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Evolution is the first strategy game offering from North Star Games, a publisher well known for party games Wits & Wagers and Say Anything. This game is a re-release of a Russian game originally designed by a professor of biology from Moscow University. North Star Games has added beautiful new artwork and tweaked some aspects of play to tighten up the flow of the game. The result is an incredibly effective game that is engaging enough to be successful in the hobby market, but scientifically accurate enough to be a best bet for classroom use.
Looking at game play, some of the most notable changes implemented in the Dominic Crapuchettes re-design involve keeping players active and engaged in the game. For example, when a species is killed off by predatory carnivores or goes extinct from lack of food, the player is compensated with trait cards equal to the number of traits on the departed species. Additionally, if a player starts their turn with no active species, they get a free one. This means nobody is shut out of the game anymore. In fact, killing off a species with the maximum allowed three traits can be a dangerous move as it gives that player basically a whole turn's advantage given a base draw of three cards a turn.
Other changes tightened up the scientific aspects of the game. The use of species boards that track body size and population better depict the idea that a species is made up of many organisms. Now, increasing population of your species is a critical offensive and defensive move. Players score points off of species population in two ways; each round you add the food tokens eaten (one per population) to your score bag, and at the end of the game you also score a point for each remaining population. Having more than one population in your species also protects you from predatory carnivores who are hunting animals; carnivores eat one population per feeding, so having more animals in a species keeps the species board going.
After playing the North Star Games version of Evolution a few times, we thought it was a hugely successful re-implementation of a game that hadn't quite delivered on its full potential in the original. To make sure our assessment of Evolution was correct, we took it out to two high school science classrooms to get feedback from biology teachers and their students, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The teachers praised the game for its scientific accuracy in depicting the cause-and-effect aspects of natural selection in evolution as well as the general simulation of the ebb and flow in population given the availability of food. In one of our games, a players carnivorous species was facing prey that had learned to climb trees; after eating the only other species without climbing to extinction, the carnivore itself also died off after being unable to adapt. In another game, an early abundance of food led to a surge in both the number and population of species. As that early game surplus of available plant food quickly turned into a deficit situation, species began to die off. Those with long necks (grab food first when it is revealed), fat tissue (store food between rounds), and foraging (take two food instead of one) were more successful in surviving through the population re-balancing.
The students who tried the game all loved it. This is an especially important point given the widely diverse student groups that were involved in reviewing Evolution. One of the classes that played the game was for students receiving academic intervention services, extra support for students taking the New York living environment Regents exam for the second or third time. Despite initial resistance, the students were quickly drawn in to the game by the artwork and -- let's be honest -- the idea of attacking and eating each others' species. While they played the game, though, the teacher and I were able to keep up a constant discussion of what was happening using the academic vocabulary that students needed to learn for the exam. "Before playing a new trait," we would remind the students, "consider the phenotype of current species in the ecosystem." In other words, check to see what offensive traits the carnivores have before selecting a defensive trait, but by phrasing it in scientific terms, playing the game became a vocabulary review lesson.
Overall, I would describe Evolution as one of the top five games for demonstrating the power of play-based learning. The high level of scientific accuracy combined with a relatively simple rule set makes it easy for teachers to see the potential for use. The play time, about 30 minutes for 5 players using the simultaneous play option during the use of traits phase, means Evolution fits nicely into a class period. As always, being a board game means teachers can also manipulate the game to create specific instructional situations. If I had 30 minutes to meet with a principal or curriculum director to explain to them why I am so passionate about using board games as part of a classroom instructional program, Evolution is the game I would bring.
North Star Games loaned us a pre-publication prototype for this review.