The greatest arms race of all time has nothing to do with superpowers and nuclear weapons, or even anything man-made. It is instead a natural process that has played out around the world over literally millions of years. Sometimes with actual arms. Literal arms. You know, the things that stick out of your shoulders that were once flippers.
Evolution is a relatively simple boardgame about competition for limited resources. In this case, food. Food is fuel for living things, because without it, they shut down. And since food supplies aren’t consistent and sometimes there isn’t enough to go around, some things will inevitably shut down. Evolution — the game and the actual principle — illustrates this on a larger scale, with multiple species across millions of years. Who eats survives. Who doesn’t dies. Survival of the fittest.
This is represented in the game by players taking turns feeding their species from a central pool of food, quaintly called the “watering hole”. A variable number of food token are put into the watering hole at the beginning of the turn. At the end of the turn, whatever your species has eaten goes into a little silk purse. At the end of the game, whoever has the most food in his silk purse wins. It’s an economic engine, in which you cycle food from the watering hole to your beasts’ bellies to your victory point tally. You can play from a hand of cards to grow your species to claim more food, to bring into play new species, or to give a species the special ability printed on the card. For instance, a Long Neck card lets a species grab a free food before everyone else eats. A Foraging card lets a species take two food instead of one. A Fertile card grows a species for free if there’s enough food to go around. These are the moving parts in your economic engine.
The ingenious little twist in Evolution is predators. They keep this from being a typical economic engine game where each player has his nose down in a tableau, merrily optimizing away. Since predators are carnivores, they don’t care how much food is in the watering hole. They only care about which other species they can eat. Now a shark has been thrown into the fish tank. Now all the rules are different.
Here’s also where Evolution suffers from the same problem as a lot of boardgames: it doesn’t get interesting unless it’s played with players who understand aggression, and it takes a few games to understand aggression. Until that happens, you and your friends take turns nibbling away at the watering hole, nomnomnom, very politely. Hmm, you drew a predator card, but why risk it when your herbivores are getting their fill just fine? Since cards are useful in multiple ways, just use that predator card to grow another species, or bring in a new species. Here we all are, grazing away the eons at a salad bar, as dumb and slow and deferential as brontosauruses.
Predators turn Evolution into a very interactive arms race that circumvents the watering hole and slows down other players by eating their species into extinction. The arrival of the first predator is the opening salvo in an evolutionary battle of one upmanship. A species grows too big to be eaten. So the predator gets bigger. A species learns to climb trees. So the predator learns to climb trees. A species develops a hard shell. Does the predator get massive enough to crush shells with its jaws, or does it move on to hunt another prey? Predators face starvation as sure as an herbivore showing up at an empty watering hole, but their food pool is everyone’s playing pieces.
A clever predator player might force everyone else into a defensive posture, but keep his predator sustained by evolving a cattle species dedicated to feeding the predator. At which point, other players might consider introducing their own predators to feed on the cattle species. Now there’s competition for meat as well as plants. On the sidelines, delighted scavengers get free food whenever any predator eats.
This interplay is the heart of Evolution, realized in a deck of 16 types of cards representing evolutionary traits, with a hefty number of predator cards shuffled into the mix. Some of the cards make a mild attempt at color-coding and iconography, but for the most part, Evolution is a game about reading text and remembering which card does what. Since each player will play multiple species, and a species can sport up to three separate cards representing evolutionary traits, the table can suffer from information sprawl. This is especially pronounced in games with more than three players. Evolution supports up to six players, but I don’t recommend it for more than three. Four tops. With more players, it’s less a game of one upmanship and more a game of nosing around in the chaos hoping to find something to eat.
An expansion called Flight adds an additional food supply only birds can reach. This is called “cliffs”, which is nearly as quaint as “watering hole”. Birds are represented as a type of species that needs more food/energy to power their wings, but that food is expended instead of scored for points. It’s not terribly intuitive, and I’m not convinced it brings anything to the table other than a rationale for throwing a bunch of bird-related cards into the deck. The interplay of 16 cards becomes the interplay of 22 cards and a mess of flight cards to enable birds. Move over, predators. Flight is not one of those add-ons you need to make the base game better.
As for the base game, with the right player count and with players who understand the significance of predators, Evolution offers plenty of interaction, with great pacing, and with a minimal number of pieces. It’s very nearly Euro for how quickly it sets up and goes back into the box. And although it’s simple enough to quickly teach new players (a.k.a. “predator fodder”), it’s complex enough to enjoy a long table life. Bon appetit.
(Why am I reviewing a little-known boardgame from three years ago? For my Patreon supporters! If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want.)