After hearing news about his successful (and still going) kickstarter for Bios Genesis 2nd edition, I had a chance to catch up with legendary designer Phil Eklund who’s science based games I have written about previously. Sitting down with Phil was a huge honor, and I think from the interview you can tell that we both very much love to nerd out about the subjects of science and board games. I have added editor’s notes and comments where I could to provide as much context as possible. Also, I have never had to link to wikipedia so much in one article! In the most exciting news, the kickstarter now includes both Bios Genesis about the origins of life AND the next game in the series, Bios Megafauna 2, where players develop creatures to rule the food chain.
JO: Tell me a bit about how you got into board game design
PE: Well Jeremy, most people have this story where, somehow, there is this almost ineffable fascination with a particular medium or particular art form. As a child I played games for fun, but this was a way [of having fun] that not only brought me together with the other neighborhood kids, but also almost immediately I started changing things and adding things.[I was] always making it more driven by some weird impulse that’s common to most really dedicated gamers.
But I have to say that I have always been more fascinated with game design than actually playing games.
JO: Ok, so the design element is your favorite part versus the gameplay itself?
PE: Yes. I am at best a lackluster player, but I’m always fascinated to see that well, these elements when combined, should recreate the sort of motivations that people had at that time. Then I try it out on a bunch of people with different personalities and see how it plays out, and how they react to it. It’s never obvious which way it’s going to play out. Most of my games are kind of like a sandbox, so they can kind of go in any direction that the players wish to take it. It’s most interesting to see this play out. Whether or not I win or lose is not of high importance to me; it’s the experience.
JO: Yeah, I definitely agree, one of my favorite games of yours is High Frontier. When my friends and I get together to play that game, unlike most games that we play it’s really not about who wins or how many points someone has by the end.
Last time for example my friend was most excited to build a really powerful solar sail and soaring around the inner orbits of the solar system. Just the story of how cool that felt was what he came away with from that game.
PE: Yes, I can imagine. It’s gratifying to hear such tales of exploration, because of all the iterations it took to try to get to a point where photon sails could actually be in the same game, the same simulation system as rocketry. They seemed to be so utterly different in their acceleration and fuel use and the like. Trying to get it so they could be in the same scale was kind of like an obsession. And the entire game was built around this accommodation of rocketry with non-rocketry.
JO: Right, I definitely read up on your early designs with Rocket Flight, and finally the eureka moment of mapping things out by energy.
PE: Yeah, that was a Eureka moment.
[Note: Rocket Flight was Phil’s 199 design that tried to factor in more of the “space” of space with large hex based maps that captured the gravity and distance between objects. High Frontier took this design and made it practical with an energy based map instead of distance.]
JO: So how long have you been designing games? I saw just out on board game geek, your earliest design was from 1988 is that right.
PE: Yes that was my earliest published design, but as I may have mentioned a little bit earlier, I had a biplane game that I made myself that I made with Xerox copies for my friends and the like, so this was even in the late ‘60’s that I had neighborhood games. There was a star trek game, and a smugglers game. I am still working on games that have these themes that interested me in the 8th or 9th grade.
[Note: Phil’s first published game Lords of the Sierra Madre covers some material later capture in Pax Porfiriana. Both games cover Mexico during a tumltuous time in history.]
JO: How do you decide a topic for your next game? You’ve obviously covered a wide variety of topics but is it just what’s grabbing your interest in terms of your reading and your research at a given time or is there a series of ideas that are knocking around and come to fruition.
PE: Well let me think about that. Sometimes I will read a book and a certain passage will just strike me and I’ll say ‘Well this is just screaming to be a game!’ For example, I read about the early Triassic period when there were proto-mammals and proto-dinosaurs both of them on equal footing then, and how they would battle for dominance. That was where Bios and American Megafauna came from.
I remember too, when I was doing Origins I was trying to get the map right so that the new world could be discovered from the west or the east. It would sort of depend on the ice extent during that turn, whether not it was possible or not. But I wanted it sort of equal from the west or the east, and from this experience I sort of got interested in Greenland.
Greenland had to be a spot on the map as a sort of a bridge, so if you wanted to come from Europe to discover America, Greenland was the place to be. I remember when I was doing it, I remember saying ‘Gosh this is a really interesting story. Somehow three cultures ended up on one desolate treeless island. Who would have thought after more than 10,000 years of separation that the east and the west would finally meet again for the first time on desolate desert island out in the middle of nowhere, and then they’d be trapped on this island as the waters froze around them and they’d have to figure out how to survive. This is like the very stuff of literature, this plot that’s unfolding. So just when you’re doing some research other things become interesting, fascinating or significant.
[Note: Origins: How we became Human covers the development of the human brain in early human species and eventually covers common civilization topics like culture and society.]
PE: Well Bios Genesis was kind of an experiment. It was based upon a grand vision to encompass the entire history of the earth into a trilogy of games. And I’ve been sort of struggling along these lines for a long time, and it’s been very difficult.
Bios Genesis was by far the longest and hardest stretch, and it also was the least likely to be popular or succeed, because the subject matter was so esoteric, dry and couched in quadra-syllabic words that were longer than even German words.
It didn’t seem like biochemistry would be a very popular thing, but it’s something I really wanted to do. So I worked on it for an awful long time, and eventually, somehow, I got a prototype that I liked, and I just went out for a couple of thousand games, the bare minimum. I was hoping that I’d be able to sell all the copies eventually, after a couple of years.
But it sold out very quickly, and this caught me by surprise! In fact the retailers were very upset at me over this. They said well it was supposed to debut here in Essen 2016 and it did, but it sold out before I even got here. So I told them all, well I am coming out with a new edition, so this one will be even better. A lot of these retailers were mollified by this, but the first edition had sold out so fast, it was only direct to customers. So the second edition, I wanted to fix some mistakes and make sure that it was part of the trilogy.
Right now I am doing Bios Megafauna 2, the second game in the trilogy, and I wanted to make sure these games played together. I wanted to make some changes and make it all flow right.
So I decided, yes, I’ll make a new edition, the first edition I came out with some, it was well illustrated, but there were still a lot of cards that weren’t illustrated, so I asked my artist to try to come up with more art, and then I wanted to see how many the market would bear for a new edition. I didn’t know how many of the previous owners would actually spring for a new edition, and I didn’t know how many new people I could drag into this. I thought maybe I have already dredged all the uber-nerds there are out there, who would even be able to pronounce biochemistry, I wasn’t sure. So I eventually decided to go with Alley Cat Games to launch a kickstarter campaign to see what the market was, see how many might sell, and what the interest level was. I wanted the game to be right, and for it to be right as part of the series. So this was the result.
JO: So what was most challenging about Bios Genesis and getting this particular topic right?
PE: The most challenging things about it were the player identity. This was especially complicated because of the idea of having parasites in the game, and endosymbionts.
[Note: In Bios Genesis, players each take on the role of a different aspect of life, from amino acids, to lipids, to pigments and nucleic acids it is a very unique approach vs games where all players start on the same footing]
Normally in a game you’re one particular side, and you have particular forces or units or identity or something, but here that wasn’t the case.
Here you had different specializations that had to get together, so there was an element of cooperation and competitiveness. And if you happen to entrain one of your opponent’s life stuff into your own organism, then you have a composite hybrid organism and this proved to be much more complicated than I had originally envisioned. It was much more involved to try to get the rules right for a committee action on say a mutation or gaining macro organisms or whatever, this was pretty convoluted.
The other big deal in Bios Genesis was that I needed to have the feeling somehow that the chances are VERY slim for life to get started, but nevertheless not let it snowball so that the first player to create life is going to run away with the game. Here again the idea is that there are multiple aspects to life, four of them in the game, and “life” has to be some association of these four qualities. This was the tough part of it.
And then there’s the fact that it’s so scientifically contentious what life is, and how it might have come to be. There’s an awful lot of debate on the proper place of the simple cells, the procaryotes and eucaryotes, which came first, was there a predecessor to RNA, or was there ever an RNA world.
There was a lot of things that I wanted to have in the game and to try to get them all in, proved to be probably my longest set of rules (if you don’t count all the modules in High Frontier). So those were the biggest design challenges.
JO: Fantastic. It sounds like you accomplished it though, as much as it was a bear to do so, and honed it even further with this second edition.
PE: Yeah, the kickstarter is just a day or two days old for Bios Genesis second edition, and I am told it’s the second most successful kickstarter campaign for a science board game. It’s running not too far after Edison vs. Tesla.
[Note: As of this interview being published Bios Genesis has officially become the MOST successful science board game kickstarter.]
JO: Wow that’s fantastic, especially for a subject like that, to know that there is an appetite and an audience out there for these more sandbox style science games.
PE: Yes, this was not clear at all. I mean, I have games that I enjoy, and which I enjoyed designing, but it was not at all obvious that there was another person like me anywhere on the planet!
JO: What is your goal in designing this campaign of three different games?
PE: With American Megafauna and then Bios Megafauna first edition I had like I mentioned earlier the idea of dinosaurs vs mammals beginning after the Permian catastrophe. This had the advantage of having two big mega dynasties that both had a lot of emotional appeal with people.
[Note: American Megafauan and Bios Megafauan are two of Phil’s earlier designs that deal with the battle for dominance between proto-mammals and proto-dinosaurs]
I mean, all boys love dinosaurs, and lions,tigers, and bears, giraffes and the like. These also have great appeal. So this was quite successful, but the challenge now was that I wanted to encompass ALL of life. Not alluring, photogenic megafauna. I wanted the insects, and the plants, and some fungus and the things that make up the bulk of the biosphere. Thins that control the aspects of climate and habitability on the planet.
So in order to do this in a game called megafauna I had to have some sort of way to encompass the various animal types, and also have them all have a capacity to get big, to get mega. In the first game in the trilogy: Bios Genesis, you’re trying to get to one of the animal, plant or fungi phyla. There’s eight of them in that game, and that means there’s eight possible entries into the next game of the series Bios Megafauna, and these eight were of all sorts of classes great and small today, but I wanted to have them sort of on equal footing from the beginning, to see which one will take over the planet and gain dominance.
So instead of teeth which were a dividing motif in the original Bios Megafauna; dinosaurs had a certain type of teeth, and like sharks you had batteries of them that were ever replacing, and mammals one set for life that were precise for a certain job, this separated the vertebrates, now I needed to separate them at a more fundamental level. So I choose skeletons for Bios Megafauna second edition. There’s four skeletal types in the game endoskeletons like vertebrates, exoskeletons like bugs and crabs, hydroskeletons like echinoderms and velvet worms or water bears, other lesser known small creatures today, and the last one is cytoskeleton which is found in many types of plants, vegetation fungi and the like.
So the players represent different skeletal types and they all have a chance to try to get big by developing lungs and breathing oxygen, becoming apex carnivores. They all have their little quirks and happenstance with their particular skeleton.
To make it flow together I mapped the colors from Bios Genesis that represented that four aspects of life to the organs in Bios Megafauna second edition. Red is the sensory system: your eyes, nose, ears and nervous system as well, and the brain. Yellow is the circulatory system: good lungs, good muscles. Green is the digestive systems, and blue is the reproductive system. So these four colors still represent things which they had analogs for in the first game Bios Genesis, but now they are no longer players, they are organs or aspects of life that you have to get in order to get big or become the apex carnivore. So the same themes are following a somewhat a different plane of functionality than they did in Bios Genesis.
JO: What was your design goal with this second edition of Bios Megafauna? Obviously the campaign mode is a big part of it and you’ve shifted from teeth to skeletons in terms of a differentiating factor.
PE: The goal is to encompass all life, not just tetrapods or vertebrates. There’s plant life, and depending on the variant you can be any of the three trophic levels: Plant, Herbivore or Carnivore. It also includes scenarios set on Mars and Venus, with corresponding maps. There is a complete climate module for the advanced game where just like in the original you have both the imperative of competing with your opponents, and the imperative to survive in a roller coaster environment and trying to prepare for anything that can be thrown at you. These two requirements, in the advance game are very challenging. That’s what’ similar between Bios Megafauna 1 and 2.
What’s different about them is that there is more generality of mutations. The mutations, by the way, compared to the ones in Bios Megafauna 1 are promotable as they are in Bios Genesis. When you promote them you have a choice of two orientations [of the card]. You can take situations like, electro location, where even bacteria have some sense of an electric field nearby, and you can take this in two different directions in the game. You can promote it to into echo location, like whales or bats where you send out a signal and it bounces back and even at a relatively large size you can zero in on very small creatures like mosquitoes or krill in the ocean or something. Or you can perhaps use it as an infrared pit sensor like found in protolithic rattlesnakes so you can see in the dark. So this sort of dichotomy, applies to all the mutations in the game, and it comes with some pretty bizarre configurations. It’s also got a visual thing too where you can build up your creature. You can see what it looks like with a head, and a brain and a tail and the like. And the plants may just be docile, but they could turn into horror plants out of a Hollywood movie that quietly photosynthesize during the day but during the night they breathe oxygen and grab things. Maybe you’ve seen this movie.
JO: I’ve noticed in the trend of your production that you’ve mostly been making kind of a smaller box card games. Plenty of science and plenty of meat on these games, but since High Frontier and the original Bios Megafauna the trend has been towards that smaller box game. Is that a conscious decision in terms of selling them and ease of production or, can you take me through that choice in form factor?
PE: Yeah. Especially based here in Germany if you can keep the game under 500 grams, you can send it anywhere in the world for four euros. This was a big advantage, and the players seemed to like the fact that they could actually carry these games along with them wherever they went, and store them in a small area and the like. That being said however I am coming out with larger games this year. John Company is a full sized board game, and Bios Megafauna 2 is also a board game, and these both will be a bigger deal productions along with a Collector’s edition of Pax Porfiriana in a sort of cigar sized box.
JO: How do you playtest a game like this? I mean you’re obviously trying to create a simulation and be true to the science, but also have a game that is, if not necessarily balanced, at least playable, and consistent in avoiding snowball effects and breaking apart. Can you take me through a little of your playtests process?
PE: I could, but it’s still a learning experience. Playtesting is kind of an Achilles heel for me. It’s very hard. I drive a harsh pace. I burn through play testers like crazy. I just go through batteries and batteries of them, and they invest quite a bit into this playtesting process. They have to learn a version of the game, that will probably be torn apart, and then try to unlearn it and learn something new. It’s very hard.
So I have to have teams many different teams. I have certain players who will play solitaire, and I always like to have a solitaire version so I try to this started first and try to get somebody on that. That’s obviously easier for playtesting. It is challenging for example to get four players together and try to play to a certain depth of the game. It is even harder when maybe you’re only interested in a particular and rather rare corner instance. Like what happens if all cratons crash together early and the oxygen dives to like 3% and plants are totally dominating because the cloud level is just ideal for it. Can the animals recover from such a thing? So I can’t answer your question very eloquently because it’s tough. You can’t playtest enough. And there are going to be holes if you are going to be delivering something really significant and unique that’s never been done before. There’s going to be problems. I’ve gotten better.
JO: Yeah, it’s a challenge. You’re obviously willing to have living rules and let the rules evolve once the game gets out into the wild so to speak, which is a challenge as a consumer product. I found that once you get used to it, and you accept the fact that the rules do evolve, it can be a benefit. When I downloaded the updated Bios Megafauna rules it was a much improved game by that point, and essentially the game you get in the box can get better and better if you’re willing to download and reinterpret the rules, and play around with things as the play testers of the mass market start to pick away at it.
PE: Yes. So this is a combination of change that players have to suffer through, and obviously it’s not for everyone. But as you say, it can really improve the gaming experience, in the same way that Wikipedia or something else like that does. Because one person can’t think of it all, and maybe where the rubber meets the road, and it actually gets played and if you’ve got a worldwide population of various experiences going at this, then yes a game will become robust and actually recreate something that’s relevant and significant.
JO: Yeah. The thing I love about your games most, personally as a fan is just that I am really learning about something as I go through the game, and not in an edutainment, dry sort of way. Instead I feel like I am playing with the toolset, and quite literally learning on the job about how these vastly complex topics work. Obviously it’s reduced from the actual science to be a playable game, but you’re still picking up a lot of the nuance of just what’s going on there. And that’s a very unique experience that you could only really have with an interactive game versus a book, or a movie or a documentary.
PE: Yes, a good simulation game will tell you something about how the universe works and make the world seem a bit more comprehensible. And the advantage of a game over some other formats is that it’s not a game unless all the players are playing by the same rules. It emphasizes a fundamental fact of science that we all live in the same universe, and we all ultimately operate by the same rules no matter what culture you’re from. If you understand this, it will be as applicable in Mongolia as it will on Alpha Centauri. This sort of mindset gives gamers an advantage over many educators or philosophers or the like. It gives them an advantage to see that the world really is an objective place, and we’re not all that different. Gamers when they come together, they are playing on the same field, the same set of rules, just like in real life.
JO: So I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and doing this interview, it’s been a pleasure. What else is on the horizon?
PE: Alright. Well the kickstarter is for Bios Genesis and as I said, I did this with some trepidation, I didn’t have a lot of luck on the kickstarter campaign for High Frontier. But I am very happy and pleased with this new kickstarter effort. I hope it brings this particular experience to a wider range of audience than the normal nerds that I deal with all the time. That would be great if that’s even possible with a game of bio chemistry. The enthusiasm has been so great that I think, with close to two thousand backers already and it’s only like the second day, so that I am encouraged to try kickstarting some of the other games that are out of print.
[Note: The High Frontier kickstarter was run by a separate company One Small Step Games/Ares Magazine and was criticized for being very later, and poorly communicated.]
I’m considering doing a kickstarter, for a four player edition of Greenland for. When I did an experimental fourth player, the sea Sámi for the original Greenland that sold out very fast, and so I may come out with either a deluxe or small box version, I don’t know of a four player Greenland.
[A new version of] Neanderthal, Pax Pamir, a deluxe version the the Khyber Knives expansion, and a map that Cole Wehrle designed. Cole by the way is designing feverishly, putting the last touches on John Company another 19th century game concerning the British Empire that I want to publish this year. So the three games being published this year are Bios Genesis Second Edition, Bios Megafauna 2 and John Company, Cole Wehrle’s game. After that I still have to do the third game in the trilogy which would be Bios Origins, and I’ve been tinkering with that for a long time. This would be like the original Origins but it has to accommodate the differences between flier and burrowers and swimmers and all these different specializations and creatures that you can become in Bios Megafauna and perhaps have different civilizations in your different Biospherical areas, the air and under the ground and in the ocean.
So those are the imperatives. I am also trying in conjunction with my son Matthew to do a science fiction PAX game based upon technology and a utopian look at the future. Matt says there’s far too many dystopian futures, we really need to have a utopian one.
I am also working on a game which has failed on playtests several times but I’m still trying to come out with a game on slavery, because I think it’s an important issue, and for some reason it’s kind of a neglected issue. The story of how slavery was ended, and who’s responsible and why. It’s really the greatest political accomplishment in history to abolish such an institution worldwide, and this story deserves to be told. Also I have a zepplin game that I’ve been struggling with for a long time. So there’s various projects that I’d like to attempt.
JO: That’s great! I am really excited about the success you found on kickstarter. I know that some of your kickstarter experiences in the past were frustrating and challenging, and it seems like this is a new leaf that will hopefully open up new opportunities to reprint games and reach a broader audience, so that’s fantastic news. I am looking forward to Bios Genesis 2 and Bios Megafauna 2. Those are all great games and I’m really just thrilled that there’s games out there… Board games have become an amazing hobby for lots of reasons, but it’s fantastic that there’s room out there for these sandbox educational but fascinating topics, sort of science games.