American Megafauna

A game for 2-4 players by Phil Eklund; published by Sierra Madre Games
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated April 29, 2002


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 game.

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 genotypes.
  • 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 introductory game.
  • Another sheet to use as a game track, with abbreviated rules on it.
  • Rulebook, with lots of examples and a delightful glossary.

The Tiles

There are five types of tiles in the game, all important:

  • 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%)
"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 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 genotype.

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:

  1. Reveal a new card, resolve it if non-biddable; auction it off if biddable
  2. Express cards
  3. Recess cards
  4. Change size and trophic
  5. Population explosion
  6. Herbivore migration
  7. Carnivore migration and size adjust
  8. Herbivore cull
  9. Carnivore cull
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.

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 eater).

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 means.

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 it.

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 game!

  1. 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.

  2. 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 ...

  3. 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 them.

    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.

  4. 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 your move.

    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.

  5. 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, sorry.

I can't think of any other reasons you wouldn't like this game. It's really a very appealing game overall.

Summing Up

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.

  1. 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).
  2. Shuffle each stack separately, and place a manageable amount on the appropriate square on the House Rules Track.
  3. 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.]
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.]
  8. 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.]
  9. 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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