History games 5 – Origins: how we became human

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This Phil Eklund game is more engaging than American Megafauna, the last game I played, which he also designed (History games 4). It begins as an evolution game: this time, of humans. Players represent different species of homo sapiens. Each works to “open up” areas of their brain such as language.

When a species’ brain evolves enough, though, the game shifts into “eras” during which they try to develop metallurgy, access to energy sources and immunity to diseases (etc). Thus it morphs into a “Civilisation” game, a descendant of the board (1980) and computer (1991) games of that name.

Like American Megafauna and unlike the three evolution games I played before that, players have different starting characteristics and positions. I played solo with the Hobbits (white cubes, starting in Indonesia), Cro-Magnon (red, East Africa) and Archaic Homo Sapiens (black, Nile Valley).

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I felt a sense of history as the game went along. Where species started off influenced where they ended up when I stopped the game. At that point White was cut off (by rising sea levels, caused by climate change) in Australia; Red had established cities in North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia; and, in doing so, had pushed Black north and west to the edges of the world (Siberia, Europe and what is now Morocco). The ebbs and flows of population were pleasing.

A lot goes on. You need to build cities, acquire wise elders, domesticate crops and animals. You can draw cards that may help with these tasks or directly give you victory points. You can “imitate” your rivals, taking the top card from their discard pile and using it yourself – or you can attack them with satisfying force. (This is not one of those games where the participants, like toddlers at playschool, indulge in “parallel play”. In this game they can and do do things to each other.)

For most of the game these interlocking cogs clicked along together nicely. I admired and enjoyed the process.

At the end, though, we got stuck. Red had the most cities. This, and its lead in metallurgy, meant that it could win all the fights and coopt all the elders. These elders allowed it to gain most of the victory point cards that came up. However, Red needed “maritime” to get out of Era II – a scarcer technology than that needed by the other players. So, Red was just waiting from turn to turn for the right card to come up.

Black  and White, by contrast, had made it into Era III. Their best chance of winning was to enter Era IV – which ends the game – before Red could get its hands on the benefits of being in Era III. To do this each needed a better energy technology. That was why Black was in Morocco, waiting for the card that would allow it to “domesticate” olive oil as an energy source.  (The other sources of “biofuel”, in Hawaii and Mexico, weren’t accessible without global cooling – to get across the Bering Strait – or ships.) As for White, it was sitting safely in Australia, drawing cards and hoping that something would come up.

The game took me 20 minutes to set up and 6½ hours to play. I enjoyed it until the last hour or two, when it subsided into the fruitless card-drawing contest described above and I decided to stop.

(I admit: one reason for stopping is so that my army of miniature Assyrians, going out to battle next weekend, has a hope of keeping this series of history games in time order.)

Score: 6 points.

The answer to the who-am-I question – I am a species, that then turns into a civilisation – is a bit more coherent than in the previous evolution games. The components are fit for purpose and I find the blue board rather beautiful. Bidding elders’ wisdom to obtain victory point cards is a mechanism that makes sense (like deploying scientists on a project today) while the equivalent in American Megafauna (bidding genes to obtain species characteristics) didn’t ring true. I know little about this period of (pre) history but nothing I came across jarred. My main negative point is that game play, subtle at the start, seemed to break down in later periods.

I’ve never played this with other people. (I once played it solo, during a week I spent at my mother’s sheltered housing development in Didsbury. I laid it out on the guest room floor, and listened to the Clash on my computer while playing it.) I’d like to play it again, with others, to find out if my criticism of the game play is fair.

Next: History of the World, then De Bellis Antiquitatis with the Assyrians.

 

Game Subject Designer Date Blog post Score/10
Origins Evolution (human) and Civilisation Phil Eklund 2007 History games 5 6
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund 1997 History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre, Sergei Machin 2014 History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre 2010 History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank 1997 History games 1 3

 

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Paul Hodson

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

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