Teaching Evolution Through Board Games

THE GAMES

Bios: Genesis

Playtime: 90-120 minutes

Teach time: 90 minutes

Game difficulty: Heavy

Number of players: 1-4

Timespan: 4.6 billion years ago to 541 million years ago

Key educational concepts: early geology & geologic events, key biological innovations that promoted unicellular success, micro- and macro-organism evolution

Favorite rules video:  board game solo - watch it played

Rulebook: link

Associated curriculum and materials: paper: ‘What really is Evolution?, paper: “On the causes of mass extinctions”

Additional gameplay materials (both highly recommended): Player Aid (created by SaburoChaos), Reference (by Nathan Morse)

 

Overview

Bios: Genesis is an incredibly ambitious game that spans the first 4 billion years of Earth and ends at the dawn of the Phanerozoic Eon (the eon of visible life forms, ca. 541 million years ago). The game begins just after the formation of Earth, where players attempt the long and stochastic journey to conceive single-celled lifeforms from Earth’s cosmic soup.  During the early game (Hadean Eon), players focus on assembling the building blocks of life (amino acids, pigments, lipids, and nucleic acids).  Eventually, by skillful mitigation of dice roles and careful investment in Earth’s refugia, players will achieve the first single-celled organism, marking the start of the Archean Eon. Players continue to evolve a modest single-celled species by adding new mutations that improve metabolism, add endosymbionts, increase DNA/RNA repair, and aid in oxygen tolerance (to name a few).  Eventually, after accumulating enough mutations, multi-cellular life evolves. Play continues throughout the Proterozoic Eon until the evolution of terrestrial macro-organisms is achieved, culminating with mosses, snails, fungi, velvet worms, amphibians, and insects.  At the dawn of the Phanerozoic Eon, the game ends, and the player with the most organisms of the highest complexity wins.

 

           Learning and teaching the game

The game’s rich attention to scientific details that are carefully integrated into the mechanics makes this an absolute masterpiece of game design.  However, they also directly contribute to its biggest downside, as these factors make this game incredibly dense and difficult to learn, resulting in an extended playtime. Lastly, to adequately comprehend the full brilliance of this game and make it worth the substantial learning investment, the game really should be played several times.  Given these factors, I am hesitant to broadly recommend this game for educational purposes.  However, I could easily structure a small graduate-level or upper-level undergraduate evolution course around playing all three games in the BIOS series: Genesis, Megafauna, and Origins.  If I were to attempt to teach this game in the classroom, I would suggest it be done over three separate class periods that cover: 1) game overview: events, refugia and how to generate catalysts during the Hadean Eon, 2) using catalysts to create unicellular life and to mutate it, and 3) parasites and evolving multicellular life.       

           Gameplay

The mechanisms that power the game are quite engaging.  For example, the game recreates the stochastic nature of early Earth through event cards that are drawn each round to change Earth’s conditions, which can promote or inhibit early life. This is complemented by the use of dice, which are rolled to see what types of life precursors are generated. In execution, this can be a brutal process, as many of the event cards absolutely limit evolutionary progress. The die rolls can seem to be against you as well, however, bad luck can be mitigated by creating enzymes to promote the generation of pro-life building blocks.  For me, this perfectly reinforces the long and random birth of multicellular life.  A vast majority of Earth’s existence was lifeless or inhabited by a limited array of single-celled organisms. This first arc (pre-life) carries on just long enough to make its point --- that the origin was punctuated by a rare set of events--- but it does it in a manner that doesn’t detract from enjoying the gameplay.

Another of our favorites are the mutation cards that are purchased and added to your single-celled organism. I love how mutations build the complexity of your organism, eventually allowing it to evolve into a multicellular organism while providing immediate benefits that allow your species to better adapt to the prevalent climates and geological events.

 

The last arc of the game (the transition from micro- to macro-organisms) can feel a little repetitive. By this point, players have generated a game engine that manufactures the materials necessary for evolution.  For me, this felt a bit monotonous and started to overstay its welcome.  Perhaps again this is thematically appropriate, as evolution (though amazing) is constrained to its own inertial and large-scale change, which usually requires a lot of time and is the culmination of many small changes.

           Education value

This game is an absolute educational gem and could be used to reinforce many key evolutionary concepts. This mostly stems from the fact that the core gameplay mechanisms are directly tied to actual geological events and key biological innovations. Further, all the organisms in the game were real species and represent key milestones in modern biodiversity. Bios: Genesis covers a broad array of topics that could be reinforced through its use in a classroom. It’s a tragedy that the mere thought of teaching this game to students causes me to break out in hives.

 

One important thing that I struggled deeply with, which I think everyone should be aware of before they purchase this game, is that Phil Eklund, the game designer and a former aerospace engineer, is a huge climate change denier and thinks the science behind it is a hoax.  He discusses his viewpoints at great length in the rulebook.  As one of those scientists studying climate change, there is no debate to be had. PERIOD.  Ultimately, I chose to use this detail as a discussion point---- even very smart people can be woefully misguided.  Unfortunately, this massive misstep also makes me very skeptical of every other scientific detail in his games.  However, at the moment, this is his most egregious error by far and the core ideas behind the gameplay are spot on.

Box cover (image credit: Phil Eklund)

Event Cards (image credit: Phil Eklund)

Unicellular life with one mutation (to right) (image credit: Phil Eklund)

A few mutations available in Bios: Genesis (image credit: Phil Eklund)

           Fun factor

The game is a rewarding mix of strategy and tactics that will leave you pondering your decisions for days.  The long stochastic nature of early evolution is perfectly emulated, however, this also means the game is punishing, at times, and leave you bitter.  Lastly, the complexity and the many situational rules make the game feel like a mix between simulation and a strategy board game.  Because of this, the game is entertaining but doesn’t beg for immediate replay.

Game components (image credit: Phil Eklund)