Teaching Evolution Through Board Games
Playtime: 120-240 minutes
Teach time: 50 minutes
Game difficulty: Heavy
Number of players: 1-4
Timespan: 200,000 to present
Key educational concepts: human evolution: cultural, social, and language; climate change; Neolithic revolution
Favorite rules video: teach and playthrough - heavy cardboard
Bios: Origins tackles the early steps of modern human evolution up to recent times. You play as one of four human species: Sapiens, Neanderthal, Denisovans, & Hobbits. Bios: Origins is a game about conflicting ideologies and their evolution. The goal of the game is to advance the culture, the political system, and the industry of your civilization. There is a myriad of paths to enlightenment: enlarge your brain, develop a robust language, discover and conquer new worlds, domesticate animals, and explore religions. The core of Bios: Origins is not about imperialism and war, though both are possible. Unlike other civilization board games, the core objectives of this game are centered on the development and control of your societies. Within your civilization, there is an unceasing conflict between priests, merchants, and warlords as you progress your civilization. As you progress your society, the balance of powers change, and the synergies of enlightenment are nuanced, so proceed with caution. In Bios: Origins your civilization with being continually changing: the societal goals, ethics, religions, dynasties, and language, to name a few. To win, advance your civilization furthest along the three technology tracks (culture, politics, industry).
Learning and teaching the game
The game’s rich attention to scientific and historical details that are carefully integrated into the mechanics make this an absolute masterpiece of game design (this is true of most Sierra Madre/ Ion games). However, these factors do make this game difficult to learn, though for a game of this length, much of the learning is emergent in the gameplay (much more so than the previous Bios series). Like past iterations, 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. At up to 4 hours apiece, few curricula can support this time frame – though, in the end, I think it is entirely justifiable. Given all these factors, I am hesitant to broadly recommend this game for educational purposes. However, that shouldn’t be interpreted as a fault of the game, rather basic logistics, and I see an incredible amount of educational value in this game.
Box cover (image credit: Phil Eklund)
The game is played over a series of turns. Each player takes a turn performing three phases: Challenge, Activity, Footprint & Restore Market. Challenge Phase. In the optional challenge phase, players can decide to ‘challenge the Gods’. You flip a challenge card are resolve the events. The events are usually bad and invoking negative effects from pollution and famine (losing population), global warming or cooling (changing the hospitable areas on the map and how they are connected by adding/removing deserts or glaciers) and catastrophe (if urbanized by a city, it is destroyed). It is not all bad, following the event, the challenge card is auction off, providing the opportunity for industry/cultural/political advancement (by providing an additional action to be used in the Activity Phase). Activity Phase. The activity phase is where a majority of the gameplay occurs. As you progress through the game, you specialize in one of the three areas of your player tableau (cultural, political, and industry), which allows you to advance your civilization along the corresponding tech tracks on the game board. During the action phase, you walk up to your ever-changing technology tree on your player tableau and take actions that develop your brain, free will, invent items, elect elders, disperse across the map, urbanize the map, or develop art and religion. Footprint & Restore Market. This phase is the bookkeeping phase; you check to make sure you can support your populations and refill the market cards. The game continues until you reach Epoch IV. Then you tally points based on your culture, politics, and industry (the highest of these three categories is your final score). The highest points wins.
This game is an absolute educational gem and could facilitate a broad range of discussions on the evolution of humans and the evolution of our culture, technology, and societies.
The game is a rewarding mix of strategy and tactics that will leave you pondering your decision for days. The endless paths to enlightenment make this a game a rare gem that explores the origins of civilizations. It’s brilliant, involved, and does a fantastic job of submerging you in the tricky job of societal evolution. As with other Sierra Madre games, the complexity and the many situational rules make the game feel like a mix between simulation and a strategy board game. This isn’t a bad thing but does limit the general appeal and its broad utility in the classroom. Despite this, it is totally worth the investment in learning it.
Comparisons to Neanderthal and Greenland
This game shares its design with two other games from this group, Neanderthal and Greenland. While there are similarities, sometimes many, each of these games has a distinct flavor with enough differences to justify owning all three. They mix up similar ingredients. However, it’s the amounts of each ingredient and the gameplay goals that vary the final product. For example, in Neanderthal and Bios: Origins, a vital part of the gameplay is focused on developing your brain/language/culture. In Neanderthal, this is the primary focus of the game, whereas in Bios: Origins, this plays a much-reduced role. Dice-based hunting to gain resources is central to the gameplay of Neanderthal and Greenland, but absent in Bios: Origins. In Greenland, hunting is the core mechanism in gameplay and can be absolutely brutal. Whereas in Neanderthal, hunting feels slightly easier to do successfully, is also less central to the main gameplay objectives. Bios: Origins is the only proper civilization game and has a full-sized board game with a large game board with a map of the world, and as a result of this, a central part of the gameplay is associated with exploration, urbanization, and confrontation. Bios: Origins is by far the most unique. However, all three games are fantastic. Of the three, I like Neanderthal the best, followed by Bios: Origins. However, to be honest, this ranking could easily change. If you want a game centered on the multitude of factors and synergies associated the origins of human civilizations, Bios: Origins is your game
Species Cards (image credit: Daniel Mizieliński)
Idea cards - how you build your tech tree. (image credit: Daniel Mizieliński)
End game technology tree (image credit: J L Brown)
Game map (image credit: Andy Mesa)