A game of strategy and survival
(Version 1.1)

Copyright (C) 2013 Harrison Baker.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3
or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
with the Invariant Section being the Creator’s Note.
A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU
Free Documentation License”.


1. Creator’s Note
2. Before You Start
3. The Basics
4. Combat/Predation
5. Seasons and Reproduction
6. Genetics
7. Ending the Game
8. GNU Free Documentation License


1. Creator’s Note


I’d like to take a moment to explain what Deme is and why I made it. More
importantly, I would like to let you know where I would like us—you and me
and everyone else who might be interested—to take it. Please read the
following paragraphs.

What Deme is:
Deme is a tactical board game of ecology and survival. Players control
animal species on a small island as they compete, feed, breed and evolve.
The primary goal of each species is to survive and reproduce, but other
goals present themselves along the way. Competitors can be eliminated. New
traits can evolve. New species can be born.

What Deme is not:
Deme is not an ecosystem model. Deme plays with broad concepts such as
random mutation, energy flow, interspecific competition and trophic cascades.
It does not, however, represent these things exactly as they happen in a real

Deme is meant to raise questions and encourage experimentation. If you
would like a thorough, scientifically accurate ecosystem modeling system
rather than a game, you might want to try one of these:

The rule system is intended as a toolbox, not a cage. Feel free to modify,
add and subtract rules in the future to meet your needs and make Deme as
realistic or fantastic as you like. I trust my players to find and explore
the differences between real-world dynamics and fictional ones, applying
and sharing their own prior knowledge to create fun, meaningful table

Thank you and enjoy!



2. Before You Start

What you will need:
-Multi-colored tokens, beads or figurines to represent each species (as many as you can get)
-Several six-sided dice (a pack of 10 should be good)
-One 20-sided die
-A hex grid board with hexes large enough to accommodate your poker chips
-Some rocks or other obstructions to serve as terrain
-A set of poker chips (at least one)

The role of the Ecosystem Master:
One person (not a player) will serve as Ecosystem Master (EM). This person is responsible for
overseeing the environment, laying out the narrative, arbitrating player disputes and handling
some random and semi-random events.

Think of the EM like the Dungeon Master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, or the referee in
a sporting event. The EM has a responsibility to be fair and impartial, and to keep things
interesting. The EM is basically a storyteller, so this role can be a lot of fun.

Rocks, sticks, etc., when placed on the board, represent impassable obstructions. The EM lays
these out as he or she sees fit before the game begins.

Token and Plant Placement:
The EM places each player’s tokens around the board as he or she sees fit. Keep in mind what’s
fair, challenging and makes sense in the ecosystem.

Each player controls a species (set of tokens of a single color). Each species has its own
distinct set of three stats:
-Attack strength (ATT)
-Defense (DEF)
-Speed (SPD)
Each of these stats is determined prior to play for each species by the EM and/or player(s).
To start, you may wish to limit individual SPD values based on board size, and individual ATT and
DEF values to the number of six-sided dice you have on hand.


3. The Basics

Each player’s turn looks like this:
1) Move a token (representing an animal or small population, as the scenario dictates) any
number of hexes up to its SPD value. Each token can move in any direction, but cannot move
through rocks. You can forgo movement if you want.

2) Attack or feed using the token you just moved, if you want to. Place the token on its side so
you remember you moved it.

3) Repeat until all tokens have acted. Play then passes to the next player.

Herbivores move first, then their predators, then those predators’ predators, etc. Within each
trophic level, you may roll for initiative or simply pass from right to left around the table. The
EM (ecosystem master) keeps track of the progression of seasons, the narrative, replacing plant
mass, etc. Play is divided into seasons and years. Each year begins with Spring. When all players have
moved, a new season begins. When four seasons have passed (all players have moved four
times), a new year begins. We’ll get to what this means later.

Each species has a “SPD” value, which represents speed. You can move any number of hexes
(or none at all) up to this value. You cannot move through rocks or share or pass through a
space with another animal. You can share a space with plants (green chips). If you enter a space
occupied by an animal of a different species, you must stop by default.

Feeding is at the core of Deme. When an herbivore ends its turn on a plant (green poker chip),
it carries the chip around with it. If a carnivore kills an adjacent prey animal, the carnivore
gains a green poker chip. Each animal can only gain one green chip per food item, and can only
carry two green poker chips at maximum.
At the end of Summer and Winter, each animal loses one green poker chip and leaves behind a black chip
in its place (see “Feces” below). Animals with no chips to drop die.

Black poker chips serve as “feces” markers. These replace green chips lost by animals at
the end of Summer and Winter. They may also be placed by the EM or by players themselves as
the scenario and species abilities dictate.

Non-aquatic animals that start a turn adjacent to a water hex gain a +1 bonus to their SPD for
that turn. Animals that end Summer and Winter adjacent to water do not lose a green chip.


4. Combat/Predation

After moving a token, the attacker rolls the number of dice shown by the “ATT” value to attack
an animal in an adjacent hex. For example, if the attacking animal has an ATT of 3, roll three
dice. If a die scores 4 or higher, it’s a “hit.” If it scores 3 or lower, it’s a “miss.” The number of
“hits” for the attacker must be higher than the number of “hits” for the defender.
If an attacking animal has used all of its moves before attacking, it is exhausted and suffers a -1
penalty to its “ATT” value.

When attacked, the defending player rolls a number of dice shown by the “DEF” value for the
defending animal. If the number of “hits” (i.e., rolls of 4 or more) matches or exceeds the
number of “hits” the attacker rolled, the attack is repelled.
Optionally, red poker chips may be used as health indicators, each absorbing one attack.
If the attack is successful, remove one red poker chip (if there are any) from the defending
animal. If the defending animal has no red poker chips, the animal dies.

Resolving Combat:
The attacking animal may not attack the same animal twice if the attack was repelled. However,
it may attack other adjacent animals. If the attack is successful, the attacker may continue
attacking until the defending animal is defeated, or it may attack other adjacent animals. If the
attacker is a carnivore or omnivore that feeds on the defender, it gains one green chip from the kill.


5. Seasons and Reproduction

Each season plays the same except for Winter (each player’s last turn of the year). During
Winter, each player’s SPD score is reduced by 1 unless modified by a mutation (see “Genetics”
on next page).

Every Spring, the EM replaces the plant mass lost during the last year. All green poker chips
are restored to the board, with each animal that died at the end of Winter replaced by a green
poker chip.

Plants are placed adjacent to existing plants, and/or are used to replace any black “feces” chips
dropped by players (or the EM) in the path of herbivores over the course of the last year.

Long Game:
For a more in-depth experience, each season lasts four turns for each player instead of one.

Before the start of every Spring, every animal with two green poker chips gets to reproduce.
Each animal produces one offspring (unless modified by mutation). For every offspring, roll for
mutation. See “Genetics” on next page.


6. Genetics
When a new offspring is generated (prior to the Spring redistribution of green chips), it inherits
its parent’s stats (DEF, SPD and ATT) by default. However, each offspring rolls for random
mutations. These mutations become permanent parts of its genome, and may be inherited by all
of its offspring.

Here’s how it works:

Roll the 20-sided die to determine mutation
1 = Fatal (no offspring)
2-13 = No mutation (same as parent)
14 = +1 SPD
15 = +1 DEF
16 = +1 ATT
17 = -1 SPD
18 = -1 DEF
19 = -1 ATT

If the offspring rolls a rare WILDCARD mutation, roll a six-sided die to determine if the effect
is positive (4-6) or negative (1-3). You may also flip a coin, if you have one.

Roll the six-sided die again to determine the trait to be modified*
1 = Cold resistance (modify effect of Winter by +-1 SPD)
2 = Fecundity (+-1 offspring)
3 = Flight (animal passes over obstacles)
4 = Empathy (animal can pass food to adjacent conspecifics at the end of movement)
5 = Diet (animal gains or loses herbivory or carnivory—whichever it didn’t start with)**
6 = Resilience (red poker chip)

*If an animal loses a trait it doesn’t have, the mutation has no effect.
**If animal is losing a food item, flip a coin or use a six-sided die to determine which food type it loses.


7. Ending the Game

Before play begins, the EM should lay out the scenario and a time frame (in real time or game
years) for the game. In addition, each player has the option of announcing his or her own goals
for the game. These may include the elimination of a competing species at the same trophic
level, bearing a certain number of offspring, selecting for a specific trait, etc.
The game ends when the given scenario ends, not (necessarily) when players achieve their own
goals. Remember that this is your game, so everything is negotiable if players and EM agree to
it at the outset.

Once the scenario ends, players can save the stats of their “best” tokens to serve as starter
species for future games. In this way, they can develop their species through “natural” and
artificial selection, much as they might build characters in role-playing games. In this way, a
table (EM + players) can create longer “campaigns” with the same species to see how the
ecosystem changes over time.

Food for thought:

What happens to predators and their prey over time as they evolve to overcome each other’s
weapons and defenses?

What happens to mutualistic relationships (a relationship between two organisms that
benefits both) over time? Why?

Can two organisms at the same trophic level co-exist? How?


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to permit their use in free software.




I just got the news that my IRB application was approved, and I am now ready to proceed with play-testing! The prototype for Deme is currently occupying the space under our end table—a strange assortment of bits and pieces gathered into a plastic grocery bag.

The next step is to have my participants to play a round of an established tabletop strategy game. This will help me build my coding frame and observe how the group dynamic works with an established product. After that, we’ll take on Deme itself and discuss its mechanics afterward.*

Exposing a game to actual players can be a scary prospect. This thing has been twisting and turning in my mind for a long time now, and I’ve scaled it back significantly since I started. I want my rule system to be a skeleton, not a cage—this has become my development mantra. I remind myself that this is only the beginning of the process for Deme, and I have to keep the players in mind from the start. The game is about building and exploiting player-defined systems, after all.

Once I have a robust and enjoyable rule system in place, I want Deme to truly belong to anyone who wants to play it. It could succeed. It could fail. It could become something beautiful due to unforeseen changes—or even a complete overhaul—made by someone else.

That’s a long way off, though. Deme is still in the nursery, and I’m inviting a few people in to look it over and make sure it’s healthy. It won’t be moving out on its own until well after this project has concluded. I hope it knows how to do its own laundry by then.

*Oops! This is an idea that we had discussed, but it will not be part of this project. I’ll be building my coding frame and doing my analysis based on Deme alone. This will give me a chance to evaluate Deme more or less on its own terms first. It will also give me more time to analyze the data I have, as I’ll have less video data to crawl through. There’s some good existing literature on player discourse in established games.

As I gear up for Deme‘s first play tests, I find it useful (if intimidating) to look past the initial design phase to what its future might hold. If I choose to publish Deme as a boxed-and-ready board game, I’ll have in mind Ben Kuchera’s recent piece for the Penny Arcade Report. Kuchera interviewed James Mathe of Minion Games about the realities of using Kickstarter to fund a board game.

“Mathe said that his fulfillment company stated that out of 80 new products in 2012, only 22 of them sold over 500 units at retail. That’s a sobering look at the reality of the board game business, and it’s a business with a heavy cost in terms of production and shipping. In contrast, Mathe gets production quotes assuming runs of 1,500 to 2,000 copies of each game. ‘You’re not going to sell more then [sic] that on Kickstarter and through distribution unless you have a real hit of a game,’ he explained. ‘Which is rare, though everyone thinks their game is great.'”

Publication and distribution issues are still a way off for me. Still, they will be waiting as soon as I feel that Deme is ready for release. Should I go digital? Should I release Deme strictly as a rule set? Should I maintain a stock of pre-fab game sets for demos? The sooner I get people around the table, the sooner I’ll know.


After talking to a developer, I’m switching to a turn-based format for Deme. I probably should have done this to begin with, and my reasons for not doing so earlier owe a lot to my own misconceptions about myself.

I don’t think of myself as a turn-based game fan. When I find out a computer game is turn-based, I tend to stop reading the description and look for something else. Somehow, this notion of myself as a real-time game guy persists despite my whelming affection for several turn-based games. These include computer games and tabletop games alike. Of course, many tabletop games are inherently turn-based.

The new concept I’m pursuing is fairly simple, drawing mechanical inspiration from games like Battle for Wesnoth and Heroscape. These games, likewise, are derived from other systems (turn-based tabletop strategy games, in general, have an interesting genealogy that includes H.G. Wells). One benefit of a turn-based system is ease of balancing and modification. Real-time games require finer simulation, which means more complexity. I want people to be able to modify Deme in the future, so this process should be as painless as possible. Initial development will also be much faster and simpler.

Another big bonus is the ease with which the game can be prototyped and balanced on pen and paper. I have hauled out my 20-sided die for this purpose, just in case. Fortunately, HMSC is a pretty good place to find nerds, ecologists, biologists, computer geeks and gamers. I only learned recently that my minor advisor is an Age of Empires fan. At some point I may have to pit him against my wife, whose historic conquests in that game’s campaign mode have filled many a night with the din of clashing steel.

Meanwhile, I have rejoined the husbandry team. I’ve switched gears a couple of times to focus on one area of my career or another, so it’s interesting to walk between worlds. I find I miss the FCL Lab when I’m working on aquarium systems, but I miss the animals when I work on interpretation and design. I think—or rather, I hope—this is a good thing. I want to do everything. I find it very motivating, but it could become paralyzing without the proper focus.