Designers: Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin
Artists: Ben Goldman, Catherine Hamilton, and Jacoby O’Connor
Publisher: NorthStar Games
2 – 6 players
60 – 75 minutes
Reviewed by Jonathan Franklin
Source: Official photo from NorthStar Games
I played the old Russian version of Evolution long ago and thought it would be fun to review the latest iteration from NorthStar Games, Evolution: Climate. Wow. Game reviewers sit around wishing for more innovation in games – well, here it is. This is not really like anything else I’ve ever encountered.
This won’t be one of those rules rehash reviews. Instead, I’m going for a Monet-style Impressionist view of this work. The short version of the rules is that you a. draw cards, b. discard a card to the watering hole, c. affect your species by playing a card to increase the population of one of your species, increase the size of the species, or give one of your species new traits.
Then the cards in the watering hole are flipped over. This affects two things, first, the climate gets warmer or colder, and then a certain amount of food is put in the middle and all animals try to eat . . . what and how they eat will be covered later. After that phase, animals in a species that did not get enough food die off and the cycle begins again. The goal is to get the most food + surviving species + traits. The dino in the photo below is actually the start player marker, so no, not all creatures in the game have models.
A species starts out with a population of 1 and a size of 1 – imagine a pair of mice that can procreate, grow larger, or grow horns, depending on how you spend your cards. All animals are herbivores unless you give them the trait of being a carnivore. Man-eating rodents – yay. At that point, the game really kicks in. Imagine seven wildly different species all trying to eat at the same spot. The long necked creature eats some high plants no one else can reach. Then an intelligent carnivore avoids a defence to eat a large herbivore with a shell, but only if the carnivore is larger than the herbivore and its hard to get into shell. Then a lizard climbs a tree to avoid the small carnivores that cannot climb trees. It is a battle royale to get as much food as possible. Once eat species is sated, it stops eating. Sometimes there will be plenty of food and some will carry over to the next turn. Other times, there will be nowhere near enough and a few species go extinct from depopulation due to carnivores, temperature, and starvations.
The Climate adds a feature and two decks of cards – if the earth gets too warm or cold, animals of a certain size start to die off. The addition of the cards, one warm and one cold add events that are game changers. One round, we had seven species between the four of us and by the end of the event, there were two species that survived. For the other five, they went extinct – the game gives you some resources back (cards to your hand) when you lose species, so it is not as bad as it sounds, but still pretty bad. I have to admit that I liked the climate aspect more without the special cards, but also saw that the cards make the game more dramatic, which could be great or awful. I liked the third dimension of climate because now when you add a card to the watering hold, you need to consider both the temperature effect of the card and the number on the card that indicates the food quantity it will provide. If you will lose population if it gets colder, you might have to choose a card that makes it colder and offers more food vs. making it warmer but possibly not giving your animals enough food to survive.
Lesson #1 – This is a God game, not a farming/zookeeper game.
Do not buy this game if you want to grow attached to your creatures. Ignore the adorable and colorful art showing your nice long necked climbing herbivore. It is a meal for another animal, not a pet. Much of this game is knowing what and when to sacrifice animals or even entire species so your other ones can survive and eat. There are nice friendly herbivores and savage carnivores all competing for the same resources. While herbivores eat plants from the watering hole, carnivores eat the animals at the watering hole. While most herbivores eat one plant at a time – and eat until they are full or the watering hole has run out of food, carnivores eat until they are full, but one size four animal will sate four carnivores. You might have to sacrifice brontosaurus to save your intelligent geckos.
Lesson #2 – Don’t judge this game on your first play.
The first play will be brutal. If you are a dabbler who goes months between plays, this game might not be your thing. It is not quite a lifestyle game, but knowledge of the cards and an ability to experiment, find, and internalize the combos is critical. Underneath, Northstar has developed into a CCG where you get all the cards in the playset. My sense is that everything can be countered, but if you don’t draw the right cards, you better find another combo, rather than waiting for the one you already know. This takes quite a bit of mental agility and feels like chess + MtG + RPS. There are palpable highs and lows, mostly lows as a newbie when playing an experienced player. For example, you have protected yourself with a few traits, then you opponent plays a trait on one of their species that breaks through your defenses and eats two of your four creatures of that species. The odds are good that species will perish next turn unless you figure out a counter ASAP.
Lesson #3 – Every card is OP
Some traits are excellent in a narrow set of cases, but most often better discarded to increase size or population. Some traits are less good, but more often applicable. Some cards I still cannot figure out how to beat. Curse you carnivores that hunt in packs. At the same time, the trait of intelligence can foil a wide array of defensive maneuvers. If this sounds in your wheelhouse, this game is likely for you. If you can find opponents who like to beat each other up, give this one a shot. If you would rather not kill any animals, you can play to your style and preferences if the cards work out, but adaptability is important, so my sense is that you will lose more often if you lock on to a specific approach and try to implement it.
Lesson #4 – Don’t pull out Evolution: Climate unless everyone knows what they are in for
The first few times I played, I pulled it out of my bag, taught it, then we played. I saw people wanted to quit in the middle, people holding back from optimal plays to avoid further hurting those who were down, and people who got this odd light in their eyes as they realized how to take down someone else’s seemingly impervious creature. It is best that everyone know what they are getting into and put it away if the audience does not seem right. There is an intensity of emotion in this game, such that I got quite mad when someone purportedly accidentally make the climate hotter and wiped out two of my species. It was a good move, but it is pretty easy to get a bit too invested in the game. One idea for jumpstarting interest is to start with Evolution: the Beginning and work up to Evolution: Climate.
Lesson #5 – This game is educational on a deeper level
I know that the word ‘educational’ is a kiss of death reserved for roll and move games that involve learning the multiplication tables, but if you look at all the comments above, you will start to realize – adaptability – implications of climate change – tragedy of the commons – choosing between greater fertility and greater size – the cycle of life – apex species – etc. forces you to internalize numerous lessons that might otherwise put some students to sleep. I could go on for quite a while, but ultimately this game reminded me most of Hobbes, Thomas, not the tiger, in that in Evolution: Climate embodies “continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Evolution: Climate is an excellent game for a specific audience. It is not easily pigeonholed, but if you like direct competition, counter-strategies, and a game that can grow with you, this is an excellent one.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!
I like it.. Jonathan F.- I am too much of a carebear to love Evolution: Climate, but deeply respect the design and polish of it. I look forward to playing it more with those who know what they are getting into.
Not for me…