Most of you probably already know that I'm a great fan of Phil Eklund's space exploration/exploitation game High Frontier, and when I started looking into more games of his Bios: Megafauna immediately caught my attention. In it you take control of a group of animals and try to guide their evolution and behaviour through the Triassic all the way to the Tertiary period of pre-historic Earth.
In true Eklund fashion the science of it all is in the centre - instead of coming up with an interesting game mechanic and then coming up with a theme that fits, Phil has obviously gone to the evolutionary biology and figured out how to represent it all in a board game setting. Although Bios: Megafauna has made some sacrifices in the name of playability compared to its predecessor American Megafauna, make no mistake; this is a highly thematic game that stays with you even after you've stopped playing!
I first got to try it out at my friend Micke's house where I met up with him and Claes (who's a budding marine biologist!) and started teaching the game. As I hadn't played it before I kind of started backwards and started explaining about biomes and DNA codes before the objective of the game was clear. Bios: Megafauna is not a difficult game, but there are a lot of moving parts and things to keep in mind as you play and can seem dense at first look. However, we got through it and started playing.
I took control of the dinosaurian Dino-crocs (red), Micke played as the mammalian Dog-face (orange) and Claes took the mammalian Two-tusker (white). The starting selection of biomes featured a lot of Marine (M) areas so Micke quickly grabbed the Blubber mutation for his Dog-face and I took the Salt-excreting Tube Nose meaning our two species were now amphibians. Claes on the other hand didn't manage to snag any M DNA so was limited in how he could migrate his creatures.
Setup. Blue biomes are seas, green are land and orange are highlands.
A biome in Bios: Megafauna comes with a certain code of DNA letters that works as a requirement for the animals who want to feed from it. For example, to be able to surive in an IM biome the animal need to have the Insectivore and Marine DNA. Of course, you could simply ignore the biome requirements and instead look at the DNA of the animals feeding off it to see if maybe your animal could hunt it for prey! In that case you check the prey animals "Roadrunner DNA" and if the predator has the same or better the hunt is on.
At first I tried my hand as a herbivore, but Micke's Dog-faces were better adapted to it and slowly started pushing me out of available biomes. So I decided to embrace my inner predator and began hunting the Dog-faces instead. This worked much better and my Dino-crocs prospered! They evolved Switchblade claws and Placental reproduction and lost their Digging Claws just in time to survive when the first major extinction event occured!
Claes had created a decent Browser and Grazer herbivore but it went extinct when the X-ray burster hit the Earth! His next try was a fire bearing (AAA), Grazing Two-tusker that was able to spread fairly well in the new land biomes that started turning up. It was too little too late though, and since I had been able to win the first three scoring rounds (although by a small margin only) we decided to call it to make time to play Powergrid: The First Sparks.
In this inital game we did play a few things incorrectly, like forgetting that giving a species MM would kill of any members of that species that is still on land, as well as the -1 to migration range for amphibians. Still, we all learned how to play the game and had a great time doing it! The game stayed with me for the coming week and I kept considering different possibilities and looking forward to the next match.
Final round. A crushing victory for the Dino-crocs!
Which wouldn't take too long! Yesterday me and Claes met up with Anders for our second game. This time I took the Dog-faces (orange), Claes took the Dino-crocs (red) and Anders took the Chisel-lizards (green). This time I think I could explain the game better to Anders and go through it in the right order. I think he got to grips with the basics fairly quickly.
Setup. You can see how bare the lands were!
In the initial placement of biomes I just kept drawing Immigrants (invading species from across the world) who got discarded and I also drew an Orogeny biome that raised the greenhouse level, making some already established biomes extinct. This meant that the starting board was very barren, with only the arctic and horse latitudes remotely livable. Still there were no M or B DNA available for quite some time so during the first million years our respective species were very limited in their migration. Claes and I both expanded into a second species and had it hunting our original species (or the other way around) as a means to at least expand a little.
Anders held off on getting a second species and instead piled on DNA on his original Chisel-lizard making it very capable but... comet bait (over-specialized animals with lots of DNA run a great risk of going extinct during a catastrophe!). Me and Claes simply decided to wait the lizards out as they was inevitable doomed. However Anders got Male Contest culture meaning that he could give as much DNA as he wanted from the parent when he created a new species. This way he could tailor the new species for very specific tasks which would prove scary towards the end of the game.
Claes won the first scoring round and with all the points accumulated in the tarpits he took a hefty lead! However he did have some bad luck(?) during the game and had several colonies of animals killed off by changes in environment. Mid-game I got the Projectile Hunting and Tool Use cultures for my original Dog-faces (I had expanded into a new Nocturnal Browser as well) and this made a huge difference! Up until now Anders' Chisel-lizards had been off-limites thanks to their defensive Tail Club (A), but projectile hunting allows you to ignore one of the prey animals Roadrunner DNA codes.
With the right tools my Dog-faces could spread and hunt.
Suddenly my bow and arrow wielding Dog-faces could hunt the Chisel-lizards from a safe distance and I could expand rapidly and won the two following rounds. Towards the end of the game our score was close enough that we all had the chance of ultimate victory. Anders gamble of stacking lots of DNA paid off as the damocles meteorite never came. Instead his second species (a flightless, Blubberous bird) started competing with my bow and arrow Dog-faces and with PPP it was simply the better predator! I knew time was of the essence and did what I could to end the game (by buying and discarding mutations) while hoping for that big catastrophe that would wipe the Chisel-lizards off the face of the Earth!
My winning species. I could have claimed the Bone Cracker culture as well, but there simply wasn't time!
It never came, but the end of the game did and the scoring was very, very close! We had seen three distinct animal dynasties rise and fall in the game: during the Triassic and Jurassic it was the Dino-crocs, followed by the tool using Dog-faces during the Cretaceous and finally the Chisel-lizards grew strong during Tertiary. Very cool! Anders won the last scoring round, but as he had had the least points up until then it was all up in the air until we started counting population and culture points. In the end Anders and Claes got 21 points each while I barely edged them out at 22 points!
The board after the final turn. Notice how most of my predators have been culled!
Compared to our first game the second was much tighter and more cut-throat, even with Anders being new to it. So far we haven't used the optional Roadrunner Club rule from the living rulebook (or the additional DNA display), but it might be worth trying out in our next game.
It seems like people who don't like Bios: Megafauna finds it either too random/chaotic or too slow. I'm
guessing that the ones who find it too chaotic are used to traditional euro games that allows, or demands, a lot of planning and forethought. While Bios of course rewards planning the core of the game is to adapt to an ever changing environment - the one who builds the best species or the most redundancies will likely win. Also, many times you can avoid detrimental events by avoiding low climax biomes, not over specialising your animals and stay in the highlands. I have no trouble at all with the apparent chaotic nature of the game, in fact I enjoy the dynamic board!
Claes ran with a comet-bait as well, towards the end.
As for being too slow... I can understand that somewhat. The game is not slow in and of itself, but if the right combination of biome and DNA simply isn't available it can stall a bit. Kind of how our second game started out - you try to cycle cards waiting for that specific DNA that would allow you to migrate. However, I think this is not the normal state of the game, but rather something that happens once every other game and certainly not anything that should discourage you from playing.
Bios: Megafauna is not a Euro game, neither is it Ameritrash. It's simply... Phil Eklund. Just like High Frontier we have an extremely thematic experience that also works as a highly competetive and clever game. Adapting to the environment at the same time as you try to outsmart and evolve past your opponents is great fun and having it all making sense from a scientific standpoint is awesome! Claes who's a biology student kept nodding at all the little details and how they correlate with reality.
I personally also find great enjoyement in imagining the different creatures that are created during the game. Just look at this combination of DNA possessed by Anders' original Chisel-lizard:
What we have here is something similar to an apatosaurus. It weighs around 9-10 tons and has a long neck but a shorter tail that ends with a club. It protects its young and males engage in a contests to impress the females. Although the card says headbutting, with the long necks I imagine it being more like how Giraffes fight it out. Altogether quite an interesting creature!
Hmm... this has grown quite long for just being a first impressions post. Hehe! Well, as you've probably gathered by now I really like Bios: Megafauna. It has some of those Eklund quirks, like the dry, reference manual-like rulebook and the graphic design is not to everyones taste, but it is nonetheless a very interesting game both from a theme and a gameplay standpoint. Just like with High Frontier I find myself really sucked into the game and it stays with me for a few days as I mull over what happened and other ways it could have played out.
It also inspired me to rewatch Planet Earth, Blue Planet and to hunt down some of my old books on natural history, and for that alone the game is worth playing! I'm looking forward to a full four player game next time, but I think before that another game of High Frontier, this time including the advanced rules, is in order...