American Megafauna is an amazing game. I have both
first and second editions, and they each have their strengths and
weaknesses. First edition is, simply put, the most entertaining,
educational, thoroughly enjoyable game I've ever read. Deuced hard
to play, though. Second edition is vastly more playable, but for
some reason Phil has cut some of the more enlightening background
material from the first edition. Pity.
At any rate, the game is an eye-opener, for sure. The full game
(which I don't play any more, mind you - see the end of the article
for my abbreviated version) spans a galactic year: 250 million
years. This is the time it takes the solar system to make a complete
orbit around the center of the galaxy. Each turn in the game is
six million years; each unit represents 30 metric tons of biomass;
each hex on the map is 1,500 km across. We call this a large scale
Players take on the roles of various little creatures who roamed
the earth 250 million years ago. They then try to evolve in
competition with each other (and outside forces) in order to be
the most populous during the two scoring turns: the end of the
Cretaceous period and the point in the Cenozoic era when hominids
took over. This evolution leads to some entertaining creations:
we've had flying ground sloths, swimming bats, annoying carnivorous
elks, ever-shrinking-and-growing mammoths, and 60-ton coatimundis.
All part of the game.
So the setting is pretty wonderful: big scale, evolving creatures,
Milankovich cycles, biomes competing with each other, greenhouse
up and down, flooding and drying of the great plains, plate tectonics
- the whole thing. Ooooh, indeed!
It's really a simple idea, though: add up all the critters you have
each of the two scoring rounds, total them together at game end,
and whoever had the most wins!
Big differences here between the two editions. First edition,
while a wonderful read, is very hard to play. Something like 13
cardstock sheets to cut out - it took me an hour with a paper
cutter, and I'm pretty good with one of those things. But once
you've got it all prepared, alas! The counter chits for the animals
are so small and flimsy that it's very hard to pick them up and
move them around. We only played it once and sadly shelved it -
just too unwieldy to play.
Second edition is a vast improvement here. First, the 180+ tiles
are die-cut - no need to cut them out yourself! Hooray! You still
have to cut out the pieces for each player, but that's a much less
daunting task and scissors will do. Next, the playing pieces
themselves, although still made of flimsy cardstock, are now foldable
tents which stand up and are relatively easy to pick up and move.
Hooray again! Finally, it's in color and the map is one piece
instead of 8.5" by 11" pieces you lay next to each other.
So though it's not up to Euro-standards for quality of components,
it's eminently playable and not bad looking, actually.
So what do you get? A lot:
- A map of North America divided into 11 hexes and some borderland spaces.
- 56 stand-up pieces for each of four players: 14 each of four different
- Over 180 square tiles, roughly 2" (5 cm) per side.
- Lots of stand-up pieces to denote DNA acquired through inheritance.
- Four sheets to represent your critters. Each has space for four
genotypes, and each genotype can
hold 3-6 DNA cards. The turn order is printed on each sheet, as well as
the tie-breakers for who survives overcrowded biomes. And a cute little
picture of your archetype.
- Two other sheets representing a horror bird and an opossum for the
- Another sheet to use as a game track, with abbreviated rules on it.
- Rulebook, with lots of examples and a delightful glossary.
There are five types of tiles in the game, all important:
"Biddable" means players bid for the right to use these cards.
What do you bid for DNA with? Genes, of course - use pennies for
genes. So each turn, when a tile is turned up, if it's a DNA or
Genotype tile, players bid to see who gets to use it. The auction
does have some problems - more on that later.
- DNA (biddable - 40.3% of the tiles)
- Genotypes (biddable - 15.5%)
- Biomes (non-biddable - 22.3%)
- Catastrophes (non-biddable - 7.5%)
- Immigrants (non-biddable - 14.3%)
DNA is letter-coded in this game. A "G" DNA tile, for example,
allows you to graze. (The tiles don't just say "G", by the way -
they're very educational. It might actually tell you that you've
developed foregut digestion, for example.) Certain biomes
require "G" DNA in order for an herbivore to survive there.
So if you have "G" DNA and I don't, already you have an advantage:
you can not only eat where I do, but in places I can't survive.
Genotypes are bundled packages of DNA and allow you to bring on a
second (or third or fourth) type of critter. Since there are only
14 tents of each critter type, and since you want the most tents
on the board in order to win, it's pretty essential to get at least
another genotype card. It also allows you to branch out: if your
first genotype is an herbivore, it's perfectly legal for another
genotype to become a carnivore and survive by eating your first
The non-biddable tiles are things that happen to the board. When
new biomes arrive, they fill in empty slots. (Each hex has two
slots; each borderland has one slot.) If there are no empty slots
in the region the biome appears, then biomes compete. Each biome
has a climax number: lowest climax number is displaced and the new
biome (assuming it's not the lowest) takes its place. The displaced
biome tries to survive by moving any direction it can into an empty
slot. If there are no adjacent empty slots, it's forced into
extinction. New biomes can really help a given critter ("New
'G' biome, all right!"), or really hurt ("Aaiiee! That new
'G' biome just replaced the last biome I could survive on!").
A new biome also enriches the gene pool a tiny bit: each player
gains one gene.
Catastrophes really enrich the gene pool: every player gets five
genes! (Since you only start the game with five genes, this is a
significant amount.) Unfortunately, they also do other things to
the continent ... some catastrophes affect the greenhouse level,
others are things like comets hitting the earth, causing extinctions.
Some are actually beneficial, flooding the land bridges to other
continents which stops immigrant species from coming in and competing
with you! For a while, anyway ...
Immigrants are just plain nasty. First, they cause genetic drift:
if you won any biddable tiles but haven't yet expressed them
(until it's played to your sheet it's a recessive trait), you now
lose one. As if that weren't bad enough, immigrants then compete
with you on the biomes near the three land bridges - and they're
very hardy creatures. Ouch!
Sequence of Play
It's pretty straightforward and spelled out on each player's sheet:
I've already discussed action 1. Expressing a card is putting it
onto your sheet. Sometimes you have to wait to do this: if you
won a card that requires you to be size 5, for example, and you're
only size 3 now, it'll take a couple of turns before you can express
it - you can only change size by one level each turn.
- Reveal a new card, resolve it if non-biddable; auction it off if biddable
- Express cards
- Recess cards
- Change size and trophic
- Population explosion
- Herbivore migration
- Carnivore migration and size adjust
- Herbivore cull
- Carnivore cull
You might need to recess a card likewise if you evolve in some way
that doesn't allow you to use it any more. (You can't graze anymore
if you develop sabertooth dentition, for example!) You don't lose
the card - keep it by you until you need it again or genetic drift
takes it away.
Each turn you can change your size by one level. There are six
possible sizes, and size has many functions in the game, so it's
an important consideration. Changing your trophic simply means
you stay an herbivore, become a carnivore, or become a husker (seed
Every space which has at least one of your population tents allows
you to add a tent to that space. That's all population explosion
Herbivores may now move: one space if they are size 1 or 2, two
spaces if they are size 3-6, or three spaces if they have wings.
Certain DNA allows small critters to move two hexes, and certain
DNA restricts where you can go: it's hard to climb mountains when
you're built like a dolphin, for example ...
Carnivores now follow their prey. Unlike a game such as
Ursuppe, by the way, carnivores don't hurt the animals
they feed on. Think ecological rather than individual: a lion may
kill a zebra, but lions, over the centuries, don't push zebras to
extinction. Carnivores get to change size once again - important,
because you can only feed on your own size creatures or those up
to two sizes larger.
Herbivore cull: each biome can only support so many tents of
herbivore population, usually 2. So if there are too many tents
of herbivores, some die off at this point. The culling process
leads to some very interesting game play! The first factor to
consider when deciding whose tents to remove is the "niche" value
of the biome. Some biomes favor animals with certain DNA, such as
those who can eat insects. Others favor the biggest creatures,
such as tall forests with succulent top leaves easy to browse if
you're 60 tons. Each biome has a niche value printed on it, and
if some creatures meet the niche requirements more than others,
they survive. Cull the rest.
If it's still a tie, we go to roadrunner status. This lovely
term comes from a cartoon you've undoubtedly seen. Let's say
there's a predator in the hex, and there are two different species
of herbivores. If the predator can't catch one of them, he eats
the other. This is actually unfortunate for the predator, because
he then starves to death for lack of food! The carnivore quandry:
if I can eat it, I survive. But if I eat too many of them, I starve
because they're extinct there. The various roadrunner factors are
both size and DNA: if I'm out of your edible size range, you can't
prey on me. And some DNA (armor, nocturnal, and swiftness) require
the predator to have a similar type of DNA in order to live off
them. So if Alex has two herbivores in a biome that only supports
two herbivors total, and Beth has two herbivores in the same space,
two of those four will be culled. If Charlene has a predator there,
and can't eat Alex's herbivores, she eats Beth's so well that they
are removed. And in the next step ...
Carnivore cull: each herbivore tent can support one carnivore tent
provided the roadrunner factor isn't an issue. In my example above,
it is an issue. Charlene's predators eat Beth's herbivores
for five million years, but then starve to death because Alex's
herbivores can't be caught and so don't support her tents.
But to get back to the herbivore cull, if that's not a factor -
either there is no predator or both species are equally edible -
the next tiebreaker is the nastiest in the game: the game warden.
A game warden is a single species of predator that can eat all
types of herbivores present. In this case, the game warden simply
picks who lives and who dies. Game wardenships can be deadly, and
you quickly learn to break them by sending in one of your own
carnivores, even if it'll die in the carnivore cull, because to be
a game warden you have to be the only predator in the hex.
And finally, if all those are equal, the herbivore cull is decided
by teeth. Yes, that's right, teeth. Each of the four player
archetypes has a dentition type, printed on each tent. They range
from 2-5 "teeth", all unique. In addition, there are "m" and "r"
type of teeth, for mammalian and reptilian. Again, each has a
unique number of "m" and "r" dentition. So the archetype with more
teeth is the better herbivore.
For carnivore cull, it's much simpler: first tiebreaker is size.
Bigger predators win out. Next tiebreaker is dentition: fewest
teeth win out. That's it.
Oh, and by the way: herbivore immigrants have more teeth than any
of the player archetypes, and predator immigrants have fewer teeth
than any of the player archetypes ...
Now that may sound like a lot to do each turn, and some turns it's
true. But there are actually many turns in which everyone realizes
there is stasis on the board, and you just skip lots of phases to
speed up the game. Until a new DNA or genotype is put into play,
or a new biome comes on the board, sometimes there's no real changes
you can actuate for a dozen million years or so. You might not
believe it in your first game or two, but after a while everyone
understands and says, "No need for me to expand my population or
move anybody ..." And this is good.
So What's the Ooooh! All About?
Oh, the decisions are wonderful and myriad. When a biddable tile
comes up, how much will you spend on it to use it? How much will you
spend on it to keep another player from using it? Sometimes the
latter is more important: let's say I have Nocturnal herbivore and
you're struggling as a carnivore and suddenly another "N" DNA card
comes up. If I get it, it doesn't help me much: I'm already "N"
(Nocturnal). But if you get it, you could then prey on my genotypes,
meaning there'd be a sudden population explosion of your critters
on the board, and that's bad. So I'll bid on it either to keep
you from getting it entirely or at least to make you pay a lot for
Then there's size: sometimes it's good to be small, sometimes big,
sometimes in the middle so you can adjust quickly one way or the
other. If I have two herbivore archetypes the same size, for
example, you might be preying on both, meaning you have as many
tents as I do. But if I grow one of them larger and the other
smaller, you suddenly have to pick which one to prey on: if you're
size 3 you can only eat size 3, 4, or 5 critters. What are you
going to do when one of your prey type grows to size 6 and the
other shrinks to size 2? Or what if there's a nifty keen really
cool DNA card up that you just have to have - but it's only usable
by size 3-4 critters. Oops - you've stayed alive by being size 6
in those biomes where biggest critter survives the cull - can you
sneak down to 4 without anyone noticing your stranglehold on a
biome has just come into doubt?
There's the aforementioned carnivore quandry, and the need to keep
pace with your prey. If they become too swift to catch, you've
either got to learn to be swift too, find another prey, or possibly
switch to becoming an herbivore and learn to compete in that way!
So basically it's an Oooh! game not only for the theme but
because there are so many different options to pursue so frequently.
It's evolve or die the whole game.
Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?
Oh, there are some reasons. In fact, to be honest, I don't play
the game as it's written - a little too long and a little too random
for me. I have some house rules I'll share with you below - they
may not be to your taste, of course, but if any of them can help
you get over objections to this game, then try them. It's a great
I can't think of any other reasons you wouldn't like this game.
It's really a very appealing game overall.
- First there's the length. It's a long game, as written. Five
hours minimum. I've read others playing it in less time, but I
haven't been able to manage it. I have a "fix" for this below.
- Then there's the component issue. Yes, second edition is much more
playable than first, but it's still not up to Euro standards. Some
folk just want a classier looking game. Can't help you there - I
don't mind how it looks at all. I've played first edition ...
- Then there's the variance - hoo boy. Consider: after you place
the start tiles on the board, you have 161 tiles to shuffle together.
Five different types, mind you, of varying quantities: 65 DNA cards,
36 biomes, 25 genotypes, 23 immigrants and 12 catastrophes. Out
of those you only use 41 tiles, however. So with only slightly
over one quarter of the cards actually used, it's very possible to
get weird distributions and mixes. Just think - you could have 41
DNA cards and no others! It would be a disastrous game - you need
to refresh the gene pool with biomes and catastrophes in order to
have genes to bid with!
- Now you may doubt a variance this extreme will happen much,
but it's happened in every full game I've played. I remember the
last one the best, so I'll describe it: note that there are 90
biddable tiles and 71 non-biddable listed above. So out of the
first 20 tiles, one would expect there to be roughly 11 biddable
tiles, or at least not too far removed from that number, yes?
Well, there were only two. Oh, but there's worse to come: we were
so starved for DNA and genotypes by that time that when the 21st
card turned out to be a DNA, we bid very high. Likewise for the
22nd card. We didn't think it could hold. And the 23rd. And by
that time, two of use were out of genes. So when the next 14 cards
in a row turned out to be biddable cards, the remaining player (it
was a three-player game) got all he wanted for one gene each ...
and there was nothing we could do about it because we'd spent all
our genes and there were no biomes or catastrophes to replenish
- So the strange use-41-out-of-161-tiles bit has caused horrendous
distribution issues that ruined the game for us. I have a "fix"
for this below.
- Then there's the bias. I suspect the game designer is a mammal,
though I've never verified this. But the reason I suspect it is
that there are two instances of mammalian bias in the game that I
just don't understand. Reptiles always go first, every turn.
There is no advantage at all to going first, in any of the phases.
There is a great advantage to going later in some of the phases,
especially change size/trophic and migration. You get to see what
the other players do and react to it. They have to guess in advance
what you'll do - they can't change their mind after you've made
- In addition to this, one of the mammal critters, the dog-face
cynodont (our ancestor), has the ability to become an omnivore:
some of the tents of one genotype can be carnivores while others
can be herbivores. For the other three critters, every member of
the same genotype must eat the same way. This can be a really
unfair advantage for dog-face: they not only move last but they're
also very adaptable. No surprise that dog-faces have won the
majority of our games. So what's the point? Is this a game or a
simulation? If it's a game, things need to be fairer - it's not
much fun playing a five-hour game if you know in the first 60
seconds who's going to win! I have a "fix" for this below.
- Finally, it's not that great for two players. It's okay, but
not the excellent game it becomes with three or four. I don't have
a fix for this one - my house rules are really only for 3-4 players,
Great game! More to my tastes with the fixes below, but the fact
that we've tweaked this game a few times to get it to this stage
shows that we knew early on that it was worth the effort to convert
to our tastes. Buy it, read it - you'll love it.
My House Rules
Okay, here it is: how we play American Megafauna at my house. Take what you need and leave the rest. This is about a three-hour game, probably more for your first time.
- Sort the non-start tiles into two stacks:
- Stack "B" contains all the Biddable tiles: DNA and Genotypes (90 tiles).
- Stack "N" contains all the Non-biddable tiles: Biomes, Catastrophes and
Immigrants (71 tiles).
- Shuffle each stack separately, and place a manageable amount
on the appropriate square on the House Rules Track.
- Use a coin or clear glass token on the first "B" square to
mark the turn. The game starts at the beginning of the Cretaceous
in the Mesozoic era - the Triassic and Jurassic periods are not
played (due to game length). Do not use the tile track that
came with the game - only the House Rules Track (available as
a .pdf file from the link in the previous paragraph).
- [Design note: 41 tiles just takes
too long to play. It's so cool to play a full galactic year,
though, that at first I simply said each turn = 10 million years
instead of 6 million years. But this put the two scoring turns
too close together. So by skipping the Triassic and Jurassic, as
hard as that is to do psychologically, it makes the game much more
playable to my tastes.]
- On an "N" turn, draw a tile from stack "N" and resolve the
turn according to the rules. (Exceptions: Turn Order and
Genetic Drift - see #6 & #8, below - and on a new biome card,
give each player two genes not one.)
- Advance the marker to the next number at the end of each turn.
Scoring turns are marked, as is the turn in which you enter
the Cenozoic era.
- Turn Order: do not use the turn order as stated in the
rules. Instead, the player with the most "r" dentition is the
start player at the beginning of the game. Use a token of some
sort to denote start player - we use a plastic dinosaur. At
the beginning of every "B" turn thereafter, pass the start
token to the player to the left of the previous start player.
This player is now start player for bidding and turn order
purposes until the next "B" turn. The start player performs
actions first in each phase of the turn.
- On a "B" turn, reveal X-1 "B" tiles, where X = number of
players. Starting with the new start player, players bid on
the right to choose a tile. This choice does not have to be
made public during the bidding phase. Do not use the normal
tiebreaker rules - there are no tiebreakers. Instead, every
bid must be higher than a previous bid. The start player does
not have to start with a bid of "1" - he may start with any
legal bid he wishes. Likewise, players may jump-bid when
raising. The winner of an auction chooses the tile of their
choice, and another auction begins at "0" for the right to
choose from the remaining tile(s). Once youve won a bid, you
may not bid again until the next "B" turn. It takes a minimum
bid of "1" to win a tile.
- [Design note: We like biddable
tiles! This many "B" tiles makes for a wild and woolly game
- be warned. You could just go with one "B" tile on a
"B" turn - that was our first trial, in fact, though we had
14B:11N turns in that variant to match the 90:71 ratio of
the tiles. We found it too tame, but it may be to your taste.]
- [Design note: We may actually change this bidding technique
- still experimenting. We may go with start player wins ties
- it would make the bidding less jumpy, but perhaps give the
start player too much of an advantage.]
- Genetic Drift only occurs when Immigrants from South
America are drawn. (We say, "Hola, amigos!" as we draw them
...) Ignore genetic drift on other immigrants.
- [Design note: Otherwise genetic
drift occurs too frequently the turn after bidding: about one
third of the time. People would be reluctant to bid on tiles
they can't put into play immediately. Just using South American
immigrants for genetic drift brings it to a one-seventh chance
of genetic drift the turn after bidding, which is almost exactly
the same chance as in the game as written.]
- Sex DNA: We've found this too powerful as is (especially
since we upped the number of genes awarded by biomes), so changed
it to +1 gene instead of x2 genes. Your mileage may vary.
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