Year Published: 2014
Publisher: North Star Games
Designer: Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, Sergey Machin
Playtime: 45 minutes – 1 1/2 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: Bend nature to your will and see how many species you can evolve to the top of the food chain.
Evolution is a competitive game of direct player conflict for 2-6 players where each person creates new animal species and attempts to evolve them in symbiotic ways using trait cards to ensure those species thrive and survive at the expense of others’. At the end of the game players add up the population sizes of all their active species, the evolution scores of any traits those species are assigned, and the food they’ve been able to bank throughout the game, and the person with the highest score is declared king of the jungle…or desert…or whatever your favorite ecosystem might be. Gameplay is light and quick, but even with the brisk setup I found the advertised playtime of 50-70 minutes a little generous for player counts of two or three unless everyone has their evolutions laid out well in advance of their turn. With four or more players, however, the trait deck depletes more quickly and the playtime correspondingly comes into line at about one hour even with the additional time for each player’s turn.
The rulebook is easily one of the better ones I’ve seen, undoubtedly helped by Evolution’s simple rules. Gameplay is laid out in a total of six pages, all of which include generously sized illustrations of each phase of a turn. The back of the book functions as a detailed clarification/reference guide for each of the cards in the game, though it’s unlikely players will need to trouble themselves with going into the back of the manual given the game’s inclusion of helpful, individual reference cards that include a rules synopsis and similar card information.
The game begins by placing the main ‘watering hole’ board in the center of the play area, and each player receiving a food token bag, one species with its body size and population set to one, and the randomly determined first player receiving the large, brontosaur-shaped first player marker. Play then proceeds clockwise, with each player resolving the current phase before the round advances to the next.
Each round starts by dealing players three trait cards, plus one per species they have in play. It’s therefore beneficial to try and quickly bring out additional species in order to receive more trait cards and potentially get the cards you want, though doing so must be carefully balanced by enlarging and growing active species to ensure their survival. Next, players each choose one trait card from their hand and place it face down on the watering hole; these cards will eventually populate the watering hole with food based on the number in the lower right corner of each card, which also doubles as the trait point value. Manipulation of this phase is extremely important for ensuring herbivorous or omnivorous species have enough available food to feed their populations, or for creating shortages which will force other players’ animals to starve if you’re in a position to collect early, or if your pride-and-joy species are carnivores and you intend to crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations…whoops, sorry, wrong IP, but you get the idea.
In turn order players are then able to use any trait cards remaining in their hands in three different ways, in any order. First, they may place a trait card face down in front of one of their active species. Trait cards come in many flavors, with some increasing the feeding capability or defenses of a species or those next to it, and others turning the species into ravenous carnivores with abilities to increase their potential pool of prey like ambush, pack hunting, or climbing. In a two player game each species may only have two trait cards attached to it, while in a game of three or more each animal can have up to three traits. Traits can be discarded and replaced during this time as dictated by the winds of fortune and the species’ evolutionary needs, though an animal can never end this phase with duplicate traits. Second, a player may discard a trait card to bring out a new species of one body size and one population, and place it on either the extreme left or right side of their species already in play. Finally, discarding a card may also be used to increase the body size or population of an active species by one. Players also have the option of carrying cards over into future turns.
All that evolving works up a mighty big appetite, so once all players are done playing trait cards they flip any that are face down on the play area, and then it’s feeding time. Food cards are revealed and a number of food tokens equal to the total card value is placed in the watering hole. Then, starting with the first player, each player must feed one of their species which does not yet have food on its board equal to its population. Unless otherwise specified by card effects, feeding an herbivore involves taking one food from the watering hole, so larger species will either need help from symbiotic relationships with the animals to its right or left, some powerful traits of its own, or multiple precious turns as the food supply continues to dwindle in order to satiate their hunger. Carnivores, on the other hand, target other species in play with smaller body size than their own, and receive an amount of food from the food bank equal to the body size of the attacked species. Regardless of whether a successful attack is made against another player’s species or one of your own (yes, you may have to throw one of your own animals to the wolves if your carnivore needs food and that’s the only option), the defeated species loses a population.
And what, pray-tell, happens if a population reaches zero? Extinction, of course! The extinct species is removed from the play area, and all traits attached to it are discarded. The previous owner of the species then immediately draws a number of trait cards equal to the number discarded and play continues.
Once all animals are fed or food runs out, everyone takes their food acquired during the round and places it into their food bags for scoring at the end of the game. Any animals who were unable to eat food equal to their populations have their populations reduced to the amount of food they were able to eat for the round, and then the next round starts back at phase one. If the last trait card was dealt during the last round, then the game is over and scores are tallied.
The strategic elements in Evolution are surprisingly involved for how simple the gameplay mechanisms are; the circle of life is alive and well in Evolution, which impressively acts out the self-balancing mechanisms of a live ecosystem right on your gaming table. Early surpluses of food slowly dwindle as more herbivores come into play, and the ecosystem can only sustain so many species before the less hardy will start to die off. Just like in the real world there are also invariably more herbivores/omnivores than carnivores, and the carnivores must adapt to evolutionary changes in the other species if players want to keep them alive and hunting. Contributing to the shared food supply, choosing and changing evolutionary paths depending on immediate needs vs. trait values for scoring, and deciding how quickly populations expand vs. how large the species is gives a lot more to think about than appears at first glance.
Experimenting with trait synergies to find which ones work well together and making sure species next to each other evolve in complimentary ways to form the strongest ecosystem are the meat-and-potatoes of Evolution’s gameplay. The player who best protects his/her own lineup while having a large carnivore or two that maintain the ability to successfully prey on others’ animals is generally going to be the winner, but it’s also entirely plausible that someone builds a strong lineup composed solely of herbivores/omnivores and is able to feed them consistently enough to dominate the food points total. I did this in my last game, in fact, and with multiple lines of defenses per animal thanks to some cards that protected species next to them, and others that helped me double-dip on food or scavenge food whenever anyone else successfully attacked another species, I ended up winning the game with 122 points vs. the next closest person at 80. It’s especially fun to see what kind of odd trait combos you can come up with, like a pack hunting carnivore that happens to have a hard shell and ends up with the largest body size possible. I’m not even sure what that would look like…a piranha-like pack of massive, voracious turtles? Even so, I’ll caution that the traits become a little stale after a few games since they’re all present in every game, rather than having some subbed in/out randomly to mix things up each session.
Although I think the game is generally well balanced, this does highlight the possibility of a runaway leader. The game contains the catch-up mechanism of getting to draw back the number of trait cards lost due to a species going extinct, but while that generally does a good job of making sure someone isn’t completely taken out of the running by having new species preyed upon it’s still possible after a couple of rounds of culling that a player is so thoroughly handicapped they won’t be able to get back into contention. This happened to our third player in the aforementioned game, who ended with a paltry 55 points having come under attack every single turn by the 2nd place player whose carnivore was strong enough it could attack anything she tried to bring out. Since time is of the essence, waiting a couple of turns to get the perfect counter-combination of defense cards is normally out of the question, so the third player resigned herself to losing one population on a species per turn, and basically handing the 2nd player a free five or six points each time. Luckily for me he chose to spend so much time beefing up his carnivore that I ended up with a couple of extra species than him, each of which had a full compliment of three trait cards worth 4-5 victory points apiece. What’s more, my setup was so strong it really wouldn’t have mattered if the two of them tried to gang up on me to bring the game back into line…my synergies made it nearly impossible for them to attack me unless the perfect combination of traits came along. You’ll find this kind of battering can happen in most any game with direct player conflict, but just be aware what sort of a ride you might be in for if you don’t normally like other players’ actions to directly affect you. I’m also not normally a fan of catch-up mechanics, but I’m glad it’s included here since the result of not having anything is basically player elimination through potentially no fault of the player eliminated.
The game works with two players, but I found Evolution more enjoyable with at least three people given the additional trait combinations possible with three traits, rather than two. It makes the game much more interesting, and even though the player count is higher the game actually moves along at a much brisker pace.
Component-wise the food bags are great, and the player board and chits are of excellent cardboard quality and color vibrancy. The art in Evolution is extraordinarily striking, and I have no hesitation in saying it’s one of the prettiest games in my collection. The player boards are likewise of good quality, and the system for tracking population/body size with cubes placed into slots on the boards is efficient and easy. Space-wise the game ends up taking a fair amount of room, but having a horizontal version of the player board on one side, and a vertical version on the opposite side, gives players some flexibility in making use of available space. That said, a four player game will still be a little squished trying to fit on anything less than a 36″x 36″ table. Given the quality of the other components I was actually a bit disappointed in the cardstock for the trait cards; they don’t have a very good snap, and after only two plays I was already having to gently bend most of them straight again. All of the components fit well in the box, which has an insert with enough room for the Flight expansion which we’ll be reviewing soon.
COG Takeaway: Evolution’s mix of simple, straightforward rules with mechanics that emphasize creativity and experimentation result in a light, family game that’s still got some serviceable strategy involved. While it’s not a game I’ll eagerly suggest every game night or opine over having not played it in months, it’s still a fun experience and one I can see myself bringing out occasionally to enjoy. I also look forward to trying it with the Flight expansion which I think will help the staleness that accompanies the base game’s trait options after a few playthroughs. In the meantime, it will continue to exist as one of the most striking looking games on my shelf.