Matt Carlson: Review of Evolution (2nd Edition)

Evolution_BoxIn Evolution, players shepherd their species through a progressively more competitive environment.  Get your species to live long and prosper, measured by one’s food intake over the course of the game, and you win the game.  Limited food, players creating carnivorous species, and subsequent adaptation to avoid them, creates a fun, fast playing game suitable for “serious” boardgamers as well as a family game night.

Evolution

  • Designers: Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, Sergey Machin
  • Publisher: North Star Games
  • Ages: 10+
  • Players: 2-6
  • Time: 60 mins
  • Times played: 12, with review copy provided by North Star Games

The the theme of the game is quite simple.  Each player starts with a basic species, represented by a body size and population, and tries to grow that (and additional) species throughout the game.  At the end of each round, a species must eat food equivalent to its population or have its population reduced.  The overall goal of the game is to finish with the most food eaten (plus the total population of all your species.)

evolution-layout

Brief Overview of Rules (Check out another OpG review later today for detailed rules.)

Each round, players are dealt cards they can use to improve their species.  First, one card is donated to the central feeding pool (more on that later) and the rest of the cards can be used in one of four ways.  Any card can be discarded to increase a species population, increase a species body size, or used to create an additional new species to manage.  In order to win, a player needs to be able to manage several species through the game in order to garner enough food to win.  The final use of a card is to play it on a species to give it new adaptations.  Up to three adaptations can be on a species at a time.  Most of these allow a species to improve its food gathering abilities (either from additional sources or through more efficient methods) or allow a species to avoid predators.  One of the adaptation cards causes a species to become a predator.  Predators do not eat from the central pile, they prey on other species instead.  They must be larger in body size than the “prey” (thus the usefulness of body size) and be able to get through the prey’s defenses.  For example, a climbing predator could eat a smaller, climbing species.  When the carnivore feeds, it takes food equal to the prey’s body size (so eating larger animals will feed your predator population more quickly.)  In order to combat other species defenses, there are several predator-only adaptations that can counteract specific prey defenses.

After players finish spending their cards (players are allowed to keep unspent cards for later), the cards donated to the central feeding pool are revealed.  Each card has a listed “food value” and food tokens equal to the sum of those values are placed in the central area.  One food is revealed, players then take turns grabbing one food token from the central area to feed their species.  Carnivores attack the opponent species instead of removing tokens from the middle.  Once every species is fed (as much as it can), players reduce any species to a population level equal to the amount it was fed.  All food tokens are then removed and placed in a player’s scoring bag, to be added up at the end of the game.  If there are still extra food tokens in the central feeding pool, they remain there for the next round.  Play continues until the adaptation card deck runs out and then the final round finishes out before final scoring.

My thoughts:

The components are nice and sturdy and the art is engaging and doesn’t get in the way of the mechanics. In fact, the art and style of the game bring out the theme of the game.  Since the theme ties in so nicely with the gameplay, the result is a moderately complex game that is quite easy to understand and play.

The game falls right in a sweet spot for me, easy enough to teach new players but keeping enough strategy to prevent it from becoming too stale.  The game plays up to 6 players, which would normally drag the game out, but I found it still moved along at a brisk pace if players use the alternate rules where each player plays their species’ “upgrades” simultaneously.  I prefer the quicker play so much that I prefer to play with simultaneous upgrades for any number of players.

Simultaneous play sacrifices deeper strategy for faster play but I’m willing to give that up to provide a more enjoyable game for the less hardcore gamers.  An example of lost strategy would be waiting to see how large a carnivore might grow before deciding on one’s body size.  When players go through species development in turn order, species can respond to other players’ upgrades.  In my experience, simultaneous play tends to make predators more difficult, as the fear of the unknown causes players to play more defensive.  In addition, playing an herbivore is typically more straightforward than a predator in most cases.  However, some of my  more recent plays, I’ve seen predators being used to greater effect than earlier games.

My only reservation about the game lies in the play balance.  The game is now in its second edition, where several of the adaptation cards have been slightly changed for better game balance.  These changes seem to be good ones, and have gone a long way to help spruce up weaker cards and make each adaptation worthwhile, but I can still find times when I just don’t feel like my cards provide me with good options.

Starting a game with a bit of defense is nice, but early cards like cooperation and fertility can be quite powerful.  (Fertility increases population automatically if there is leftover food, something that is quite common in the early game since fewer species are in play.)  This problem is mitigated by the ability to improve things by simply discarding cards (for body size, population, or new species), making it rarer to have “a poor hand”.   As it is with most games, one must adjust one’s strategy to take advantage of the cards you’re dealt.   When I go astray, I’m typically trying to force my chosen strategy onto cards that do not support it.

As I mentioned, I found carnivores to be a very difficult species type to play.  They shine best when food is scarce, since they don’t rely on the central food pool.  However, later in the game is when food is more likely to be scarce and later in the game is also when herbivore species tend to have more effective feeding strategies and defenses.  At first, one might think carnivores have the additional benefit of keeping the game leaders in check, but in practice a well established species (large population and body size) is hardly bothered by the occasional attack, since it will feed a carnivore after a single “bite”.  They can be effective against a player who plays a riskier game by using a high number of weaker (defensively) species, but do not significantly damage populations of large-sized creatures.

In most of my games, players have shied away from bringing carnivores into play, in favor of alternative and quicker feeding strategies along with inter-species defenses.  This results in a game where carnivores become a very inefficient species at gathering food.  I have yet to play in a game where there are a significant number of carnivores (not for lack of trying as I have been experimenting with them to try to figure out how to make them more effective), but in many of my dozen or so plays of the game, the winners had no carnivores at all.  I suspect group-think is partly to blame for this.  I have only recently had better luck with carnivores when I consider them an alternate food source rather than something to be used to keep other players in check.

While that sounds like a major gripe, it is only a minor one.  The game remains fun to play, and the large number of adaptations available provide a player with new combinations with which to experiment, making it fun over repeated games as well.  If the games sounds interesting, the new second edition is available for preorder through a kickstarter that is ending soon for an expansion of the game that focuses on species with the ability to fly.

Verdict:

Designers walk a knife edge when trying to create a boardgame that is approachable enough for family fun and yet strategic enough to capture the attention of experienced boardgamers.  One key aspect of that struggle lies in connecting the theme of the game to its mechanisms.  Evolution elegantly captures the essence of its theme and manages to balance on that thin line between approachable and depth to provide a very satisfying game playable in about an hour.

Note for families:   The game has a colorful and fun theme and fairly simple mechanics making it a very nice family game.  I’ve played it successfully with an 8 year old, and it might work a bit younger.  The game requires reading of the adaptation card text, but once the adaptations are learned the pictures would be enough to signal which cards do what.  While carnivores are part of the game, they are only a smaller part which keeps the direct player vs player conflict to a minimum, always a bonus for a family game.  Quick play also allows one to complete an entire game on those rare school nights where no one has any homework left to do.   All in all, the game will remain high on my go-to boardgames for family-friendly play.

evolution1 burrow

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Greg S.:  Several years ago I reviewed a Russian game entitled Evolution: The Origin of Species.  As the title suggests, the game involved the evolution of species of animals, as players added traits and helped them evolve in sometimes unusual fashions.  While the game had some clever ideas and was fun, it had a few fatal flaws.  I ended my review of that game (which appeared in Counter magazine) with the following thoughts:

“The game would be SO much better with some rules modifications that reduce some of the randomness and improve the scoring system.  Perhaps Evolution can itself evolve!”

Well, I am pleased to say that, thanks to Dominic Crapachuttes and NorthStar Games, the game has indeed evolved.  It is now a big-box game that while maintaining much of the mechanisms and flavor of the original, has undergone significant changes that vastly improve the original design.

This revised, updated edition of Evolution is certainly an improvement over its ancestor.  In the original game, species appeared and perished quickly, as there was no mechanism to increase their population size.  Get attacked once and the species vanished.  Here, the world is a more stable place.  Further, in the original, victory points were only earned on the last turn, so everything that happened previous to that was almost moot.  The original game was much more chaotic, so these wild swings of fortune would have benefited from more frequent scoring opportunities.  In this new version, players consistently earn points via the consumption of food and the survivability rate of species is significantly higher.

However, it is not without problems.  Food is simply too abundant.  In the original version, the amount of food available each turn was determined by the roll of dice, which was admittedly quite random and resulted in large swings of fate for which it was impossible to plan.  The revised method of each player placing one card to determine the food supply works in theory, but in practice often results in an overabundance of food.  Unless one or more players has developed species that have alternative or more generous ways of feeding (which, if this happens, usually only occurs very late in the game), there is little if any incentive to place low-yielding cards into the food supply.  All players want their species to survive, so everyone tends to toss in high-yielding cards.  Building an array of carnivores will give a player an incentive to sabotage the food supply, but it is usually much more difficult to feed carnivores due to the defensive traits species can develop.  Thus, carnivores are more risky to employ.

There are likely numerous ways in which this situation can be mitigated, causing food to be in shorter supply.  Lowering the food supply numbers on the cards is one idea, or simply subtracting a certain amount from the supply after the cards are revealed.  Of course, this would make for a more brutal game, but I think gamers would prefer this.  Families, on the other hand, will likely see no problem with the current generous food supply situation.

Another issue is that the game ends quickly.  Just when it seems players are getting a nice mix of complementary traits, the deck expires.  This happens far too quickly when playing with 5 or 6 players, so it appears the game is best suited for 3 or 4 participants.  It certainly is a rare situation wherein a game actually plays quicker with more players.  A larger deck, or simply going through the deck one more time will add some length to the game and allow things to evolve further.

Larry (1 play):  I liked Evolution more than I thought I would (I had heard many complaints about the high luck factor of the original Russian design).  It’s still fairly light, but skill can be applied and it’s reasonably fun to play.  I agree with some of the issues Greg brings up–the amount of food seems way too much and it appears that carnivores are difficult to play.  But the theme is very attractive and North Star has done a good job of development.  It’s not really my kind of game, but I could be talked into playing it again.

 <Editor’s Note:> 
Both Greg and Larry were playing the first edition of the game.  The newer, 2nd edition has different food values on the cards, with changes limiting the food pool to help the overabundance situation.  While this helps considerably, it is still possible for  “group think” to head towards an overabundance of food if everyone is going for a large herbivore population.  It should be self-correcting, but as Greg mentions, games with more players end quicker which gives less time for the self-correcting to happen.  I’ve found gamers with more experience with the game reach that more limited food supply more quickly.  It may not solve the problem for some, but it is better than the 1st edition.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!
I like it.  Matt Carlson, John P
Neutral.  Greg Schloesser, Larry
Not for me…

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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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