Ecosystem Building Game (V1.3)

(In progress)

Game designed by Fenrislorsrai, with feedback from ColinD , Naturalismus, Wootfish, Forbidding, TheCharles, glunsforddavis, Havoc Jack, Cubist.. Editorial oversight and figures by db
Initial notes in the Phylomon Forum (link) | V1.1 | V1.2 | playtest reports 1 | 2 | 3 | 4.

– Create starter decks (pdfs that collect 30 cards for ease of printing)
– Continue to suggest play effects of Event cards.
– Continue testing V1.3 rules and leave feedback.
– Suggest needed organisms for better gameplay (currently grassland, forest, and urban cards have good diversity – the others not so much)

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Ecosystems rock! They really do, and to be honest, we sometimes think the word “ecosystem” is kind of bland and just doesn’t do justice to the concept. That’s why we hope in this game, the inherent awesomeness of this ecological term will soon become pretty clear. Here, two players will have the opportunity to play with cards (from a potential card set of over 1.9 million!), and build an ecosystem that is complete with many different species interconnected by terrain, climate and habitat. However, players also get to compete against each other by tallying up and seeing who has the most points at the end of the game. These points basically reveal who did the better job at creating the strongest, richest, and most diverse elements of the ecosystem. Why do you want strong, rich and diverse? Because the environment can be nasty sometimes – and biodiversity, especially lots of it, is really really good at safe-guarding against such things.

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Let’s start by saying that the word “compatibility” comes up an awful lot in this game.  But what it’s referring to is pretty straightforward.  On all of the cards, there are details that tell you what kind of conditions it needs – for example, this might be the kind of terrain or climate involved, the food it likes, or maybe the card you’re holding is very very picky and needs something very very specific.  In any event, we hope you’ll pick things up pretty quick.  It’s amazing how a statement like “herbivores eat plants” translates to a mouthful when describing it in card keywords and numbers, but mark our words, we’ve tried our best to make everything largely intuitive.

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A player’s species cards are always played adjacent to at least one compatible card under that same player’s control.

These are the cards that represent the various organisms on our planet Earth. In essence, all values and attributes on the card aim to describe the creature as in real life (i.e. the cards are more or less like fact holders). Attributes on the cards include #SCALE (how big is it), #FOODCHAIN, DIET (these two provide information on what the species needs for sustenance), as well as habitat information (various combinations of TERRAIN and CLIMATE).

These cards will also have other pieces of info, such as words that describe their evolutionary position, as well as text that may explain some special ability or interesting trivia.  Note that each species is also worth a certain number of points, which have been calculated based on the ease to include them in the ecosystem.  i.e. creatures with wide habitat options, lower food chain expectations, and/or have properties that make them easier to play will score lower.

Event cards can be played on any species card.

These cards define some sort of environmental situation, and are played on top of species cards. This will often result in a change of some sort that may have a domino effect on neighbouring cards. The number on the top of these cards signify duration (number of turns the event is played).  A strategic element of this game will largely depend on building ecosystems that can adapt to such events or are minimally affected.

Starter cards are played only at the beginning of the game.

Starter cards are typically HOME cards. The game starts with each player having a HOME card played on the table separated only by a single space.  You can play any SPECIES next to a starter card regardless of TERRAIN and CLIMATE requirements.

Habitat cards can be played anywhere as long as it is placed adjacent to a single card with at least one TERRAIN and one CLIMATE match.

These cards define a habitat (with TERRAIN and CLIMATE information).  You can play these cards just like species cards and connect to existing “compatible” networks.  Habitat cards are worth very little points, but compensate by being immune to EVENTS (i.e. they are permanent). Played strategically, they can help anchor certain TERRAIN and CLIMATE conditions, as well as allow players to begin species networks in areas not under their control.  Note that you can also start a game with a habitat card (instead of a starter card) – this way of starting is more restrictive given the terrain and climate limitations, but you get to score a few extra points.

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Two players will sit facing each other, each with a deck of 30 cards. Decks can be thematic (i.e. only locale specific cards), or hand chosen by the player from the Phylo website.  Each player will also place a STARTER (or preselected HABITAT) card on the table, such that the two such cards are adjacent but facing opposite directions to each other. Each player will then randomly draw 5 cards from their deck. To decide who goes first, each player reveals a species card from their hand. Whoever reveals the species with the highest #SCALE goes first (flip a coin if tied).


Whenever cards are played, they are played facing the active player to distinguish possession. During each turn, a player does the following in this order:

1. Draw two cards from the deck.

2. Take three actions from the following choices (it’s o.k. to do two or three actions that are the same):

  • Discard 1 card into discard pile to draw 3 cards.
  • Play a habitat card (next to any compatible card).
  • Play a species card (next to a compatible card under your control).
  • Play an Event card.
  • MOVE a species card to new compatible spot (new position need not be next to a card under your control).
  • Pass and do nothing.

3. After your actions, remove cards under your control that are no longer have compatible connections. These go into your discard pile. Your opponent will probably help you out here! (NOTE that this step is done after your three actions so that you have an opportunity to react to ecosystem changes introduced by the other player)

4. Alternate turns. When a player has taken their last card from their deck, the game ends at the conclusion of the other player’s turn.

5. Tally up all the points that are in your possession and still face up (even those under cards) and still on the table. Winner is the player with the most number of points.

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This is the essence of the game and is primarily done by creating networks of SPECIES and HABITAT cards.  Here, cards are placed against each other such that at least one compatible link is present.  Compatibility is based on several things, which all must be met by at least one single card.  These are:

  1. That there is space on the table to place the card.  There are some exceptions to this rule, where cards can be played on top or below existing cards – these often involve SPECIES with special keywords, such as being INVASIVE as an example (see 4).  Note that SPECIES cards can only be played next to other cards under the same player’s control.  HABITAT cards can be played next to either player’s cards.
  2. That at least one TERRAIN and one CLIMATE match.  Note that many species can exist in more that one TERRAIN and/or CLIMATE.  These cards, therefore, tend to be easier to build networks around.
  3. That at least one acceptable food chain link is available.  This is hopefully fairly intuitive, as the game uses basic food chain principles.  However, from a card perspective, this would involve the following rules.
    • Species with a #FOODCHAIN value of “1” can be played adjacent to any other card as long as there is TERRAIN and CLIMATE compatibility.  This simply means that things like plants and microbes do not rely on other SPECIES for food.  i.e. they get sustenance from the sun or the chemistry around them.
    • Generally, for #FOODCHAIN of 2 or higher, the card is placed next to one with a #FOODCHAIN value that is equivalent or one below.  However, exceptions to this include omnivores, which (regardless of #FOODCHAIN rank) can always have the option being played next to a plantae species (who have a #FOODCHAIN value of 1).
    • Whenever the play implies a carnivorous linkage, the played card must have a higher #SCALE value unless text on the card provides an exemption.  This simply means that, generally speaking, animals will tend to feed off of smaller animals.  This, of course, does not apply to herbivorous interactions (i.e. an animal can still feed from a plant even though the plant may be bigger).
  4. Some species have special keywords that allow them to be placed directly on top or below other SPECIES card.  Here, compatibility is always described on the card itself, as well as needing to meet the usual ecosystem building rules. Note that there can never be more than 2 SPECIES cards in the same card space (no card towers of 3 or higher), unless special text on the card exempts this.  Below are some of the more commonly seen keywords:
    • INVASIVE: Any compatible card is flipped over, when an INVASIVE species is played on top.  This means that the INVASIVE card now provides TERRAIN and CLIMATE information for that space.  This also means that the player now has the option to build from the INVASIVE card (as it is under his/her control).  Note that the card below may be released should the INVASIVE card be removed due to linkage or EVENT CARD issues.
    • PARASITIC: These cards are placed below the compatible “host” SPECIES card. Here, they do not play a role in determining ecosystem details (i.e. TERRAIN, CLIMATE, etc) for that card space, but they can be used for scoring at the end of the game. Note that although many PARASITIC species cards require a host, there are also many that can be played like a normal SPECIES card.

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Much like the natural world, ecosystems are susceptible to all sorts of change. Sometimes, this might be small (it’s windy), whereas other times, it may be quite profound (climate change). In this game, there are a number of ways to modify the networks that you and your opponent have created. These offer ways for you to stress, adapt, or strengthen existing card links, be it your own or your opponents. Remember that because the ecosystem is built on compatible linkage, sometimes a single card change or loss can result in a domino effect with far reaching consequences!

Ways to change the ecosystem include:

1. A species card is affected by placement of another species card on top or below. Examples include the aforementioned INVASIVE and PARASITIC keywords.

2. You “move” a card. Most species are mobile. This mobility can change compatibility links, as well as provide a way to escape harmful effects. This can be represented by keywords such as:

  • MOVE (the number of spots a species card can move – straight line, up, down, sideways movement only);
  • FLIGHT (the number of spots a species can fly – same as MOVE but can also include diagonal movement); and
  • SPREAD (similar to the MOVE keyword, in that it allows organisms such as plants to MOVE. The principle differences are that (1) often this ability requires something additional (like the presence of a POLLINATOR or a WIND Event card), and (2) instead of moving the species, you place cards upside down and adjacent to the spreading species card denote the spread. Here, it might be good idea to place a token on these upside down cards so that you can keep track of what is yours (note that seeds make good tokens)!

3. You play an EVENT card. These cards are played on compatible species cards, whereby the described effect comes into play. This often involves things like changes in the TERRAIN, CLIMATE, loss of the species card, etc.

In all cases, the other player will always have an opportunity to react to the change, before examining whether species cards need to be discarded because of loss of compatible linkage.

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At the beginning, there will be two adjacent “start” cards (one for each player) placed on the table (for example, something like the below).

Let’s say you get to go first. You already have 5 cards in your hand, but you also pick up 2 new cards for a total of 7.  You also have three actions that you can use before it is your opponent’s turn. Because the HOME card represents all TERRAINS and all CLIMATES, it’s fairly easy to build from. However, you would still need to begin by placing a #FOODCHAIN 1 card to begin linkage. Alternatively, a HABITAT card could also be placed in this initial action.

We’ll start by placing a VALLEY OAK card next to your HOME. Note that there are three possible spots you can use. All three are compatible, and also vacant for use.

Let’s say we place the VALLEY OAK card to the immediate left of the HOME.

Now, we have two more actions to use up, and here, we decide to add an INDIAN PLUM card next to the VALLEY OAK (ACTION 2 in below figure). This works because INDIAN PLUM is a #FOODCHAIN 1 card, meaning that it doesn’t need food chain compatibility. However, it still needs to be next to cards with appropriate TERRAIN compatibility. In this case, this works o.k. because INDIAN PLUM can survive on both FOREST and GRASSLAND.

For our third action, the above figure shows a number of options for playing a HORSE card. Essentially, only option 1 works, because all of the compatibility requirements are met. The other two options (#2 and #3) have some incompatibility, and therefore cannot be played.

Basically, option #1 produces the following network: HORSE to INDIAN PLUM to VALLEY OAK to HOME. Note however that the HORSE is fine even if the VALLEY OAK is removed, since the INDIAN PLUM can act as the primary food source anchor.

After your three actions, it’s time the other player makes sure you don’t have any incompatible connections.  Any found will result in discarding the card(s).  Note that this only applies to your cards.

Now it’s the other player’s turn. Since this is his/her first turn, he/she should have 7 cards in total (5 in the initial deck plus 2 more picked up)

Throughout the game, your opponent will place cards on the table so that they are facing him/her (i.e. in the opposite direction – this is how you can tell each others cards apart).

Note that a player cannot place species cards down, unless they are next to a card under his/her control. Therefore, since we are at the start of the game, this will mean that your opponent will need to play a card adjacent to his/her own HOME card. Alternatively, HABITAT cards can be played next to the other player’s cards as long as there is TERRAIN and CLIMATE compatibility. These two options are shown in the figure below as action #1 and action #2.

Now let’s pretend that your opponent wishes to use an EVENT card for his/her third action. We’ll do this to show how they work, as well as how you can use keywords like MOVE to adapt. Let’s use the WILDFIRE event card, which as described in the text on the card, can be played on any Plantae species with GRASSLAND or FOREST terrain.

As you can see, when the WILDFIRE card is played on the INDIAN PLUM, the HORSE is now missing a necessary compatible link (i.e. something to eat). Therefore, it is now in danger of being discarded.

Fortunately, the rules allow a player to react to these changes. And in this respect, the below figure highlights two possible things a player can do to avoid discarding the HORSE.

One option is to MOVE the HORSE to a new space where the needed links exist. Note that the new position for the HORSE is actually adjacent to a card under the control of the other player, which according to the rules is allowable. As well, note that we used the maximum 2 moves that the HORSE is capable of.

The second option is to simply provide the necessary links to the HORSE by playing a new species card in the appropriate place. In this case, we have placed an INDIAN PLUM card in a new spot to provide food for the HORSE.

In this way, the game played back and forth. The key is to create links that have redundancies built in (i.e. if something is discarded, there are other connections that can compensate), or built networks that allow for adaptation by movements or other keywords.


INVASIVE: If a species is considered invasive, the player can play this species card on top of another as instructions dictate. The card underneath is flipped over and is no longer worth points unless the INVASIVE is removed.

PARASITE: If a species is considered parasitic, the player can play this species card underneath another as instructions dictate. Both cards are worth points.

POLLINATOR: A pollinator species if placed adjacent to a plantae species (that requires a POLLINATOR), can allow the plant to spread. Spreading can be shown by using cards from the person’s hand placed upside down. Note that these extra cards do not provide additional points, but may create better ecosystems by improving how species and habitats are linked to each other. Using a pollinator to place an upside down card will use up an action.

WIND: A special EVENT card needed to allow spreading of certain plantae cards. You can play this card on top of such cards.

SPREAD: Same as MOVEment except with respect to stationary organisms such as plants. Often the ability to SPREAD requires additional cards (like WIND or POLLINATOR).


When a player has taken their last card from their deck, the game ends at the conclusion of the other player’s turn. Tally up all the food chain points in species card that are in your possession and still on the table. Winner is the player with the most number of points.