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Designing the Vasota Species

Designing the Vasota Species

At this point, I’ve played through the Phil Eklund games Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna, and I’ve used some of the results of those games to design the Karjann star system and its one Earth-like planet, Toswao. Now for the fun part – looking at the game results in more detail to come up with (hopefully) the design for the planet’s sole tool-using, language-using species.

Hmm. This species will need a name. A few moments paging through a random-name generator, and my brain comes up a word that sounds a little like the name of the planet. So be it: a singular member of the species will be a vaso, and the plural and collective form of the name is vasota. Today, we’re going to be designing the vasota species.

Bios: Megafauna Analysis

There’s one methodological point that I should probably make up front.

When playing Bios: Megafauna, you’re invited to think of yourself as playing the role of one or more single species. In fact, that’s not a good way to think about the situation. The game covers hundreds of millions of years, and very few single species have ever persisted over such long periods. A better way to think about it is that you’re tracing a few of the most prominent clades.

Over time, species give way to new species in the clade, many steps taking place in each game turn, at a level too fine-grained for the simulation to make explicit. The acquisition of cards and cubes for one “species” in your tableau follows the development of traits characteristic of the clade, over a long period of time. The final state of a “species” in the game may describe only one actual species in the generated world, but that’s not required.

A corollary of this is that your tableau of cards and cubes can’t be a complete description of any given species in the chain. Cards in Bios: Megafauna only appear once and never again, so only one “species” can ever hold a given trait in a game. That doesn’t make sense if you take it too literally. More likely, what the cards mark is that a given clade is notable for having that trait – maybe it was the first to evolve the trait, or many members of the clade have invested heavily in it.

Thus, if a species doesn’t have a given card, that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks the corresponding trait, it just means its own version of the trait is unremarkable. On the other hand, if a species does have a specific card, it probably exhibits that trait to an unusual degree.

So, what do we know about the vasota, given their representation as a “species” at the end of my Bios: Megafauna game?

Well, since the species belonged to Player White, that means it is endoskeletal, analogous to the vertebrates of Earth. That doesn’t tell us much yet; it could resemble fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, or none of the above.

At the end of the game, the species was size 3, which the rulebook informs us is approximately 20 kg in mass. Since the size scale is logarithmic by powers of 10, we could take this as indicating a typical body mass somewhere between about 6 kg and about 65 kg. Smaller than a human, but not necessarily a lot smaller.

The species had the following cube set, taking “monster” markers into account:

  • 4 red (nervous system, reflexes, “pounce” hunting and “dash” evasion)
  • 4 yellow (circulatory system, stamina, “chase” hunting and evasion)
  • 6 blue (reproductive system, investment in sexual behavior and offspring)
  • 2 green (digestive system, ability to process lots of biomass, survival in warm climates)
  • 3 white (cold adaptations, survival in cold climates)

The preponderance of red and yellow over green and white cubes suggests the species has a strong tendency toward carnivory. On the other hand, in actual play the species (or, rather, members of the same clade) spent a lot of time in the “herbivore” position in the biomes it occupied. I suspect we can square the circle by assuming that the species is omnivorous, but prefers meat if it can get it. Earthly examples might include raccoons, or certain species of bears.

Meanwhile, wow, that’s an impressive array of blue cubes. The species still has one of the blue “monster” markers, which indicates a lot of investment. I would guess that this species comes down heavy on a K-selection strategy: finding high-quality mates, then having just a few offspring and lavishing lots of time and attention on them. This species may be more invested in sexual behavior and child-rearing than humans are, which is kind of impressive.

Let’s look at the traits that this clade has acquired over time, both in their basic and promoted forms.

  • Courtship Dance and Territorialism – These were the first two traits acquired, and Territorialism is what gave the clade its blue “monster” marker. It’s interesting that the first traits this clade developed, the ones which continued to define its behavior throughout its existence, were both behavioral in nature. That suggests some very deep-seated instincts toward sexual competition, display behavior, and territory defense. Whatever social groups this species naturally forms, they probably have a strong sense of in- and out-group distinctions, and a willingness to face down outsiders who trespass on their range.
  • Brainstem and Pituitary Gland – Early investments in a sophisticated system of nerve and hormonal control. Even from the beginning, these were smart animals.
  • Periodontum – Clearly, even though this clade never invested heavily in being able to process lots of plant matter, it does have a jaw apparatus, with teeth supported by specialized tissues.
  • Hormones and Muscle Shivering – More sophisticated biochemistry to regulate tissues and behavior. Muscle Shivering gave the clade its white “monster” marker, indicating a strongly endothermic animal that can deal well with widely varying climates. At this point, I’m comfortable calling this species pseudo-mammalian, with one exception that I’ll mention later.
  • Vertical Flexure – The first trait that seems relevant to the physical body plan. This clade is made up of striding walkers, whose footsteps fall under the body, as opposed to “sprawlers” which crawl along with their feet out to either side. That suggests the ability to move quickly, and possibly to develop a good bipedal stance that can free up the forelimbs for manipulation.
  • Pons & Medulla and Hypothalamus – Still more sophistication in the brain, giving the species good reflexes and strong regulation of homeostatic processes. I’m not seeing a lot of forebrain-like development, but a look through the Bios: Megafauna trait deck tells me that almost all the brain-development cards focus on the hindbrain. A species that has lots of brain cards is probably going to be smart regardless.
  • Long-Term Memory and Larder Hoarding – More brain traits! At this point I’m comfortable assuming this species will be about as intelligent as humans, but here’s an interesting indicator as to what kind of intelligence it will have. I see an emphasis on good memory, not just quick information processing or abstract reasoning.
  • Olfactory Organ and Smelling Nose – Here we have some indication as to what kind of sensory apparatus the species has. We can assume that it has eyes, ears, and so on, but the cards tell us that the species is remarkable for its sense of smell. The card text specifically calls out the noses of bears, which have possibly the best sense of smell of any land animal on Earth.

Finally, we can look at the Emotions held by the clade at the end of the game:

  • One red Emotion, representing “anger,” aggression, quick action, and the “fight” part of the fight-or-flight reflex.
  • Two blue Emotions, representing “jealousy,” pride and self-centeredness, and sexual attraction and desire.
  • One purple Emotion, representing “curiosity,” the drive to learn, the need to try new tools and techniques.

This suggests a creature that is at least somewhat human-like in psychology: aggressive, curious, strongly driven by the need to find a mate and raise offspring. Again, this species may be a bit more motivated by personal pride and sexual desire than we are, depending on whether you believe humans would have two blue Emotions in their card tableau too.

GURPS Analysis

Now for a bit more fine-grained detail, which I’ll describe by designing a character template for the vasota in GURPS terms.

The older book GURPS Uplift is actually a great source for this kind of work. It has an alien-design sequence based on algorithms that Dr. David Brin developed for his own creative work, one which considers how a species evolved to intelligence. That makes it a good fit for my current project, which is taking a different approach to do the same thing.

GURPS Uplift is a Third Edition sourcebook, but it still works very well as a set of guidelines when designing aliens. If you want something more closely tied to Fourth Edition, James Cambias built a similar system for the current edition of GURPS Space. The fact that I’m using GURPS Uplift instead is purely a matter of personal preference – I got used to that system long before James and I co-authored GURPS Space.

I’m going to work my way through the major headings in the GURPS Uplift design sequence. Rather than do everything with random dice rolls, I’m going to select options and traits to fit what I saw in the Bios: Megafauna game, and see what kind of template that gives me.

Home Environment

Thinking back to the Bios: Megafauna game, the White Archetype species spent most of its time living in forested continental biomes. Once Toswao flipped to a relatively cool climate on the last turn, those were probably temperate rather than tropical forests. We’ll run with that.

Our intelligent species evolved in a temperate forest, as “climbers” (ground-dwelling creatures that can climb trees if they need to, like bears or gorillas). Looking at suggested traits, I’ll go with +2 skill bonuses to Climbing and Jumping. Those seem to fit the large numbers of red and yellow cubes in the clade’s tableau, which suggest an agile and athletic creature.

Incidentally, recall that the surface gravity of Toswao is about 1.09 G, a bit higher than Earth’s, but not high enough to count as a “heavy world.”

Body Plan

I don’t see a lot of traits in the Bios: Megafauna tableau to suggest anything unusual here. The Vertical Flexure trait is the only body-plan item, and that doesn’t imply anything too alien.

I’ll assume that the vasota are bog-standard, bilaterally symmetrical tetrapods. They have evolved into a fully upright, bipedal stance that frees up their forelimbs for manipulation. A vaso has one pair of hands and one pair of walking paws (“feet”). That doesn’t give us any modifiers to the ST or DX scores.

I’m agnostic as to whether the vasota have any “special limbs” (e.g., tails) but a quick dice-roll on the pertinent table from GURPS Uplift says no. Moving on . . .

Diet

I’ve already established that the vasota are omnivores, who prefer meat when they can get it. GURPS Uplift calls this kind of species “hunter-browser” omnivores. Glancing at the list of suggested traits, I see the possibility of half a level of the Enhanced Move advantage. This fits the picture that’s growing in my head, and it works just as well in Fourth Edition rules, so I’ll go with that.

Metabolism

We already know the vasota are endothermic, strongly resembling Earthly mammals. GURPS Uplift simply calls this being “warm-blooded,” which doesn’t carry any advantage or disadvantage. Sounds good to me, let’s move on.

Society

This is an important item – the size and structure of their natural social group – which will strongly affect vaso psychology. GURPS Uplift would normally encourage most species to fall at the “family group” or “pack/troop” level. For the vasota, I think I’m going to do something different, a social structure that appears in the natural world but isn’t easy for the GURPS Uplift charts and tables to capture.

The idea is that the vasota are “solitary but social” in a very specific pattern. Both males and females are highly territorial in their natural state, but they express that territoriality differently.

In pre-civilized times, female vasota formed small family groups. An elderly female would live with her daughters and grand-daughters, all in the same shared range, centered on some reliable source of food. Young males stayed with their mothers for a while, but eventually they would get pushed out to fend for themselves. Mature males lived mostly solitary lives on the fringes, setting up and defending their own home ranges. A male’s range probably overlapped with at least one female clan-range, and that’s where he went to visit during mating season, but male ranges tended not to overlap with each other. This pattern is found in some Earthly primates – some lemurs and tarsiers, and (sort of) in orangutans as well.

With the appearance of tool use, language, and more complex societies, the vasota modified their age-old social pattern. As with humans, females ended up doing most of the work of foraging, and later of agriculture. Yet vasota males were never able to cooperate very well, so unlike human males, they rarely managed to force females into a subordinate role by applying coordinated violence. Matrilineal, matriarchal clans became the first villages, and later the first towns. Males continued to live a wandering and solitary life, sometimes associating themselves with a female community, offering whatever service they could in exchange for security and social contact.

A social system like that is effectively a hybrid. Vasota males fall under the “Solitary” line on the GURPS Uplift chart, whereas the female communities fall under the “Family Group” line. None of that has a direct effect on physical or mental capabilities, but it will affect the personality. Later, I’ll be looking at the possibility of different sets of Mental Disadvantages for vasota males and females.

Size

This is one area in which the GURPS Uplift tables won’t be of much use. Third Edition GURPS handled the size of objects, along with ST and HT scores and Hit Points, very differently than Fourth Edition.

I’m going to assume that adult vasota average around 40 kg in mass, well within the range implied by their Bios: Megafauna size category. If they’re not a lot thinner or blockier than humans, that suggests that they’ll be about 80% as tall as an average human, small enough to get a Size Modifier (SM) of -1. In Fourth Edition GURPS, this is a zero-point feature.

A creature that small is likely to have a lower ST score than the human average. According to the Build Table on p. B18, a human of average build who’s about 1.5 meters tall and masses about 40 kg is likely to have a ST score of about 7. Let’s bump that up a little, since the vasota do live in a stronger gravity field. I’ll set the average ST score for the vasota at 8, a 20-point disadvantage. I’ll leave their basic HT score at 10, since I don’t see anything to indicate that they’re less energetic or robust than humans.

Food Chain Position

The clade from which the vasota originated were rarely the peak predators in their environment. Only with the development of tool-use did they push to the top of their food chains. Let’s stipulate that their position on the food chain is “near the top,” which doesn’t confer any advantages or disadvantages in the GURPS Uplift charts.

Activity Cycle

I don’t have any preference for whether the vasota are naturally diurnal or nocturnal. A quick dice-roll on the pertinent table in GURPS Uplift gives me “diurnal,” which confers no unusual traits. I’ll take that, and assume the species sleeps about as much as humans do, and at the same times.

Reproduction

We already know a fair amount about vasota reproductive strategies. For example, we know they may be even more heavily invested in a K-selection strategy than humans are. I’ll assume a natural lifespan comparable to that of humans, and a “very few offspring, intense investment” strategy. GURPS Uplift suggests a Sense of Duty disadvantage directed toward young vasota, and that makes sense to me.

I’ll also assume a very high degree of neoteny, in which adult members of the species retain many of the psychological traits of the young. That suggests a high IQ score, and a higher than average level of curiosity that might lead to a Mental trait or two.

Let’s assume that the vasota have two sexes, just as humans do (the “produce lots of cheap gametes” and the “produce a few expensive gametes” genders, which we call “male” and “female”). Just to make them a little less like mammals, I’ll stipulate that the vasota are egg-layers, the females producing very small clutches. When the young hatch, they have a lot of physical growth and development to do, but they can eat bits of meat, fruit, and high-value seeds almost at once.

Natural Weapons

None of the cards in the Bios: Megafauna tableau had anything to do with natural weaponry. I’ll assume that the vasota are about as well-armed as humans (blunt teeth and nails, with no venom or other special weapon systems).

Body Covering

There were no traits in the Bios: Megafauna tableau to describe the vasota integument, either. I’ll assume they don’t have anything remarkable. Again, to reduce the resemblance to Earthly mammals, let’s assume that the vasota have a covering of thin scales, like those of a lizard or snake. This might be enough for a single point of Damage Resistance.

Senses

We did get one set of traits that had to do with the vasota senses, suggesting a superb sense of smell. I’ll assume that their senses are otherwise unremarkable:

  • Good vision, two eyes frontally placed, with no special visual abilities.
  • Average hearing with no special auditory abilities.
  • No electrical or magnetic senses.
  • Excellent senses of smell and taste, suggesting Acute Taste and Smell and Discriminatory Smell.
  • Average tactile and kinesthetic senses, with no special abilities.

Communications

There were no cards to suggest specific communication abilities – no pheromones, warning cries, anything of that nature. Let’s assume that the vasota communicate primarily through spoken language, in the same frequency range as the human voice. Their voices might sound a little funny to us, but with a little work we should be able to understand each other.

Mental Abilities

We did see above that the vasota might be a little more intelligent than humans, since they retain neotenous traits (such as curiosity and mental adaptability) far into their lifespan. We also got one Bios: Megafauna card suggesting unusual mental ability – Long-Term Memory, later promoted to Larder Hoarding. Rather than give the vasota higher than average IQ, I’ll give them Eidetic Memory instead, which in Fourth Edition rules is a 5-point advantage.

Personality Traits

GURPS Uplift has an elaborate system for working out a species’ personality traits. It measures each species on a set of eight numeric scales that translate into specific Advantages and Disadvantages. It’s an interesting system, although perhaps not to be taken too literally.

Instead of working through the system in detail, I simply glanced through it, thinking about how the vasota would measure up. Naturally, since the vasota have had high-tech civilization for thousands of years when we first meet them, some of their primitive psychological traits have changed to make them more suited for a complex society. Even so, male and female vasota still have different personalities.

Male vasota remain rather solitary creatures, comfortable around aliens but not very good at “reading” them, and very unhappy in large crowds. They are driven by personal ambitions and desires, and are not very altruistic. In GURPS terms, they have the Broad-Minded quirk, and moderate levels of the Loner, Oblivious, and Selfish disadvantages.

Female vasota are more human-like in their psychology, better at cooperating and living in groups. They are much less likely to wander and travel, and don’t encounter aliens as often. They have only the Proud quirk. They have no specific psychological disadvantages to keep them close to home, but individuals will often have Dependents, Duty, or Sense of Duty disadvantages that make travel and adventuring difficult.

Both males and females have the Curiosity trait.

So, let’s pull all this together, and write up a pair of GURPS racial templates:

Male Vaso (5 points)

  • Attribute Modifiers: ST-2 [-20].
  • Secondary Characteristic Modifiers: SM -1 [0].
  • Advantages: +2 to Climbing [4]; +2 to Jumping [4]; Acute Sense of Taste and Smell +4 [8]; Damage Resistance 1 [5]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; Eidetic Memory [5], Enhanced Move (Ground) 1/2 [10].
  • Disadvantages: Curiosity (12 or less) [-5]; Loner (12 or less) [-5]; Oblivious [-5]; Selfish (12 or less) [-5]; Sense of Duty (toward young) [-5].
  • Quirks: Broad-Minded [-1].

Female Vaso (20 points)

  • Attribute Modifiers: ST-2 [-20].
  • Secondary Characteristic Modifiers: SM -1 [0].
  • Advantages: +2 to Climbing [4]; +2 to Jumping [4]; Acute Sense of Taste and Smell +4 [8]; Damage Resistance 1 [5]; Discriminatory Smell [15]; Eidetic Memory [5], Enhanced Move (Ground) 1/2 [10].
  • Disadvantages: Curiosity (12 or less) [-5]; Sense of Duty (toward young) [-5].
  • Quirks: Proud [-1].

There we go! A male vaso is roughly comparable to a human character – a little smaller and less physically robust, but fast and agile, and capable of surprising feats of scent and memory. Not very sociable, to be sure, but perfectly capable of contributing to (say) a starship crew or a colonial venture. Female vasota are much the same physically, and more congenial, although we probably won’t often see them away from their home-world.

Final Comments

Let’s sum up. Over the past month, I’ve done a play-through of Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna, and used the results of that to design a star system, a habitable world, and the sentient species native to that world. The results seem to work well enough for my purposes, and I can see the possibility of much more unusual outcomes in the process. This may seem to be a cumbersome approach, but I find that it pays off quite well. The game-play itself only took a few hours of time; most of the work came from documenting the results for this series of blog-posts. If I were to do this again, I suspect I could rattle off results of similar scope in a week of evenings.

At this point, I have about half of a story in the back of my mind, in which my human protagonist (Aminata Ndoye) meets and befriends a male vaso aboard her assigned ship. The two of them get involved in a political intrigue when he returns to his homeworld, and Aminata learns new lessons about dealing with non-humans in the context of the interstellar empire she serves. I think I’m going to let this story percolate in the back of my mind for a few days, and then see if I can get it down on the page. More news on that as it happens.

Bios: Megafauna – Opening Remarks

Bios: Megafauna – Opening Remarks

Having played through a game of Bios: Genesis, now we’re ready to link the outcome of that game to the second game in Phil Eklund’s trilogy, Bios: Megafauna.

Bios: Genesis is a game of investing in and managing assets. Players compete to get control of assets (organisms) and then develop them toward multi-cellular and eventual land-animal status. A player who has sole control of an organism will collect all the victory points it earns at the end of the game. On the other hand, since he is the only one who can invest in improvements to that organism, it may not develop as fully or be worth as much. An organism shared among several players is more likely to develop quickly, but all of those players share the final victory points. Balancing these two approaches, while riding a roller-coaster of random events, is the key to a successful strategy.

Bios: Megafauna, in turn, is less a game of investment and more a game of area control. Each player begins with a single Archetype species that has few traits. During his turn, he can spend actions to acquire new traits for his species, possibly causing additional species to appear (Armored, Burrowers, Flyers, or Swimmers) in the same family. He can also spend actions to purchase more population (“Creeples”) for any of his species, to be placed on the map at the end of the turn.

Creeples are placed in a given Biome (hex) on the reconfigurable map, by default taking up a position as herbivores in that hex. If herbivores are already present, the new Creeple can be placed as a carnivore instead. Alternatively, the new Creeple can engage in a “contest” with a herbivore or carnivore already present in the target hex, in which case the players go through a simple flowchart to determine which species will succeed (that is, which one is better adapted to the current situation in that hex) and which will become Endangered.

Creeples also become Endangered if the hex they are in becomes uninhabitable due to a random event. They also become Endangered if they are carnivores who no longer have an herbivore species in the hex suitable for them to prey upon. (Finding ways to deprive carnivores of their prey seems to be a common tactical move in this game.) Creeples that are Endangered stay on the board until the end of that game-turn, at which point they “die” (move back to the player’s pool for later use).

One important point: once a Creeple is placed on the map, it never moves again (with one small but significant exception). Species tend to spread across the map when they are more effective herbivores or carnivores than their rivals. Yet, once their Creeples are in place, they’re generally stuck in that hex until the circumstances change, especially if another player finds a way to make a better move in the game of herbivore or carnivore competition.

The more Creeples are in play on the map, the more points a player will score. On the other hand, a species with more Creeples on the map will have fewer options when it comes to acquiring new traits, and so may fall behind in the evolutionary race. Players also score points at the end of the game for extinct species, for species that have developed more complex cognitive abilities, and (especially) for a species that has developed language.

As usual with a Phil Eklund game, the mechanics are difficult to absorb just by reading the rule book and glossary. Better to just set up the game and start playing a few turns, with frequent references to the rule book, and watch as the tactics and strategy emerge. I’ve actually played through Bios: Megafauna several times already, so at least some of the principles of good gameplay have become clear to me. I won’t claim to be an expert, of course, and in the play-through that follows I think I make several serious mistakes on behalf of at least one player. So be it – real history has weirdness in it too.

One final note, before I start describing how the play-through went. I’m using the printed rule-book as written. Eklund’s games often have “living rules,” that tend to accrete clarifications and even mechanical changes as they go. I’m aware of a couple of points at which my play-through would have gone differently if I had been using the living rules. The point of this exercise, of course, is to play solitaire and develop an interesting alien world for creative purposes. Hence I’m not too wrapped around the axle about making sure I use the most recent version of the game rules.

Game Setup

I start with a fairly standard setup. The game board consists of four geomorphic tiles, representing cratons or proto-continents, that start out arranged across the planet’s equatorial zone. Since I’m generating an alternate Earthlike world, I shuffle the four craton tiles at random, and they end up in the order (east to west) of Siberia, Gondwana, Baltica, and Laurentia. There are status displays to indicate the current oxygen content, cloud prevalence, and greenhouse-gas content of the atmosphere. At the beginning of the game, the planet has 7% free oxygen in the atmosphere, an albedo of about 0.4, and an “Eden” climate (somewhat warmer than present-day Earth).

If I was just playing Bios: Megafauna, then all of the player positions would start on an equal footing, with a single Archetype species with no traits, just emerged onto the land. Since I’m “linking” the outcome of my Bios: Genesis play-through, I follow the linked-game rules instead. Here’s how the four player positions shake out.

Player Yellow won the Bios: Genesis game, so he gets first choice of a position in the new game. His primary organism was the Earthworms. The rules assign him the Orange position in Bios: Megafauna, playing a family of hydroskeletal invertebrates.

Given his progress in Bios: Genesis, Player Orange doesn’t start with the bare invertebrate species; his Archetype comes into play with certain traits already in place. Some of these are traits that will be passed along to any new species in the family, represented by colored cubes (“basal organs”) placed on the Archetype card. The Archetype gets one red and two yellow cubes. He then draws a few cards from the decks of possible traits to modify his Archetype further, each of which carries more colored cubes. He ends up with the traits Egg Case (blue cube), Endocrine Gland (green cube), and Pallial Lung (yellow cube).

The next player was in the Red position in Bios: Genesis. His most advanced organism was Arrow Worms, which gives him the Black position here. He will be playing a family of endoskeletal arthropods. Since his Arrow Worms weren’t land-dwellers, he starts with a Marine Archetype species, still living off-shore. He gets no additional traits (cubes or cards). In fact, the first time he “resizes” his Marine Archetype (representing the evolution of larger animals), it will convert to a normal land-dwelling Archetype species, killing off any of the Marine Archetype Creeples that are still out at sea. Black’s first concern is going to be to move onto the land and start developing there.

Next we have Player Green. His most advanced organism was the Sea Stars, which gives him the White position in Bios: Megafauna. White represents endoskeletal vertebrates. As with the Black position, he starts with a bare Marine Archetype species and will need to move onto land quickly to make progress.

In last place in the Bios: Genesis play-through, we have Player Blue. His most advanced organism was the Lamp Shells, which would normally give him the Orange position in this game. Since that position is already taken, Blue is stuck with the Green position in Bios: Megafauna.

In this game, the Green position is a little unusual, representing plants that live primarily by photosynthesis, but which can also use parasitism, trapping, or actual motility to prey on other organisms. (Since Player Blue spent so much time trying to make parasitism work in Bios: Genesis, this may be a choice bit of irony.) Green uses slightly different rules from the other players, and is noticeably more difficult to play well. In compensation, Green starts with a special “Medea” card which can allow him to control or magnify certain random events, hopefully to his own advantage.

In any case, the now-Green player is also stuck with a bare Marine Archetype species, and like Players Black and White, will want to move onto the land and begin evolutionary development as quickly as possible.

Orange places his first Creeple on the Laurentia craton, Black begins off the coast of Siberia, White off the coast of Gondwana, and Green off the coast of Baltica. I’ll start describing how the first turn went in my next blog post.

One final note: even at the beginning of the game, I realize that Orange has started with a considerable advantage. Since his Archetype has so many traits from the very beginning, that species is already more efficient than any other on the planet, both as an herbivore and as a carnivore.

Presumably, when Bios: Genesis produces less lopsided results, the Megafauna opening is a bit more competitive. As it stands, the other players had better hope they have the opportunity to catch up, before Orange runs out of room on the Laurentia craton and starts looking for land elsewhere. Otherwise there’s going to be a tide of highly-evolved worms, snails, mollusks and squid that will tear through everyone else’s critters.

Bios: An Exercise in Worldbuilding through Gameplay

Bios: An Exercise in Worldbuilding through Gameplay

Shiny object alert!

A few days ago, I visited my local hobby shop, and a rare gem on the shelves caught my eye. A new copy of the board-game Bios: Megafauna, second edition, designed by Phil Eklund.

Eklund is something of a legend in the indie game design world. His designs are less games than they are deep simulative experiences, modeling some scientific or historical phenomenon with considerable depth and detail. You don’t sit down around a Phil Eklund design to play a simple competitive game, with a clear winner, as a light social occasion. You do it to immerse yourself in a system, generate a narrative, and marvel at the surprising results. Designating a winner is usually an afterthought.

Eklund is notorious for writing thick rulebooks in very fine print that look impenetrable, and yet permit the players to learn the game simply by sitting down, working through a flowchart, and playing a few rounds. Again, less a game, more an immersive simulation. He’s also known for his philosophical standpoints, which will become obvious if you read the extensive supporting material and essays attached to every design. Yet those personal biases don’t ruin the aesthetics or playability of his simulative models, and you don’t need to fall in line with them to enjoy the games.

Eklund is also a thoroughly independent designer, usually working through his own imprint (Sierra Madre Games). His business model (and a run of bad luck) means that some of his designs are very hard to find. So randomly spotting a copy of one of his new games at my local store was kind of a treat. I picked up Megafauna and took it home, and then managed to snag what may have been the last copy on Amazon of the prequel game Bios: Origins.

This is a good occasion for me to embark upon a line of discussion that I’ve been wanting to bring up here: the use of simulation games as drivers and inspiration for worldbuilding.

My philosophy with respect to worldbuilding is that I do it to provide plausible backgrounds for my creative work. I want the physical environment, historical narrative, social systems, and so on to make sense, providing the reader with the sense that the story is taking place in what could be a real world. Part of that is just craftsman’s pride on my part, but part of it is also the observation that if the setting for a story isn’t plausible, if it doesn’t make sense to the reader, than that robs the story itself of credibility. It’s hard to get involved in characters and plot if the story appears to be taking place in an arbitrary and chaotic environment – especially if that seems to be because the author couldn’t be bothered to do better.

Simulation games, carefully designed to model a real-world system or event, can be a great place to work on that plausibility. If a result is improbable or impossible in the simulation, that’s a sign that you’re really going to have to work to make it plausible in a related setting. If a result is at variance with the real world, but not at all unusual in the simulation, that’s evidence of a potentially interesting alternate world to explore. Naturally, the process of working through the simulation can give us plenty of back story for the world we end up designing.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, I plan to work through both Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna over the next couple of weeks, taking notes about the alternate Earth that results. I expect I’ll end up with a physical description of that Earth, an overview of its dominant life forms, and possibly even the design of a non-human sentient species that might appear in my Human Destiny stories. If this exercise actually inspires me to write a new story, we might see that appear here too. I’ll set aside this particular thread in the Worldbuilding by Simulation category, and tag it with the name of the game I’m currently working with. Work will continue on my other projects, and there may be a status report or two on those in the interim.