry up around them.

Now that I've found Bios Megafauna, will I stop looking for the Perfect Game? Nope. Not by a long shot. But isn't that the beauty of unobtainable perfection?

For the moment, I'll be sitting back and enjoying this little gem. It deserves the attention.
Marcus Brody: The search for the Grail is the search for the divine in all of us. But if you want facts, Indy, I've none to give you. At my age, I'm prepared to take a few things on faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment