Sunday, March 29, 2009

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.


  1. Very interesting write-up. I'm surprised you've gotten through even three plays, but I agree that it was a very interesting game, if not ultimately a good one.

    In our one play together, I definitely left the game thinking that I had no idea the victory conditions would turn out like they did. During the game, in trying to do the things that seemed to make sense in terms of the game, really didn't help me towards winning the game at all. Having elders available to bid at all times basically determined the winner, but that wasn't clear through playing the game, not until the very end. So I agree that the victory conditions are very poor.

  2. Funny, I just read Jaynes's book last year; two very intelligent people told me that it was the most mind-blowing book they had ever read. I figured that was a pretty good recommendation.

    I thought Jaynes made a convincing argument, and I also thought that there might be an interesting game in there. It does somehow seem like a game mechanism, the idea of civilizations growing under the god/king/priest hierarchy until the voices begin fragmenting and the society abruptly collapses.

    Your review brings back to me another thought I've often mulled over, which is whether Aristotle's ideas about the three unities necessary for good drama apply to games, specifically unity of time. If a game tries to encompass too broad a sweep of time, do we dilute the story to a point where it stops being compelling? Is is better to more richly evoke one single political/economic/logistical system rather than string together a number of less detailed systems to tell a larger story?

    Certainly I know how I would answer the question: I prefer the detailed snapshot of time to the extrahuman God's-eye-view. I think if I were going to take up wargames I would be more drawn to the titles that recreate single operations or battles rather than the ones that try to smoosh twenty years of warfare into one box while shutting out the infinite vicissitudes of history.

  3. Ironically, it was only after acquiring a copy of Origins that I read about Jaynes and his theory of the Bicameral Mind. However, to me, the theory sounds preposterous to the degree that it killed any interest I had a in trying the game.

    Silly, possibly, but the fact remains that my Origins remains unplayed, and the sole reason for that is its reliance on Jaynes...

  4. While I don't want to get involved in the argument, I came by this blog through a friend's recommendation... after reading this post I'm kind of sad that you seem to have stopped posting on my birthday :(.

    Anywhere else I can read your material?



  5. There is some material in the pipeline :) I've just been busy the last month. And trying to figure out how to write about some recent wargames with something a little more interesting than "they suck". Anyway, hopefully something new in the next week or two, eve if it's short.

    If you want, I still do post to BGG from time to time and you can find an RSS feed here: