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Evolution: Application of a delicate balance

Evolution

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Let's talk Evolution; the game, not Darwin's theory, although as you play, you will actually learn a thing or two about that theory. To be published by North Star Games at the conclusion of a Kickstarter campaign which will launch in May to fund it, Evolution is a card game in which players attempt to launch species and endow those species with characteristics designed to keep them alive and thriving. The folks at North Star Games asked me to review it and sent me a prototype copy, which contains rules and components that have not been finalized. It's a fully-realized, functional game as is, going into the Kickstarter process, but it is likely to undergo a few subtle, and perhaps not so subtle changes before it hits the streets with the North Star brand on it.

The ability to surprise is a plus in any environment
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Packaging for Evolution
Skip Maloney

Most of what follows is a detailed explanation of the process, and while normally, I tend to avoid a reprint of the rules, I've pretty much done just that here, because it's difficult to talk about what's going on with this game, without a fairly detailed explanation of it. You could safely jump ahead to the paragraph that begins with "One of the central considerations of this game. . ." and bypass these detailed explanations.

The first thing you'll need to wrap your head around is the fact that you are not going to be dealing with actual species. This is not a game about monkeys, saber-tooth tigers or dinosaurs, though you'll find them depicted on the 117 cards that comprise the playing deck. You're going to be developing hypothetical species, defined by 18 different traits found in the deck, 17 of which are represented by six cards each, and one (Carnivore) represented by 15 cards. There is also a set of marker cubes (black), food cubes (green for plant food, and red for meat), a set of species cards, and up to six small velvet bags.

Each player begins the game with a cardboard species card, representing a player's starting species, which possesses no traits whatsoever; a blank slate, as it were, waiting to determine how it will evolve. You'll have the opportunity to establish more species as the game progresses. The species card is divided into three sections. At the top are seven boxes, laid out horizontally, into which food cubes will eventually be placed during play. Below these are a seven-space Population track, and seven-space Body Size track, which will eventually contain marker cubes indicating (no surprise) population and the relative size of your animal. Players begin with a marker cube in the "1" space of the Population and Body Size track.

Players also begin with four dealt cards from the shuffled deck of 117 traits; three, as a minimum, and one extra card per species the player has in his/her possession at the start of each round.

Okay, here we go. Before players can begin to make choices about which traits to apply to their species cards, all players have to make a decision about the food supply that is going to be available in a given round. Each trait card has a number in its lower right hand corner that is used for this purpose. Each player must choose a card in their current hand and select one for placement, face down, in the common playing area. In a little while, the combined numbers on these three cards will dictate the number of green cubes that all players are going to have to share to feed their species, but that number will not be known until after each player completes their turn action(s).

On your turn (and as you get used to this game, the players can perform their actions simultaneously), you can play as many cards as you wish in three different ways. You can add traits to your species (no duplicate traits and never more than three per species) by laying them down above your species card. You can increase your population and/or size by discarding cards from your hand and moving the relevant marker cubes on the appropriate tracks (one per increase). You can also create a new species by discarding a single card and taking a new species card into your playing area. The side-by-side placement of these species cards in front of you has significance, in that once two cards are placed, you cannot insert a later acquired species card between them; only to the right or left. Some traits in the deck have specific interaction instructions with cards to the right and/or left of a species with a given trait. The Symbiosis card, for example, dictates that if the species with that trait is larger in body size than the species to its right, then that species cannot be attacked.

Okay, so you've given your species a couple of traits, and/or increased its population and body size and now, it's feeding time. The previously placed facedown cards are revealed and a number of plant food cubes are brought to the center of the playing area. Beginning with the starting player, each grabs a single plant cube and places it into the space designed for it at the top of your species card. In turn order, this continues until all of the plant food cubes for the round are gone. Once you have placed feeding cubes equal to your species population, you can't take any more, and if you have failed to take on as many cubes as your species population, you have to reduce that population down to the size of the food you've been able to acquire.

Now comes the tricky and arguably most challenging part of the game. If you have decided to make one of your species carnivourous (by placing the Carnivore card into the mix of three traits, defining one of your species cards), then you are going to be unable to feed that carnivore with plant food. You must attack another species to gather the food necessary (red cubes) to keep your carnivorous species alive. You can attack an opponent's species or one of your own. To do so, your Carnivore's size must be greater than the species you're attacking, and it must have all traits necessary to overcome any defensive traits of the species being attacked. A species with a Camouflage trait, for example, cannot be attacked by a Carnivore, unless that Carnivore has the Good Eyesight trait. A species with a Climbing trait cannot be attacked unless the Carnivore has a Climbing trait, as well.

With the proper conditions in place, the Carnivore attacks and collects meat (red cubes) equal to the body size of the species it has attacked. The attacked species must then reduce its population size by one.

Any species whose population was reduced below "1" by a Carnivore becomes extinct. Likewise, any species that was unable to feed at all becomes extinct. The relevant species card is removed from a player's array of them. Left with no species, a player draws a single new one to start over.

Players take all of the feeding cubes (red or green) that they've acquired during the round and place them in their personal velvet bag. The starting player marker moves clockwise and the process is repeated. The game is over when the deck is exhausted. At the start of a given round, if there are not enough cards to fill the 'three, plus one per species' requirement, then the discard pile is shuffled and cards are dealt to make up the difference. The round, at that point, will be the last.

At the conclusion of the final round, points are tallied; one per cube in the velvet bag, one per trait on every surviving species, as well as points equal to the population size of any surviving species. Player with the most points wins, with ties broken by 'most food' and then, 'most surviving species.' It is suggested that ties beyond that are broken by playing again.

One of the central considerations of this game is the shifting balance between the food supply and the number of species in play. If you've taken on four or five different species to develop, you're going to have a rude awakening when only nine food cubes show up to feed everybody. Of course, if you've got four or five carnivores in your collection, they're going to feed off other species, although even then, you're only going to collect food equal to the body size of the species you attack. A majority of the deck (83) is made up of cards that will only add two, three, or four feeding cubes (per card) to the available supply per round, and there are nine cards that offer either "0" or "-1" (Not sure why, with species to feed, anybody would want to not add or deduct from the supply of food, but it's possible to do).

It's related, as well, to the population size of your species (singular or plural). The more you increase the population size (for which you receive equal points at the end of the game), the harder it's going to be to feed everybody. In the beginning, in the three-player game we played, we all sort of intuited this developing issue, and tried to strike a balance; working to develop multiple (but not too many multiple) species, while trying, at the same time, to keep the population manageable (by not opting to increase that population during card play).

The game itself appears to be well-balanced, with just the right amount of interacting cards, and cubes. There are opportunities to develop your own set of species, as well as ways to mess with the developing species of others (again, this is where Carnivores become such a critical component of game play). There is, too, a strong sense of replayability, since each game played will be offering a different array of traits to each player (at different times), and thus, each developing series of species will have traits unique to that experience with the game.

There was some initial confusion, not completely resolved in our minds, as to when the Carnivore(s) in play attack another species; whether it precedes the plant food process, follows it or happens at some randomly chosen moment when the player feels like it. Since the defending species is going to lose a population, the question was whether the Carnivore attack should occur before the food is dispensed, when that population affects the amount of food that can be collected by a species, or whether it should happen after the food is dispensed, when the attack would affect the population, and thus, reduce the amount of collected food that a player could put into his velvet bag.

We wondered, too, whether or not there should be a turn option that would allow players to discard the cards they've received for a new set, perhaps at the cost of a single card. This would balance a circumstance in which a player received, for example, three of the same trait cards at the beginning of a round. It is possible to hold cards not played from round to round, but you generally hold on to cards you can't use, and they become cards you still can't use in the new round of play. This rule (discard cards for a new set) would have a way of diminishing the deck more rapidly, but it might cause players to select it judiciously.

There are no details on the Kickstarter campaign as yet, but if the return on whatever investment you choose to make is a copy of the game, I'd say go for it. It's engaging without being too complex, and for introduction to a younger group (recommended age range begins at 11), it's educational, as well. You find yourself comprehending the nature of certain evolutionary traits, and the delicate balance between survival and growth.

Evolution, will be published by North Star Games, best known for its party games Wits and Wagers, and Say Anything. It is designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre and Sergey Machin, with card art by Catherine Hamilton, cover art by Kurt Miller, and graphic design by Giorgio DeMichele. It is intended for play by 2-6 players, although there is some indication that five players is the best optimum number. Age range begins at 11. It is based on the game Evolution: The Origin of Species, originally published by Russian Board Games, aka RightGames. Follow this link to the game's Kickstarter campaign - http://kck.st/1kDArgy