The map is North America divided into 11 very large hexes. Each hex has 2 biomes (environments) and a predator triangle. Each biome, basically, can support 2 herbivores. The triangle can support one predator for each herbivore in the hex. Initially all are herbivores of size 1 (smallest) and must locate in biomes which have no genetic requirements since these animals have no specialized DNA at all (for example, you would need to be a triple "browser" to live in the pine forest).
Players also start with money (called genes).
As in many games by designer Phil Eklund, each turn a card is turned up from a large deck. Basically this card can be either a biome, genotype, DNA or catastrophe.
If it's a Biome, it will probably replace an existing biome on the map. Each biome can only go into certain latitudes and each one is rated for "power". A newly-drawn biome replaces the lowest rated one that is there or a blank slot. If a biome is replaced, it migrates if there is empty space, which is a good deal for the animals that were recently living there!, but if no space, it goes away. (Players may be amused to realize that "underneath" the animal evolution game that they are playing, there is a plant evolution game going on, being run entirely by the game itself.)
If the card is a Genotype, then it is auctioned off to the players. A genotype is a 2-sided card with both reptile and mammal halves. It represents a variation on your existing species and you can have 4 of these out on your display at once. These genotypes usually have some DNA characteristics which will help them because they can now survive in more difficult biomes. DNA is also inherited from the parent so it appears to be tricky to decide just when to branch out. On the one hand, you want to branch out early so that you have a couple different versions out there in case all the biomes that can support them go away or become too crowded; then, at least some of you can survive. Another good reason to branch is that you can only hold in your hand as many cards as you have branches. On the other hand, if you branch too soon, your parent won't have any DNA to bequeath and your new species starts out not as viable as it otherwise could be.
If the card is DNA and you buy it, you can add it to your creature. Some of these simply permit your creature to live in a different biome, but others have "special effects" like flying, swimming, intelligence, sex, etc.
If you get a Catastrophe in the Basic Game, it just means everyone gets $5. In the Advanced there are other effects as you can imagine. (is there any Eklund game which does not feature a comet? :))
Anyway, after that you can play any cards you've bought, you grow a population for every unique place you are in (spreading out appears to always be a good idea), you can change size by one increment, you can move one hex (more if winged or very big)
There is a phase during which you can change one of your animals from herbivore to predator, or vice versa. However, you have to change every single individual in the population, which may not be easy. (An optional rule on omnivores relaxes this for some mammals.)
Then you have to check again that no biome is too crowded to support everyone and that every predator has at least one animal to eat. If a biome is overcrowded, then you have to check the biome "niche" characteristics to see who has the advantage. If it is still tied, the predator in the hex decides. If predators are feeding on the same animal, then there is a resolution mechanism to see which wins out. But sometimes their prey can escape them if they change size enough to avoid being eaten (a predator has to be the same size or up to 2 smaller than its prey) or if they acquire characteristics like armor which the predators do not have.
The game is won by the player who has the most animals on the board when the game ends.
Maximum game length is 4 hours. Experienced players can probably finish in 2-2.5 hours.
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Ludography: Dinosaur & Evolution Games
Living Rules from the Sierra Madre Games website
In the British gaming magazine Counter (issue 8), famed reviewer Mike Siggins listed American Megafauna first in his top 5 games of the year along with the following commentary:
An obscure choice perhaps, but as a continuing fan of experience gaming this really hit the spot. Excellent systems, great theme, even some decent gaming. On the downside, as with many of Phil's games, a little opaque.The game is reviewed on-line by Brian Bankler although I do not share all of his opinions.