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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Phil Eklund Interview - 2016 Releases!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

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Cover of Bios: Genesis by Sierra Madre Games

A little more than a year ago I posted an interview with legendary game designer and rocket scientist Phil Eklund, of Sierra Madre Games. Now it's time for an update to see what we have to look forward to in 2016 and even a bit beyond. Phil has of course designed games like High Frontier, Pax Porfiriana and Neanderthal.

Now, let's get on with it!


Fire Broadside: First off, could you briefly talk about the titles Sierra Madre Games have lined up for release this year?

Phil Eklund: The 2016 line-up is two new games, Bios Genesis and Pax Renaissance, and either one or two expansions.  Bios Genesis covers the origins of life on Earth, beginning shortly after this planet's accretion. Pax Renaissance covers a different sort of origins, that of the western world.

Bios: Genesis. Examples of events in the game's three eons.
FB: Before talking more about the Pax games, and their expansions, I just have to ask some more about Bios: Genesis. I've been following the progress of the game for years, and have always been happily surprised that it was still a semi-active project you were working on intermittently. You've mentioned that it is your most ambitious game to date, could you expand on that and maybe talk about the scope we should expect?

PE: In previous years the design of Bios Genesis foundered on the question of player identity.  What should the players be when the Earth is still partially molten with lava oceans?  And then, what sort of specialty or role can they play that is still recognizable after 4 billion years?  These questions are tough, but they were anticipated.  What was not anticipated or designed for is the seemingly simple refinement that players routinely paracitize each other, so as to be irritating but occasionally useful, as in endosymbiosis.  

Having an organism that is partly composed of another player's essential endosymbiont organism with different victory conditions blurred player identity.  Also providing for both competitive and cooperative victory conditions was much harder than I thought, but my partner and games expert Jon Manker showed me how to do this. Yet another identity crisis was how to maintain player identity before the advent of templated replication, such as immortal or crudely reproducing life. Another bewildering question was how to maintain identity in the quantum leap from micro- to macroorganisms. The question of player identity stalled this project for years.
RNA (single strand) and DNA (double strand) mutations.
FB: That sounds intriguing! The parasite effect makes me think of 18XX games or titles like Panamax, where you have stocks in each others, competing, companies and winning or loosing is not as black and white as simply having your company doing well. Will it be something similar in Bios: Genesis where you might purposefully help your opponent simply because you have so much riding on his or her success?

PE: Yes. Imagine in your own body if your immune system had its own genome and thus its own victory conditions. Usually it would work to keep the body safe in its own interest, yet possibly it may allow the body to get (non-lethally) sick, or attack its own organs, to secure some evolutionary advantage.

FB: How closely related is Bios: Genesis to Greenland and Neanderthal from a mechanical standpoint? Fairly similar in execution but more refined or more of a different beast altogether?

Bios Genesis These placards show refugia where life can begin, also the autocatalytic cycles that the refugia support.PE: Bios Genesis is overall unique, but like Greenland and Neanderthal it has lots of dice, and the number of dice rolled (for Autocatalytic, Darwin, and Cancer rolls) depends on the number of units in the arena.

FB: With the release of Bios: Genesis we will be able to play through the entire history of life on (and off!) Earth through the different Sierra Madre Games titles, however, Bios: Megafauna and Origins: How We Became Human have been out of print for a long time. I know Bios: Megafauna is getting a completely new edition, designed and developed by Jon Manker and Andrew Doull. Could you tell us more about this and what are the chances of seeing something similar done for Origins?

PE: Bios Megafauna 2 will cover twice as much time as the original Bios Megafauna, and will allow for a combined game with Bios Genesis.  This means that the players can no longer be distinguished by dentition, but must be from some other macro characteristic inherited from Bios Genesis.  (Skeletal types is a possibility).  It is envisioned (although not confirmed by the design team) that the players will take roles for all three trophic levels, given that they inherit traits such as weediness, metabolism, and separate growth and reproductive phases from Bios Genesis.  In plain language this means players can be plants, fungi, and bugs, rather than just dinosaurs and mammals.  And yes, if it sells well, the final part of the triad will be Bios Origins.  All three together encompass the entire history of the Earth.

FB: That sounds terrific, very happy to hear we might see a new Origins as well! Is it correct that Bios Megafauna 2 (is that the official title) will be kickstarted and if so, do you have an inkling about when?

PE: I dislike kickstarting and will attempt to fund the Bios Megafauna 2 project on my own.  Therefore it goes into intense playtest soon after Messe Essen in October 2016, for a release in Messe Essen 2017 if it survives playtest. But if my lack of USA distribution hurts me or leaves me with a large amount of unsold 2016 games, then I may have to rethink this.  In particular, I have a lot riding on the success of Pax Renaissance.  Pre-orders are strong, but to my astonishment Bios Genesis (for which I am printing only 2000 games) has garnered the most pre-orders.  Who would have thought that biochemistry would sell?

FB: Alright, so let's talk Pax! There's a new game in the series coming out; Pax Renaissance, that has been in the making for a couple of years now. I remember hearing that it was a tricky game to design and that development had to be rebooted a couple of times. Is it more similar to Pax Porfiriana or Pax Pamir and are there any striking differences that would be immediately apparent for Pax veterans?

Pax Renaissance by Sierra Madre Games
PE: Let's first talk about the philosophy of the Pax series, and its "realism".  History is the study of man by his past actions.  By studying history, one can figure out what "works" and what doesn't.  Figuring out the natural laws regarding economics and politics is what makes History a science.  I am hoping to have these laws as the constants holding the series together.  If these game rules resonate with the actual universal laws, then the game is "realistic".  I mention this because my partner Cole Wehrle, has been fielding questions about the nature of realism in our Pax game, Pax Pamir.

Some of the processes that are the same in the Pax series are the Market, the hand structure, tableau with Prestige, and some sort of victory trigger.

I am excited about this new Pax game, Pax Renaissance, because its theme is how society became "modern".  At first just western society, but now this political liberation is global in extent; even in darkest Afghanistan one cannot entirely avoid it. Design attempts at this game in years past crashed and burned in playtest, simply because the scope (the entirety of Europe and its major religions) was so huge.  Another failure was the integration of the three play areas: map, tableau, and market.  Cole's game helped with this.  Another problem was representing both "The East" and "The West", my son and co-designer Matt worked on this. The problem, stated simply, are these two societies fundamentally similar or different?  We chose different, although both were within a century of a crossroads where they both could have gone different directions.

The final big challenge was coming up with victory conditions that included the various directions that western society could have traveled.  We finally decided on Globalization, Imperialism, Renaissance, and Holy victories.  The result is a lot of wide-scale mayhem, in a manner familiar to Pax players, a typical turn might see a beheading in England, a reformation in France, an invasion of Italy, enslavement in the Crimea, a Jihad in Egypt, a peasant revolt in the Holy Roman Empire.

FB: So it seems to be more sprawling than the earlier two games, that are much more focused both in space and in time. Does this mean more cards (I noticed the box seem to be a little bit larger)? Also, it seems like Karim Chakroun won't be doing the art for this one, is that correct?

PE: The box size for Pax Renaissance is somewhat bigger, about 50% longer while keeping the other dimensions constant.  This is to accommodate card sleeving and expected expansions.  Nevertheless, I am hoping to keep the weight under 500 grams, even with the bigger box.  This goal is uncertain; it will be tight.  If I fail, I will have to increase shipping considerably for those who do not pre-order.  

The artwork is based on the Pax Pamir style and iconography which Cole Wehrle put a lot of effort into perfecting, so I put Karim to work on the Bios Genesis project instead. Hmmm. Something just occurred to me. In the "Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, the hero is a "symbologist", which is an imaginary profession made up just for the novel.  Yet I have employed both Karim and Cole in just such a capacity.


Pax Renaissance by Sierra Madre Games map
The secular trade map for Pax Renaissance.
FB: Yes, I think Karim's work on Bios Genesis is his best yet. Anyhow, what about the Pax Renaissance expansion that will hopefully be released at the same time. Is it mostly more but similar cards to the main game or does it contain new mechanics and rules?

PE: I am accepting pre-orders for both Pax Renaissance and its expansion now.  But, as I explain on the order page, the expansion may be delayed and may ship later than Renaissance.  The game is designed, but there are unresolved playtest issues.  Some of the new polymath cards are really strong, and the new apostasy is not as relevant as I would have hoped. So I am not guaranteeing co-delivery, and Essen 2016 is uncertain (but likely).

FB: Pax Pamir is getting an expansion as well, and while I know it is not your game as such, could you tell us briefly about it and what it brings to the table?

PE: The Pax Pamir expansion, called Khyber Knives, brings a number of fresh new ideas to the game: new card types (Wazir, Capacity, Headline), a new Nation Building variant, and new procedures such as augmentation.  Most significantly it introduces a solitaire variant designed by Richard Wilkins.
Some new cards in Khyber Knives.
FB: As a fairly new minted father, with less time for meeting friends for board gaming, I certainly appreciate the solo option! Moving on to High Frontier. The third edition is still in the hands of Jon Compton and One Small Step and while fairly late at this stage I'm hopeful it will be with us before winter at least. When we talked last year there was another space game mentioned, namely Robert Zubrin's Space. Has it been held up by the High Frontier kickstarter or is there some other reason we haven't heard much about it?

PE: The former. Bob Zubrin's game "Space" is held up by the KS release of High Frontier third edition.  I hope the 3rd edition will be before winter as well, but I have no inside information, unfortunately. Then I will be working on "Space" again, which is supposed to be integrated with the 3rd edition.  This is difficult because both Bob and I are stubborn curmudgeons, sometimes at loggerheads.

FB: Haha! I see. So you have a hard time agreeing on how certain aspects of space travel should be presented mechanically?

PE: A bit, although the bigger contention is the motivation for entering space to begin with.  I contend that humans should not enter space until it is profitable to do so, whereas Bob sees the colonization of Mars as the end goal.  And I see space as a means to reduce the nuclear threat from ICBMs, whereas Bob sees it as a means for parity in Europe.  We are both influenced by our past experience, Bob as the President of the Mars Society and I as having working in Star Wars for many years.

FB: I asked about a possible reprint or new edition of Origins earlier, but that is of course not the only game of yours that is out of print - for example, I've been looking for a copy of Erosion for years without success. Do you think there are possibilities for reprints of other games in your back catalogue?

PE: A new edition of Origins will surely appear, at least if the Bios Megafauna 2 project is successful.  It would then be something like Bios Origins, and a sequel to Bios Megafauna.  I don't have any plans at the moment for an Erosion reprint.

FB: Nor Insecta I suppose (well, I had to ask)?

PE: I hope for a new edition of Insecta.  It should be possible to have a really simple variant for younger kids.  Someday.

FB: A more general question; your recent games have all been card based which of course is easier and less expensive to produce and ship. Do you see yourself continuing this trend going forward or can we expect more games with mounted boards as well?

PE: Its unfortunate that I was let go by my long-time warehouser PSI, and thus I lost my access to USA distributors.  I am hoping to survive by selling to the USA and Canada from my website and shipping most of the stuff from Europe, which is cheap as long as I stay under a kilo.  The weight of mounted boards are therefore a problem for me.  I have contracted with Funagain Games to warehouse my 2016 line in the USA, so I have some USA presence, but nevertheless persons who are used to getting my games at a discount on-line shop may be disappointed.

If I can move enough games without an USA distribution base, or if I can get a new distribution base, I will go back to bigger games.  I have told Andrew and Jon to include mounted maps (or mounted continental plates) for the design of Bios Megafauna 2 and Bios Origins.

FB: Mounted continental plates - like a puzzle? So you could build and crack your own Pangea?

PE: Yes. Andrew Doull is designing this concept.

FB: Well, if I wasn't way too excited for Bios Megafauna 2 already, I sure would be now! However, I think that is about it this time around. Is there anything else you would like to talk about concerning Sierra Madre Games or otherwise board game related?

PE: In closing I wanted to say that I have taken quite a bit of effort to make these new games as relevant and accessible as possible, despite their esoteric subject matter. The extensive card text, background, footnotes, and rules references make every effort to show how long-ago events are relevant today.  As already mentioned, the universals of science never get outdated. How are the bankers of the Renaissance similar to those of today?  Why are cancer, metabolism, vitamins, viruses the way they are?  What are the politics that lead to artistic freedom of expression? What is the consequence that our mitochondria have their own own genome and thus their own genetic imperative and goals, are they really part of us or are they sometimes friends, sometimes enemies?  What is the effect of combining a state religion and the government in a theocracy?

FB: Well, I can say that from a personal perspective that your games have helped me rediscover my love for science, history (both natural and man-made) and human behaviour. I have also observed that, while your games are not to everyones taste, they always make you think about the subject matter. After playing one of your games we have often had long discussions about how parts played out in the game vs the real world and why they ended up like they did etc, and that happens with people who like the game as much as people who don't. In a way I think of Phil Eklund as the Noam Chomsky (or Ayn Rand - take your pick) of board games - divisive but always interesting and thought provoking.

Your approach of often doing things from a bottom-up rather than a top-down perspective is also very refreshing. For example, is there any other civilization building game, besides Origins, where you play as the people rather than as some demi-god figure leading/controlling the people? None that I can recall anyway. And soon being able to play from the first sparks of life all the way to our times is mind-bogglingly cool!

So please, keep it up and thanks for the many happy hours of play (and discussions!).

PE: Thank you for this opportunity Martin. The renaissance of the boardgame genre is a chance to break out of wargame and party paradigms into a brave new world exploring ourselves and the universe we live in.


That is that, dear readers! I for one am most excited about Bios Genesis as I simply love the subject matter, and the minimalistic art design is absolutely gorgeous! For a deeper look at how a game might play out I recommend this solo play report by Cthulhukid att BGG.

Pax Renaissance is also very high on my to-get list. Especially since I skipped Pax Pamir as a friend of mine got it instead. The much grander and more open nature of PaxRe certainly sounds intriguing and it's more close to home than PaxPo or PaxPa.

I'll check in with Phil again next year for another interview. And of course I will be playing the new releases as soon as I get my hands on them.

2 kommentarer :

  1. I really enjoyed these two interviews. I'm always astonished by the depth of theme and realism that Phil Eklund's games offer. I really wish more people would come into contact with his works and be inspired to think beyond the buttocks of the Kardashians...

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad they are appreciated! Hopefully this will become an annual spring tradition to talk to Phil about upcoming games.
      And I certainly agree about his games - they really make you interested in the subject matter and I often find myself buying books after (or before!) a game to read up on the science.

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