Dale Yu: Review of Darwin’s Choice

Darwin’s Choice

  • Designers: Marc Duer, Samuel Luterbacher, Elio Reinschmidt
  • Publisher: Treeceratops
  • Players: 2-6
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 60-120 min
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by publisher

In Darwin’s Choice, players work to create (or should I say, evolve) species to gain them the most Darwin Points.  The bulk of the game is made up of Animal cards – each of which shows a portion of an animal – say a head, leg, tail or torso – that can be connected together to form an adapted creature.  Each card comes with a heart value on it (representing both its food need as well as food value when eaten) as well as abilities and strength icons. There are also Biome cards where the animals can live.   Each player starts with a hand of 10 cards which are freely chosen from the two decks of Animal cards (one deck for small animals and one for large animals).

The game is played over 4 Eras, each with 3 phases: Action, Evaluation, Transition.  The rules state that the game is played in a non-intuitive counter-clockwise manner.

In the Action phase – animals are newly created, mutated or migrated to a biome.  In each round, the player gets to choose one of those main actions (create, mutate, migrate) per species per Era.  There are player chips which can be flipped over to show which species have already acted this turn

To create an animal, a player takes cards from their hand and lays them out.  It must have at least a head and a body, but can also include wings, up to 2 legs and a tail.  The cards have white docking arrows which show where cards can be played. The animal has a total value based on the sum of its hearts and an adaptation value of the sum of its traits that are favored by the biome where the animal is located.  An animal does not have be have cards at all docking sites, but once played, it is finished as far as creation goes.

On a later turn, animals can be mutated by removing cards, adding new cards, or replacing existing cards with other cards. Up to 2 mutations can be made on a turn; it will cost you 3 Darwin points from said animal to make a double mutation.  To migrate, simply move your animal to any other existing biome in the game. At all times, your animal must meet the requirements of the biome it is in as well as be able to feed itself. The player can also possibly do an additional action each Era: card redrawing (discard all but one card and draw 9 new cards) or card trading (trade with fellow players). 

In the Evaluation phase – the fight for survival happens – some species eat (From their biome), some species are eaten (by their predators) and some species go extinct.

First, check all animals and make sure they meet the requirements of their biome. If they do not, they die.  All their cards are discarded and the owner keeps a single Darwin point from that animal. All others are discarded. Then Herbivores and Omnivores are checked to see if they can eat from the biome.  If the cannot, they die. This is followed by the Carnivores, who first try to eat from the biome, but then they can eat the herbivores and omnivores to make up the difference. Carnivores can only eat other animals that have less adaptation than themselves, and they will also eat the least adapted species first.  If this is still not enough, they also die out. Animals in each class eat in the order of their Adaptation – with the most adapted animals getting to eat first. After feeding, all surviving species get 1 Darwin point placed on them, and then the most adapted species at each biome scores 2 or 3 Darwin points as shown on the biome card.  Finally, competitive strength is resolved on the entire table – the highest competitive total gets 3VP (ties going to best adapted to their local biome), second most competitive gets 2VP and third most competitive gets 1VP.

In the Transition phase – new Event cards and Biome cards are drawn to set the game up for the next Era.

First, a new Event card is drawn – it may have an immediate effect on an effect on the entire next Era. Then a number of new Biome cards are drawn and exchanged with existing biomes.  The food supply of each biome is figured out and food chips are distributed based on adaptation levels. All players draw up to 10 cards in their hand and the first player marker moves clockwise.

The game is played in 4 rounds which all follow this pattern, and then at the end of the fourth round, the player with the most Darwin Points wins – this would be all the Darwin points on their currently living species plus all of the single points accumulated from their extinct species.  There is no tiebreaker.

My thoughts on the game

I was approached by the designers of the game to look at this after their Kickstarter campaign had funded, and it’s a beautiful production.  As far as the game goes, everything works fine. The mechanisms tie together fairly well with the theme, and it’s easy enough to go through the progression of each of the Eras – we usually keep the rulebook on the table as there is a nice one-page summary of each step on the back cover.  The first round usually is fairly quick – as you really only can create new species – but the successive rounds do get a bit longer as you start each Era with a full hand of 10 cards (thus allowing you create more species) and you also have the chance to mutate or migrate each of your surviving species.

Be ready to quickly calculate your adaptation scores over and over – as this is what determines feeding order and survival order.  I wish that the game had provided a way to keep track of this. We have resorted to pulling out a jar of dice to be able to quickly represent and read the adaptation strength of any species.  Without this aid, the calculations can become excruciatingly repetitive and time consuming.

Timing is important here – there is plenty of value to being able to make a move once you know a competitor species has already taken its turn for the Era; you know for sure what you need to do in order to best the competitor.  If your hand allows, playing a new animal or two can help you temporize and try to keep your higher scoring species alive. It is very important to remember that a species only keeps its accumulated points if it is alive at the end of the game.  I have personally found that I like to try to get a big animal out in Era 3 and then hope to capture points in the final two Eras and be able to score them all. It’s really hard to keep an animal alive through all 4 Eras. In some Eras, maybe it’s just better to try to get out 4 small animals because each will at least score 1 Darwin Point which can’t be taken away from you…

This scoring system gives the game a weird flow at the start.  In some ways, getting species on the board is an important step necessary for the later rounds to work, but is also provides the games with a lot of busywork to calculate and distribute points which will mostly be discarded later in the game as those species go extinct.  For me, the real-life play time of 90-120 minutes is a little long for what you get here, especially when it feels like a lot of the early playtime ends up being eaten and digested for a single Darwin Point. That being said, I do enjoy making up the animals and then trying to figure out how to keep them alive.  I’d maybe just prefer the game better at 3 rounds instead of 4.

The artwork is gorgeous, and the way that the animal part cards fit together is a sight to see.  I definitely enjoy looking at the various chimera as they evolve on the board, and we always have fun coming up with inventive names for our animals.  Overall, it’s a nice production and a solid Kickstarter game from a new company.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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