[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house eurogamer, @Farmerlenny, and his deadly enemy the thematic space-loving @Futurewolfie. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
What would it be like if you could control a species from its genesis through its adaptations? What traits would you give it, and what traits would allow it to survive?
This is the thrust behind Evolution, the last in our series of Russian board game reviews. It is a brutal game that mimics the “survival of the fittest” mentality behind the theory of evolution. It’s also a lot of fun to play.
How It Works
The goal of the game is to have the most victory points (surprise!) earned through species of animals that survive until the end of the game. Players are rewarded for surviving animals that possess more traits, but be warned: the more traits an animal flaunts, the tastier it looks to discerning carnivores.
The game is played primarily with cards, though there is also a supply of food tokens (which look like colored communion wafers) and two dice. On each card back is a picture of a lizard, and the front bears different traits that an animal can possess. There are four phases of each round, and each player takes turns in order starting with the first player (this distinction passes each round). The four phases are development, “food bank determination,” feeding, and extinction/draw.
In the development phase, beginning with the starting player, players may play one card in front of them until all players pass. (Once a player passes, he is done for the round.) Cards may be played lizard-side up as an animal or may be tucked under animals as traits. The traits are handy things and very thematic, things like “high body weight” (which requires extra food to feed but makes the animal harder to attack) or “carnivorous” or “swimming” or “fat tissue.” On and on.
After each player has played as many cards as desired, the starting player rolls dice to determine how much food is in the bank. Then, again starting with the first player, players may take one food token per turn until all the food tokens are gone and each player passes. (Some traits modify how many tokens players can take.) During the feeding phase, players are trying to make sure each animal is fed; unfed animals die at the end of the turn. Most animals must eat food from the central bank of food, so this phase is a little tense. Some animals, however, are carnivorous and can attack other animals on the table for food. This is a great way not only to thin the herd, but also to stay alive in the midst of famine. But watch out! Some traits prevent carnivorous animals from eating them unless that animal possesses another trait (for example, camouflaged animals may only be eaten by carnivorous animals with sharp vision).
In the extinction/draw phase, any unfed animals are discarded. Each player draws cards equal to the number of living animals they have plus one. Play continues until the draw deck is depleted, signaling the final round. The player with the most points at the end of this round wins.
There is a lot to love about this game. For one thing, I think the designer has done a great job simulating the animal world (at least so far as a non-nature lover can discern), and the traits mimic traits found in nature. I like the tension and realism behind the roll of the dice for food. Some feeding rounds there will be an abundance; others there will be a scarcity.
I also like the ingenuity behind the cards. Trait cards most often have two traits on the card, and players must choose which trait to attach to the animal. Also, since each card can be played as an animal instead of a trait, there are several choices each round for how players will use their cards.
Players are also faced with the tough call of whether to play animals broadly or deeply. Strong animals make tasty targets, but they are also harder to reach. More animals in play means more cards at the end of a round, but like antelope on a plain, they are easy to pick off.
I mentioned that I like the realism this game has—the scarcity, the traits. The realism in the game is also its greatest weakness. Evolution is a harsh game, just like Mother Nature. Even if the spite level isn’t high (though the punk factor is not necessarily absent from the game), players must eat other players’ animals in order to survive. Especially in scarcer feeding rounds, players will rely on traits like piracy (which allows players to snag other animals’ food) and attacking parasites to keep their own animals alive. This game, also realistically, rewards players who are in the lead and punishes those who are behind. The player who has the most surviving animals draws the most cards at the end of the round, giving him a greater chance to have more and better animals at the end of the following round. While this should even itself out as players become more accustomed to how the game works, it can present a steep learning curve in the first game.
All told, Evolution is a fun game and highly interactive. I still think The Kingdoms of Crusaders is the strongest of the games that Right Games sent us, but Evolution is probably my second favorite of the bunch.
It is perhaps ironic that the game is called “Evolution” when it’s all about designing the strongest creatures and strategically targeting the other player’s creatures. Oh well.
Evolution is an enjoyable game, or at least an enjoyable concept. I agree with most of what FarmerLenny said about the game. The theme of building up creatures to survive in the harsh realm of nature is a solid one, and it’s surprising no one has done something similar before. That each card can be either a brand new animal or a trait added to a specific animal forces players to make strategic decisions for how to decide.
As far as choices you, as a player have, to make strategic decisions – do you build up one powerful creature and risk being wiped out in 1 blow, or do you try to make a few viable creatures – making it more challenging to collect enough food but increasing the likelihood that SOMETHING will survive. You have to choose between using your Carnivore creatures right off to take out the other players creatures quickly (especially those that can become protected after being fed) or to grab food from the supply first to feed your creatures that can’t get their food from anywhere else. You have to make tough choices and that usually means a solid gameplay experience.
Where the game breaks down, though, is in what other players can do to you. Essentially all the traits come down to a slightly more complex rock-paper-scissors. There’s really very little you can do to stop someone from coming after you. There are protective cards, but there’s always a way around them. And it’s just too easy to lose a whole creature all at once. It’d be nice if, much like the evolutionary theory, it was your weaker creatures that got eaten before your strongest – but in this game, it always makes the most sense to attack the most powerful creature. Since there’s not a great way to fight back, it starts to feel less like your decisions matter and more like the luck of the draw matters. And since you get new cards based on how many creatures survive, it is very very easy to fall very very quickly. You could have the most powerful creature the whole game, and then in one unlucky round near the end lose it all.
And of course, since scoring doesn’t happen at the end of the game, all that work you did would go to waste.
In conclusion… Evolution is a fun game with a great concept, but it can be incredibly harsh and swing wildly based on luck. A few small changes – such as only being able to attack the weakest creature a player has, and perhaps scoring each round for the creatures that survived instead of only at the end of the game – and this game would be superb. As it stands, this game is good, but I think it could use a little improvement.
Disclaimer: Right Games provided iSlaytheDragon with a copy of this game for review.