Science games are trendy right now, with Wingspan, my #1 game of last year, building on real characteristics of over 100 species of North American birds to create a richly textured game that gets the science right. Genius Games is a small publisher that focuses specifically on games with science or math themes, including Periodic (played on the periodic table) and Cytosis (a game of cell division, endorsed by the Journal of Cell Science). One of their latest titles, Ecosystem, asks players to build tableaux of cards that score enough points to win yet are balanced like a real ecosystem so the player doesn’t lose points for a lack of biodiversity.
Ecosystem is a very straightforward game to play—all the complexity is in the scoring. The game itself is a card-drafting tableau builder, and if you know what those two terms mean, you have a pretty good idea of how the game works. You’ll build your ecosystem in a grid of four rows of five cards each, and you place those cards over two rounds, starting each round with ten cards. You’ll place a card, pass your remaining hand to the player to your left or right, place another card, and so on until all players have placed 10 cards in the round. The only restrictions on card placement are that you must place each card orthogonally adjacent to a card you’ve already placed, and you can’t go beyond the limits of four rows by five columns.
The deck includes 130 cards in total, so no matter your player count you won’t use all the cards in any game (the maximum is 120, or 20 cards each with six players). The most common cards are meadows and streams, of which there are 20 apiece, while the remainder of the deck includes eight to 12 each of nine different types of animals, birds, fish, or insects, each of which has a unique function in the game.
Two card types, streams and wolves, score competitively—the player with the most gets the most points, the player with the next-most gets a smaller point total, and so on. Most cards score based on what’s nearby, either immediately adjacent or within two cards, including trout, bear, dragonflies, and bees, as well as foxes, which score only if there are no bears or wolves adjacent to them. Meadows score in clusters—you have to have at least two meadow cards adjacent to each other to score at all.
One card, rabbits, scores just a single point each (up from nothing in the original edition), but when played gives you the only opportunity to move cards you’ve already played, either switching two in your tableau or replacing one with the rabbit and relocating the new one.
Most of these scoring rules at least mimic something from the real world. Dragonflies score (in a slightly convoluted way) if they’re next to streams, as do trout. Bears score if they’re next to trout and bees. Bees score if they’re next to meadows. Eagles score if they’re within two—you know, because they fly—cards of trout or rabbits. Deer are the most solitary animal in the scoring, gaining two points for each row with a deer and two points for each column, so you can score 18 points for deer if you place one in each column and one in each row.
The game does reward you for building your ecosystem with sufficient biodiversity. If you have at least six categories in which you didn’t score any points, you lose five points; if you have four or fewer categories with zeroes, however, you get a bonus. In my various plays with player counts from four to six, I don’t think anyone has actually taken the penalty; you’d have to actively be trying to focus on a few categories to the exclusion of others for that to happen.
Ecosystem plays two to six, but it’s definitely best with at least four so you get more cards in play and so the effects of the card-drafting mechanic are more pronounced. With two players, the rules include a ‘neutral’ player that takes 10 cards in each round and randomly takes one card whenever a hand is passed to its position; the neutral player also counts in the stream and wolf scoring. It’s much better with more players, though, and still moves quickly because of the simultaneous play; even with five players, two of them new to the game, it only took us about 35-40 minutes, and I think it’d be under a half an hour if we’d played again with the same group.
The scoring is not that intuitive, and you’ll probably check your player reference card frequently even after a few plays, but when I introduce people to the game, they get caught up in the tableau-building part and learn the scoring as we go—probably the best way to learn most games. It’s a great lightweight game and, at $15, a great value for a highly portable title.
Keith Law is the author of Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. His latest book, The Inside Game, is due out in April 2020. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.