Teaching Evolution Through Board Games

THE GAMES

Greenland (third edition)

Playtime: 60-120 minutes

Teach time: 40 minutes

Game difficulty: Medium-heavy

Number of players: 1-4

Timespan: 1,400 to 1,100 A. D.

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

Favorite rules video:  gameplay video - Jeremy Antley

Rulebook: link

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Overview

Greenland is a survival game during the Little Ice Age on Greenland. During this period, Greenland was a difficult place to live. Vibrant Norse colonies in Greenland starved and vanished by the early 15th century, as crops failed and livestock could not be maintained through increasingly harsh winters. Greenland was largely cut off by ice from 1410 to the 1720s. In fact, only the Thule survived this period on the island. In the game Greenland, you have a chance to rewrite history. You can play as the Tunit, Norse, Sea Sámi, and Thule tribes inhabiting Greenland from the 11th to the 15th centuries.  Can you survive? If you do, can you win? For final score depends on your theism at the game end. If polytheistic, your final score is based mostly on successful hunts. If monotheistic, the level of resource gathering determines your score.

Box cover (image credit: Phil Eklund)

           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 (this is true of most Sierra Madre games). However, these factors make this game incredibly dense and difficult to learn. The 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, the game really should be played several times.  Given these factors, I am hesitant to recommend this game for education purposes broadly. 

           Gameplay

This game is played over ten rounds. Each round consists of a series of phases, though most of the actions pertaining to hunting. Event Phase. At the start of each round, an event card is drawn. These usually end up hurting your tribe in some way. However, the presence of specialized elders can mitigate most of these hardships.  Hunting Phase. The game then moves to the hunting phase (actually, this entails three phases, but for brevity, I will discuss them singularly). In this phase, players take turns targeting animals that provide: the three main resources used in the game, facilitate reproduction (as a result of lots of food), opportunities to secure a game species as a trophy (for some mating systems/cultures this can result in a lot of points), and access to animals that can be domesticated. In this phase, players roll a die for every hunter sent out, the values dictate hunting success and, at times, fatalities resulting from the hunt.  Gather trophies or domesticate animals. Elder Phase. In this phase, you develop specialized elders and use their power to invention tools, domesticate animals, and proselytize from polytheism to monotheism.

           Education value

This game is lovely and could be used to facilitate a discussion on the hardships and the role of religion in early human societies

           Fun factor

The game is a rewarding mix of strategy and tactics that will leave you pondering your decision for days. The game is harsh, but the push-your-luck mechanic where you roll dice for hunting is a blast. Even the most careful players will be sabotaged by the dice. Get beyond the learning curve, and the reward of success is worth it, particularly because your path to victory is nuanced with real human history.

Thule Tribe Card (image credit: J J)

An Example Player's Tableu (image credit: J J)

Comparisons to Bios: Origins and Neanderthal

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 human survival, Greenland is your best bet.

A few of the Greenland biomes for hunting (image credit: J J)

Game components (image credit: Phil Eklund)