The Evolution of Man, one Card at a Time

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When I was 8, my grandfather taught me to play chess. He patiently explained the moves and taught me the beginner’s basic, v-shaped opening, and then proceeded to mercilessly defeat me, game after game. He was a very good chess player – he told me he had learned in the Navy from a Grandmaster, and as a result, I don’t think I ever lasted more than two dozen turns against him. But I didn’t mind. I loved the challenge of it. I was fascinated with just how simple the rules were and yet how many things I had to think about.

he next year, my older brother taught me to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: a game about telling a story, with neither winners nor losers, with no board. Around that same time, Pac-Man fever was spreading across the country. I came of age during a time when the definition of what a game is was rapidly changing.

The eighties were a great time to discover games

Since then I have tried every different sort of game that I can get my hands on. I’ve come to believe passionately that games are a unique, individual artistic medium that can delight and intrigue us in ways comparable to the great works of drama, music and sculpture. A game is a cultural phenomenon like no other. Sure, they can be mindless diversions, but they can be so much more than that, too. At their best, games are interactive narratives at once entertaining, beautiful… even meaningful. They’re uniquely powerful vehicles for conveying metaphor and subtlety by presenting dynamic, interactive systems and inviting you to experience them. I want to make games that are at once deep, elegant and relevant. Games that are about something, but are still fun to play.

Cavemen started as a game about evolution. It was the end of 2007. I had been reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker and realized that while I thought I had understood the basic ideas behind the theory, I didn’t realize just how transformative and far-reaching the idea truly was. It also became obvious why evolution is such a popular theme for games. At its core, natural selection is governed by a very simple set of rules that combine in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. I wanted to create a game that allowed the player to gradually evolve an organism over generations, mutating and crossbreeding with the other creatures in the world. Cards seemed like a perfect fit for this kind of game, as it would allow me to present a wide range of different kinds of traits to combine, and it was inherently unpredictable. I began to work on the idea, but quickly decided I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t see my creature in front of me. My organism felt like a collection of traits, instead of a living thing that was changing. So I changed it to be about humans with different traits. I figured that since human traits such as being smart or fast didn’t need to be reflected in the way that those humans looked, it was easier to imagine that human changing based on other cards it combined with. And naturally, since I still wanted to focus on the most basic interactions between the organisms, it made sense that these weren’t sophisticated, modern people. These were cavemen, whose job it was to hunt, eat, and make other little cavemen.

Cards from one of the earliest prototypes of the game

At first, it made sense to have lots of different kinds of cavemen with different attributes, but then how would I show how these traits combine in their offspring? I needed to put the characteristics themselves on their own cards, but while inherent traits didn’t make sense to separate from the person they belonged to, tools, ideas, and technologies were easy to represent on their own. I jotted down a quick list of caveman “inventions”: fire, the wheel, the spear, the bow and arrow. The concept of a mini-civilization game is a sort of holy grail amongst game designers, and an idea about primitive humans building the first societies emerged. By focusing just on this very early civilization, each small advancement can open up huge new possibilities. You can see civilization itself is an evolutionary adaptation, and each new advancement allows the tribe to change how it makes its way in the world. Technology changes the rules.

Of course, there’s no story without conflict, and the central conflict here is the tribe just trying to survive. At the time, steampunk was everywhere and along with it, a resurgence of interest in pulp. Steampunk is a postmodern fantasy lens applied to the Victorian setting, where the steam engine replaces magic wand. Drawing on classics like Marvel comics’ Ka-zar and newer works like Clan of the Cave Bear, The Land of the Lost and a host of other influences, it seemed like the time was right to explore a similar kind of setting: stonepunk, a fantasy world set in a prehistoric age. In this context, civilization is the killer technology and the Tyrannosaurus is the perfect antagonist, representing the dangerous world that early man lives in. After all, every heroic fantasy needs dragons to slay.

Marvel Comics’ Ka-Zar

By the middle of 2008, I had something that looked very much like the final version of the game, and I felt that it accomplished my design goals. I wanted to blend Euro-game elegance with something a bit more “Ameri-crunch”, meaning I wanted a strong theme, a dose of randomness, and the definite possibility of loss, without going so far as to have players being eliminated for the game. I wanted drafting to be the central mechanic because at that point I had never played a game that used it in that way. I thought keeping the information public – which I first saw in the Rochester draft format for Magic: The Gathering – would lead to opportunistic play, which I felt was a great way to simulate how early humans must have managed to survive. Finally, one thing I also knew I wanted in this game was a true narrative arc: a beginning, a middle and an end. And for this reason, there could be no victory points, and no second place. Like a checkmate, the invention of fire is a fitting and decisive end to the story I’m trying to tell.

So I took my game to the New York City Board Game Designers Playtest Group. There I met a number of talented and successful designers including Eric Zimmerman, Gil Hova, Josh DeBonis, Mark Salzwedel and Michael Keller. With their help and encouragement I focused on just the core ideas and over countless playtests over the course of an entire year, managed to strip away the last remaining layers of complexity. But there was still a very important part of the game that had to be perfected: the set of inventions. Without properly balancing that set of choices, the entire auction system could not work correctly. So while I was happy with the way the game was played, I knew it wasn’t done yet.

Cards from the prototype I submitted to the Rio Grande design contest in 2009

In 2009, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and spend eight months traveling through Asia. It was a life-changing experience, living out of our backpacks and meeting all sorts of interesting people along the way. On that trip, we played Cavemen with anyone we could convince to play. We played in a car in the deserts of Rajasthan, on a train to Mumbai, on a boat in Indonesia, in a hotel in the Mekong Delta, and by candlelight during a power outage in Nepal. I must have designed over a hundred different inventions for this game during that trip, but the final 20 that I chose to include in the core game were playtested thoroughly for their variety, their ability to combine in multiple ways, and their balance.

Playing Cavemen by Candlelight in Pharping, Nepal

When I returned home in the fall, I found out about the Rio Grande Game Design contest. I won the New York competition against some impressive games and then went on to be one of four games selected for publication by Jay Tummelson. Some time later, when I first saw the art for the game, I was absolutely floored. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I couldn’t be happier with the job that Rio Grande did making the game truly stand out.

Cavemen premiered at Spiel 2012 and should be making its way to US stores soon, so be sure to check it out… I can only hope other people get as much out of playing the game as I got out of making it!

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