The scientist of gaming: part 1

Why design rockets when you can design board games? That is the question Phil Eklund asked himself when we made the unlikely career switch from working for JPL to running his company Sierra Madre Games full time. This turned out to be a huge boon for the hobby of board gaming, as Sierra Madre games are different than anything else out there on the market! All of Eklund’s designs put the science and simulation part of the game front and center, sometimes at the expense of ease of play or game balance. And while one of Eklund’s best designs is about what he knows best, Space and Rockets, his games cover a wide variety of genres, all of them being anything but ordinary.

There’s a lot going on!

I personally came across his games through a frivolous accident. Bios Megafauna looked intense from the back of the box when it showed up as the latest release at my local game store, and for eighty dollars I wasn’t about to grab a game that looked too complex for its own good. Then one following Black Friday sale the game was marked down to just twenty dollars, and on a whim I figured that at worst I would have nifty shaped dinosaur and mammal game pieces, why not give it a shot?

It proved to be a challenge to get to the table, and I had to promise to buy a friend of mine dinner if he’d just learn it and give it a shot with me. But once we wrestled through the rules, we discovered a game that was dripping with theme like nothing else I had ever played. Given how much Eklund focuses on the simulation of the topic he is making a game about, each game actually teaches the players a ton about the given subject, and the stories from each game vary wildly, and often sound like something out of a science or history textbook; something that could actually have happened.

Who can say no to tiny wooden mammals?

Bios Megafauna is a game about the evolution and climate of the Cenozoic and Mesozoic eras on the prehistoric continents of North and South America. Each player can have up to four different species, which they draft traits for in order for them to survive in the different biomes on the map, or feast on whatever else is living there as a carnivore. A simple enough premise on the surface, but all of the nuance of the science behind the theme is baked right into the game mechanics here. For example, new species evolve from your existing ones, taking some of the traits with them. However, overly specialized creatures become comet bait, so it is best to hedge your bets and not bring all of the traits over from the parent species.  The whole board shifts with the climate changes causing the biomes your species are living in to go extinct. Immigrant species move into biomes and ruin your plans, and there are herbivore and carnivore contests that have multiple tie breakers, one of which is how many teeth a species has. In this game you are getting a ton of real science facts right alongside the actual gameplay mechanics. The rules also use all the actual science terms, for better or worse, and so just to play you need to learn about acculturating, rooter biomes and Milankovich events. The rule book even has footnotes quotes from actual sources on how the science of the game works.

Speaking of the rules, they can be a sensitive subject in a Phil Eklund game. The rules you receive in the box very well might be outdated by the time you crack into them, as Phil believes in “Living” rule books. This means that while the components and cards of the game will stay the same, anything and everything else about the rules is fluid. I played Bios Megafauna for the first time with a significantly different set of rules than what came in the box. It sounds crazy, but this can actually be a good thing, as the game is dramatically improved from these rules changes. Still, it’s definitely not a user friendly experience, having to go out on the internet to track down the latest rules versus just having it ready to go out of the box.

The stories that come out of his games are some of my favorite experiences in the hobby though. While the art often has all of the appeal of a middle school science textbook, I found myself invested in the emerging narrative of the game. In one game my bat like mammals just acquired a trunk so they could finally move into that browser habitat I had been eyeing, but I was concerned that my fellow players would just feast on me if I didn’t develop quills in the next turn or two. While most games themes are very abstracted, or lightly “painted on”, in Eklund’s games the theme is the reason you are there.

Once I got a taste of the wonderfully thematic feeling of an Eklund game, I was hooked. I began to seek out his other games starting with his magnum opus, High Frontier. That is a game for another day though, so I will cover it next time, in part two of the Scientist of Gaming!

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