Teaching Evolution Through Board Games

THE GAMES

Biosphere

Playtime: 90 minutes

Teach time: 45 minutes

Game difficulty: Medium-Heavy

Players: 2-6

Timespan: not stated, but also not directly relevant to the game theme

Key educational concepts: demography, population expansions, landscape ecology 

Rulebook: link

Favorite overview video (there are no rules videos):  game preview

Associated curriculum and materials: paper: ‘What really is Evolution?’, paper: “Human Evolution Out of Africa: The Role of Refugia and Climate Change”, paper: “Population Genetics and Demography Unite Ecology and Evolution”, paper: “Simulating evolution: how close do computer models come to reality?”,
  Files to perform computer simulations: Splatche

Additional gameplay materials (both highly recommended): replacement dial (see images at bottom), changed rules and game overview

Files for projects (playerboards): individual player board (v1), individual player board (v2),  game board (full), game board (no tie-breaker track)

 

Overview*

In Biosphere, players control a species at the dawn of its arrival to a vast uncolonized landscape. At the start of the game, each player’s species is poorly adapted to the new landscape and can only survive a few years in each of the six biomes.  During the game, players evolve their species to increase its reproduction rate, movement, and biome specific lifespan. As the game progresses, each species radiates across the mosaic of available biomes. Players win the game by achieving 5 of the randomly selected evolutionary goals associated with dominating a biome type(s), having the largest population, adapting to all biomes, or occupying a number of biome tiles.

 

* entire review is based on our theme and rule changes

 

           Learning and teaching the game

The game is moderately complex, but it’s fairly easy to teach once you master the rules (also see my game modifications and rule changes).  The rulebook is mostly clear and provides decent examples of most rules.  My biggest quibble is not the lack of information in the rulebook, but that several important rules seem to be misplaced or are easily overlooked.  

 

As follows are my three main rulebook hang-ups:

1. The unique rules associated with the first round were in multiple places and can be easily overlooked (but see the summary at the very end of the rulebook).  This makes starting the game a bit confusing. We were mostly confused where players start their populations and where they start on their ‘Evolution Scale’ of their player boards. If you are also confused, players take two turns placing an individual wherever they choose on the landscape.  They also choose any combination of ‘1 values’ on the two ‘Evolutionary Scale’ tracks.  

2. The game setup is split between the game component section in the rulebook and at the very end of the rulebook.  

 

3. The ‘Smoother or Simpler’ variant is a footnote at the end of the rulebook, which means everyone learns the ‘Advance Play’ variant at the start. We only play the ‘Smoother or Simpler’ variant. The ‘Advance Play’ variant adds a track for competing for the tiebreaker, however, adds a lot of unnecessary complexity and slows the game down.  Our fix is to follow ‘Smoother or Simpler’ play rules, but in addition, add any points intended for the ‘Tie Breaker’ board to the players’ ‘Evolution Points’.  If players are tied at the game end, the player with the most ‘Evolution Points’ wins.

 

          Gameplay          

Biosphere is an area-control game where each player’s species radiates across the landscape. Dice represent an individual of each player’s species and the values dictate that individual’s age.  The gameplay is quite structured and each round consists of removing individuals that die to old age. Players gain ‘Evolution Points’ that are used to alter their ‘Evolutionary Track’ or to buy development cards.  Development cards are played when a unique combination of traits is achieved on the ‘Evolutionary Track’ and they result in major adaptations (i.e. increased life span, reproduction rate, migration distance). After these phases, individuals on the landscape migrate into adjacent biomes. Then each species reproduces and new dice are placed either in an occupied biome or adjacent biome.  Players win the game by achieving 5 of the randomly selected evolutionary goals associated with dominating a biome type(s), having the largest population, adapting to all biomes, or occupying a number of biome tiles.

 

Biosphere is one of the few games we chose to modify the publisher’s rules and tweak the theme considerably to make the gameplay more educational and smoother running. We did this because it is the only game we played that attempts to depict fine-scale demographic processes (changes in size, composition and distribution of species due to birth, death and migration).  We considered every dice in the game as an individual of a species, and its age is characterized by the relationship between its face value and a ‘death clock’ called the ‘Elephant Graveyard’. Every round time progresses and individuals with a particular face value will perish. When species adapt to a biome they increase their associated lifespan, however, only newly placed dice will possess that adaptation (this mechanism perfectly executes the theme).

 

The Elephant Graveyard is a large dial that depicts the value to place on species’ die as they enter the map by accounting for the round of the game and its lifespan for that biome (depicted on the player board). However, most players found this process incredibly confusing, and every round at this step it would take a long time for them to decode the die value needed for each round/biome combination.  Ultimately, we concluded that the provided ‘death clock’ was prohibitive for many players and because of that, we created a fairly simple chart to be used for each round.  In execution, when placing a species, players looked that their associated lifespan for that biome on their player board and then selected the corresponding value in our chart to determine the die value placed on that individual. We bound our charts on a small metal ring so that at the end of the round, everyone flips to the next chart.  We also use a large die as a round maker to dictate the corresponding chart each round (see image below).

 

In addition to replacing the Elephant Graveyard, I also changed the units on the player boards of the two tracks on the 'Evolution Scale'.  The publisher's units were poorly tied to gameplay and made little biological.  The units were replaced known mechanisms of evolution that could facilitate the major adaptations tied to the development cards and this scale (see below or edited player board).  These changes also facilitate deeper discussions on how these factors allow populations to evolve. To do this, printout new player boards (here) or print and tape a simple text from Word over the publisher's labels (I suggest that you use font 'Times New Roman' at 13 font size).

 

Updated 'Evolution Scale'

Top Track:  'DNA mutation rate' (blue) and 'DNA recombination rate' (red)
Bottom Track: 'Immigration rate' (yellow) and 'Inbreeding rate' (green)

           Education value. Biosphere is an excellent companion to curriculum covering conservation biology, habitat ecology, and population genetics.  We also felt Biosphere mixed well with demographic and genetic computer simulations. To do this see the attached curriculum.

Box cover (image credit: DDD Verlag GmbH)

Player boards (image credit: Steph Hodge - punkin312)

Evolve your species. The cubes mark the traits of your species. Empty boxes show the evolutionary potential in Biosphere.  (image credit: Steph Hodge - punkin312)

           Fun factor

Biosphere is one of the few evolution themed games that are a mix of long-term strategic decisions and turn-to-turn tactics. The use of dice as individuals with die values acting as a clock of its lifespan is incredibly clever. The gameplay is a satisfying puzzle that doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The many randomly chosen goals also change gameplay, resulting in interesting and new challenges. I highly recommend it to people okay with house rules and those willing to print out additional gameplay materials.      

Game components (image credit: Steph Hodge - punkin312)

Our suggested fix for the 'Elephant Graveyard' dial.  A. The biggest complaint from players in our group regarded the dial that dictates which individuals die and what die value is given to each species as they are placed on the board.  The provided dial advances counter clockwise at the end of each round.  Users look at the dial to see what value of dice to remove due to death.  Overall this part functioned quite well.  The confusing part for us regarded the die value used for the biome specific lifespan values.  Your player board determines the biome specific lifespan. Then you find that value on the inner circle of the dial and the corresponding value on the outside, which is the value placed your dice that round for that biome.  Players need to reference the dial many times each turn, often for many different biomes. B. We simplified the process by creating a chart that matched the biome lifespan table and directly depicted the number to put on corresponding dice.   A die was used as the game clock, each turn it advanced one unit (but skipped the 6 value) and dictated the value of dice to remove and also the corresponding life-span chart to be used each round. 

Did your favorite species get overlooked again?  Tired of the microbe- and plant-blindness in pop-culture? Use our template to make any player board. Start with your own personal favorites.  Also, version 2 the player board (here) implements our fix to 'Evolution Scale'.