4 Chits, 2 Giggles
I could easily and somewhat accurately describe this game as 'Advanced Rock, Paper, Scissors' because just like the playground game, no matter what you come up with, there is always something else that can take you down, as unlikely as it seems.
Evolution is a beautiful looking game by creators Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre & Sergey Machin and is, exactly as it says on the tin, all about evolution. Except with a much quicker turnaround. You and your fellow players each begin the game with a single basic species, represented by a board and two wooden cubes which mark the species' body weight and population size (I'll explain those attributes in a little bit, promise). What is this species? Well, the truth is that it's a generic, run-of-the-mill, meat on legs type creature. Pretty much the kind of thing that wouldn't even know if you painted a target on it's supple grey skin. Thankfully, it won't stay that way for long.
You see, during the games numerous rounds you will get your hands on various 'trait' cards which can be used to evolve your species with said traits (up to a maximum of three, two in a duel game). Additionally, you can choose instead to increase one of the aforementioned attributes by discarding a card, which helps your species in different ways, or you can even get rid of a card to gain an entirely new species in return. Essentially then, you are a God* and you are evolving these creatures however you see fit, with the ultimate goal being to eat the most food you possibly can while trying to avoid being killed off or starved to death.
While this would seem to be a game of little player interaction thus far, the game changer here would be the carnivore trait, a dastardly addition that makes meat out of everybody. Essentially, while plant eaters are standard fare and eat from a shared board in the centre of the table lovingly called 'The Watering Hole', carnivores can only satiate their hunger by chowing down on other species, which can be a blight when you consider that animal you've spent the last twenty minutes building up can be gone in a couple of seconds. I'm telling you, it's one of board gaming's biggest frustrations.
This is also why you want to improve your body size and population, because being bigger means you are less able to be picked off by meat eaters who are usually only able to pick off creatures that are smaller then them, and increasing your population allows you to survive for longer as well as eat more food, which translates directly into victory points, the real evolutionary goal.
The beauty of this game is that pretty much everything feels truly logical; if you make your creature a climber, suddenly it is off limits to all other creatures except carnivorous climbers or intelligent animals. Horned vessels will take out one of your attackers if they try to kill you. Pack creatures will add their population size to their body size when determining whether it can take down an animal. It's all so neat it almost feels too perfect.
This game isn't as perfect as it wants to be though, because while it does score very highly in many areas, it is unfortunately a game of luck and the dreaded runaway first player syndrome, an affliction common among certain board games. You see, when one player does create a powerful combination, it is possible (as I mentioned at the top of the review) to take it down, but it can rely on getting the right cards and a lot of them, which in the worst case can take several rounds. In the mean time, that Horned-Fertile-Climb-asaurus has racked up a whole lot of food, by which point you're almost certainly out of the game and resigned to your inevitable extinction. Of course, you could work together with other players and try to take it down, but in doing so, they can then turn against you and leave you flailing. Some might say 'Yes, but that's just part of the game!' or 'What do you think Darwin was blathering on about, eh?' and you'd be right, but it doesn't make that moment any less frustrating when it happens to you.
Of course, this wouldn't be a review of mine unless I mentioned the art, and of all the games I've seen and played, this games' style seems the most... functional. That's a compliment believe it or not, because when you consider this game has you creating all manner of combinations of mammals, it does a decent job of not shoehorning in your imagination with its visuals. Each card bears the image of a made up animal related to the trait it's describing, being both realistic and fantastical at the same time. I don't know how they did that, but it could be magic, or perhaps the art just 'evolved' that way! Ahem. I also love the faded palette, it just seems to work. Kudos to the artist(s) for a good job.
Overall though? All things considered, I enjoy this game a lot. I definitely haven't played it enough to find the sweet spot between looking after my own species and making sure any others aren't doing too well, but I will get there because it's so much fun to play it just wills you to play it. You cannot argue with a game that allows you to create hideous abominations and ply them with traits that shouldn't work and yet they do, while dominating your opponents and suffering when all the food runs out even if it's partly your own stupid fault. It's a game I'd highly recommend playing, just watch your back...
...And then there was flight. I couldn't write this review ignoring its fairly recent expansion 'Flight', because while it's probably not worthy of an entire new review on its own, I am already writing about the base game so why not? As you can imagine, this addition introduces the element of flight into the mix. Not only does this give you a special new type of species you can choose to create, which must always have flight as one of its traits, but it adds new trait and event cards as well as various advantages and complications.
Flying animals now have an additional source of food and cannot be targeted by land creatures, but they have a limited body size and must also power this new ability by first filling up its belly up to its body size, making feeding less rewarding. This does add a lot more decision making into the process, and while this creates plenty more combinations with which to consider, on my very first game of this I was up against a very tough creature to beat, leaving me with a bitter taste and a slight dislike (in case you're wondering, the combo was a horned defensive herding flying beast, which without a few turns of collecting cards was unlikely to be beaten)
Event cards are new too, and let the player attack out of turn and add to the available food supply. They don't change the game greatly, but it's interesting to wonder if future expansions (including the upcoming 'Climate' set) will push this idea further and have more of an impact. We shall have to wait and see.
If you enjoy Evolution and want to breathe new life (last pun I swear) into it, it's hard not to recommend this mid sized expansion, but it's not an essential purchase by any means.
Review by Russell Chapman
*If you believe in that stuff. If not, replace God with Overseer