Monday was Queen's Birthday, and how better to celebrate the life of our monarch than by inviting a bunch of guys around to play board games. Nigel turned up with a game called Origins : How We Became Human which is no less than a recreation of 100,000 years of human evolution. It sounded involved (and worse - educational) but armed with over 9 litres of Coke and copious apple shortcake we persevered undaunted.
Origins turned out to be an excellent game. Each player takes the roll of a pre-human species (Peking Man, Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, Homo Errectus<barely suppressed snigger>, etc), each with slightly different abilities and objectives due to differences in brain development. One player may have language skills (useful for taming animals) but not the manual dexterity for tool use, and so on.
The game is played on a simplified map of The Earth, play consists of drawing cards and moving counters either on the map or around various sections of the status card for the players particular race, which controls how many resources a race is committing towards development. The first part of the game (the Age of Instinct) is mainly concerned with evolving your race by unlocking different parts of the brain and getting into good positions on the map (near exploitable resources like easily domesticatable plants and animals). The second and third ages (the Bicameral Age and the Age of Faith) are mainly concerned with obtaining cultural advances that confer certain helpful bonuses and are worth points at the end of the game.
Along the way, wars can break out as one player tries to move into territories held by another. Wiping all of one player's units off the map does not eject the player from the game - that race is simply enslaved, a state of affairs that is limiting but non-fatal. Occasionally there are even advantages to being enslave to a race that is more advanced than your own since you tend to learn things from them. Gaining technology opens up parts of the map (oceans can be crossed with boats, etc) but certain cards cause the climate to change so you have to be careful where you units settle.
It all sounds very complicated. And it is, but actually playing the game is quite straightforward. To make a long story short, the game lasted over 5 hours, during which time we were all happily enslaving each other and taming elephant birds to ride into war. Usually I get bored after a few hours of staring at a table, but Origins kept us all enthralled for all that time. We didn't even stop to eat as the afternoon turned into evening (although the apple shortcake may have helped). That is the mark of an excellent game.
The one criticism I have is that once one player gets out ahead, it seems very difficult to prevent the game from turning into a foregone conclusion. I was having fun with my Neanderthals even though I was well out of the running with no way to catch up, but if you really care about winning then Origins may be frustrating.