Evolution is another Kickstarter success story in boardgaming, hooking up with North Star Games (publishers of the popular party game Wits and Wagers) and landing on my list of the top ten games of 2014. It has simple rules and, unlike the natural process from which it takes its name, it’s actually a game of rapid, Lamarckian changes, where players maintain a handful of species and shift those species’ traits each turn to try to outmaneuver opponents’ species, grab enough food to maintain their populations, and avoid extinction.
In Evolution, two to six players each begin the game with a single species board, with tracks for population and body size, each running from one to six (and beginning at one), and at least four trait cards from the giant main deck, with seventeen specific traits available. On each turn, every player discards one card into the central watering hole, face down, which will determine the number of plant food units available at the end of the round. Then each player may play trait cards face-down in front of his/her species (up to three per species, two in a two-player game), discard a card to move the population or body size marker up one for any of his/her species, or discard a card to start a new species entirely. At the end of the card phase, the feeding begins, with herbivorous species taking food in turns (usually one token per player per turn) until either every species has food up to its population size or the watering hole is empty. Any species that has fewer food tokens than its population size loses population down to the number of food tokens it has; a species that doesn’t get any food on a turn therefore goes extinct.
Of course, in a world full of herbivores, sometimes you just crave a really rare steak, and any player who draws a Carnivore trait card may play it and convert one of his/her species to a meat-eater—which means it may no longer eat any plant tokens from the watering hole and must eat by attacking other species, even the player’s own species if necessary. A Carnivore may attack any other species as long as its body size is larger than its target’s; a successful attack gives the Carnivore meat tokens (from the main supply, not the watering hole) equal to the target’s body size, while the target species’ population drops by one. If that reduces the latter to zero, the target species goes extinct.
However, we’re all about survival of the fittest here, so there are various trait cards that allow players to protect their species against Carnivore attacks—Climbing species can only be attacked by Climbing Carnivores; Burrowing species can’t be attacked once they’re fully fed; species with Horns can be attacked, but the Carnivore’s population goes down by one due to, presumably, indigestion. Carnivores have some traits they can add in response, such as the Ambush trait (negating the Warning Call protection trait), Climbing, or Pack Animal (increasing the attacker’s effective body size by 3 for an attack). And sometimes the Carnivores are just out of luck—for example, if a smaller species is protected by a larger neighbor’s Symbiosis trait on a species of the same player—and have to attack neighboring species, even if it leaves the player worse off.
It doesn’t have to leave the player worse off, however, as the key to Evolution’s strategy lies in obtaining and playing the right combinations or chains of cards, often called “engines” by experienced boardgamers. For example, a player with a Carnivore can attack his own species with the Fertile trait, which increases the species’ population by one each time the food cards at the Watering Hole are flipped (that is, once per round), so the Carnivore will always have something to eat, but the Fertile species will never quite go extinct. The Cooperation card allows the species to the right of the one with the trait to gain food whenever the Cooperation species gains one, so a player could create a chain of species that never have to feed from outside sources just by using Cooperation cards. There are plenty of possible combinations, and the limit of three trait cards per species means it’s hard to keep those engines going for long because other players won’t just sit there and let you rack up points—each food token obtained is saved in a separate bag and is worth one point apiece at the end of the game—without forcing you to change traits to defend yourself.
The game seems infinitely extensible a la Dominion, as the developers can keep adding traits and crafting new combinations for engine-building, but the base game seems like it comes with too few such cards—a case of reducible complexity, perhaps. It’s also a less than satisfying experience with just two players because you’re inevitably attacking each other, and you only have to figure out how to defend against a single opponent, although I think the rule for two players that limits trait cards to two per species doesn’t help matters. What I’d like to try is a session with five or six players, just because I can imagine all hell breaking loose once the switch to Carnivores begins.
Gameplay takes about an hour to an hour and a quarter, probably more with six players unless you use the quick-play rule where players play trait cards simultaneously, which deletes the strategic element of seeing what players before you in that round are doing and trying to choose traits to exploit their combinations. It’s also a game that rewards repeat gameplay; the first time through, it’ll feel very sterile, and you need a few plays to get a feel for which combinations will make for good engines that let you rack up more points. It might just be that transitional game to get your friends away from Risk or Monopoly and into something a bit more highly… uh… developed.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.