Reviewed by James Davis

BIOS MEGAFAUNA: 2ND EDITION (Sierra Madre Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-180 minutes; $69.99)


Phil Eklund is a rocket scientist. He’s also a game designer. And so yes, he has created a game about rocket science. It’s called High Frontier (and featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Gamers Alliance Report).  This article is not about that game. But Mr. Eklund is also interested in biology, the creation of life and the grand sweeping story of how evolution and environment molded life into the vast biome we see today. And so yes, this article is about that game. It’s called Bios: Megafauna.

Eklund’s games have been quite successful. There was a recent Kickstarter for both Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna that were easily funded. In fact Bios: Genesis is, as of this writing, the second most successful science based board game campaign on Kickstarter. It is second to Edison vs. Tesla.

But I can say that his games fall within a niche in the gaming community. One reason is when people describe his games as science-based, they really aren’t kidding. These games are absolutely drenched in the science they are simulating, which is the main reason myself and others like them. The rules have 71 footnotes explaining scientific principles. The elements of the game often have unusual names denoting scientific processes. There is a two page article from Eklund on the Carbon Cycle near the end of the rules. And the cards contain text clarifying the science behind what is depicted.

The event cards in Bios: Megafauna, for example, contain very detailed descriptions of the sometimes catastrophic environmental forces that existed hundreds of millions of years ago. Take one such card: Hypercapnia. It is a stratified ocean that traps large amounts of CO2. That condition helps oxygen-breathing species, but if it is reversed it would release the CO2 causing a massive die-off. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s first focus on the basics.

Bios: Megafauna is a very enjoyable simulation of the rise of speciation of life. At the start, 450 million years ago, the players are a phylum: either mollusks, insects, vertebrates, or plant-fungus hybrids. The goal is to mutate your life form into successful megafauna and dominate the planet.

The players start with 6 small wooden pieces that sit on your genotype cards, representing an unborn state and one on the map representing your species. The map is composed of tiles called “cratons” that can be shifted to represent the movement of landmass and the changing latitude over millions of years. There is a number of cards in a “mutation” display that are available for the players to add to their species. And a board representing oxygen levels, cloud cover and precipitation, and the atmospheric condition such as temperate, warm or hothouse.

Once you have learned the rules (more on that later), the play of the game is very intuitive and easy to follow despite the abundance of scientific terms and theories. There are 4 phases each turn. The first is the event phase where you draw either one or, most likely, two event cards. One will be extraterrestrial in nature and one will be a biosphere event, modified by the atmosphere. The events can range from annoying to occasionally cataclysmic. Upon the cards are many icons that designate how the events affect the game. Examples are a crater caused by an impact, or a landmass drifts, or climate change, or rising sea levels, etc. Take the Hypercapnia card described above. It will remove the carbon from the map and cause ionizing radiation which atrophies your creature’s capabilities.

Next is the action phase. The number of actions you have is tied to the level of oxygen. The actions include populating or gaining a mutation card. You could then as another action turn that mutation card over to give your creature internal organs such as a limbic system or abilities such as camouflage.  Other actions allow you to mitigate the results of the event cards somewhat by changing the size of your species, creating child species or removing an organ if it is no longer needed.

The third phase is dispersal where new tokens (called “creeples”) are placed on the map. Once on the map, they never move, but you do choose if they are a carnivore or herbivore. This is important because a carnivore will be removed if there is no herbivore of the same type in the same location. But it does allow you to place a creeple in that location without causing a contest between two player’s species. Two herbivores or two carnivores in a location will cause a contest which will end with only one of them remaining.

Last is to resolve those contests as mentioned as well as determining if a species can survive in the location it is in. Events may have changed the livability of certain areas on the map for example. Then rinse and repeat ten times. A typical game from setup to finish is typically two hours; longer of course if you have more players. Four players can play and there is a very good solitaire game. In the second edition, there is also two expansions in the box for Venus and Mars when they still had oceans.

Obviously I have been forced to simplify the description here. There are many things I have not mentioned such as how a species’ organs change their capacities and how the organs are represented by cubes of different color that are accumulated or removed by factors in the game. Or how the biosphere is effected by events and how it affects your life-forms. Or that there are different types of creeples that can only survive in certain environments. To go into that detail would duplicate much better descriptions you can find online.

Instead, I’ve meant to give a quick overview of the flow of play and the level of detail to hopefully spark interest in a game I really enjoy. I am an advocate for all of the sciences and I very much love it when I can combine my gaming hobby with my other interests.  Despite what I’m sure is a confusing description above, the game is surprisingly simple considering the subject matter and the level of scientific detail Eklund has poured into it. It is at heart a reasonably simple Euro-style worker placement and resource management game.

But to reach that simplicity you do need to learn the game first. And it is here I think we find the main reason why Eklund’s games are still niche within this hobby. His rules are arcane to read unfortunately. I like his games yet it typically takes me two readthroughs before I figure it out. The rules are simply confusing and some people don’t want to put that much effort into it.

So here is my advice. Find someone to teach it to you. Or there are some explanatory videos on Board Game Geek that are very much worth watching. And then go back to Board Game Geek again and download a rewrite of the rules by Martin Sharman. Mr. Sharman has done an excellent job of condensing the rules into a more streamlined form that removes a lot of the confusion. Use Sharman’s text to help you through Eklund’s rules to get a better grasp of what the game is trying to simulate. And reference the glossary and index at the back of the rulebook constantly. That really helped me. It is a shame that such a great game is hiding behind these rules. But it is what it is. I personally think it is worth the effort.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the initial game Bios: Megafauna is taken from. It is called American Megafauna. The second edition was published in 2001. Where Bios: Megafauna is much more accessible, American Megafauna is considerably more detailed and nuanced. And yes, more complicated. There is a focus more on the DNA of the mutations that occur. Instead of collecting types of species into a few creeples, he separated them into about a dozen genotypes. Each of which have specific benefits. The separation of DNA traits allows the players to create unusual animals that never existed. Like a camel with antlers or a small, fast anteater. Instead of static pieces, your megafauna must move on the map to survive. There is even a need to determine dentition, the teeth of the species. A specific dentition will be more or less likely to survive culling when there are more herbivores than the location’s biomass for example.

The game play is reasonably similar to Bios: Megafauna. There is a card draw that only sometimes causes a catastrophe. Otherwise everyone gains a gene, or a DNA or a Genotype card is auctioned. You then can add cards to one of four slots on your place mat. Next you have the opportunity to remove unwanted DNA cards. Then there is a choice to become an herbivore or predator and change size. Next expand the population, migrate and then cull any creatures that cannot survive.

Again, that is an extremely simplified run through. I mean only to show that Bios: Megafauna is a much more streamlined and manageable child of American Megafauna. Although the first game is quite enjoyable for its own merits.

Lastly, if I have caused a little interest here, you may also want to know that Eklund has created methods to tie two other games into Bios: Megafauna. The first is called Bios: Genesis and it simulates the creation of life in the primordial soup. You try to build your organic compounds into cells, and then multicellular life. You can then take your successful organism into Bios: Megafauna. Once you have successfully created a species there, you have a way to port it into Bios: Origins. This game focuses on the brain and simulates the development of intelligence from 3 million years ago to the present day and the invention of space travel.

And if you aren’t burned out by playing 4 billion years of time, then you can develop rockets and send them into the solar system by playing High Frontier. But I’d suggest taking a break. Four billion years takes a lot out of you. – – – – – – – – – – James Davis

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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