Review by Matt S.
In the six years since the board game Evolution first landed in stores, it has grown rapidly in stature and prominence. It’s a commercial hit and, as the game’s website proudly proclaims, it’s even drawn the attention and respect of the scientific community for the way that it depicts its namesake. And now it’s on Nintendo Switch.
“Evolution captures key aspects of the evolutionary process and would work as a teaching aid for ages ten and up,” a review of the board game in leading scientific journal, Nature, reports. “It could also help older students to tackle specific topics, such as evolutionary arms races… Evolution features sophisticated biology. Traits can be put together in a dizzying array of combination, so each game can be very different.”
It’s edutainment, then; a board game that is designed to inform as well as be fun to play, and the good news is that Evolution succeeds on both counts. Not only is it the kind of game that leads biology journals to develop a personality and actually enthuse about something, but it’s also an incredibly effective example of how minimalist mechanics don’t mean straightforward gameplay or detrimental simplicity.
You can learn how to play Evolution over the course of a couple of tutorials, each only lasting around 5-10 minutes, but the crux of it is this; you place creatures down on a table that has a central “pool”, that has a finite amount of food in it. Your goal is to then play cards on those creatures to “evolve” them and help them to ensure that they’re the ones that gain access to the food and can survive. The “long neck” ability, for example, gives you free food because they can reach resources that other animals can’t. Another card gives your animals a hive mind of sorts, leading them to distribute excess food with the other creatures on your side. And so on and so forth. You’re limited in the number of different evolutions you can make by the number of cards dealt, and in almost every game you’ll play there will be less food that total animals on the board. When that happens, some of them start to starve, and that’ll hurt their side’s ability to collect points and win games.
The big spanner in the works is the ability to evolve some animals to become predators. Once you do that, that animal is no longer interested in the leafy greens at the centre of the board. Instead, they need to hunt and kill other player’s creatures, to earn meat, which feeds the predator. And then the herbivores can be “evolved” to have various defence mechanisms that protect them from the predator…
It’s such a simple set-up, and yet the wealth of options allow for some very strategic, dynamic play. You’ll need to be flexible in using the cards that you get – sometimes evolving up predators just won’t work as a strategy, and while Evolution isn’t a directly competitive game for the most part (aside from those predators), you’re still going to always be on the lookout to manipulate the resources and food available to “block” other player’s access to it. A single game of Evolution lasts around half an hour (if that), but it’s so highly replayable thanks to its variety that you can settle in for very long sessions with this one.
The Nintendo Switch port is a reasonably straightforward recreation of the game, and that’s fine. The aesthetics are all there (and it’s a gorgeous board game), and there’s some light animation to help make the flow of the action more clear. You’ve got the standard online, local and single-player modes, with the only disappointment being that the “campaign” mode really doesn’t offer much. There’s the occasional one-on-one battle with “boss” enemies after playing through a couple of standard games, and winning those will unlock new AI opponents to use in other modes. While I found the AI to be reasonable enough to keep players on their toes, I would have preferred to have everything unlocked from the start. I didn’t come int Evolution looking for a narrative-driven single-player experience, and I didn’t get that. All of that I’m fine with. My disappointment is that the developer made me play through something very inferior to be able to enjoy the good bit – the board game itself – with a variety of AI opponents.
The Switch has a surprisingly good range of digital board games now, and the absolutely brilliant Wingspan is just around the corner. Evolution holds its own; it’s an entertaining game mechanically, and benefits from being accessible to players of all ages and having an educational thrust behind it. It’s no lecture, nor is it preachy, but it will certainly help you frame an understanding (and interest) in ecosystems and evolution. All brought together, it’s a wholesome good time.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb
The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.