Origins: How We Became Human

I first played Origins: How We Became Human not long after it came out, back in 2008 (if you’re unfamiliar with the game, you might want to take a moment to skim that older writeup). Although I found the ideas and science behind it fascinating, I ultimately had to admit the game basically didn’t work. While the core systems were streamlined and playable, the list of grievances was long and serious: climate change die rolls that wipe you out in an instant of bad luck; development bottlenecks around increasing your energy capacity that had you rolling dice forever trying to get a 6 or endlessly digging through the card deck for the one or two cards that would unblock you; and the less said about the horror that was Acculturation, the better.

Still, recent Sierra Madre games have usually required a little tweaking, either in the form of “living rules” style updates from the publisher or home-grown house rules. Even High Frontier – a terrific game – needs to be played with slightly more sensible auction rules and tweaks for Deimos and one of the thrusters (the Salt Water Zubrin in the basic game). With Origins, there was and is clearly an interesting game in there. It just wasn’t clear what the rules tweaks needed to be to get at that game. Everyone I played Origins with disliked it enough (and the game takes long enough to play) that I never was able to get a handle on what the fixes needed to be.

Until now! Phil Eklund has done most of the heavy lifting through the optional rules now in the Origins rulebook. The absolutely critical ones are: Livestock Raids, Counterespionage, No Final Chaos, and Domestication in Uninhabitable Hexes. Without these rules the game basically doesn’t work: mainly, you can get futilely stuck in Age 1 forever spinning your wheels if you blow your domestication die rolls, or climate change can deny you the resources you need to make progress in the game. All the optional rules are definitely recommended and help the game, but these ones are critical. The original rules are clearly more faithful to the thematic ideas behind the game, but compromises have to made to the form to make it enjoyable to play.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough. The Acculturation action is still terrible and can completely ruin the fun. If your empire has an advantage in Culture advances, you’re allowed to Acculturate your neighbors: you steal one of their elders and add it to your pool. Since elders are otherwise expensive to acquire and critical to doing interesting things in the game, being acculturated to death by your neighbor is completely paralyzing and makes your game experience an exercise in frustration and futility. Fortunately, Morgan Dontanville suggested this fix: just have the Acculturation action steal a cube of the target players’ choice instead of an elder. This seems to be the answer. From the session reports I’ve read of players who made it into Era IV, the very late game – when players’ civilizations are well-established – might play better with the original rule, but in the early game when empires are small and there are few Culture cards available, being Acculturated to death without recourse is a horrible, game-ruining experience.

The last thing to worry about is how to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, given that it’s fairly chaotic. Individual player turns are usually quick, but there is a lot of stuff to get through and until players achieve some mastery it can take 4-5 hours with 5 players, which I think is 1-2 hours longer than it wants to be. I think the answer is just to play with fewer players. Most Sierra Madre Games suffer from a downtime problem with more players – I recommend sticking to 3, maybe 4 players for High Frontier, High Frontier Colonization really wants just 3, and Pax Porfiriana is better with 4 than with 5, and better with 5 than 6. At least in High Frontier, there is plenty of planning you can do when it’s not your turn, but Origins is constantly in a state of flux and it’s hard to think that far ahead. I don’t have enough plays to know for sure, but my guess is the sweet spot is probably 3, maybe 4 players. Leave out the Cro-Magnons; they have a small but not zero chance of being totally screwed by climate change die rolls (the Hobbits can be in trouble too, but the Water Buffalo makes their situation less dire).

The final touch I’d add is to not have animals go extinct on domestication die rolls of 2 or 3 – at least not until players are familiar with the game. A bad combination of extinctions and climate change can leave a player well and truly stuck. It’s not as terrible as the other issues, and experienced players will know the risks, but it’s probably best avoided until you have better coping skills.

So in summary:

  • Use all the optional rules in the Living Rules.
  • Acculturation steals a cube of the victim’s choice, not necessarily an elder (it still goes back to the population track when lost).
  • Don’t play with 5 players; stick to 3 or 4.
  • Unless you know what you’re doing, animals never go extinct even with smaller numbers of players.
  • And, I should mention, don’t mess with Age IV.

There is also an updated poster map on Zazzle. While it’s not an essential addition to the game, there are a number of small tweaks that are helpful.

Finally, get Rick Heli’s summary of the deck compositions. Knowing how many of what types of cards are where is important to sensible play.

This still leaves plenty to not like about the game, if you are so inclined. Climate change can be frustrating. The game is unforgiving if you get your innovation track clogged. Like all Sierra Madre Games, you have to understand it has a distinctive aesthetic and you have to appreciate it by starting with figuring out what the game is trying to say (I talked about this in my Pax Porfiriana review). You don’t have to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel  or Julien Jaynes  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to appreciate Origins: How We Became Human, but hey, those are important books, you should probably read them (well, definitely the Diamond anyway), and it helps. But you should certainly read the Designer’s Notes. Just don’t be put off by Eklund’s Objectivism. Yes, there is some Ayn Rand-style crazy in the Age IV deck; Phil doesn’t think much of public education apparently. But otherwise, he talks a better Libertarian talk than he actually walks. I have absolutely zero time for true Libertarians, and I found nothing philosophically objectionable in Origins. At least, not until the Age IV deck.

Last time I wrote about the game, I offered some play tips. Here are some of my updated thoughts:

Climate Change is the number one thing I hear people complain about, and it can feel capricious. I think you just need to go into the game knowing that the board is never going to look better than it does at start. There are three climate change cards in the Era 1 deck, and you need to realize that the most likely outcome is that one or both of the Jungle and Desert spots are going to become uninhabitable. So you need to play defensively, trying to make sure you don’t get hemmed in and have access to animals and metropolises until you have enough tech to cope with difficult terrain. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially for the Hobbits and Cro-Magnon. The worst-case scenario (Jungles and Deserts, plus the icecaps melt) is quite unlikely, but not impossible. There are two more climate changes in Age II and one in Age III, which are not to be ignored, but by that time you should have the technology and mobility to avoid disaster. Anyway, climate change is one of the key elements in the game so you need to be aware of the risks which can be large, especially early. Hopefully awareness will help you cope with them.

Population Actions are hard to know what to do with for a lot of the game. For the most part, a strategy of staying small with few pieces on the board and only adding metropolises and migratory tokens as you need to expand your elder pool is a smart strategy. However, an absolutely crucial technique for coping with a low innovation number is to park one of your units outside neighbors’ cities and using the Sabine Raid action to ransack her discard pile. Just co-existing is enough to qualify as a “siege” even if you never have any intent to attack the city. In general, larger-scale military operations are rarely worth the trouble, although occasionally knocking over an opponents city (to gain a guest worker) can be worth it. Just keep your eyes on the important things: high innovation and big elder pools. Enslaving your neighbors may be gratifying in the short term, but it rarely actually helps you that much and may actually be of some benefit to your victim. Population actions can be a stopgap substitute for Innovation actions, but it’s at best a risky and short-term fix, so use them to focus on getting cards that decrease your fecundity and increase your elder pool so you can go back to relying on Innovation actions and elder expenditures.

Getting enslaved is a bummer, and never something you would voluntarily make part of your game strategy outside of some very extreme situations. You should definitely do what you can to avoid it. It’s a chaotic game though, and if it should happen to you (which is more likely with a full compliment of players) don’t fail your personal morale check. One of the things that makes Origins work for me is that it’s a very dynamic game, with lots of ups and downs, unlike other modern civ-builders which only go relentlessly forward and where getting behind early means you’re dead. The inability to build metropolises while enslaved and therefore have more than one elder is clearly quite bad, but not worse than things were just before you were enslaved. There are some upsides; you get free infrastructure advances from time to time and a bunch of free units when your masters go into chaos. Bide your time, do what you can, build your innovation up, and get back in it later.

I mentioned this is my previous pieces, but try to acquire any Public Cards that you can, and don’t worry about scoring until you’re in your final Golden Age. The strategic advantages of all the public cards are so strong that you should always bid them up and try to get them. Administration lets you expand the size of your civilization which increases survivability, gives you more population actions, and allows you to increase your number of metropolises and therefore the size of your elder pool. Information effectively allows you to multiply your available elders by making the Economic Stimulation action much more efficient and gives you a lot more control by increasing your hand size. Culture gives you a much easier way to expand your elder pool through Acculturation and guest workers. And if that wasn’t enough, many cards give you early access to important actions, particularly Trade and Urbanization. Finally, there is the Revolution action which allows you to swap your victory card with another player or the cards in the box. While this is much more limited than it might first appear, you can be vulnerable until you are in the last Golden Age of the game. At that point you can lock in your victory conditions (including possibly using the Revolution action yourself to look for a better fit if you get there first) and factor that into your bidding. The Revolution action and its ability to move the goalposts bugs a lot of players when they first read it, but it’s actually not as chaotic as it seems and is an important part of the game. Through the early ages the key is to stay flexible and acquire what you can, so don’t get attached to your scoring card. It’s only the final age (or possibly ages if you’re playing with Age IV) where you’re going to focus on scoring, and Revolution gives the game some flexibility.

Origins: How We Became Human has always been in an odd spot for me. It clearly shares a lot of DNA with the modern (i.e., post-Origins), very successful Sierra Madre Games, but it never seemed to delver on its potential. So I was quite happy to find a configuration that allowed me to finally really enjoy the game and recommend it alongside High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana.

High Frontier Colonization

High Frontier is one of my very favorite games of the last 5 years, and I realize that somehow I’ve never written anything about in my blog. With the expansion out, it’s time to rectify that.

Four of us sat down to play the Colonization for the first time. It begins much the same as the classic game, with players starting on Earth with a bit of money and grand ambitions, trying to acquire the exotic speculative technology required to explore and economically exploit the solar system. Some of the most esoteric pieces of tech available are the game’s two solar sail thrusters: lightweight and requiring neither fuel nor propellant, but slow-ish and unable to carry much mass in a game that’s mostly about hauling around heavy robotic prospectors and refineries. Also, a major premise of the game is that on-site water is key to exoglobalization. The solar sails are primarily useful for exploring sunwards; as you may have noticed, the sun is hot and so there isn’t much water to be found in the inner system. For all these legitimate reasons, everyone else usually rolls their eyes when these come up, but me, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I snap up the Photon Kite Sail nobody wants, attach it to a Solar-pumped MHD Excimer Laser orbital prospector and start putting together a mission to Mercury. While   proximity to the sun makes most the planet brutally hot, Mercury is believed to have significant amounts of water near the poles, where the Sun’s rays never reach due to quirks in its orbit and axial tilt.

The problems with Mercury, like most things in this game, all revolved around gravity. The sun is massive, which makes maneuvering so close to it very difficult. Mercury is also large (on the scale of the asteroids that are the typical targets in High Frontier anyway), so it requires a lot of thrust to land on and take off from. The solar sail solves the problem of getting there by harnessing the solar wind for thrust, but is unable to move that much mass and the tech required to do prospecting is heavy. So it requires two missions – one to put a prospector in orbit, and a second to bring a refinery (I was lucky and got the CVD Molding refinery, a relatively light one). Then you’re presented with a new problem that the sail doesn’t help with at all: getting all that onto the surface. Unlike Mars or Venus, Mercury has no atmosphere to assist by allowing aerobraking. The only thing for it is to bring a powerful thruster or a lot of propellant (i.e., water). Mercury has too much gravity for any of the basic thrusters to land on without the ESA beamed power, and the ESA isn’t in the game, so I’ll need to bring 200,000kg of water to use as propellant for landers instead. So that’s a third trip in and of itself. This is all hugely expensive – I estimate the trips took 4 years each and a total weight of roughly 500,000kg of equipment, fuel, and propellant with a total investment of 20 WT (water tanks), the game’s unit of currency. Each WT represents 40 metric tons of water in LEO. Assuming the cost of the water itself is basically zero, the cost of this mission is roughly that of getting 800,000kg into LEO. By way of comparison, the ISS is about 450,000kg. Wikipedia estimates the cost of the ISS at $150 billion. There is probably a lot of politically-driven waste in there, but nonetheless, it gives you a sense of what these missions would cost given the current technology for lifting mass into LEO. It’s hard to imagine my Mercury mission coming in at less than $200-250 billion, all with no prospect of any return at all for 20 years. It’s outside the realm of possibility in the immediate future, but it’s not unimaginable. Apple alone almost had that in cash lying around at one point.

Anyway, despite a solar flare wreaking havoc with one mission and pushing the total duration out to about 15 years and causing a 20% cost overrun (yet another hazard of operating so close to the Sun), I got a factory set up on Mercury. This is now where the magic starts to happen. Mercury is a comparatively rare V (Vestoid)-type world, and the metals you can find there can be used to build some fancy high-technology thrusters and refineries. I finally dip into the expansion technology to pick up a Levitated Dipole ^6Li-H Fusion reactor to power an incredibly efficient thruster capable of reaching the outer planets (I’m eying Jupiter) at relatively low cost; its rate of fuel and propellant usage in game terms rounds to zero, although the amount of thrust generated is relatively low (making journeys longer and landing on large bodies difficult). My Mercury factory can also produce a Biophytolytic Algae Farm refinery, so I’m in good shape – only the prospecting tech needs to be manufactured and lifted from Earth.

One of the cool things about High Frontier is that it really gives you a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and how difficult it is to get to many places (and conversely, where the comparatively low-hanging fruit might be). As you look at Jupiter or Saturn and start counting burns and orbital transfers and how much propellant you need to get there and how much thrust it takes to land, you really feel just how difficult interplanetary travel would be with any technology that is currently at all plausible. Then, once you get your hands on one of the powerful reactors/thrusters in the much more highly speculative expansion,  you can feel the options opening up, that maybe, just maybe, you could set up on a moon of Uranus or Neptune, or make the fantastic voyage to the TNOs – things that seemed utterly impossible with the basic tech.

Anyway, once you get a high-efficiency thruster, you fully enter the Colonization phase of the game. The extraterrestrial manufacturing premise of the classic game requires a leap of faith, but not a huge one. It’s much harder to figure out a near-future scenario in which sending people into space makes any sense at all, given the truly enormous costs and risks and the fact that robots are so highly capable. So we need to do some satisfactorily plausible handwaving. The handwaving High Frontier Colonization does is to speculate that there is research that you could do at an extraterrestrial lab that you couldn’t do on Earth for whatever reason – either due to local conditions (vacuum, microgravity, something cool about Io), politics on Earth, or the fact that you’re screwing around trying to create a black hole or a massive fusion explosion and people get nervous when you try do that on or near to the only human habitation in the universe. Given how speculative the game becomes at this point, and the possible political and long-term technological benefits of having off-planet colonies, this works well enough. So the goal becomes setting up a personed lab at a remote science site, typically an exotic moon of Saturn or Jupiter or a comet. People require water, so places like Europa are attractive, but if you really want to support lots of people you’ll want to get to fantastically remote TNO’s where water is plentiful. The Bernals in which people live are heavy and hard to move – at about 600 tons (with needed generators and radiators) far heavier than anything in the classic game – so in most cases to even start to think about this you’ll need one of the gigawatt thrusters from the expansion.

Which, thankfully, I’ve now got. Like the base game, Colonization opens up a lot once you get a decent exofactory. Planning a mission to Europa is easier now I have a stepping stone on Mercury; the thruster and refinery fuel up and boost off from the factory there and rendezvous in LEO with a prospector built on Earth. The bernal itself has a mass driver, so it can make its own way for a little bit stopping off at tiny but accessible rocks like 65803 Didymos and loading up on dirt for the next “short” hop. On arrival at the Sol-Jupiter Lagrange point, the fusion thruster takes over navigating the gravitational complexities of the Jovian moons, parking the Bernal in orbit around Europa and landing a factory in the Conamara Chaos.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. The Bernal around Europa becomes a lab, and the Islamic Refugee colonists in residence there (really, you probably don’t want to ask) can upgrade my gigawatt thruster into a Dusty Plasma terawatt thruster which is even lighter, more efficient, and faster, putting impossibly remote sites in range of exploitation. More importantly, it activates a Future, one of the victory conditions that makes Colonization quite different from the classic game: the Mass Beam Future. I honestly have no idea what this is beyond something that beams potentially a lot of power, but it requires factories on Mercury, Venus, and Io as “push factories” that can send power to remote spacecraft and outposts. Fortunately I’ve already got Mercury, and Io is reasonably accessible to Europa where I can build the technology (a Quantum Cascade Laser) to prospect and industrialize the waterless Venus.

Fulfilling this future and its very large chunk of VPs (12) is well within reach, but after 4½ hours it becomes apparent that Colonization has added a lot of time to High Frontier, and we are done. In fairness, the time required to play classic High Frontier is brought down dramatically with only a little bit of experience; my first game with just the basic rules was 4-5 hours, but after only a few games it settled in for us at about 2 hours or so for the 3-player game even with most of the advanced rules. We were a bit rusty on even the basic High Frontier rules after not having played in maybe 6 months, and I would expect experienced Colonization players could do the game in 4-5 hours, which is honestly pretty good given its vast scope (one of the other players was working on the Footfall future, which involves attaching a terawatt thruster to a synodic comet and pointing it at Earth, forcing the other players to turn their orbital prospectors into laser platforms and put warheads on their missile prospectors). But given the time commitment involved in learning the game, how many people are going to be able to become experienced players?

I love High Frontier, but after playing it about 20 times between the classic basic and advanced games, it had gotten a little bit tired. As strategies were explored and played out, it developed that asteroid exploration (usually Ceres or Vesta) was the way to win – consistent with the premise of the game, but it meant it ultimately lacked variety. Anything that would open things up again would be welcome.

So for me, playing Colonization was incredibly entertaining. No longer do you have to just get a couple factories to win, but you probably need to work with Bernals, colonists, high-power and high-efficiency thrusters, and transports, all of which have very different tech requirements from the traditional “cheap exploration-blitz” strategies. Moons of the outer planets, with their lab potential and rarer spectral types, become central to development in the midgame. In the classic game an early factory on a small, common C-type rock might be enough to bootstrap you to victory; now, although the game has become longer, its tableau is also vastly larger and encompasses a much wider variety of legitimate infrastructure bases.

It also does a few key bits of streamlining to the core game system, including an automated way to cycle the technology cards, less restrictive and much easier-to-play rules for factory products, and doubling the value of the income operation. While seemingly minor, these significantly improve the playability of the game.

Also worth mentioning, High Frontier Colonization will probably – like many Sierra Madre Games – benefit from a little bit of seasoning to taste with house rules. While I like the new event model and the politics rules now seem to work much better than they did in the original expansion, I’m not a huge fan of the occasional glitches and pad explosions and we may house-rule those particular events out at some point. In the classic game we ignored the combat and politics rules, and I think you could do that in Colonization also, although a couple futures may require combat. Shimzu’s and the PRC’s faction powers can be a little bit annoying, and tweaking them very slightly is unlikely to hurt (we play that you can only jump a if you immediately industrialize it, and I’m thinking about making Shimzu’s hand size larger but not unlimited). We also disallow tie bids for anyone except the auctioneer. Anyway, High Frontier is a game that supports modifying a little bit to adapt to your group’s tastes and play style, but – as always – you do want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you fiddle too much.

All in all, I felt like High Frontier Colonization is very successful at doing what it sets out to do. It’s longer and more complicated, and there is absolutely no way you should try to tackle this without a number of games of classic High Frontier under your belt (if you have a friend who absolutely insists on throwing you into the deep end, play the solitaire scenarios a few times first). But for fans of the original, Colonization is  worth it and, if you’re like me, it will help renew this endlessly fascinating game.

You can get the High Frontier Colonization expansion here. The base game sadly appears to be out of print, although I hear there may be another printing in the works.

Pax Porfiriana

Sierra Madre has continued on its recent roll for me. I was torn on Origins: How We Became Human, and didn’t really like anything before that, but I have enjoyed High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana a great deal, all for similar reasons but all in their own quite distinct ways.

What all the games share is a deeply-researched setting. You have always had to approach Sierra Madre Games with a somewhat different aesthetic sense than other games. You can’t go into it thinking primarily about game mechanisms, or how you can work the interacting game systems, or even how you are going to use the game systems to win. You need to think first about figuring out what the game is trying to say: in the case of Pax Porfiriana, it’s covering and commenting on the chaotic period before the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This is not to say that the game systems are unimportant, or that you should not be trying to win. It’s just to say that you will grasp the game more fundamentally and appreciate it more if you think of it as being about a power struggle between four factions in an unstable Mexico on the brink of dramatic change, change that you are trying to navigate your way through, rather than as a collection of game mechanics that you are trying to extract the most points from. As you play and come to grips with the game, the more gamerly elements will fall into place, but at the end of the day it’s going to be the game’s deep engagement with its subject that sells it – so build your relationship with it starting there.

The achievement of the most recent 3 Sierra Madre games (High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Profiriana) is that they’ve been able to mesh this subject engagement with clean, playable game systems. Previous games – American Megafauna and Lords of the Sierra Madre – took their themes too literally, cramming in representative game systems that turned out to be too many trees, not enough forest. Certainly High Frontier and the subsequent games require rather more player commitment and buy-in than a typical game to be worth the effort, but none are particularly more mechanically daunting than an average high-end euro. I found Pax Porfiriana to be much cleaner-playing and accessible than the complicated and thematically tortured Trajan, the thematic but mechanically clunky Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, or Fantasy Flight’s straightforward but badly explained Android: Netrunner or Merchant of Venus, just to pick a few.

(As an aside, Origins: How We Became Human, the first of Sierra Madre’s “modern” games, is an odd case. I love the idea behind the game and the systems are clean-playing and evocative. But many details of the game balance seems suspect – Acculturation is a major offender – in ways that make it not fun to play. I’m still in search of a set of tweaks that will let that game deliver on its potential. They must be pretty close at hand somewhere. Fortunately the later games seem to have gotten past this).

I think of the period covered by the game as a prequel to the great ideological wars of the 20th Century, the Spanish and Russian Civil Wars. Unlike those conflicts, which were full-on wars, Pax Porfiriana is more of a power vacuum. Ruled by a weakening Porfirio Díaz, Mexico is ready to be pushed in one of four ways.

The key to understanding Pax Porfiriana the first time out, something the rules dramatically fail to explain unless you read the historical background, is the relationship between these four competing factions: the Mexican Federal government of Díaz; the United States; the Mexican local governors, which the game views as akin to modern warlords; and the communist/anarchist rebels. Each faction is keyed by color, and is strongly linked to a “regime” (in the game, the current dominant political environment) and a type of prestige. So, for example, U.S. troops, enterprises, and politicians are blue and tend to fare well in the U.S. Intervention regime, in which the dominant political force is the U.S. actively meddling in Mexican affairs. They are likewise linked to the “Outrage” prestige, in which the U.S. is getting progressively more fed up with the anarchy on its border. Should Díaz be given a shove while the regime is U.S. Intervention, the competition to be Díaz’ successor will be decided by Outrage, with a faction that has generated enough becoming governor as the U.S. annexes Mexico. On the flip side, the Communist revolutionaries are red and linked to the Anarchy regime and the Revolution prestige. Anarchy is hard on big businesses (mines and banks) but allows troop cards to move more freely. If Díaz weakens during anarchy and one player has managed to get a big enough share of the revolutionaries and their Revolution prestige points, they can take over after the elections. Díaz will have an opportunity to topple four times during the game, each of which can be under a different regime and so can be affected by different forces.

The relationships between factions, prestige, regimes, and victory are the core of the game and if you can grasp them in the context of the historical event, you will be most of the way to understanding the game. The White local warlords are the easiest: white troop and personality cards will have the Command prestige points directly on them and will themselves enable regime changes to the white Martial Law. Other factions, though, are more complicated: blue U.S. troop cards will change regime to U.S. Intervention, but the Outrage then required for victory will need to be engineered by Mexican elements. Loyalty is required to become Díaz’ hand-picked successor should the regime remain in Pax Porfiriana, which can come from a variety of sources including businesses and politicians.

The rest of the game is pretty straight-ahead. Every turn you get actions to draft and play cards. You’ll need to build up enterprises (banks, mines, plantations, gun stores) to generate cash. You’ll want to recruit troops to protect those enterprises, extort your enemies, and provide political leverage (playing troop card frequently triggers a regime change). While you’re doing that, you’ll manage a wide variety of other special events, personalities, and institutions driven by action cards. There will be unrest to put down and factional strife. People will be thrown in jail. Lawsuits are filed, enterprises nationalized. The amount of historical detail here is amazing, but it is all built on top of a very clean-playing card game.

I like Pax Porfiriana for a lot of reasons. The main ones are the same reasons I like Republic of Rome: it presents a chaotic period in a chaotic way, with players struggling to navigate an unpredictable political landscape. Unlike Republic of Rome, it does it with very few actual rules and streamlined gameplay, accomplishing everything Lords of the Sierra Madre did with a fraction of the footprint. With a variety of paths to victory – Loyalty, Revolution, Outrage, and Command – players have flexibility in choosing different thematic paths. It manages to be chaotic without relying on the traditional and unsatisfying crutch of “take that” card play; events tend to mix things up more than simply hammer one player or another. The game rewards a nice balance of planning for the future and rank opportunism.

I think Pax succeeds for me because of this balance and nuance. The game comes with 210-ish cards representing enterprises, troops, personalities, and historical events (all of which are unique). In an average game you’ll see maybe 60-80 of them. So each game presents only a slice of the whole environment, and will have a different texture as you have shortages or surpluses of troops or enterprises and some subset of the powerful, game-changing cards show up. On the other hand, its enough cards and a large enough percentage of the total for the game to retain thematic cohesion and present the players with calculated rather than arbitrary risk. Players are not going to be hosed for lack of opportunity – you should not have trouble building up your income and power base to be a player in the game (both of which could be problems in both Bios: Megafauna and Origins). A game which didn’t generate enough enterprises or troops or cards of one faction to be interesting is certainly a remote possibility, but it’s veryremote and worth tolerating.

Especially in light of the game’s duration, which is only about 2 hours when played correctly (the first time I played, I misunderstood a rule and we ended up inadvertently playing the Iron Hand variant which can be much longer with more players – 4 hours – and is not recommended). It’s enough time to generate action, for players and factions to rise and fall and for the fate of Mexico to be decided, but it’s also short enough to leave you wanting more.

So check it out. At only $35 direct from Sierra Madre, there is a lot of game in the compact box.

I’ll close with some advice for teaching the game, if you’re the one who gets to do that. It’s my traditional advice: don’t over-focus on mechanisms. Pax Porfiriana is complicated not because the game mechanisms are complicated; they are not. It’s the relationships between the cards and the regimes – how the elements in the game are arranged – combined with the large number of options available to the players. So explain the factions, explain a little bit of the history. Because Pax Porfiriana has this different aesthetic, I think having an understanding of what the game is trying to say gives the players more useful context for understanding how to play it than simply running the sequence of play and explaining the individual actions.

Origins: How We Became Human

My first exposure to Sierra Madre Games was about 10 years ago, playing Lords of the Sierra Madre; as a big Republic of Rome fan, I got sucked into it as a similar narrative-heavy game. My impression of it was that it was an intriguing, unworkable mess. As a result my second exposure to Sierra Madre Games did not come until last year, when I was once again intrigued by the fascinating Origins: How We Became Human. Now, three games later – and it’s not a short game – I’m still uncertain what to make of it. It is undeniably clever. It’s a solid enough game design to merit 3 plays, something too many of the 30-60 minute euros I play don’t make it to. It’s built on top of some fascinating scientific hypotheses, primarily those of Jared Diamond and Julian Jaynes. It’s also got some rather suspect elements.

A quick summary: Origins: How We Became Human covers the evolution of humans from the days when there were multiple, competing early hominids (Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, etc) through to roughly the early Roman period (you can buy an expansion pack for Age 4 and get yourself some nuclear weapons if you’d like). You manage your innovation levels (which drives card draws), population (which drives on-board tactics), and elders, which allow you to bid on major “civilization” cards like the Pyramids, Writing, and Proper Names. As in Civilization, you have only one limited set of tokens, and they can be either on the board or in these various pools, and managing them is the key to the game. For the most part, your objective is to keep these tracks clear: fewer pieces on your innovation track means drawing more cards, fewer pieces on your population track means more population actions (although a greater risk of your culture entering chaos). The action of the game, and most of the ways in which you manipulate these tracks, are driven by the deck of dual-function action. One side of the card will be typically be dedicated to improving your civilization by advancing tech, domesticating plants, animals, or natural resources, generating new elders, or other similar actions; these typically come with a prerequisite or cost. The other half will typically allow you to manage your innovation and population tracks through Fecundity Decreases, which allow you to move units from your innovation track to your population track. The game proceeds through ages of growth and chaos, as you start in the Age of Instinct and try to increase your energy production capacity by domesticating some plants and animals to get into the Bicameral Age, where you then need to increase your productivity again through a plough harness or some-such before finally making it to the Age of Faith. For more details, I refer you to the excellent writeup at Spotlight On Games.

As we will soon see, I am more than a bit conflicted on Origins. But one thing I can say for sure, good game or no, it’s not a game that makes itself easy to like. Despite being fairly straightforward, no more complicated than classic Civilization, it’s long (5-6 hours for the full game), it’s unforgiving, and it can feel extremely random and punishing in a way that makes In the Year of the Dragon look like a funhouse. I think I’ve had to find an almost entirely new set of fellow-players each time I’ve wanted to play, a big reason my play-count hasn’t yet made it to 4. The rules give you some tips to try to help you with the pitfalls the game lays out for you, but I think they don’t go anywhere near far enough in helping you enjoy your first game.

Still, I have to say I liked Origins: How We Became Human. Turns are short, so it moves along at a very good clip for this sort of game, and the system is clean and playable while at the same time having good narrative and reflecting a lot of the research that has inspired the game. There are serious caveats though.

Firstly, you really have to use the optional rule for Livestock Raids. Otherwise, advancing from Age I to II becomes a huge bottleneck over making a few completely random die rolls on domestication attempts, where rolling poorly can have your people relegated to obscurity with absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Secondly, you have to live with the fact that this is a Sierra Madre game and apparently one of Phil Eklund’s many talents is not designing working victory conditions. As in American Megafauna, the game-end scoring here is silly. Firstly, the game ends when the first player enters the final stage of Chaos, exiting Age III. This player has, by entering Chaos, just lost most of his victory points, so he is essentially guaranteed to lose. That’s awesome. There is an optional rule to fix that, which is obviously recommended. Secondly, the final victory score is basically random anyway. You get points for the Public Cards that you’ve acquired throughout the game, but only the ones that match the objectives on your player card. This has two problems. Firstly, all the Public cards are so strong in terms of their in-game tactical effects that you’re going to want to acquire anything you can get your hands on anyway. Secondly, only maybe half the public cards are going to come out, so if you sit around waiting for one that you can score (as I did my first game), you may never see one. Thirdly, presumably to patch all this up, there is a mechanic for having your people revolt and swap victory condition cards with another player, which makes it even more random and unsatisfying. The whole thing is a complete mess. Unlike American Megafauna, where there was an obvious and fully workable fix for that game’s arbitrary scoring (just score before each calamity), there is no obvious fix for Origins. Clearly, it seems you need to have some sort of checkpoint scoring after each Age, or other incremental scoring of some kind, but what it should be is unclear. I’m not sure what to say on this. You probably want to play Sierra Madre’s games mostly for the narrative, but on the other hand, narrative requires an end, and if the end is dumb, why were we trying to get there in the first place? I can live with the game as it is, the process of playing and trying to win works for me even if the trying isn’t really rewarded as it should be, but that doesn’t mean this part of the game works; it doesn’t.

As an aside, the most common complaint I’ve read about online is freakish climate change results ending up hosing one or two players, but I’ve never seen this, it doesn’t seem very likely, and climate change is one of the things that makes the game interesting. One aspect of Origins that makes it tricky is that it’s a little unintuitive. Early in the game, population growth and expansion is to some degree actually punished rather than encouraged, so until later – when technology should allow players to skirt climate-change-related geographical difficulties – your empire hardly needs or wants more than a couple cubes on the board.

At the end of the day, even with the optional rules that have been added to make it more of a game, for these reasons I honestly don’t think Origins: How We Became Human works strictly as a game. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still like to play it again, or that it isn’t an interesting synthesis and presentation of recent science on human origins, or that it isn’t fascinating as a philosophical exercise as to what makes a game or how to make a game out of the ungamable. But still. Interestingly, I think where Origins trips up (other than the whole victory conditions thing) is not so much where it is chaotic, but where it is scripted. The transition from Age I to Age II essentially rests on succeeding at a domestication die roll; the transition for Age II to Age III turns on finding one of only a couple key technology cards one way or another. The game recreates the rise and fall of peoples and civilizations not organically, as it should, but by strong-arming you, mandating a dark ages at various stages in development whether you need it or not. If it had been really clever it would have perhaps linked greater innovation with greater chaos, and therefore perhaps made chaos more likely to follow rapid advances, but that is not the case; chaos is just something you avoid like the plague until the game tells you, “OK, now you have to do some chaos”.

You can buy an add-on pack for Age IV, the Modern Era, and while I don’t have much appetite for the 8+ hour marathon that an Age I through Age IV game would entail, I am intrigued by the possibilities of the “shorter” game option which starts the players in Age III and plays through Age IV. Age I is probably the most problematic age in that it has the smallest range of player options, the fewest choices, and the largest amount of gratuitous luck. It’s possible that the Age III and IV game would be more satisfying for most gamers. If I ever get to game 4, I’d really like to give this a try.

But, ultimately, I think the reason I like the game is that while it’s far from perfect, it works well enough and it’s based to a large degree on two fascinating books: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Both books pivot to various degrees around the clash between Pizarro and the Incans, and try to explain in their own ways how such a yawning chasm came between the two despite their common origin. Diamond looks at physical factors, like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, climate, and immunology. Jaynes examines the evolution of consciousness and the brain’s “software”, as it were, including the controversial but utterly fascinating thesis that true, full human consciousness – although he defines consciousness more narrowly than I think most people would intuitively – is actually a relatively recent development, perhaps dating from 1200 BC in Europe. Although I had read Diamond before I played Origins, I had never even heard of Jaynes, and the fact that the game inspired me to read this truly intriguing book means it will always have a warm place in my heart. I don’t know if Jaynes has the right of things, but his thesis is arresting and his arguments convincing.

Interestingly, though, the very conflict that informs these two books will never actually occur in the game itself. The domesticable plants and animals that Diamond argues were available primarily in Europe are more fairly distributed in the game, while geographic and climate factors critical to Diamond’s arguments have to be ignored or the game wouldn’t work at all. The Bicameral period of the game (Age II), before the evolution (Jaynes argues) of modern consciousness, isn’t fundamentally different in game terms from Age I or Age III. And, in any event, it’s very unlikely you’ll see an independent culture arise in the Americas simply because expansion penalties to innovation don’t really encourage that much expansion anyway; it seems there is enough space in Europe, Asia, and Africa for five players for much of the game.

So there you go. I’ll finish by saying that regardless of its issues, Origins is definitely worth playing at least once, both because there are interesting game mechanics, but also for the exposure to the ideas on which it is based. Unfortunately, there are a few tricks to playing the game which, if not grasped, can make your life miserable as you get stuck in Age I with 1 innovation action for an extended period and have little to do. Unfortunately, there isn’t much way to intuit these techniques and the guidance in the rulebook isn’t really adequate in my opinion. So, in the hopes of helping your first game to be more fun, here are the tips I’ve picked up.

1) I’m not quite sure where the sweet spot is, player-wise, but I’m pretty sure it’s at 4, not 5. It’s a game where the downtime scales linearly with the number of players, so that argues for smaller numbers. But, you want some competition as well, and the board is pretty sparse with only 2. My best experience was with 4, and 3 was pretty good too, while 5 was OK but could drag at times. Also, with more players, the competition for Public Cards gets higher-stakes and more random, which isn’t great.

2) The Innovation track is absolutely crucial, and is the most important single aspect of the game. If you allow yourself to get too far down into the ‘1’ action range, it will take forever to recover and you will be badly constrained, possibly irretrievably hosed, and certainly bored. You must not allow this track to fall too low. Do not pass up Fecundity Decreases for marginal, or even significant, tech gains if you are at risk. There are of course exceptional cases that prove the rule – Origins is nothing if not unpredictable – but you have been warned! Striving to maintain at least two innovation actions trumps virtually everything, and you can really kill yourself here by over-extending. A classic gotcha is in Age I, where clearing brain areas, which sounds like a great idea, can clog your innovation track. Upgrade your brain slowly, in time with moving the cubes from innovation down to population (or up to elders).

3) As a corollary to the above, do not needlessly expand your population just because you have population actions and nothing else to spend them on. If you blow an Age I Chaos die roll and end up with a bunch of units clogging your innovation track, you are thoroughly hosed (see point 2). Keep your empire small until at least Age II, when you have more tools to keep the innovation track clear and can save a double-fecundity decrease for a post-chaos recovery, or otherwise manage your return to golden times. It goes without saying, you do have to manage your various mandated descents into chaos. If your innovation track is already borderline, an untimely chaos can clog the track to the point that it may be many moons until you recover. Again, there are exceptional cases, like when you have a metallurgy advantage and can pillage cards from your neighbors as a substitute for innovation, but in the 95+% case the only reason to expand your population is to get more metropolises to allow you more elders. Even calamities afflict you only in proportion to your size, so expanding doesn’t help you weather those more easily and in fact makes them much worse, again by turning lost units into innovation track cloggers. It goes without saying that actually engaging in combat without a metallurgy advantage is suicide (again, there are exceptions, but they are extremely few), not so much because you lose the guys, but because those guys clog your innovation track.

4) The rulebook warns about progressing through the eras too quickly, but it doesn’t mention that it’s your innovation track (not to beat a dead horse or anything) that should guide you. Don’t dawdle in Age I or II. Get your energy, get an elder or two, and move on. Likewise, in Age III, get your elders, buy your cards, and move on. Moving too fast can be a problem, but the Livestock Raids optional rule, which you more or less have to play with, mitigate this risk for leaving Age I (although losing the domestication action can hurt), and Age II and III really are bound by careful management of the innovation track more than anything else. Once you’re in a good spot – you’ve got the prerequisites, a card in hand to mitigate the chaos, and the innovation track is in good shape – do it. There is no reason to stick around in any of the ages once you are legally allowed to progress.

4) Acquire any public cards you can (at least until Age IV). Just because it doesn’t count towards your victory conditions is not a good reason not to bid. All the cards provide powerful strategic advantages, so I think until the final age, game-end victory points should be a non-factor in figuring out how much to bid on a card. You don’t want to give them to other players cheaply just because you’re holding out for one that’ll score for you. The advantages of having administration, culture, and information are all quite strong enough to get regardless.