Phil Eklund’s board games are not for everyone, and he seems pretty okay with that. A retired rocket engineer, Eklund publishes what he calls “experience games” through his Sierra Madre imprint, games that simulate, in fine detail, how life and humanity came to be on Earth — with a few of his own ideas thrown in.
Despite being a niche of a niche, Sierra Madre Games has a massive cult following who snap up anything Eklund produces, so when new editions of his hard-to-find Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna (about the origin and evolution of life, respectively) hit Kickstarter last year, they were still massive successes. The “sequels” to those games, Neanderthal and Greenland, are already funded on their own Kickstarter — 12 times over, with 24 days still to go.
AiPT! was lucky enough to interview Eklund through email to find out how he approaches game design, what’s going on with the current Kickstarter and what might be coming in the future.
AiPT!: What made you want to start designing games?
Eklund: Before I answer that, I want to brag that TODAY, I am the world’s hottest boardgame designer. At least, according to “The Hotness” on the enthusiast group “Board Game Geek.” Tomorrow I will be forgotten, but TODAY, I reign supreme.
I started with redesigning games I played as a young child. Why would a child have such an interest? Of course, problem solving has survival value for any animal. But boardgames are a uniquely human faculty. I believe that all art, but especially boardgames, help train a lingual species in concept formation. This likely was the function of the first cave paintings which, like boardgames, are a recreation of reality according to the artist’s value judgments. For much more in this thesis, why humans suddenly discovered art after 100,000 years of being big-brained and intelligent, see Neanderthal.
AiPT!: What’s your background like? Have you always been interested in science?
Eklund: I have always been interested in science for as long as I can remember. The kids at camp laughed at me with my butterfly net, and collections of natural stuff. I am now a professional game designer living in Germany, but for 35 years I was an aerospace engineer, working on spacecraft.
AiPT!: Your games have a reputation for being complex, and being something like simulations. Do you think that’s fair?
Eklund: Yes. I have had to change my approach since the rise of Eurogames however. I remember the first day (in a game’s fair) that German games arrived. All [my] potential customers left, leaving me alone at my booth. Little did I know that this was the first step towards a move to Germany eight years later.
AiPT!: Before Neanderthal and Greenland, you published Bios: Genesis and Bios: Megafauna. Tell us a little about those, and how one can follow the other.
Eklund: The Bios series was envisioned as a trilogy of games that cover the entire history of Earth as a living planet. I have a rather unique [hypothesis] of how life got started: as a hybridization of four independently existing qualities of life, each with a different survival value. Thus in Bios: Genesis there can be up to four players: representing metabolism, entropy, cellularization and replication. The players literally start joint ventures of life, so both cooperation and competition are implicit in gameplay.
This aspect is echoed in Neanderthal and Greenland. Bios: Megafauna represents the big jump from the micro- to the macro- world, and how and why plants and animals became huge.
AiPT!: How do Neanderthal and Greenland fit into that? What’s the gameplay of these two like?
Eklund: The thesis of both Neanderthal and Greenland is that, in a harsh environment, a hybrid of cultures is necessary to survive and dominate. Indeed, [boardgame designer] Jon Manker has dubbed this series the “Dominata” series. Both games simulate hybridization of cultures by intermarriage, using “daughter” cards. Since I myself live in a small village with no other Americans or English-speakers, I have firsthand experience with this.
Off-topic, but just moments ago, my German wife opened her medical practice for the first time, with her name hanging from the door. She now sits, wondering if today anyone in the village will get sick, and if anyone will notice she is there.
AiPT!: What do these new editions provide that previous ones didn’t?
Eklund: The components will be upgraded depending on unlocked stretch goals. Also, additional components, like a player aid [will be added]. Especially in Greenland, at least a dozen cards have been tweaked as a result of gaming experience, feedback and my expanding thoughts on the ecology of Greenland.
In Greenland, there is now an option for a 4-player game, but I was not able to add a fourth player to Neanderthal. There are some additional solitaire and cooperative elements in development, again depending on stretch goals. There may be a stretch goal for an iPad version, perhaps implemented by Mipmap; not sure about this.
AiPT!: Is there anything else to come?
Eklund: The last, and as of yet unpublished in the Bios trilogy is Bios: Origins, which chronicles the sudden appearance of consciousness. Not intelligence, which was a mere problem-solving faculty that gradually increased throughout the Bios: Megafauna era. Consciousness was like nothing seen before, and perhaps the aforementioned cave paintings were the first sign of this faculty. Perhaps in time for late this year.
Currently working on two new games in the Pax series: Pax Emancipation (set in the Age of Enlightenment) and Pax Transhumanity (set in a non-dystopian future). This last is designed by my son, Matthew. Also perhaps in time for late this year. High Frontier fourth edition and High Frontier Lite are also in development. I have a wargame that I am hoping to partner with Kolosal Games on: Zeppelin Commander.