Matt Carlson: The Evolution of Evo

Next week the Opinionated Gamers will be dialing the way-back machine several years to take a look at games of “ages” past. To help get everyone in the mood, today we’ll take a quick look at an older game that has been made (slightly) new again. Evo was released about 2001 and won a few awards, including the Games Magazine Game of the Year in 2002 – which is what spurred me to pick up a copy of the game and give it a try. I immediately fell in love with the cartoony theme of dinosaurs roaming an island attempting to futilely reproduce and prosper – right up to the point at which a giant asteroid suddenly strikes and wipes the entire island away. Making use of a nice bidding mechanism for a dino species “improvements”, Evo evokes a strong Euro auction feel while simultaneously preserving a bit of inter-player conflict on the island for the best living spaces. Fast forward to today, and Asmodee has rereleased Evo with some major art and component upgrades and (mostly) minor rules tweaks. While I miss my cartoony dinos, the Dino-eeples are still cute and all the rule changes seem to make a more balanced, friendlier, and faster playing game.

For those unfamiliar with the rules, players start with just a couple dinosaurs on the main board and a few victory points. Each round begins with players bidding on new abilities (or genes) for their dinosaurs, such as the ability to move further, protection from heat or cold, lay more eggs, have better attack and defense, etc… After genes are purchased (with victory points) players then take turns moving their dinos around the game board, trying to place them on the current “optimal” climate spaces. This is key, as the board has four types of spaces: desert, jungle, hills, and mountains – listed in order of hot to cold. If a player’s dino is caught outside the “best” climate at the end of the turn, it is destroyed unless it has the appropriate heat or cold protection. For example, each fur gene acquired protects a single dinosaur in a mildly cold area. (Any dino in an area two steps removed from optimal will die no matter what.) After player movement (which can sometimes include dino combat), players take turns laying an egg (more than one egg, if egg laying genes have been bought) onto an unoccupied square. Once all eggs have been laid, any dino (or baby dino) that is outside the optimal zone (and isn’t protected) will be destroyed. Players then gain a victory point for each surviving dino they possess. Things would be fairly simple, but at the end of every round of play, the climate shifts making a new zone the “optimal” zone so the very next turn players will be scrambling to rearrange their dinos to preserve as many as possible. The climate changes have a semi-predictable pattern, usually shifting only one space around a handy climate chart. However, occasionally the climate will stall, jump ahead, or go backwards for a turn – just to keep players on their toes. After a dozen or so rounds of play (it is a variable number), the game ends with the cataclysmic arrival of a comet which destroys the island and players count up their victory points to determine the winner.

One side note must be mentioned, and that is the auction mechanism. A gene for each player is drawn at random from a bag and placed in the auction area. Players then take turns bidding for a gene by placing their marker on the appropriate bid number next to the gene. If they are later out-bid, the outbid player immediately picks up their marker and makes a new bid. Only when all over-bidding stops amongst the players already on the board does the next player in order get to make a bid – which may start another chain of overbidding. As mentioned by Larry Levy, this was a very new style of bidding and is one of the best mechanics found in the game.

So, what are the changes in the new version of the game? Here’s a quick rundown of each change that I noted, along with some brief commentary on how I feel it changes the game, and whether I like it or not.

Old Version of Evo (2001)

New Version of Evo (2011)

Artwork and Components
The most obvious change in the game is a much less goofy, pastel, cartoon style and a more sci-fi or fantasy theme. Players are no longer dinosaurs themselves, they are a tribe of humans who coexist with a particular type of dinosaur (Avatar, anyone?). The art is very richly colored, although I feel the board is ever-so-slightly harder to distinguish and the player aides and other cards seem much more “busy”. Gone are the large discs with various dinosaur shadows, now everyone has the same shaped dino-meeples of their color. In one of the most significant component changes is the addition of the Mega-Scary Wheel of Climate!

At first this looks truly imposing, but after a bit of playing with it, I found it to be a welcome new edition. One of the hardest things to learn in the original game was what climate squares were presently safe, and which ones were probably going to be safe next turn. With the handy Mega-Scary Wheel of Climate, players can quickly glance to see the results. Look at the reading between the two “hands” on the wheel. The innermost area displays the optimal climate (white in the photo) above. The area type next to the “hot” dino picture is safe to any dinos with heat shields, the area next to the “cold” dino picture is safe for a dino with fur, and any climate displayed in the middle, next to the dino skeleton is deadly to dinos no matter what their adaptations. Players draw a tile at the end of each turn to find out how the climate wheel will rotate for the next turn. Typically, it is a single clockwise step, although a few tiles will hold still, back up a spot, or jump forward an extra spot. As the game nears the end, one of the last three tiles contains the meteor which instantly signals the end of the game. Fans of randomness will miss the die rolls that controlled the climate shifts, but having the wheel and drawing tiles allows for a special dino gene that can allow a player to look ahead each turn to find out how things will change for the next turn.
Verdict: Mixed, slightly negative due to my nostalgia for the original’s goofiness, although the climate wheel does help players keep track of which climates do what.

More Interesting Genes
The original game came with eight different genes for which players would bid each round. In the remake, there are a core set of similar genes, but also a subset of 8 unique genes (out of 12 unique genes included in the box) that are added to the mix of genes at the start of the game. In addition, rather than having a gene than can be drawn to grant a player a special event card (which gives mild one-time bonuses, which vary in usefulness but can be quite powerful in specific situations), a special event card is up for bidding every round by default. This reduces the number of advancement genes available and makes each gene purchased that much more valuable. In general, the special genes are slightly better than any of the more common ones, but that means players will bid even more heavily for their use. Since only a subset are used each game, a game of Evo can vary from game to game (even in a 5 player game where most genes are drawn during the game) since different combinations of the special genes will appear. My one complaint is with some of the special genes. The aggressive egg-laying gene in particular seems rather overpowered as it allows a player to attack by laying an egg on a player with about a 50% chance of success (better odds than an evenly matched standard attack). Since this is laying eggs and not attacking, players who have invested in horns (the game’s equivalent of military might) have no special defense. Heaven help the other players if someone with this special gene also gets multiple egg laying genes (and/or the gene that lets you lay eggs at a distance.)
Verdict: Positive. The new mix of genes are a nifty expansion/improvement on the old genes, with at least one exception.

Less Powerful Starts
In the original rules, each player begins the game with a single piece of fur, one parasol (the old way to protect against heat), and three event cards. In the new rules, players start with NO heat or cold adaptations and no event cards. To help make up for this, players do start with two dinos rather than just one (in the old rules.) While this change may seem minor, it has quite an impact in the game overall. With two less climate-protection genes at the start, the climate genes available in the auction are far more valuable and can demand bids comparable to the highly sought-after egg laying and movement genes. However, an even more subtle result comes from the initial lack of survival genes. With fewer genes available to preserve one’s dinos, there are more dino climate deaths earlier in the game. This keeps the overall population of the island lower, and reduces the inter-player conflict. It is still there, particularly as the end of the game approaches, but it is now far easier to well without investing in combat-oriented genes. As many Euro-fans tend to avoid issues of direct player conflict (and possible kingmaking that can arise) this is a positive adjustment to the game. Players also now start without any event cards (previously everyone got three). Again, this makes the event cards more valuable, but it has a couple minor downfalls. First, new players will have no idea what sorts of things event cards can do, so they might have to start their bidding without having any feel for the value of one of the items up for bid (there is always an event card up for bid instead of a gene.) Second, the event cards can sometimes influence a player’s longer term strategy. If a player has one or two interesting event cards to start the game, that may affect which genes they may pursue in the auction and what they might be willing to pay.
Verdict: Positive. Sparse starting resources makes every gene purchase a valuable one, and also provides a bit more wiggle room for players’ dino herds to develop.

Event Cards:
In the new version, the auction always contains an event card and then one less gene than the number of players. Thus, the event cards are always up for sale throughout the game. They tend to be bought by those looking for a cheaper “deal” to be had, but still provide a nice something for the penny-pinching saver types. The event cards have also been slightly more balanced. In the original games, there were a few cards that – in right circumstances – could devastate large swaths of dinos. The new event deck is a bit more subdued but is far more balanced as a result.
Verdict: With the exception of starting without any event cards, the new version uses them in a much more reasonable and less game-imbalancing way.

Auction Tweaked:
There is a slight tweak of the auction in the new version. Players may no longer bid more than 6 for any one gene (or card) so a jump bid of 6 points will guarantee a player a particular gene. Also, a player who is outbid is not allowed to immediately rebid on the same item. This makes a player’s initial bid much more important because they may not get to make a rebid on the same item. (If a player is overbid a second time they can always go back and rebid on their first choice item.)
Verdict: While the new auction style is a bit more confining (I see jump bids to 6 occurring more often), it also speeds up the bidding process as players have a motivation to bid their true value rather than fiddle around with lower bids to get a “feel” for how others are valuing the auction.

In the original game, dinos could bid on and grow longer tails. The dino with the longest tail would always get to go first (which grants them first crack at the best board spaces.) Ties were broken by the number of dinos on the board – fewer dinos got to go first. In the revised edition, players no longer have tails and initiative is purely a result of number of dinos on the board. Ties are resolved by which genes were purchased on the bidding board. This makes the event card slot even more valuable as that slot is the earliest slot for tiebreakers.
Verdict: Positive. As much as I miss the fun of the tails, the mechanics of the game do not need them and that makes room for more interesting gene abilities.

Hidden Victory Points:
Yes, the old game had a scoring track and the new game keeps track of points secretly via chips. I like the new version better, since players no longer know for sure who is winning the game. This makes any kingmaking that occurs more a result of previous in-game interactions (getting revenge) rather than something artificially from scores. It also makes for a nicer game if a player is running away with the game. The other players may suspect someone is doing well, but they aren’t entirely sure and won’t necessarily know they’re out of the running until the final results are tallied.
Verdict: I like the hidden victory points as it adds a bit of tension and removes the temptation to beat up on the leader just because they’re the leader. This makes a slow and steady approach to the game a more viable route to victory since one has less danger of being beat down in the final rounds.

Friendlier Combat:
Yes, you read that correctly. In the old version, if a dino attempted to move onto an occupied space, combat would occur via a die roll. Combat favors the defender, but If one player had more “horns” than the other they would typically have the advantage. That is all unchanged in the new rules. However, the attacker no longer dies on a failed attack roll. Instead, they remain where they were and could even attack again (if they have more movement left.) Thus, in an equal fight, a defending dino is more likely to win, but the attacking dino will only lose its movement rather than its life.
Verdict: Positive. This seems to balance out combat a bit more so that attacking and defending have similar value.

Final Thoughts:
So, if I were to create a hybrid version between the old and the new, what might I choose? I’d start with keeping the new climate wheel and its tiles over the old dice. Use my old goofy graphics and dino discs (well, probably my pimped-out cheap plastic dino replicas I’ve put into my old game). I’d use the new “friendlier” combat, and definitely have everyone start the game without any climate genes. I’m torn whether to give players an event card or two to start the game, so would possibly compromise with just one. Finally, I’ll probably stick with the new auction rules. While I have no big problem with the more open old rules, I think the new rules make the auctions progress just a little bit faster.

Should you buy it?
Well, if you own the original, at its heart it is pretty much the same game with the same mechanics and feel. If you don’t own it already or haven’t given the game a try, I’d highly encourage you to give it a go. While it is an older game, it has stood the test of time well and comes through as a modern classic. I don’t expect many current Evo owners will be picking up the new edition (although I’d recommend they try out some of the new rules variations) but as much as it pains me to say it, I think the new edition is a better game. It seems to be more streamlined and more balanced without sacrificing what made the original so darn good.

Comments from other Opinionated Gamers:

Ted Cheatham: Evo was a hit and a highlight the first time I played it. It was a “must buy”. Good for gamers and good for family. Play with the one less gene than the number of players for a better competitive game. I have not tried the new version and really am not concerned. I will keep my old copy and enjoy it every so often.

Lorna: Evo is still one of the old games that still makes it way to the table once every few years. It’s a very good auction game and I haven’t found anything to replace it. That said it’s highly unlikely I’ll get the new edition (I like the cartoon dinosaurs and genes better) and also highly unlikely I’ll ever play it unless purchased by someone in my game group-rather doubtful. Still I’m glad I have a copy.

Larry Levy: Evo got a reasonable amount of play from us when it first came out. I really appreciated the innovative method for simultaneously auctioning off multiple items (which has since been duplicated in games such as Amun-Re and many others). In fact, for a long time, the mechanic was called “Evo-style bidding”. The rest of the game was good, but not great. We actually preferred the standard method of playing, with a gene for each player–the differences in value for the different genes was sufficient that it made the bidding competitive enough. It’s been a long time since the game got any table time, so I don’t really have much interest in picking up the new version. The changes don’t necessarily sound like improvements, so if I got the itch, I’d probably just play the original.

Brian Leet: I think I enjoy the theme of Evo a bit too much to really enjoy the game. As soon as I see the evolutionary spark in the game, I want something with a rich tapestry of story and science, which is American or Bios Megafauna. Evo on the other hand is a pleasant enough Euro, but understandably doesn’t have the scientific or chaotic elements of these titles. As a result, I’ll play it, but never ended up that enthused about it. For my tastes the reprint sounds like a slightly improved version both in making the art a bit more serious and some small rules changes. I’m definitely looking forward to giving it a try.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

Love It!  Matt Carlson
Like it.   Ted Cheatham, Lorna, Larry Levy
Neutral.  Brian Leet
Not for me…

*Special thanks to Binraix and Bonaparte at BGG for the use of their photos.*

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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10 Responses to Matt Carlson: The Evolution of Evo

  1. David Brain says:

    Looking forward to getting this out again but with some of the new rules which sound like a good mix of well-established house rules (we always played with the event cards in the auction) and obviously sensible fixes.
    Nice to see an older game re-emerge blinking into the light.

  2. T.J. says:

    This made me think about a topic I’d like to see you all discuss as a round-table maybe. When the rules to a game change (and nothing or very little else), do you upgrade to the current rule set? I’m thinking of 4th edition Settlers of Catan or 3rd edition Carcassonne. (I know these are older games, but I’m a novice compared to you guys :-) and new games maybe shouldn’t have a rule revision yet) This is different then a house rule, although an article on that would be cool to. Love reading all the stuff here, keep up the good work!

  3. huzonfirst says:

    T.J., I don’t know what the differences are in Settlers, but as far as Carc is concerned, I always play with the first edition rules if I can get away with it. My view is that the other edition’s rules were simplifications implemented for reasons other than gameplay. The second edition farmer rules were added to make the game more palatable to the SdJ Jury (it worked!) and the third edition rules were changed because the second edition ones were just as confusing as the first edition’s. I feel that the original farmer rules make for a much more interesting game, at least with two players (which is really the only way I like Carc), so that’s what I play with. That can become an issue with some of the expansions, but since I only play with Inns & Cathedrals, that’s not a problem for me.

    In general, I’d want to play with what I consider the best rules to a game. Hopefully, you can get everyone at the table to agree to what that is.

    • out4blood says:

      The problem for me isn’t the difference in the rules by edition, the problem is knowing which rules go with which edition. I play a certain way, but I couldn’t tell you whether I play 1st, 2nd or 3rd edition rules, and when you say you prefer 1st editions rules, I still have no idea how you play it.

      • huzonfirst says:

        1. Completed cities made up of only 2 tiles score just 2 points. Completed cities made up of more than 2 tiles score 2 points per tile.

        2. Farmer scoring is per CITY (not per FARM). For each city, the player with the most farmers that can connect to it scores 4 points.

  4. Mark Johnson says:

    Did any of the changes impact the mobility and interaction on the board? As much as the theme and some mechanics were appealing about the original Evo, it had a weakness in that limited interaction on the game board. In contrast to games like Settlers, El Grande, or Through The Desert–or Keyearts own excellent Vinci–in Evo I found that I mostly rubbed shoulders or locked horns with my left & right neighbors on the board, not those across from me.

    • Matt J Carlson says:

      I would say there is a bit more mobility, but not a huge amount. In the 4p and 5p games I played, there were some cross-interactions. There’s a special mobile egg laying gene (lay eggs up to 2 spaces away) and an amphibious gene (all costal hexes are considered adjacent), and a flying gene (one movement during a turn can go up to 2 spaces and the first space moved over can be unoccupied)… so that helps some. I’d suspect the game has MORE mobility but possibly not enough to alleviate the weakness entirely. One is certainly going to meet up with one’s neighbors more frequently than the cross-board person…

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