Sometimes, there is a difference between what game you have played the most and what is your favorite. Leaving out the classics board games such Monopoly, Poker, and Clue, that have decades long head starts on modern board games, I tried to narrow down what game I have played the most. Some games, like Coup, have the advantage of short play time and virtually no set-up. Others, like King of Tokyo or Magic, have been around long enough to fall into the modern classic category. Even taking those into account, the game I have played this most is Evolution: The Beginning.
Full Disclosure: I've played Evolution: The Beginning over a hundred times. It is my Autistic son’s absolute favorite game. Any game night starts with him smiling and saying “Evolution?” The fact that I can still play it and get any enjoyment out of it is a testament in and of itself.
Evolution: The Beginning is the streamlined, family friendly version of Evolution (which is currently on its 3rd Edition, so it has had a little streamlining of its own). It is a stand-alone version that supports 2 to 5 players and is NOT compatible with any other title in the Evolution line. I’m sure there is a joke about dead-end evolutions in there somewhere, but Darwin knows I’m not going to make it. The Beginning consists of a large deck of cards, a watering hole to which you add food tokens that represent the food. Each player is given a spiffy bag in which they collect food during each round which is tallied up at the end of the game to determine the winner (with allowances for how many cards you have in play but, generally, it’s all about the food). The cards are multipurpose, when they are played face up, they represent the traits of a species and if they are played face down, they represent the current population of said species or an entirely new species. As the game progresses, you are dealt more cards which you can use to add/swap traits, add population or create new species.
Each species is limited to a total of 3 traits. Many traits are defensive, protecting you from Carnivore species of other players. For Instance, a carnivore can’t devour a species with Flight if the predator doesn’t have same trait. Other traits, such a Long Neck and Fat Tissue enhance the way each species feeds from the watering hole or from the excess food. The key card in the deck that stops each species simply living in their own ecosystem is the Carnivore Card. When you add this Trait to a species, they can only eat meat a.k.a. other player’s species (or, while not optimum, some of your own species). This system has one glaring problem: you have to add a trait card to “become” a carnivore. You don’t have to add one to be an herbivore. So, if you add three defensive traits such as Speed, Nocturnal, and Burrowing to a species, congratulations! You just built the perfect beast that is immune to any predator, something Mother Nature hasn’t managed in a few million years. You may think it would take a perfect storm to get a perfect defensive combination but with only 10 different trait cards, it’s more of a lucky breeze. Oddly enough, this somehow doesn’t break the game. Instead, you find yourself living up to the namesake of the game, evolving when you need to, adapting to how much food is available in the watering hole, and going carnivore if the luck of the cards and lack of food dictates it. Maybe it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.
Despite being called “Family Friendly” or “Casual,” Carnivores add a distinct “Take That” element (Actually, more of a “I’m going to eat that” element). People generally don’t accept a shrug and a muttered “Survival of the fittest” as a legitimate reason why you ate their prized long necked nocturnal bird. Eat a species into extinction and you have probably earned an enemy for the next few millennia of adaptation or at least a cold shoulder the size of the Ice Age.If The Beginning is meant as a gateway into the Evolution universe, it certainly goes about it in a strange way. Cards such as “Long Neck” and “Nocturnal” can be found in both The Beginning and the “real” version of Evolution. However, they play differently in both editions. It certainly makes for a bumpy ride if you decide to switch from one version to another.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, I’ve probably played this title more than 100 times. We’ve moved on from it but only because we decided to take the Plunge into Evolution proper. It still holds a place on our shelf, coming out when my son wants to “Gateway” friends and family with his favorite game. Not many titles can hold up like this, but Northstar Games have evolved something that, while not perfect, is certainly special.