Buzzworthiness: Evolution

Thanks to North Star Games for providing a review copy of this game.

image by BGG user henk.rolleman
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

Evolution is a 2-6 player game from North Star Games that was designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin.  It was based on the 2010 game Evolution: The Origin of Species from Rightgames LLC, though it has been altered significantly.  The original game was designed by a biologist trying to explain to students how evolution works.  This concept has been carried into North Star’s version.

The game comes with a watering board, 129 trait cards, 24 species boards, 48 cubes, 180 food tokens, 6 food bags, and a dinosaur first player marker.  There are also six player aids that outline the flow of a round, as well as giving you suggestions for naming your species.  At the beginning of the game, each player gets a food bag and one player gets the first player marker.  The trait cards are shuffled, and you’re ready to go.

Each round begins with anyone who does not currently have a species gaining a species board (everyone gets one on the first turn).  You then draw 3 cards plus one per species you have.  Each player then plays one of their cards into the watering hole – the number on this card will help determine how much food will be available.  Each player can then play as many cards as they wish from their hand.  You can play it next to a species board as a trait (face down), or discard it to increase your population, body size, or gain a new species.  Here are the possible traits:

  • Ambush: Allows a carnivore to attack a species with Warning Call.
  • Burrowing: If full, it may not be attacked by a carnivore.
  • Carnivore: May attack other species, taking a meat food and reducing their population.
  • Climbing: May only be attacked by a carnivore that also has climbing.
  • Cooperation: When taking food, the species to its right also gets food from the same source.
  • Defensive Herding: May only be attacked by a carnivore with a higher population rather than body size.
  • Fat Tissue: May continue taking food after full, up to its body size.  This will be moved to the food track at the start of the next feeding phase.  Any leftover food when the trait is discarded due to extinction, trading in, or game end will be scored.
  • Fertile: If there is food in the watering hole from the previous round, increase population by one when food cards are revealed.
  • Foraging: Take an additional food when taking plant food.
  • Hard Shell: Increases body size by four when determining if it can be attacked by a carnivore.
  • Horns: If attacked, the attacking carnivore decreases its population by one.
  • Intelligence: If attached to a carnivore, you can discard a card to negate a trait of the species you’re about to attack.  If attached to a non-carnivore, you can discard a card for two plant food from the bank.
  • Long Neck: You get a food from the food bank when the food cards are revealed.
  • Pack Hunting: Body size is equal to population plus body size when determining who can be attacked.
  • Scavenger: Take a food from the food bank whenever a species loses one or more population during an attack.
  • Symbiosis: Protected from attack by a species you control to the right with a larger body size.
  • Warning Call: Species to the left and right cannot be attacked unless the carnivore has Ambush.

Once all traits have been played, you reveal them, then reveal the food cards, placing the corresponding amount of food in the watering hole.  Players then take turns taking one plant food from the watering hole and giving it to a species.  Each species can only eat as much as its population size.  Of course, there are traits that will allow you to take more food, or store food, or could even make a species carnivorous.  Carnivores attack smaller species and take meat from the food bank, which reduces the attacked species’ population.  Once feeding is done because no one else can take food, any species that was not fully fed reduces its population to the highest amount of food eaten.  A species that ate nothing or that got wiped out by carnivores goes extinct – discard the species and all traits it had, then draw one card per lost trait.  Once population has been adjusted, food is placed in your bag and it’s time for a new round.

Once the trait deck runs out, the game ends.  Players score one point per food token collected plus one point per surviving population plus one point per remaining trait on species.  The player with the highest score wins.

CHANGES: The copy sent to me by North Star is the second edition, which has some changes from the first edition.  Here they are:

  • New cover art.
  • New background art on some trait cards.
  • New graphic design for the watering hole.
  • Food numbers on cards reduced.
  • Food left on fat tissue will always score.
  • Foraging triggers anytime you eat from the watering hole or food bank.
  • Pack hunting used to be +3 to body size, now it’s body size plus population.
  • Hard shell is now +4 instead of +3 to body size.
  • Fertile only occurs if there is leftover food.
  • Intelligence can now be used by non-carnivores before the first player feeds and several times in a row if desired.
image by BGG user henk.rolleman
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

COMPONENTS: This is a very well produced game.  The art is beautiful, with lots of colorful and inventive species types.  The species boards are well designed, with holes that are exactly the right size for cubes lined up perfectly with circular spaces for the food.  The species boards also have a nice feature that they can be played horizontally or vertically, depending on space needs.  The cards are good quality, and there are plenty of them.  Theres also more than enough food tokens and cubes for the game.  The bags are small pouches for the food, and are made of a nice satiny material, and each one has a different illustration taken from one of the cards.  They’re my favorite piece in the game.

The watering hole and dinosaur first player marker are both little bits of over-production that I think help the experience.  The watering hole is nothing more than storage for the food that is available during the round, and the dinosaur is just a giant piece so you can tell who the first player is.  Both are ultimately useless in terms of game play, but both are still really cool and go a long way towards enhancing the look of the game.

I often give games grief because of storage.  I can’t do that here.  The insert is VERY well designed.  Everything has a place, and there’s room for an expansion or two without sacrificing the security of the base bits.  Also, baggies are provided, and that always goes a long way with me.  The player aids that are included do a great job in laying out the turn sequence, and also telling you what each trait does.

Overall, the components are very well done.  Great job, North Star – no complaints at all from me.

THEME: This is a fairly unique theme among games, and it’s done really well.  There is, of course, a certain amount of abstraction going on – evolution is not nearly as easy as just playing a card, nor is the building of population, body size, or a new species as easy as discarding one.  However, the game does a very good job of representing how species have to evolve in order to survive.  Each trait makes sense thematically – a species who can climb is a lot tougher to catch if a carnivore can’t climb, a hard shell is tougher to get through, and a burrower would naturally go underground once it has eaten all that it can.

The thematic touch I like the most in this game is that you can name your species.  Once you have at least two traits on the species, you can look at a chart on your player aid to figure out what you should call it.  For example, a carnivore with a hard shell could be called a Crustaraptor.  Or a forager with horns could be a Cornusaquilex.  Or a creature with intelligence and cooperation could be a Collabageek.  There are actually two different sets of prefixes and suffixes depending on the player aid you get.

I’ll end this section by dipping my toe into a little bit of controversy.  Evolution can be a touchy subject for some people who reject it as an explanation for the development of species.  I’m not going to get into that debate at all here, but it’s something to be aware of.  You may encounter people who refuse to play based on their beliefs.  I asked Dominic Crapuchettes about this, and he said that they spent a lot of time testing out other titles, such as Adaptation.  However, nothing really seemed to fit as well as Evolution, which they hope will become a genre much like Civilization games.  So they stuck with it.  To me, this game does not feel like it is trying to push the theory of evolution on the gamers, but rather just trying to illustrate the concept.

MECHANICS: Evolution is primarily an engine building game.  The engine you are building is your species, and you’re trying to get them to collect as much food as possible.  These engines are going to be in flux throughout the game as you add new traits, replace old traits, increase your population and body size, and maybe even lose them.  You have a three-trait limit per species, but you can just discard old traits as you go.  This is good because often traits won’t make sense after a while.  No sense to have Warning Call if there are no carnivores.  No point to have Fertile if no food is remaining between rounds.

This game also features one of my favorite mechanisms, one that I don’t think has an official name.  I call them multipurpose cards – cards that can be used in a number of different ways.  Here, cards can be used to determine food, or as traits, or to increase a statistic.  This leads to lots of choices that need to be made as you determine what needs to be used and what is expendable and can be spent as currency.  Traits in play interact very well and seem very balanced – I tend to like Fat Tissue a lot because it allows you to collect extra food, but otherwise I can’t really think of any trait that is really overpowered.  Some of the traits have be rebalanced from the original edition to make them less powerful/more useful.  I do have some friends that played the first edition and found carnivores were too powerful early in the game.  I haven’t found this to be the case so far, but your mileage may vary.  I think it probably balances out with experience.

The game also has secret play.  Food is contributed in secret, so you don’t know exactly what others are doing.  Traits are played in secret, and not revealed until everyone has played theirs.  You can see where other players are, and you can try to guess where they’re going, but you don’t know for sure.  The first time I played, I accidentally let everyone play their traits face up, and while that meant people were more able to plan ahead, it put the first player at a significant disadvantage.  Playing them secretly keeps people on a somewhat level playing field.

The card deck is the timer for the game, and you can tell how much longer the game will go just by looking at it.  As my friend Zack pointed out, the deck will decrease quicker as the game goes on because players are getting more cards due to having more species, as well as replacing traits in extinct species.  Even though species can go extinct, there’s no player elimination in the game.  In fact, the game goes out of its way to make sure players can come back strong by giving them extra cards when a species dies off.  This can help you get right back in it, and in fact, letting a species die out might be a strategic move.

STRATEGY LEVEL: There is a certain amount of luck that will always be present in a game with cards.  You have to draw cards, and won’t necessarily get what you’re looking for.  However, it’s all about finding the right combinations, and then trying to use your strengths to your advantage.  If you’ve got the only carnivore on the table, you might want to work on being big enough to pick on everyone.  If you’re surrounded by carnivores, add some extra defense and let them fight it out.  Out of 129 cards, there are only 17 different types – 17 carnivores and 7 of everything else.  So if you miss something you need, you’ll probably find it again.

The big choice that must be made in the game is deciding which cards are expendable and can be used for food or your stats.  Trait must be considered, but number also plays a role in deciding which food card you will contribute – if you have all carnivores, you don’t care about food in the middle; if you have herbivores that can take extra food, you may want a lot of extra.  Then you need to decide when to get a new species, and whether to increase population or body size.  So while there is luck, you have to make the decisions about what to do with the hand you’ve been dealt.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is a fairly straightforward game.  It does not have a lot of complicated mechanisms, and North Star has put a lot of work into making it user friendly.  I think I’d probably put it into the gateway category – it gives an introduction to engine building in a concrete way (you want your species to survive, how are you going to make sure that happens), and does not get bogged down in complexity.  It is a thinker, but it’s not a brain burner.

REPLAYABILITY: The fun part of this game is finding new combinations of species.  With 17 different trait possibilities, there are over 4000 possible combinations out there.  So it’s unlikely you’ll have the same species twice.  Different playing styles will also mean that games play out differently every time.  So I think the game has pretty high replayability.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 2-6 players, but it’s really for 3-5 players with 2- and 6-player variants.  The variants don’t necessarily change the game – for 2-players, you remove 40 cards from the deck and can only have 2 traits per species; for 6-players, everyone can play their cards simultaneously, just not looking at what the others are doing.  In fact, this 6-player version is the Quick Play variant that can be used with other player counts to decrease downtime.  Downtime is not a significant problem in the game as long as people think about what they want to do when it’s not their turn.  The benefit of the deck being the timer is that games will last roughly the same amount of time no matter the player count.  It’s just that the downtime increases.  But it tends to move fairly quickly, and I like being able to see what others were doing before me so I can react somewhat.  I’ve played with 3- and 4-players, and both counts work.

INTERACTION: All the direct interaction comes during the feeding phase as you try to get food before the others and attack with your carnivores.  But there’s some indirect interaction in playing your cards as you look around, see what others have done or are likely to do, and react with your own play – beefing up your body size so that hungry carnivore doesn’t target you, adding more population to take advantage of a hoped for food surplus, and of course adding traits to give you an advantage.

FOOTPRINT: Not much room is needed for the main game components (watering hole, food bank, draw deck), but each individual player will also need some room for species.  There’s no species limit, but I haven’t played a game yet where anyone had more than three.  However, it could happen.  My first game (three players) was on a small table and worked fine.  My second game (four players) was on a larger table, and we needed it.

LEGACY: North Star made a name for themselves in the party game market – Wits & Wagers and Say Anything are two of the best party games ever made, and some of the few that I’ll recommend.  This is a very different game for them – it’s a strategy game that probably ISN’T good for parties.  Still, it’s a good accessible game that should be good for gamers and non-gamers alike.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I like Evolution quite a bit.  From the beautiful art to the strategic choices that can be found throughout the play of cards, this game is a real winner for me.  I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, but on my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, it gets a solid


Some bonus content for you today as the Kickstarter campaign for the first expansion began today.

image provided by North Star Games
image provided by North Star Games
image provided by North Star Games
image provided by North Star Games

Flight is an expansion for the Evolution game system that adds…well…birds.  The expansion comes with 12 avian species boards, 12 cardboard flight trait cards, 48 new trait cards, and a cliff board.  The flight trait is what makes your species a bird, and acts just like a regular trait – it counts as one of your three, can be negated by Intelligence, and counts as one point at the end of the game.  It can also be traded in for another trait, but then your species becomes a land species and you switch boards.  Avian species have a maximum body size of three rather than six, and two cards must be discarded to create one.  You also get an upkeep cost for each bird since they need more energy to fly – you must take food equal to their body size before you can start taking food for their population.  Upkeep food is not scored – it is returned to the food bank at the end of the round.

image provided by North Star Games
image provided by North Star Games

Another new aspect of this game is the introduction of Event cards, which are played from your hand to the discard pile for what they do or are discarded to draw a new card.  There are two Event cards in the this expansion, Dive Bomb and Seed Dispersal.  The cliff is a new source of food that gets food equal to the number of players when the food cards are revealed.

Gameplay is generally the same, with the changes already mentioned.  The only other change is in setup and game end.  All 48 trait cards are shuffled into the deck, then 30 cards are removed.  When you get to the end of the deck, rather than reshuffling the discard pile, you just use the 30 cards set aside, still ending after the current round.

I talked with Dominic recently about the expansion, and he told me that they approached the game with three things in mind.  First was theme – they wanted to remain true to nature, and because birds really do have a different makeup than land animals, there had to be some new mechanisms in play.  Hence, upkeep.  The second thing was depth of play – they wanted to make sure that the choices were not obvious and it still had to be an engaging experience.  Third was simplicity – they wanted anyone to be able to play.

This expansion was completely made in house – the original Evolution has an expansion called Time To Fly, but Flight didn’t use any of it.  Dominic mentioned that North Star is really going all in on supporting Evolution for the next ten years (at least) with expansions, digital versions, scenarios, offshoots, and more.  There’s a lot of ambition there, and the current Kickstarter campaign is going to help them out in bringing this vision to life.  Go check it out – you can get the expansion for just $25, the base game for $55, or the base game with the expansion for $75.  You have until May 24, but the quicker it funds, the more they can work on stretch goals, including free second edition cards to all backers of the first edition and a giant bird as an alternative start player marker.

Thanks again to North Star for providing the review copy of Evolution, and thanks to you for reading!



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