Number of (physical) plays: 6
Designers: Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin
Artists: JJ Ariosa, Giorgio De Michele, Catherine Hamilton, and Kurt Miller
Release Year: 2014
Mechanics: Hand Management, Direct Conflict, Secret Unit Deployment
Publisher: North Star Games

Introduction

When I’m not playing board games at a table, I’m often playing digital implementations of board games. And because I crave discoverability and am always trying new games, my ‘Games’ folder on my phone has slowly grown out of control.

Yes, I know I’m obsessed.

In 2019 North Star Games released the Evolution Board Game app for Android and iOS, bringing their hit 2014 title designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin into the digital age. The app launched ‘free’ and allowed players to sample the core game. With a robust tutorial, 10 missions of the campaign, and one online multiplayer game per day, it was much more generous than many other apps that demand money upfront, or offer a severely stripped down demo.

I installed Evolution as soon as it became available and played through the free campaign. I had enjoyed the physical game previously, even if it had a tendency for players to pick on the player who falls behind.

North Star Games hasn’t let this app become stagnant. Over the past two years, it’s received a multitude of updates, including Single Player Weekly Challenges, Monthly Tournaments, a Pass and Play mode, various new traits, Asynchronous play, and a ton of bug fixes. In addition to all these new features that have been added, one of my favourite aspects of Evolution is cross-platform play. I love apps that let me play with my friends, no matter their chosen device.

The full game (which includes the rest of the campaign and unlimited online matches) in unlocked via a single In-app purchase. This means if you generally share your purchased apps with members of your family via Google’s Family Library feature, each member will need to pay for the full game individually.

How to Play

I’m writing this section from the perspective of playing the game at the table.

Evolution’s gameplay revolves entirely around cards. At the beginning of each round players draw trait cards into their hand (3, plus 1 more for every species they control). Each player must discard one card (face down) to seed food into the central feeding pool, then in player order, may play a trait card (face down) to any of their species to give them a competitive advantage in the ecosystem, or discard a card to grow their species’ population or body size. Players can also discard a card to create a whole new species. Each animal can only have 3 unique traits at a time, but traits can be replaced; they aren’t necessarily permanent.

The first rounds usually have plenty of food for everyone

After everyone has had a chance to play cards to grow and evolve their species, the face down food cards are revealed and players have to start living with the consequences of their decisions. All the trait cards are flipped face up (and are now active), and beginning with the starting player, may feed one of their species. Herbivores take food from the shared central pool while any animals with the Carnivore trait eat other species around the table (Carnivores must have a larger body size than their prey).

Once all animals have fed as much as they can, the collected food is deposited into a bag (to be revealed at the end of the game) and a new round begins. If any species collected less food than their population, their population is reduced (and could go extinct if no food was gathered).

If the deck runs out of cards during the the deal cards phase, the end of the game is triggered. Players finish the round as normal, then score one point for every food in their bag and one point for every trait and population on your species that managed to survive until the bitter end.

Review

Playing Evolution with your friends can be dangerous. While the first round or two is a utopia, with plenty of food to go around, and a gaggle of herbivores happily growing their populations and evolving traits that allow them to harvest food more quickly than the others. The tenor of gameplay changes the second you see someone build up their body size and play a face down trait. Suddenly you find yourself double-guessing your friends. “Did they just develop a taste for flesh? Do I play the Long Neck trait or the Hard Shell trait? One will defend me, while the other gives me more food…”

Only after all players have had a chance to grow their population and body sizes are the traits revealed. This is such an exciting moment of the game where everyone’s strategies are laid bare. Taking the risk to gather more food (which is points at the end of the game) while eschewing defenses can be lucrative. At the same time, seeing a poorly defended animal gives incentive to other players to grow fangs and take a pound of flesh for themselves.

Certain traits get highlighted when they’re activated so you always know what’s going on.

Evolution is rife with player interaction, and it manifests dramatically as soon as someone turns into a Carnivore. Suddenly everything feels scary and you scramble to build a defense. Warning Calls, Burrowing, and Climbing are all useful ways to ensure your precious creatures don’t become someone else’s snack.

Personally, I enjoy Evolution, but it almost always leaves me feeling just a bit sour, due to the fact that sometimes the best option is to kill someone else at the table, or, someone else has evaded my defenses and drove me into extinction. I’ve said before that I’m a conflict adverse player so it should be no surprise that playing a game with carnivores and tearing into my friends doesn’t exactly illicit joy in my heart. However, playing against AI opponents is an entirely different; there are no hard feelings when playing a cold, heartless robot.

The easy AI is real easy

Playing the Evolution app is a perfect way to enjoy this game design. The animations are fast and snappy, the AI ‘thinks’ quickly, and holding each of the cards brings them up on the screen for easy reading. The End Turn button even requires that you hold it for a few seconds to resolve the dreaded “mis-click”, which is a stroke of UX genius.

The first 10 missions (which are available for free) of the campaign ease you into playing. They keep some of the advanced traits out of the first few games, and even present you with situations to teach you some unconventional strategies (such as using the Intelligence trait to attack a species, which reduces it’s population, making it’s Defensive Herding trait useless, allowing you to attack it a second time).

Because the animations are fast and the AI doesn’t slow the game down, it’s so easy to blaze through game after game of Evolution. I’m much more willing to explore different strategies when the time commitment is reduced down to mere minutes.

Between pass & play, cross play between devices, AI solo games with various AI levels, campaign, and weekly challenges, I have to admit that the Evolution app has everything that I look for in a digital board game adaption, AND the game itself is excellent! Take care that you don’t play the app too much, lest you become an Evolution master and crush your friends the next time you play the game in-person.