The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Origins of the Artist

Phil Eklund has not been lauded as the artist he clearly is. And that’s a shame. No matter how I twist and turn my head, I see art. Yet I don’t recall hearing anyone, myself included, state that fact. So I now say that Eklund’s designs are something to be reckoned with, and that I admire them.

I’m reminded of this fact because Origins: How We Became Human landed on my doorstep this Monday and I’ve been going over the rulebook. I don’t understand the game at all (I’ll have to solo a few turns for that). The rules are a far cry from American Megafauna in that they are organized well and I think that I’d understand them relatively easily if I had the components in front of me. But I’m mainly reading for the endnotes, the bibliography, for the synthesis of ideas.

I’m not ignorant, and in this particular area (human development, evolutionary psychology, darwinism and the development of altruism) I’ve done some reading, so the reference notes weren’t all new to me. I’ve read (or am familiar with) Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, Robin Dunbar (of “Dunbar’s Number” fame), Freeman Dyson, Charles Mann, Ayn Rand, Carl Sagan and Robin Wright. Despite all of this, half of the references weren’t familiar to me. There’s a lot to learn, to chew over and think about. Without doing much more reading, my thoughts on the subject matter will be necessarily shallow, but Eklund’s games stake out a position and invite exploration and study.

In one particular, I’m gratified by the Designer’s notes to find that the role of government in this game is deliberately minimized.

Origins reflects my Objectivist philosophy. This leads to huge differences compared to other Civilization-style games, all of which place players into the role of the government. The players act as paternalistic bureaucrats…. In Origins, players take the roles of the populace. Their job is to keep the governments under control. The only role of such governments is to keep the people free: free to become smart, or happy, or whatever they wish. Freedom is the basic human value…

I’m not an Objectivist, but I wholeheartedly agree. It was on reading this note that I realized I was witnessing Art:

  • Motivations guide the design
  • The game encourages and rewards deep study, exploration and introspection
  • There is craft in the execution (I’m one of those philistines who believes that randomness and lack of craft do not necessarily detract from beauty, but count as serious strikes against being considered art).

Having written a few words on designer as artist, I now confess that games as art do little for me. Games are entertainment, and I’m often content with mind-candy. (I like complicated games, but mainly because I enjoy the system. To me, that’s still mind candy). I’ll watch the movies of Fritz Lang or Kurosawa, but they aren’t my “Go to guys” on for my Netflix queue. I’m hoping to get Origins to the table soon, and I’d be delighted to discover a game I can play five times, but my history isn’t good.

  • Lords of the Sierra Madre ­ Played ~4 times.
  • American Megafauna ­ — Played twice. For some reason AMF is one of those games that seemed to take our group much longer than normal. If most groups take 5-6 hours, I often game with people who can finish in 3. AMF was supposed to take 3-4, and took a full day.
  • Space Flight/Lords of the High Frontier — ­ Never even felt the urge to try. Brilliant discussion, my friend who took a graduate level course on alternative space technologies recognized many of the references as required reading for his class.
  • Insecta ­ — Two plays.

So my track record is that Sierra Madre Games are  pedestal art: ­ admired, appreciated, and forgotten once you leave the museum for the park or movie theater. Mr. Eklund is a respected artist, but his works are difficult and not easily approached. Skimming the rules for Origins left me with no real idea how to play (and neither did the strategy section, or FAQ). There’s a complex model, built on solid (although not mainstream) scientific and anthropological research. Origins conveys new ideas and uses new mechanisms (and some re-used ideas in modified form) to convey them. It’s no more complicated that some wargames, even monstrous wargames that I’ll never play, but there’s little to latch onto. A forty page rulebook isn’t a strain if you understand zones of control, the battle rolls are familiar, and the like. Here everything seems new, so that it takes longer to clump what you can do, which doesn’t even get towards what you should do. On an open thread from a few years ago, Larry L said that the ruleset “has me very gunshy.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand the sentiment.

I hope that Origins delivers a great game. I suspect that it might, but that the first game may turn the group off of it completely (and I may very well be part of that group). I hope I’m wrong; hopefully I’ll find out soon.


Written by taogaming

March 18, 2010 at 6:39 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I think I wrote about this game a while ago, in case you missed it:

    I think the really key thing for people to know about their first game is that the whole thing is really all about the innovation track – keeping that track clear really does trump almost anything. If someone allows their innovation to slide down to the low range of 1 action, not only are they in a really tough spot, the game has taken away the tools to get *out* of that spot. So you’ve got to be really careful about expanding your population, especially early. If you fail a chaos roll in Era 1, you are completely screwed, so you should never even chance it. The game allows, and even appears to encourage, you to do some really suicidal stuff. I think to avoid the bad first-game experience, everyone has to be really clear on just how important the innovation track is.

    The other hugely key piece of information is that you should buy any “civilization” card you can get your hands on, not just the ones that might score for you.

    I’m of mixed minds on Origins. For games to succeed as *game* art, I think part and parcel of that is that it has to be a good game. There was a BGN news story recently about the train game where it is revealed midway through that you are actually conductors on trains to Auschwitz. It may work as art, but in the same way John Cage’s 4’33” may have been art but not music, it’s probably not actually a game. Origins may be an artful synthesis of a lot of ideas, but it’s not clear to me that it’s actually a good game. I’d like to play it some more, but everyone I’ve played it with once has been opposed to the idea. So I’ve run through the 10-12 people who might be interested in it.


    March 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

  2. I’ve played several games of American Megafauna (admittedly modified from the base game), but I found Origins to be a complete snoozer. I’d be tempted to give it another try, but the first attempt left me with the impression of a game with not much going on at any point and what little that does happen not that interesting. I haven’t looked at the living rules and I played soon after the game came out, so it might be much improved now.


    March 19, 2010 at 1:31 pm

  3. Hey Brian, not sure if it will, but in case it can help:


    March 19, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    • Hi Rick,

      Thanks. I’d already printed that out, and I’ve solo’ed a few turns using your aid and some others. It helps quite a bit.


      March 20, 2010 at 10:45 am

  4. good to know, thx


    March 20, 2010 at 10:21 pm

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