Teaching Evolution Through Board Games
Playtime: 90-120 minutes
Teach time: 90 minutes
Game difficulty: High
Number of players: 1-4
Timespan: 541 to 3 million years before present (the Phanerozoic Eon excluding the last period, the Quaternary)
Key educational concepts: early geology & geologic events, key biological innovations that promoted unicellular success, micro- and macro-organism evolution
Bios: Megafauna is an incredibly deep game that spans the last 500 million years on Earth and ends at the dawn of the Quaternary period. The game begins at the start of Phanerozoic, where players attempt the long and difficult journey to evolve from a simple archetype of a plant, mollusk, insect or vertebrate to much more complex species to dominating Earth’s early biomes. Players compete with others to colonize ancient continents* that are subject to dramatic tectonic activity, cosmic events, and changing atmospheres. At the dawn of the Quaternary, the game ends, and the player with the highest population on Earth and highest species diversity (both extinct and living) wins.
*Laurentia (now North and Central America), Siberia (now eastern Eurasia), Baltica (now Eastern Europe & Western Eurasia), Gondwana (now S. America, Africa, India, Australia, Antarctica)
Learning and teaching the game
The game’s complexity and careful attention to scientific details make this game 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. These factors also result in an extended playtime. Lastly, to adequately comprehend the full brilliance of this game and make it worth the substantial learning investment, I feel the game really should be played several times. Given all these factors, I am hesitant to broadly recommend this game for education purposes. However, I also am considering developing a graduate-level or upper-level undergraduate course with limited enrollment covering the history of life on Earth centered around playing all three games in the BIOS Series: Genesis, Megafauna, and Origins.
When we used this game in class, as homework I had the students watch the first 43 minutes of an extended rules video . This video does an excellent job covering the multitude of gameplay rules. At the start of the following class period, I took questions and then we watched the second half of the video in class (0:43:00-01:23:00 mins). As follows was the basic structure for how the game was taught (note each topic could be a separate 50 minute class period): 1) game components overview: the climate and atmosphere (the reservoir board), the biomes and continents (the game map), mutations and species (the mutation display and player setup), and 2) general overview of the four game phases: Event, Action, Dispersal, Extinctions. A detailed discussion of the Action Phase (mutations, emotions, specialization, tools, endothermy) and the Dispersal Phase (species competition, migration, predators/herbivores). Note: given the high cognitive load of this game, do not explain the details of Event Cards to the other players--- only you as the game manager need to understand them. Lastly, explain 'venom', 'mutualisms', and 'haustorium' if they arise during gameplay.
The core mechanisms in the game are very engaging. During the event phase, cosmic and biome event cards are drawn and change the earth’s conditions, sometimes physically moving continents, and keep players engaged. Due to cosmic fortune (or misfortune), any competitive player is capable of suddenly taking the lead.
During the action phase, players craft their pool of species through the several options in the Action Phase (the most useful are mutate, speciate, populate, neoteny, and resize). The first two mentioned actions are driven by mutation cards that are purchased and added to your organism. These cards build the complexity of your species, which will eventually allow it to evolve into new forms, while also providing immediate benefits allowing your species to better adapt to the prevalent climates, competition regimes, and geological events. The harsh economy of the Action Phase leaves players wanting to do a lot more each turn than they are allowed. I think this is a great thing and it makes many strategies viable, while also preventing a leader from getting too far ahead of others.
My absolute favorite thing about this game is when you create a new species, you evolve it from one of your other established species, and the new species inherits its body size and other key 'base' adaptations. In effect, it makes a slightly altered copy of its mother species, typically with a new key morphological adaptation (i.e. flight, protective armor). This is the single evolution themed game I have played that fully embraced descent with modification.
During the Dispersal Phase, players colonize one of the four continents, competing with other species on the map. Winners of conflict are determined by evaluating traits gained during previous action phases, based mostly the species' body size, or their nervous, circulatory or foraging adaptations.
We have two house rules that I recommend you consider. The Achterbann game, which I suggest you play, consists of 10 rounds (after the initial partial first round). Under these rules, you draw an Event Card every round. Executing all actions on these cards takes time and causes a noticeable break in the gameplay. It also keeps most players stuck in an early evolutionary state, with poor decisions or bad luck causing complete extinction of their taxa. I personally love the Event Cards and feel that they offer great teaching moments. However, to better balance gameplay, every even round we execute only the actions associated with craton movements and ignore any other aspects of that event. This reduces the chance someone gets stuck on an isolated, largely inhabitable continent. I also suggest altering the 'Madea Supervillain' card, as it seems unnecessary and invokes a theme-breaking deity complex. If you, as the game teacher, are unable to manage climate events and will have one of the other players do it, provide the card as suggested by the rulebook and allow the cardholder to dictate decisions in event cards. However, do not allow them to use the card for its main power.
The game is a rewarding mix of strategy and tactics that will leave you pondering your decisions for days. It also quite punishing and, at times, can overstay its welcome. 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.
This game is an absolute educational gem and could be used to reinforce many key evolution and geology 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: Megafauna, and its sibling, Bios: Genesis, cover a broad array of topics that could be reinforced through its use in a classroom. It’s a tragedy that this game is so difficult to teach.
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 rule book. 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: carthaginian)
Unicellular life with one mutation (to right) (image credit: carthaginian)
A few mutations available in Bios:Genesis (image credit: carthaginian)
Game components (Image credit: The Innocent)
Game components (Image credit: marticabre)