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Designer Diary: Evolution, or Great Art Mirrors Nature

Dominic Crapuchettes
United States
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North Star Games designs party games that don't suck! Play them with your non-gamer friends over the holidays.
First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we bring you Clubs. The suit of clubs finally gets some respect!
Evolution is the culminating work of three game designers and an entire development team at North Star Games. My part of the story begins when I was a wee child.

I come from a European family that did not watch much television. We played board games twice a week instead. Dad taught me chess when I was four, entered me into tournaments starting at seven, and hired a chess tutor for me during elementary school. His dream was for me to become an international chess champion. Sure, my family also played party games and took vacations to the beach, but that's not the part of my childhood that played a role in shaping Evolution.

I started designing intricate fantasy games in sixth grade, and in eighth grade I designed a wargame that was banned from school because too many friends were playing during class! In high school, my final economics paper was a business plan for the game company I planned to start after graduation. But the summer of 1998 is when my part in the development of Evolution kicked into high gear because that's when I decided I would stop playing Magic after the New York Pro Tour. I wanted more time to develop some of my game designs and start a game company. Perhaps knowing ahead of time that New York would be my final Pro Tour took away some of the pressure because I ended up taking second place and winning $15k at that event.

That's me in (and on) the 1998 Magic State Championship poster; I was Virginia state champion that year

It was from these five years of intense tournament experiences that the deep-seated desire to create a tournament quality game was first planted in my heart — and it's a desire that I've been carefully nurturing ever since.

The History of Evolution

Evolution has an interesting history. Nearly ten years ago, a Russian biologist named Dmitry Knorre created a game to demonstrate evolutionary principles to students. It was very thematic and educational, but since it was designed by a biologist and not a game designer, it fell a little short on game play. Rightgames, the Russian publisher that picked it up, had game designer Sergey Machin overhaul the concept and released it as Evolution: The Origin of Species.

Dmitry Knorre with his kids; Sergey Machin; Evolution: The Origin of Species

When I came across the published game in 2013, I was immediately struck by how well the theme was integrated into the mechanisms, but there were still some glaring game design flaws that bothered me. I stayed up until 4 a.m. that night thinking about how to solve the problems. This is not unusual for me when I come across a new game that excites my imagination. What is unusual is that I stayed up late the next night, too. And then again and again and again for about two weeks straight. I did this without knowing whether the license was available, which helps explain why my wife says I'm obsessive about game design, although I prefer the term passionate. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.

The biggest flaw of Evolution: The Origin of Species is that the winner gets determined on the last round of the game, making all of the previous rounds feel meaningless. Furthermore, it's possible for that final round to be determined by the roll of a die. This is fine for an educational tool designed to demonstrate evolutionary principles, but it does not make for a great game. The next flaw I addressed is the numerous exceptions to the rules created by the cards. What started off as a very simple design quickly compounded into a complicated web of rules that needed a large compendium to resolve specific card interactions. There were also issues with regards to card balance, luck of the draw, runaway leaders, and excessive text on almost every card.

There was no simple key to fixing these problems. It just took time – a freaking ridiculous amount of time! I have over thirty versions of Evolution saved on my computer and detailed notes recording nearly three hundred different playtests.

The hardest thing to balance was the carnivore trait: If carnivores were too powerful, the game turned into a "take-that" diplomatic game of negotiated wins; if carnivores were too weak, the game lost its excitement and turned into a Euro-style resource management game without any interaction. I wanted the threat of carnivores to be great enough that players had to pay attention to what others were doing, but I didn't want carnivores to be so strong that games would be determined by who was targeted the least instead of who made the best strategic decisions. It was a tricky balance to find, but I think we nailed it. Carnivores are the glue that hold this game together.

The illustration of the carnivore in Evolution

Designing Evolution

All of my games are designed using a similar framework: Create the most amount of fun (or replay value) with the fewest number of rules. I added one additional criteria for Evolution: Make it as thematic as possible!

• Bursting with Theme
Evolution is my first published game with a theme, and I took the endeavor extremely seriously. I wanted the theme to exude from the game mechanisms, not get slapped on afterwards with flavor text. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that flavor text isn't theme – it's chrome. Theme is designed into the game by the game designer. Chrome is added afterwards by artists, graphic designers, historians, writers, and poets. I'm not against chrome. In fact I love it! It helps immerse the players into the setting of the game. Evolution has chrome in spades, but it is also imbued with theme that comes directly from the game mechanisms. Evolution would feel thematic regardless of whether it was published by Fantasy Flight or Cheapass Games.

Evolution is not a wargame about conquering the environment or a civilization-style game about progressing along an evolutionary tech tree. The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem. Players must continually adapt to the environment in order to survive and thrive. The brilliant part (inherited from Dmitry Knorre) is that the act of adapting your species is what changes the ecosystem, so every turn in the game creates a feedback loop which keeps the system in continual flux. When you play Evolution, you'll feel immersed in a dynamic jungle with interesting species and symbiotic relationships.

In some games of Evolution you'll find that herbivores proliferate best; in others, the carnivores rule the day. Most of the time you'll find that carnivores and herbivores cohabitate in a balanced ecosystem that mimics what you find in nature. If you're lucky, you might even witness a situation in which a carnivore cultivates another species for food, just like humans do with cows and chickens! All of these situations arise naturally through the game play. I did not add an event card called "Cataclysm: Every species has a 90% chance of extinction", but you'll experience a cataclysmic event every tenth game (or so) in which 90% of the species go extinct. This will occur naturally through the actions of the players instead of getting dictated externally through a "thematic" event card — and if the surviving carnivores do not adapt after the cataclysmic event, they will also go extinct due to the lack of species to eat within the ecosystem.

On average, I threw out over twenty card ideas that were mechanically interesting and well-balanced for each card that I deemed thematic enough for the base game. In other words, my desire to maintain a strong theme increased the development time of Evolution by over twenty times! It was a high price to pay, but we think it's a smart bet since we plan to support Evolution with thematic expansions for the next 10+ years. The end result is a vivid game system that mimics many situations you'll find in nature.

• Intuitive Rules
While the number of rules appropriate for a game depends upon the genre, I consider it of paramount importance to always use the least amount of rules possible. If I can create the same effect with fewer rules, I'll do it. Each rule is a barrier that keeps people from entering into your game world. Actually, the metric I use is not the specific number of rules in the game, but how easy it is to learn the game or teach it to other people. Not all rules are created equal. Some rules are very intuitive, while others are very difficult to wrap your head around. In general, a rule that is highly thematic is always easier to learn and harder to forget. My goal with Evolution was to create a game with similar depth to the popular big box games loved on BGG, but with fewer and more intuitive rules. I want the rules to quickly disappear so that players can focus on the deeper strategies that emerge through the card synergies.

• Replay Value and Fun
This is the most difficult thing to quantify in game design because fun is amorphous. I look at this issue from a typical artist's point of view: If your work of art resonates deeply with the human spirit, then people will find the work compelling (fun). It will reflect their experience of the world in some way or another.

In Wits & Wagers and Say Anything, much of the replay value (or fun) comes from the social interaction at the table. Those games are fun to play again and again largely because of the social interactions they generate. On the one hand, Evolution is different because it's a strategy game, which means the activity of playing the game should in some way reflect the players' experience of reality (more on that later), but I still wanted the social interaction at the table to be a large part of the fun.

My model for this aspect of Evolution was No Limit Texas Hold'em. While there is a strong statistical/strategy backbone to No Limit Hold'em, you cannot play at the highest level without profiling the players at the table. The same is true with Evolution. While a large part of the game is adapting to the changing ecosystem, an equally large part of the game is adapting your play style to the players at the table and anticipating their next move.

Team Wits & Wagers at a local coffee house, and people playing Say Anything in Sweden (Photo by Olov Johansson)

The strategy in Evolution is derived from the emergent complexities of the card synergies. My goal was to create tons of synergies with the cards – as many as the theme would allow. This is one of the ways that Evolution mitigates the luck of the draw because every hand in Evolution can be played out in many legitimate ways. And profiling the players at the table helps you predict the way that each player might choose to play out their cards.

One of my goals with Evolution was to create a environment where people could play in the style that was most comfortable to them and still have a reasonable chance of winning. Gamers who prefer Euro-style resource management games can play defensively and mind their own business, while gamers who prefer aggressive Ameritrash-style games can go on the offensive. But players who change their play style depending upon the current situation are the ones who will win most consistently. At the highest level, Evolution is a game you win by adapting to an ever-changing ecosystem, one consisting of the current cards in play as well as the tendencies of the players at the table.

• Chrome
Evolution is plastered with chrome. We commissioned Catherine Hamilton, one of the world's most prominent nature artists, to hand paint all of the card art for Evolution. It was laborious and extremely expensive, but we wanted the look and feel of Evolution to be reminiscent of scientific journals and childhood dinosaur books. We also included swanky food bags and a HUGE wooden start player meeple. Evolution has about as much chrome as it possible to stuff into a box. The only thing it lacks is scientific flavor text because we did not want our game to become a political hot button. It's a board game designed to be engaging and fun – nothing more.

• Mirroring Nature (or Esoteric Mumbo Jumbo)
On the surface, Evolution was designed to mirror nature with its theme – literally. It's a game about nature. But I want to talk about an underlying tension that occupied more of my thought than making the mechanisms fit the theme. A work of art is compelling only to the degree that it resonates with you and your view of the world. That's why you hear the phrase "great art mirrors nature". If the world being depicted is large enough and accurate enough, then everyone will find something they can relate to. I wanted to create a game environment where most people could find something that reflected their view of the world.

Some people believe they are in control of their lives, and others think they are blown around by the winds of fortune. Finding the right balance between control and chaos is the concept that I wrestled with while designing this game. Is our future predictable, or is this an illusion we cling to because the alternative is too scary to face? What of all the plans you made for your future when you were young? How many of them have come to fruition? Thirty years ago I planned on starting a game company and running it for the rest of my life. That company was going to focus on RPGs and fantasy board games. What happened with that plan? You could say nothing happened with that plan — at least for twenty years. Or you might believe that it is slowly coming about in its own way.

Ameritrashers have a vision of reality which puts them in the middle of a chaotic system in which their fate is as much determined by the actions of others (through direct conflict) as by their own actions. Ameritrashers are happy if a game creates a good story that can be talked about. Eurosnoots want a predictable system they can master. When playing Evolution, I wanted Euro gamers to feel in control of their fate and Ameritrash gamers to enjoy the unpredictable chaos of a world in flux. If you play Evolution conservatively, you'll have ample control over your fate in the game, and if you play riskily and aggressively you'll find ample chaos in the game. I wanted both of these viewpoints to coexist in one game. Given the BGG dialogue about this topic over the past five years, it's not surprising that this was something that occupied much of my thought.

Evolution Tournament Structure

You may have noticed that I'm extremely passionate about Evolution. I love this game. It has occupied nearly every waking hour of mine for the past two years (and unfortunately there have been many sleepless nights over that time). We are now in the process of creating a tournament structure for those interested in exploring what it has to offer. Ask your local game store if you would like them to run an Evolution tournament. We will support them with prizes.

The First Expansion

I am happy to announce that our first expansion will be available at Gen Con 2015: Evolution: Flight. Will the ability to fly allow your species to soar to new heights? Or will it bring about your downfall?

Dominic Crapuchettes

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