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Life, the Earth, and...Something. The Bios: Earth Trilogy

Mark Buetow
United States
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Bios Earth Trilogy BGG Blog Post

A Brief History of Games that have History
A sweeping story. An Epic scope. An epic, sweeping, story scope! I love games that tell the story of history, the tales of civilizations, real or fictional, rising and falling, expanding and declining. I look to look at the board at the end of such a game and sit fulfilled, having built something, brought it to its destiny, good or bad, and then see the remnants. It’s a bit like Ozymandias, I suppose. Look upon my works and despair. And, like his eponymous ruins, it’s all to be swept away into the game box afterward.

My love of Civ games spans the gamut. In no particular order, here are games that capture the rise and fall of empires or nations or people that I enjoy playing. Some are historic with a world map. Others make the map as you go. Some are a bit abstract. Some feature real civilizations for you to play with. Others make them up. But it’s a great list (and not exhaustive) of fun games and I’d play any of them given the chance. Small World, History of the World, The Golden Ages, Historia, Tapestry, Civilization: A New Dawn, Innovation, Britannia, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, and probably my current favorite: 7 Ages.

But today we’re talking about the story not just of a particular civilization or a period of recorded history. We’re talking about the sweeping story of life on earth itself, from its beginnings in the “soup” to its evolution though plants and animals and the development of emotions, thought, language, technology, and what we might call civilization, even reaching to the stars. We’re talking about Bios: Earth, the name given to the Bios Trilogy when played consecutively. It begins with Bios: Genesis, progresses with Bios: Megafauna (Second Edition) and concludes with Bios: Origins (Second Edition). You can even continue with the epilogue of intelligent achievement in the expansion into space with High Frontier 4 All and its expansions. Each of these three games is different and fun in its own right. The rules enable you to play the games in a consecutive way, “campaign” style, in which the results of the prior game affects the setup of the next one.

I’ve played a couple other Sierra Madre titles. Pax Porfiriana is a neat game about Mexico around the time of the revolution. Pax Pamir: Second Edition engages players as Afghan tribal warlords trying to play with or against the colonial powers interested in that land. It’s fair to say that Sierra Madre games have a lot of moving parts. They offer a lot of changing elements which makes them replayable and the interactions of the elements, multiple uses for cards, and more make the decisions in the game often difficult and always important. The Bios games are no different. Lots of variability and options. Here’s a brief overview of one individually.

Bios: Genesis
Genesis covers the period billions of years ago when life was forming in the chemical “soup” of the early earth (and solar system). Beginning with various landforms such as Martian oceans, terrestrial hydrothermal vents, and several others, players attempt to catalyze life in one of those environments. When life forms, a bacteria has come to life. Players then add mutations to their bacteria, hoping it grows and evolves and, if it is able to gain enough RNA and DNA mutations, will evolve into an aquatic lifeforms. Those basic creatures continue to develop organs and hopefully evolve into terrestrial organisms. At its heart, Genesis is an engine builder. You are attempting to generate catalysts which are spent as enzymes to help life start or as “payment” for mutations and organs for your organisms. There is some dice-chucking, though, which means that there is no guarantee that life will form or that it will survive. If the goal is to “simulate” the chaotic conditions of the early earth in which life has to struggle to make it, then Genesis is entirely successful.

Bios: Megafauna
Megafauna covers the long time period when plants and animals evolved and speciate and spread across the landforms of the ancient earth. Players being with a certain type of skeletal form. (3 can be animals; 1 is a plant). These creatures then add mutations and organs with abilities that help them survive. Animals begin as nondescript “archetype” creatures but can speciate into flying, burrowing, swimming, and/or armored creatures. As organs are added, animals develop “emotions” (thing “sexual display” or “flight or flight). If they develop enough emotions, they have achieved language of some sort. The goal of the game is to cover as many spots on the map as possible. The map itself is a constantly shifting set of landmasses that collide, split apart, and drift around, all while cosmic and terrestrial events continue to pummel the earth with radiation, meteors, and climatic and atmospheric changes. So it’s not just cover the earth, it’s survive while doing so.

Bios: Origins
Origins is the “civ game” of the series. Players begin as different types of hominids (not just Homo sapiens) who develop their brains, then language and abstract thought, inventing technology, forming governments and advancing in track of cultures, welfare and industry. Here you are not managing a particular civilization but a particular group of humans as they grow and develop over the course of a very long time. Game length can be adjust so you’re either advancing over the past million years or just a more recent 100,00o years ago. Each of the four Epochs has an increasing fast and smaller time scale as human achievement ramps up and grows.

Two important aspects stand out in all three games. First, players are not only competing against each other, they’re trying to survive what nature and society throw at them. The warming and cooling of the earth, solar storms, radiation bursts, continental upheavals, temperature spikes, comets and meteors, environmental disasters, diseases and plagues, and human chaos such as civl wars and economic crises all threaten the map and the lifeforms living there at any given time. Each of the three games is driven in part by an Event deck which throws planet-encompassing curveballs to the players and their creatures and people trying to survive. The second meta aspect that is seen in each of the games is that they are not constrained by reality. While the games are loaded with scientific research and an often scientific basis for what is happening, the results don’t have to mirror reality at all. In Genesis, life may be created where it wasn’t on the real earth. In megafauna, you will see species and creatures that have never actually existed. In Origins, not only will human history perhaps urn out very differently, it doesn’t even have to be human or on the real layout of earth. You can, for example, play all in the oceans as Merfolk, instead of terrestrial hominids. These two elements combine to deliver extensive replayability and and engaging story to tell.

So, what about all three together? If you end Genesis with an aquatic or terrestrial life form, that will affect what you begin with or as in megafauna. Your most successful creature in Megafauna will be the basis for your starting life in Origins and you can even use the cratons (landmasses) of Megafauna’s map to be the map you’ll play on in Origins. In addition, how you fare in Origins will influence your start in High Frontier if you take it further into that game.

Having obtained the games shortly before the American Thanksgiving holiday week, and with some time off, my wife and I played the games and then played the three game campaign, Bios: Earth. We played Genesis twice, Megafauna once and Origins once before playing each again as part of the campaign. The story below is not overly-detailed but presents an overview of how the games played together with pictures of this epic, sweeping story.

The campaign works as follows:
For each game, you get a victory chit or point for each player with a lower score than you. For two of us, that pretty well meant a best two out of three of the games. The Genesis score is added to the Megafauna Score though, so the first game is very important. Depending on whether you have an aquatic or terrestrial lifeform (or neither) from Genesis, that will affect your setup in Megafauna. Your more or less best creature from Megafauna will be the basis for your society/civilization in Origins. Let’s see how it all played out.

From the Dawn of…well, Earth… Bios: Genesis

Chaos. Comets. Metoers. Solar blasts of seething radiation. I don’t even think we can speak of tectonic upheaval since Earth’s surface is just a roiling mass of molten rock as cosmic bombardments shape it. There’s some cooling. Oxygen begins to fill the atmosphere. In this soup of chemicals and conditions, can life form? Can chemicals come together in a way that they can sustain metabolic processes and reproduce? Players hope so because that’s how they’re going to get Victory points.

My life came from Mars. At some point in the formation of our solar system, life began there and made its way to earth. But there it was. From a Mars Paleo Ocean. Who knows what could happen? What could form?

From gallery of Malacandra

This is a refugium, or a landmass and chemical component in which life might form. Which ones come into play from the four various types of land is determined by the event cards. The cubes represent different compounds that might contribute to creating life. The more cubes and bionts on a card, the more dice you’ll roll to see if life is catalyzed.

Turns out it was life! A molybdenum-catalyzed Martian bacteria to be precise.

From gallery of Malacandra

See the little blue dome piece? That’s a biont. Think of a biont as your biological/chemical/protein/ingredient for life. This is the piece you place upon a particular landform to try to catalyze life. If the roll is successful, you’ll flip that refugium card and see your early bacteria. Any bionics and color manna cubes become parts of your bacteria. Red chromosomes are metabolic and help produce catalysts and also protect from temperature spikes. Green (which I didn’t have) helps protect against Oxygen spikes (too much is bad!) and also allow you to place more bionts on landforms. Yellow chromosomes will let you re-roll dice during your Darwin roll. Blue will block bad mutations which happen during your Darwin roll. You see, once you have this microorganism, it has to survive. Not only will environmental factors possibly strip it of chromosomes until it is no more, it has to learn to accurately reproduce. The Darwin roll determines whether that happens or whether genetic mistakes wreak havoc, and finally it dissolves back into the primordial soup. Go, little bacteria, go!

From gallery of Malacandra

As you get more catalysts (discs) you can purchase mutations for your bacteria. Mutations are usually bits of useful RNA that give you some abilities and benefits. If you promote the mutation, it will become a double-helix of DNA. More abilities and more chance of survival. You’ll see above a second bacteria I managed to create with an RNA sequence attached. Get enough of those cubes and you can purchase a macroorganism, an actual simple animal or plant like creature. That’s the bottom half. My martian bacteria has become flatworms! At this point you use catalysts to purchase organs. Organs work like other cubes, protecting the creature from cancer (like Darwin rolls, genetic mutations), and other extreme environmental effects.

From gallery of Malacandra

If you can develop all the organs on your little water creature, it will emerge onto the land as yet another new lifeforms. My flat worms have become earthworms! In three games, this was the first macroorganism I had that survived and made it to land!

From gallery of Malacandra

Above are the microorganisms my wife ended up with. A water and two land creatures. That’s lots of points. You’ll notice that in two of the creatures, you’ll see my blue bionts. If multiple players have bionts on refugia, they are both incorporated into the bacteria when it forms. Likewise, if a parasite (fueled by my color biont) is attached to a bacteria when it evolves into a macroorganism, the biont will end up inside the new organism. That’s important because it means you’ll share the Victory Points awarded by the creature with its owner.

In Bios: Genesis you get points for all the cubes on your cards, that is, developed organs and added chromosomes to your organisms. Anything that makes it to an actual macroorganism gets a bunch of points and if it’s the top of the food chain, gets double points. Again, those can be shared with any player who has a biont in the organism

It ended up like this for us:
I scored 30 points (12 of which came from having a share in my wife’s creatures).
She scored 55. 
Final Score 30-55
That means she gets a point for the campaign. Campaign Points: 0-1

Go Forth and…Speciate! Bios: Megafauna

The planet is cooling. The land is forming. Immense cratons, something like proto-continents drift and collide and split apart. Radiation continues to batter the earth. Oxygen climbs and then fades. Clouds form and dissipate. Carbon is thrown forth and then disappears. On this slowly cooling planet, the first life has grown, developed, and evolved. What species will come forth? What sort of life will develop. How will this life cover the earth?

Susan had some options as to which life form she begins Megafauna as. The best advantage to her was to be the Cytoskeletal (green) organisms: the plants. She chose that as one of her organisms in Genesis was moss. I, having evolved earthworms, became the Hydroskeletal (orange) organisms.

Somewhat funny, her lifeforms soon went extinct. No problem, as you can return as a “Lazarus” creature and pretty much start again. No player elimination here! My hydroskeletal creatures soon speciated through the development of the “wing finger” into flying creatures. We also had a burrowing species arise. The plants, adapted well, the archetype creatures growing in size and even developing some basic tools like a net to catch my flyers and sticks to attack our burrowers. Here’s a look at the orange creatures on earth and the strange organs and appendages they evolved.

Here’s the archetype creatures, something wormlike that has grown. What an amazing creature. An ink sac for a land animal? It smells and hibernates and sends forth its progeny through windborne seeds. See? I told you the game isn’t constrained by reality. Or maybe it’s just reality on a parallel earth in a parallel universe!

From gallery of Malacandra

Here are our burrowers. Sexually attractive and adapted to the dark with their echolocation and night vision and big brains. The cubes on your cards represent organs. These can be lost due to mutagen events in the game. What you don’t want to happen is to lose your basal organs, the ones on your base card, since that will drive your species extinct.

From gallery of Malacandra

Finally, the true King of Orange creatures. What flies, fights for its territory, can smell, spins a cocoon and makes milk? That’s no riddle. That’s the aviary wonder that arose on this strange earth!

From gallery of Malacandra

The die on the card indicates the size of the creature. See the little colored faces (“emoji”) in the line of traits and organs? Those are emotions. Again, think “sexual attraction” or “fight or flight,” basic instincts and cerebral responses that can dictate a creature’s behavior. In the game, each one of those is worth 1 VP. If you have a creature that has at least three, of which there are two different colors, that is the development of rudimentary language. 3 VPs.

But where do these animals live? How can they thrive? What do they eat? Here’s “Earth” as it was at the end of the Megafauna epochs.

From gallery of Malacandra

Those pieces of land are called “cratons.” Not seen in the pic is a climate strip that shows the relative warm or cool earth and the latitudes affected by warmer or cooler temperatures. Also not shown is the Reservoir Board that holds oxygen, ice, and carbon discs. These move back and forth between the Reservoir and the cratons. In the picture you see many green discs. Those are oxygen that on the map are forests. Lots of forests because ours was a very oxygen rich world.

Each hex has two parts, upper and lower. Each part of the hex can only hold one species. The bottom is for herbivores. Most animals start as that as they spread out. Some become carnivores. If the herbivore in a hex is edible by another creature, that creature can live there as a carnivore. It’s the ecosystem in that biome. But herbivores can’t coexist in the same biome so they will compete. Same for carnivores. So only one player’s creeples (creature maples?) will ever occupy a given space. There is the game: spread out and populate the earth with your various species. Be fruitful and multiply more than your opponents creatures.

As you can see from the picture, I was more fruitful and did more multiplying. In fact, a burrowing species Susan had on the map had gone extinct due to a mutagen event. All kinds of things can happen in this crazy world. The cratons can shift, collide, and break apart. Meteors can hit the earth. The planet can warm or cool by vast amounts. Land can become frozen or desolate or warm and flourishing. Like I said above, you’re competing against other players, but all the while you’re trying to just hope the planet (and other parts of the solar system) doesn’t kill you!

In the end, my orange species had a marvelous run compared to green.
I scored 32 points plus the 30 from Genesis.
Susan scored just 19 points plus the 55 from Genesis
Alas, though I would have won this game if played standalone, the campaign calls for adding your Genesis points to Megafauna.
Final Score: 62-74
That earns her another Campaign Point.
Campaign 0-2
Of course, we know she will win the campaign regardless of the results of Origins. But we want to see what happens to this Earth!

Life is but a Stage…made up of Cratons! Bios: Origins

In setting up for Bios: Origins, you can use the real world map or you have the limitless ocean with the possibility of making your own map. Or you can use the cratons from Megafauna. In playing the campaign, you use the cratons in the arrangement they were in the Megafauna game. Here is Earth 100,000 years or so ago:

From gallery of Malacandra

There some minor tweaks to the game play to accommodate the craton setup. Where the map would normally have symbols for various resources, the cratons don’t. So there’s a standard resource key (which is helpfully on the map). Weeds (solid green) supply horticulture (crops), swamps provide biofuel and seas provide minerals. You’ll notice yellow animals placed randomly too. The domes represent domestic animals and the little armored animals represent war animals that can have cities built on them.

Coming from Megafauna, we again base our setup on the creatures we had in that game. So, as the “plants,” Susan starts as the green Fungal-animal hobbit Brain creatures, using her archetype shape creeples (the little domes). I am the orange Molluscan Denisovan Brain creatures. Plant people versus the flying people on this strange version of Earth.

In Origins, your score at the end of the game is your best score out of three categories: Culture, Politics, and Industry. Each of those contains two advancement tracks that determine how far you can move, how many pieces you can have in a hex, which uninhabitable climates you can pass through, how far you can move over water, and how may Elders you can place and Ideas (Inventions) you can have in your tableau of cards. However, it is possible to manipulate the world philosophical outlook such that one of these three areas is not counted for scoring. Hope it’s not your highest!

Thus it was that the flying creatures grew and developed, spreading across the earth as they advanced in knowledge and brain power!

From gallery of Malacandra

In Origins, there is an Event deck. To draw the card is to face the perils of nature that can threaten to destroy civilization: climate change, natural disasters, disease and manmade catastrophe. But each card also offers the chance to obtain it and lay foundations of society and governance. Or, to put it in gaming turns, you can win the card on auction and it goes into your tableau (spread) of cards and gives you possible actions to take. There is also a market of ideas. You send your Elders (pawns) to “research” or specialize in these ideas. When you claim them, you get an immediate benefit (as does anyone else with Elders on the card) and, if you meet the requirement, you may take the card as an invention giving you more options for actions on your turn.

Below are the plant people and the flying people’s advancements and societies in modern times, at the end of the game:

Here, our flyers don’t look particularly impressive but they’ve been through some changes in their way of life and who’s in charge. Starting with a focus on industry, they were once into politics but ended in a cultural leadership which was really a fundamentalist religious Cold War…

From gallery of Malacandra

My wife’s plant people maintained their political rule even though the chaotic upheaval of the Populist movement late in the Fourth Epoch.

From gallery of Malacandra

In the two pictures above, you can see how things are laid out for your society/civilization/species. The long strip is your Species Placard. It shows three types of rule or societal focus: Culture, Politics, and Industry. The crown indicates what your current ruling style is. These correspond to the three areas in which you are trying to score points. Epoch I scores Culture (with an emphasis on Mysticism); Epoch II Politics (emphasis on Urbanization) and Epoch III Industry (focus on Diversity). Epoch IV triggers the end of the game. The event cards and idea cards all have two orientations and will either fit in one of two of the three slots on your board. Foundations are below the strip; these rarely change. Inventions go above the strip and may be transferred when you change ruling types or else are lost.

The icons on the color bars indicate available actions. On your turn, you start at the bottom line and may do one action per line, working your way up. So, the more foundations and inventions you have, the more possible actions you can take. Without getting too detailed, these are the actions that let you grow a bigger brain, specialize in and invent an idea, move around the map, preach and convert other pieces, fight, build cities, and so on. These are the actions by which you grow and become mighty and wondrous.

Not everything is rainbows and unicorns, however. Your people will get upset. They will become dissidents. Each foundation has a rainbow space which represents Diversity in your civilization. When you have dissidents, they fill up the rainbows with the meeple icon. If you can’t place anymore dissidents, a revolution occurs. Not only do you have to quell the dissidents (suppressing them at the cost of your Elders and Cities), you will change your government. Each of the three types of government has a different focus.

We’ll fast forward to the present day to see how the world is going at the end of the game. Generally, mysticism is a goal in the early game. That represents and abstraction of religious ideas and devotion. You’d think by the modern era such superstitions would be irrelevant. Not so! In fact, because both of us had the Preach action available, and you can only preach to convert a city (swap out theirs for yours) when you have more Mysticism, there was this awful race to fill up the mysticism spots. But by doing so, our tokens weren’t available to become Elders and develop new ideas and inventions. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst of a Fundamentalist Cold War, a sort of Detente of Dogma. That, along with war and enslavement cause the Third and Fourth Epochs to become a really violent contest between our species. In the end, however, although the plants were able to take so many cities of ours, we were able to outdo our opponent in religious zeal and get one more Mysticism. That would be critical.

Then there came one of the last Event cards: Populists! This caused a purge of the plant people’s foundations, shaking them to the core. They made a nice recovery and rebuilt their society somewhat. In the end, the map doesn’t look as impressive for our flyers, and yet, in this world dominated by Mysticism, our beliefs held out for victory. When a Comet is available, you are able to take it to initiate a Scoring round and advance to the next Epoch. These cards also serve as a Bellwether and give the opportunity to manipulate the Philosophy track. Try as they might, the plants could not stop us from keeping Philsophy in its central space, meaning all three areas would be eligible count for our final scores.

Here is Earth as it is, wherever that Earth is…

From gallery of Malacandra

See how everything was piled into Mysticism? You can see the green plants dominating the world but not the outdoing the presence of mind and zeal of the flyers. Here is how it scored in the end:

My orange flyers versus Susan’s green plant people:
Culture: 19-18
Politics: 14-17
So the Final Score is each of our bests, both Culture: 19-18.

I win! But that’s just one Campaign point for me.

Final Campaign Score: 1-2 Susan wins the Bios: Earth trilogy.

I guess if you work so hard to begin so much life in the first place, everything else, even my wins, are just the results of her initial progress at advancing life on Earth.

And I can’t end the story without the obvious statement. In a game that basically ends in what amounts to a religious Cold War, I wonder what sort of creatures we really are? That’s answered by this picture in which you see one of our creeples achieving the Scroll action Eureka, which is the “Prayer” action to add to mysticism.

So yeah…our civilization was the…

From gallery of Malacandra

Praying Mantises!

Epilogue, or, What the Future Holds

I’m a history major. I love history. I love the story of history. I love the stories that games about history tell. This was an absolute blast to play through these three games in this campaign and watch this mega-story unfold. It took everything about the developing story arc of a Civ game and yet it played out uniquely and in a way that I’m sure would not be repeated. Each of the three games is quite fun in its own right but connected together they form a fascinating and wonderful gaming experience. Yes, an experience, When you’ve completed this Trilogy, you feel like you’ve really done something, really been a part of something, and really witnessed something amazing.

But we can reach farther. To the heavens themselves. The High Frontier is calling.

And I’ve already got my order placed with the publisher.
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