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Structural Chaos in Bios Megafauna and Urban Sprawl

Jesse Dean
United States
Orlando
Florida
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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A month ago I asked for recommendations on meatier 2011 games that I might have missed. One of the more interesting recommendations was for Bios Megafauna, a game about the evolution of dinosaurs and mammals in the time period leading up to modern history. I was warned ahead of time that the game had a somewhat high chaos level, since the person responsible for the recommendation was well aware of my feelings on Urban Sprawl, but that strategy was a much more important factor for determining whom the winner was. I have now played Bios Megafauna a bit across all possible player counts and while I do not plan to write a review for the game as I do not think I have that much more to add beyond some of the excellent reviews written so far, but I think it is worthwhile to compare the relative systematic chaos levels in the two games.

My primary issue with Urban Sprawl is how little control you have over your capabilities and possibilities on any given turn; you never know how much money is going to be in your hands when your next turn will occur due to the randomness of income. Similarly the many and varied special abilities can cause pretty dramatic changes in the game state from one of your turns the next. With how contracts and permits come out there is very little you can do about a very powerful effect hitting the board. Frequently a powerful effect will hit the board and be gone before you have an opportunity to take advantage of them or potentially mitigate their effects. As much as half of any given deck will also not be seen during the game, so you never know if a particular effect will even appear. Some cards will vary dramatically in power from game to game, and whether it is ultimately useful or not is essentially random. This adds up to a high degree of variance between turns with very little opportunity to plan. There is little reason to pay attention to the board when it is not your turn and while individual decisions are important, it is very easy to make the wrong decision without having any way to identify it is a wrong decision beforehand since it is so highly dependent on what events, contract cards, and building permits emerge.

With Bios Megafauna the changes between turns are much more gradual. You may occasionally have to reconsider your plans due to a target environment being eliminated but largely there are minimal game state changes between turns, with some exceptions. Periodically there will be a disaster or shift in the green house gasses that will cause a much more dramatic shift in the environment. While at first these dramatic changes bothered me, but now that I have played the game a bit more this tendency to shift and change is something I consider to be a positive, as it helps to “reset” the game, reducing the possibility that a player who has a species with traits that are particularly suited for a particular game state from continuing to dominate.

Bios Megafauna, like Urban Sprawl, features a Through the Ages-style card draft where you are able to spend genes (essentially action points) to purchase cards. Since these are an exhaustible resource, cards that are in more expensive spots typically end up still being available when it comes around to your turn, leaving you with more opportunity to prepare. The cards themselves are also far less dramatic than Urban Sprawl, instead of having big effects they instead change the capabilities of a species, requiring a player to actually implement the effects of the change rather than them happening automatically.

These differences have been pretty significantly affected my relative enjoyment of these games. While you can have wildly varied games of Bios Megafauna that are decided by when and how natural disasters occur or particular biomes are destroyed, there are also games where the game is a bit more stable, there is always some level of structural chaos, but the chaos is low enough to be frequently tolerable rather than distastefully overwhelming like it is in Urban Sprawl. It will never be one of my favorite games, but there are enough positives about it that I am rating it a 7, and am generally willing to keep it in my collection as long as I can find other people who are willing to play it with me.

On its surface Bios Megafauna is a pretty straightforward area majority game. There are four scoring phases in the game, and whoever had the most species markers on the board during each of them will get the highest score, and each other player getting half of the score of the person who had a better presence on the board. The actual score is based on the number of tiles in the tarpit, which is typically representative of how difficult it was to do well in the face of a constantly changing environment. This simplicity is complicated in how different animals survive. Each species can have a number of traits that allow it to subsist in a particular environment or predate on other species that subsist in the same environment. Of course, some traits do not work well with others and if you make your species too specialized it becomes increasingly likely that it will be unable to survive in the face of a catastrophe: each catastrophe eliminates species that equal exceed a particular number of traits. This is combated by speciation, by separating out one of your species into a second, one it is possible to make a species that is able to survive in a new environment without being comet-bait.

A reasonably large amount of the game is creating a suite of species that can survive through a wide array of environmental changes. You will have species go extinct, usually at particularly inconvenient and frustrating times, but the distribution of tiles is such that you will usually have a pretty good idea of what traits are going to be particularly valuable and it is very possible to build a coherent strategy and make informed decisions of genes even if you are only going to see just a subset of the tiles.

I also suspect that my enjoyment of this game is heightened by its very strong theme. Even though a lot of what is going on is an abstraction, I still learnt quite a bit by playing this game, and it was particularly fun learning about some of the crazy biomes that are introduced over the course of the game and imagining how bizarre some of the species that are built would look and act, particularly if one develops a culture like agriculture or projectile based hunting. Of course, despite my enjoyment of the game my group is skeptical enough about the game that I am not sure how much I will ultimately be able to play it. If anything forces it out of my collection it will be that lack of ability to play it regularly, not due to any distaste for Bios Megafauna’s level of chaos.
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