By Aidan Stoddart
A Review of “Evolution”
A Board Game by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin
Published by North Star Games
I recently had the opportunity to play the ingenious biological tabletop game “Evolution” from North Star Games, and it was the most fun tabletop experience I’ve had in a long time. Designers Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin did an excellent job creating a colorful game that uses creative mechanics and nevertheless reaches an educational end: illustrating not only the process of animal evolution on a large scale, but also the development of dynamic and complex ecological relationships between species. The triumph of this game is not these scientific concepts alone; this game is an educational game that remains fun. After playing a plethora of pathetic made-for-school board games over the years, this was a breath of fresh air. This is a straight-up commercial board game for a wide audience that happens to have amazing ramifications for a biology classroom!
“Evolution” takes place in a variable series of rounds. Each round contains several phases. Most of the mechanics revolve around multi-functioned cards called Trait Cards. These cards are used to dictate how much food is available to the community, as currency to purchase new species and upgrades to body size and population, and most importantly as traits (as their name suggests) to augment the species that different players control.
Player species are the central “characters” of the game, and after starting with one, each player controls a variety of species as the game progresses. With each new round, species adapt new traits, eat plant food, hunt other species, grow in size or population, or go extinct, depending on how the events of the game play out. It’s actually really cool to see how the board changes by the endgame, because every player starts out with an ambiguous animal with no traits to speak of, a “common ancestor,” if you will, which is yet another biological concept.
The game ends when the Trait Cards are exhausted and have to be shuffled, and the player with the most points wins. The system which distributes points also contributes to the illustration of the central biological theme. Players get points based on the success of their species. According to the Darwinian model of evolution, a species is successful if it survives to reproduce. In the game “Evolution,” players get points for the amount of food that their species eat (survival), for their species population levels (reproduction), as well as points for the different traits on species that survive until the end of the game (essentially, the game rewards biological diversity, which in nature is indicative of a successful and healthy ecosystem).
This is without a doubt one of the most elegant games I have ever played, primarily because the same deck of Trait Cards has so many different jobs to do: producing food, creating adaptations, purchasing things, etc. I give the game designers credit for streamlining this so much; it creates some wonderfully interesting strategic conundrums. For example, if I am in phase I of the game, when players each donate a Trait Card of their choice to the center to produce food, I may have a dilemma because a Trait Card I have produces a lot of food (which I need), but also is a trait I want to use on one of my animals. I can’t do both, so I have to choose: players have to make sacrifices and it keeps the game interesting.
Another strength of the game is its ability to highlight biological interactions. Players can use Trait Cards like “Symbiosis” or “Warning Call” to create beneficial interactions between species that they control. Players can evolve their species into carnivores that prey on other player’s’ species. Players can respond to predatory threats by evolving defensive traits like hard shells or horns or defensive herding. Predators can augment their hunting capabilities through ambushes or pack hunting. All of these options are created by Trait Cards, and they allow for illustration of how over time animals evolve traits that help them in their environments, and sometimes evolve traits in tandem (coevolution). For example, if a big predator is on the loose, a player might give one of his species a hard shell so it can’t be hunted unless the predator is absolutely gigantic, which is unlikely. This is a summarized illustration of natural selection: overtime, we can assume that members of that species with hard shells were the only ones to survive the wrath of the fearsome predator, so they came to dominate the population. And perhaps the player controlling the carnivore would use his or her Trait Cards to increase the size of his or her species so it could successfully hunt the shelled creature: coevolution. These biological interactions add 1) nuance (and thus intrigue) and 2) interactions between players to create a fascinating game.
I might add that there are so many Trait Cards and so many permutations of traits that the game can be played differently each time, giving it a high replay value and encouraging creativity. Maybe a player will want to play a game exclusively as a carnivore, or exclusively as a herbivore, or try and create magnificent megafauna. There is a lot to keep track of this way, but luckily the instructions are comprehensive and, more importantly, comprehensible, so anyone could pick up this game and start learning the nuances right away.
The possibilities are endless in the “Evolution,” and after having such a fun time playing it with my friends at school, I look forward to purchasing it so I can bring it to my next game night.