History games 4 – American Megafauna

game American Megafauna 419 2.JPG

Phil Eklund is a libertarian American game designer. His rulebooks have footnotes written in a know-it-all style that reminds me of Nassim Nicolas Taleb. His games are often clunky. They are about interesting subjects, though, and are not derivative.

Eklund’s game American Megafauna is “DTP” (desk top published). The creature counters, which you have to cut out, are fiddly. The previous time I played it, also solo, I liked it enough that I started collecting sets of toy animals to make game play more satisfying. This time I expected that it would be (a) complicated and (b) rewarding, the best of this first bunch of five evolution games.

It was neither.

Two things most distinguish American Megafauna from Primordial Soup, Эволюцияи and Evolution.

First, its creatures (genotypes) start out different from each other. I played with the Dog-Faces (which I represented with toy dogs), Two-Tuskers (frogs) and Rabbit Crocs (dinosaurs).

game American Megafauna 419.JPG

Second, the game has geography. There’s a map of North America. A biome card – such as tree ferns or plankton upwelling – is placed on each space on the map. Different biomes suit different creatures. As the game proceeds, each biome gets filled up with the creatures it suits best. Some creatures become carnivores in order to sustain themselves on the others.

As games of history, it’s obvious that evolution games have a who-does-the-player-represent? problem. I have been wondering whether the solution is for players to perform actions that are automatic, representing the blind operation of natural selection, and for the pleasure to lie in observing the results.

If that is an ideal, this is the game that, so far, comes closest to it. When creatures need to “decide” whether to migrate or stay put, whether to graze or predate, the right answer seems obvious enough to be, in effect, automatic.

However, observing this process turned out not to bring as much pleasure as anticipated. I enjoyed it at the start. But after 1½ hours setting up (looking for the right biome cards) and 3 hours of play of the shortest (14-turn) version, I found I didn’t care, as I had in the three previous games, and gave up after 8 turns.

What didn’t work? Deducing what to do – especially inspecting the biome cards – was fiddly. The fact that being preyed on by carnivores doesn’t harm the herbivore populations on which they feed makes scientific sense at this scale but makes the game less interesting. The most interesting part was when chance or climate change made the biomes change, but this didn’t happen often. And the part where players had to make a non-automatic choice – deciding how many of five available “genes” to bid in order to “buy” characteristics and other cards that came up – felt jarringly unlike any real-world process.

This is a game that makes elaborate assertions of historicity. Each turn represents five million years; each herbivore counter represents thirty million tons of biomass; etc. I like this; but the claims are undermined by the fact that the short, Tertiary-era scenario I played begins with the continent just as underpopulated as in the main, Triassic-starting scenario.

I’m inclined to give it 3 points, but award one more for ambition. The best element is the hundred different biome cards, I think.

Game Subject Designer Blog post Score/10
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre and Sergei Machin History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank History games 1 3

Next, another Eklund game, Origins – on the evolution of humans.

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "Energy Storage" at European Commission, Joint Research Centre

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