Originally from Arizona but now based in Germany, Sierra Madre Games is a company dedicated to creating epic board games with strong scientific themes. The company's logo offers a glimpse into the scientific possibilities its games present — a dinosaur with opposable thumbs gripping a bow and arrow.
Sierra Madre Games has recently released two board games that explore different hard-science themes. In Bios Megafauna, up to four players take on the role of either dinosaurs or mammals as they compete to evolve in an environmentally changing and often hostile Earth. Players lay down tiles on a board resembling prehistoric Earth at areas representing different latitudes. Players can then place a new species on the board in a terrain tile that suits their development. As time goes on, players can place more species who can live off of the land or other animals.
Players bid on cards that can evolve their species' DNA, and eventually the souped-up creatures can gain important cultural characteristics like division of labor, tool use and agriculture. One must be careful not to place too much hope in any one species, however. Catastrophic events can occur that can significantly alter the planet. Tiles then shift to either warmer or cooler climates north or south.
When two tiles come into conflict, the number on each determines the winner. The losing tile is discarded into a “fossil record” and may be claimed by players later in the game. After a series of events occur, the game is over and whoever holds the most tiles from the “fossil record” is the winner.
In High Frontier, players take on the role of one faction from Earth as they attempt to colonize the solar system with robots and factories. A player's turn consists of calculating a rocket's fuel, which determines how far it can move in the solar system, movement, and then one of several operations such as boosting equipment into low earth orbit for later transportation, collecting valuable water resources (used as currency in the game), bidding on new technologies and more.
The game ends once a set number of factories have been built around the solar system, and players then total victory points based on a variety of factors.
These games are very impressive in the amount of depth and science information they provide, and it's easy to see why each already has a cult following. But their strengths are also their greatest weakness. For those of us without a hard-science background, many game-play concepts take awhile to get a hold of, and there is a steep learning curve for both of these games. For instance, during my first game of High Frontier, my friend and I spent nearly three hours just going through the rules before we understood enough to start.
Which brings me to my next point. Both of these games suffer from an unforgivable sin — an overly complex rulebook that is not terribly well laid out. Concepts are presented early that are not explained at all until much later, requiring two or three deep read-throughs before any kind of sense can be made. For my first game of Bios Megafuana, we were lost until we found a simplified version of the rules online.
Once the rules are understood, however, these are both interesting, exciting games — particularly High Frontier. Science nuts should eat these games up, and those willing to invest the time in learning them will also be pleasantly surprised. I am reluctant to recommend these games to the casual gamer, however, as the learning curve is too steep and the overly complex rules will no doubt turn many gamers off.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: email@example.com