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Chris Currie
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Louisville
Kentucky
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After chasing it around town, I finally found a copy of the new "gateway" addition to the Evolution Game System and the Evolution family of board games: Evolution: The Beginning, designed by Dominic Crapuchettes and published by North Star Games, LLC. This game is being released in the U.S. exclusively at the Target chain of department stores and is currently priced at $25. (I've heard rumor that the exclusivity is only through the end of the 2016 calendar year [or possibly until August 2017], but that's far from confirmed fact.)

My wife and I have played one game, so this isn't a full review. I'm fairly well versed in Evolution, though. I play the base game and it's two expansions regularly and have worked as demo staff at the North Star Games booth at Essen (and the upcoming Gen Con 2016). While this isn't going to be a full review, I would like to start with a mini-review of what this game is, what purpose it serves in the Evolution Game System, and the major differences in the gameplay between Evolution: The Beginning and Evolution.

What is Evolution: The Beginning?
(You can safely skip this portion if you're familiar with how Evolution plays. You can find all of the major mechanical differences below in "What are the differences from the Base Game?")

At the beginning of the game, Evolution: The Beginning casts the players as something like a universal common ancestor of all amniotes in the primal wilds of an Earth-like planet. There's a common watering hole that all of the players send their species down to for food during their turn. The goal of the game is to guide your species through eating the most food and being the most plentiful.

It's all fine and good when everyone is eating a measly two food every turn. But this is a game of the survival (and victory) of the fittest, so you're given all the tools that you need to develop traits that feed your growing population more efficiently, find food more easily or store it in their fat stores, prey on other species around the watering hole, and develop defenses against those predators.


The player aid is two sided. Side One.


On every turn of Evolution: The Beginning, you'll perform 4 steps:

1) Gather
2) Adapt
3) Eat
4) Score


For Gathering, there are three steps. First, you'll add two food tokens from the game's supply (referred to as the Excess Food). Second, you'll grab a card off of the top of the deck and place it in front of you, face down, to represent a new little urweasel or prelizard or protochicken. Third, you draw three cards.

The Adapt step is where most of the game's thinking happens. You can perform any number of four different actions as many times and in any order as long as you want to or can. Those four actions are:

1) Create a New Species: lay a card down in front of you, face down, as a new species
2) Add Population: lay a card down in front of you, face down, splayed on top of an existing species. Each new card is a +1 to the species total population.
3) Add Traits: play cards face up onto your species to give them abilities. A species can only ever have three traits at one time and a species cannot have duplicate trait cards.
4) Remove Traits: you're freely allowed to remove traits from your species at any time during the Adapt step, but most of the time you'll do it to adapt a species to the ecosystem on the table by adding a new Trait that gives your species a needed defense or new strategy for feeding.

After you've used your hand of cards to create and (re)configure your species, it's time to Eat. Eating has two main actions:

Non-Carnivores: Take food tokens from the Watering Hole and place them in the little circular Food spots on the backs of the stack of cards that represent the species. If there are four cards splayed on top of each other, you'll try to collect four tokens to place on those cards. Once every Food spot on every population card in a species is filled, the species is considered Fed.

Carnivores: Carnivores are cut off from the salad bar at the Watering Hole. They're stuck catching their dinner on the hoof. All Carnivores must look around the table and identify any species they're able to attack.

1) Their owner then chooses one to eat.
2) The Population of the prey is reduced by 1 (the owning player discards a card from that's species' population stack)
3) The carnivore gains 2 Food tokens from the Excess Food

An interesting thing about Carnivores is that they ALWAYS attack a target if they are still Hungry (meaning their population isn't fully Fed). This can backfire on players, as their Carnivore can run out of targets in their opponents neck of the woods and turn on their own player's other species! This is actually a very powerful mechanism in the game and can be used to great benefit by smart players.

If at any time a species' population is reduced to 0 (meaning the last card is discarded during an attack), that species goes extinct. The owner discards all Traits that the extinct species had and then draws a number of cards equal to the Trait cards discarded. Extinction isn't the end of the world and can often be used to your advantage, especially in Evolution: The Beginning.

After all of the available food is eaten, any species with Unfed population (meaning there are cards in a species' stack without a food token on it) Starves. Starvation is simple: Unfed population cards are discarded, reducing the species' population down to be equal with the amount of Food tokens.

Finally, after Feeding all of your species as much as you can, you Score your food by taking all of the Food Tokens on all of your species and placing them in your private bag of holding.

Why did North Star Games, LLC make Evolution: The Beginning?

I'm not an expert on this topic. But, based on what I've read from the designer here on BGG, the answer is:

mb It's a streamlined, everyman-friendly version of the big game.
mb It's priced right around half what the MSRP on the big game is ($25 versus $55).
mb It'll be on shelves at Target's all over the United States in the very near future.

I was told by someone from one of the publishers involved in this recent Target Exclusives launch that, "Contrary to popular belief, the mass market is much less forgiving about the games they play. So everything about the rules and game play have to be extremely polished." North Star have taken what is a light-to-medium weight game and sanded off the corners, slimmed down the rule book, tightened up the card pool, and gotten the amount of components in the box down to what could be called a haiku of Evolution.


Dawn of life on Earth--
every lizard must decide:
grow, spread, eat, or die.



Interestingly, North Star's release of the Evolution Base game is itself a very streamlined version of Dmitry Knorre & Sergey Machin's Evolution: The Origin of Species. North Star's Dominic Crapuchettes was a competitive professional Magic: the Gathering player in his younger days and he sought to turn Knorre and Machin's game into a balance, tournament-level game. With Evolution: The Beginning, Dominic and his team have taken the tournament-tier game and its metagame (the ever-changing interplay of the constellation of tactics, strategies, and approaches to the game itself) and boiled it down into the equivalent of American Flag Football: family friendly, non-intimidating, something to bust out at a family gathering.

The MSRP that North Star have achieved with this smaller box is impressive, too. $25 is right around half of what the Base game's MSRP appears to be. Coupled with the huge (it nearly stretches from the top edge to the bottom edge of the lid), gorgeous (Catherine Hamilton at her absolute finest), high-color sauropod on the cover, it is a very enticing package to kids and families looking at a wall of games.

Which brings me to my next point: North Star have made the leap from an established publisher of truly great party games (Wits & Wagers, Say Anything) that can be found in most toy stores and book shops to a publisher with an appealing, inexpensive strategy game on the shelves of every Target in the United States. It's easy to see why North Star was interested when Target came around asking for a strategy game with mass-market appeal.

What are the major differences from the Base game?

TL;DR - They've given players a tighter pool of Traits, tuned the game to be primarily about creating/defending against carnivores, automated some of the less clear decisions that players have to make, removed the concept of Body Size, placed some brakes on the possibility of a runaway leader, and removed the symbiotic chaining mechanisms. It is still a very solid game with a lot of interesting choices to make.

First, here's every trait card in the deck.


The player aid is two sided. Side Two.



Zwaloo used Trait card 'MSPAINT.EXE'. It isn't very effective.

As you can see, 'Everybody's Worried About Carnivores'. The Defensive Traits make up almost half of the deck. Defending your species is, at first glance, as simple as adding a Trait that any Carnivore on the table doesn't have, or maybe even two. But that obvious simplicity makes things much easier for Carnivores, too. You don't have to worry about getting a hold of the matching Offense to a Defense (e.g. the Base Set's 'Ambush' and its nullification of 'Warning Call'). With about half of the deck being the same five cards, the proud owner of a Carnivore is almost always hot on the heels of any species on the board. And, with the complete absence of the Body Size mechanisms, any species on the board could start eating any other species in one turn.

The inclusion of two Eating Traits ('Long Neck' and 'Burrowing') and two Population Traits ('Fat Tissue' and 'Fertile') is absolutely ingenious in the way that it blends perfectly with the overall metagame of Evolution: The Beginning. From the perspective of the Base Set, every turn in E:tB finds a player effectively ALWAYS drawing five cards: one card to 'discard' for a new one-population species, one card played to the Watering Hole with a Food Value of 2, and three cards to hold in their hands. The effect of those two 'forced card plays' of the Food and New Species creates a sort of wall against some of the more difficult and dicey strategies that emerge in competitive Evolution.

There is ALWAYS going to be at least two Food Tokens on the Watering Hole on your turn. There will ALWAYS be one completely defenseless critter on the table for a hungry Carnivore to pop open like a can of Dinty Moore. This effectively assures that a player will ALWAYS have a minimum of two food to feed to at least one of their species (two from the watering hole and a one-pop species good for two Carnivore food). I go into it further later, but this is another great safety net that keeps players from feeling completely trounced as they watch their species get eaten by the others around the table.

The four non-Defensive Trait cards fit this metagame beautifully:

mb Fertile: Early Carnivores that snack on multiple species are easily offset with 'Fertile'; late Carnivores can be stuffed to the gills with easily replenished player-owned cattle species. You're not forced to constantly sacrifice chunks of your precious card draws to replenish species that took it on the chin in the previous round.

mb Fat Tissue: The way that 'Fat Tissue' works in this game is that the species' population is effectively doubled. A 'Fat' species is properly Fed once all of the species' population cards have a Food Token. But you can keep on eating until each population card has two tokens on it. With herbivores, this means 'Long Neck' or 'Scavenger' never runs out of space for Tokens. For Carnivores, this means you can absolutely wreck shop in the right environment, to the delight of all of the Scavengers.

mb Long Neck: Pretty simple: these species' get three free food before even looking at the Watering Hole. Two 3-pop species with this, and that's 6 points per round when you're only adding two Food Tokens to the Watering Hole, resulting in 8 points per round with one Trait per species, leaving two whole Traits to defend against Carnivores. On a Carnivore, Long Neck is a great protection or stop-gap against all of your prey species suddenly turtling up.

mb Scavenger: Even if your opponent manages to slip a wolf into your herds, those herds are more than happy to eat their fallen friends. I had multiple turns where my Carnivores would eat 5 or 6 times. My wife had two Scavenger species that were fully fed by the time she STARTED her turn. By including 'Scavenger', North Star has pulled back the curtain a little bit on the plethora of incredibly balanced, interconnected card interactions that can be found in the Base Set. "Oh sure, you're welcome to chow down on those, but you're TWO food move is giving THREE food to my three Scavenger species".

mb Bonus: Defensive Horns: This one isn't like the other four Defensive Traits. It doesn't stop a Carnivore dead in its tracks. But it does cause a hungry Carnivore species with no other option to smash itself against the rocks to survive. Because Carnivores HAVE to attack if they are hungry, setting yourself up with a bunch of double-defended Long Necks and a single Fertile species with Defensive Horns creates a Carnivore Abattoir: they can't attack left or right and straight ahead is a hamburger in a bear trap.

What does a game look like?

My wife and I sat down and played one game. It's basically her first game of Evolution ever, since it's been almost six months since we just barely made it through a beta game of Evolution: Climate.

Here are some highlights from my side of the table:



The above-mentioned 'Carnivore Abattoir'. I've got two 'Burrowing' species and one Fertile Long Neck with Horns. My wife's Carnivore (the first one in the game) has one target to eat, and it hurts every time.

In this picture, you can see the great Catherine Hamilton artwork on the card backs. It's the ubiquitous little orange spotted Urweasel snuffling around the banks of the watering hole. He's in different spots on the various cards, so it really does look like a little pack of critters ambling around the banks of a pond.



Here, you can see how the little pudgy Scavenger from the previous photo has now gone 'beast mode' (quite literally) and the 3-pop species has eaten six Food, mostly from the Fertile Long Neck Burrowers on the left. This is a 14-point-per-turn setup.



I took this photo because we actually managed the publishers' nightmare edge case: we ran out of Food Tokens. It was just a little while before this that I explained that I was getting 14 points per round and that she might want to try to even up our points-per-turn.

The Carnivore on the right had taken up Flying and eaten her sole Carnivore out of the sky like a flock of terrifying Flying Pig-Wolves.



I thought I was so clever, turning my Flying Pig-Wolves into a swarm and eating as much of her side of the board as I could spare. The player can choose to eat in whatever order they desire, so it's a good strategy to feed your Cattle species first. This is because any Food Tokens on a population card that is discarded due to predation is placed into the prey's owner's bag. Since most of my Cattle are Fertile, that card will be back at the beginning of the next round, giving me three points per turn (1 for the Cattle's Food and 2 for the predation).

In the above photo, I had eaten my wife's Carnivores into extinction and then gorged my species on everything I could reach, including her right species with the Horns. On her next turn, she plopped down an identical Carnivore to my own using her compulsory new species and three Traits from her hand. She turned the tables and gorged her own Flying Pig-Wolves.

I love the story this tells: "A pack of Scavengers turn to predation, become prolific, drive off all other predators, and then begin cannibalizing themselves."



The final score is calculated as:

# of Food Tokens in your bag and on Population cards + # of population and trait cards in front of you + # of cards left in your hand

I had 20 cards, my wife had 22. The final scores were 131 to 122. I am positive this is an outlier score, only really possible during the first few two player games between two new players or a new player and an experienced one. My wife made quite a few early moves that gave me the run of the shop. I was unlucky in pulling a Carnivore Trait until at least my fifth or sixth turn. But I want to highlight the 9 point score spread. I love Evolution. I teach it at trade shows and conventions. This was my wife's first game. I didn't trounce her. One of the things that I've seen Dominic Crapuchettes post here on BGG is, "Good play does not snowball into a run-away leader as can happen in Evolution. So the first game experience is more measured and does not hit you in the face when you're down."

Final Thoughts

I really think that North Star Games have accomplished what they set out to do. They've created a product in their strategy game line that is appealing to folks who might see it on the way from diapers to coffee filters. The game is intuitive, the rule book is short and concise, the components are beautiful, and the learning curve can be observed, turn-by-turn, as players learn that predation is a powerful strategic option and not 'take that' gameplay. And, when a family has fully explored the interplay between the ten included Trait cards, there's a fun little teaser envelope in the box directing players' towards the 'bigger brother' game. And it has a full playset of alt-art versions of 'Warning Call' in it.



It's priced right, it's available, and it's appealing to young and old. After our game tonight, my busy, hardworking wife (and the mother to my three year old son who is deep in the 'NO' phase) told me, "Now this is a game that I can play a couple of times a week."

The game may cost half of what it's bigger, heavier brother does, but the box has way more than half of the gameplay. They've distilled the fine wine of Evolution into a dangerously very quaffable brandy.
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Sky Zero
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Re: First play at 2P: Carnivorous flying pigs and the scavengers underneath
Never had much interest in evolution, but this looks right in my wife's wheelhouse. Will be scooping this one up, thanks for the review!
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Bill Eldard
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Burke
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One of the most informative reviews I've ever read in BGG! You told me everything I was interested in about this new game, and in particular, the comparison with Evolution.

I'm a big fan of Evolution and Evolution: Flight, and it appears that this game is well-designed to appeal to a broader market, and I think it has tremendous potential to be a hit in much the way Settlers of Catan took off as a campus craze.
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Brandon Holmes
Canada
Caledonia
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Which version do you prefer? Do you think there is value in owning both this and the base game or is this mainly an introduction?

I am thinking of buying this for playing with my wife (and hopefully my kids one day) but I already own the base game and will probably buy Climate so I am not sure I want three versions of this game.
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Chris Currie
United States
Louisville
Kentucky
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Look, honey, he thinks there's honey in there!
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We can't all be Zheleznogorsk.
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I've got Base, Flight, and a Climate beta set (with a Climate Conversion Kit on its way). I picked it up because I knew it was easier to teach to my wife as well as kids and other friends who aren't serious gamers. To my delight, my wife caught on quickly and actually got into it. That's huge for me. She's my best friend and she'll always give me at least one playthrough of most new games that I'm excited about, but there's a definite difference between when she's just taking a turn so I can play and when she's actually trying to strategize. We barely made it through one beta game of Climate and she didn't remember any of the rules here, six months later. I love the Base game, but if this is what it takes for me to get my Evolution on more often, I'll take it.

So, I really see it as the kind of game you bust out when there's 30-60 minutes and 2-3 players, especially if you're looking to introduce the game and not overwhelm them. If they love it, then you can play a few more times and then try introducing the Base game. If they hate it or just don't catch on, it doesn't overstay its welcome at all. I can see E:tB sitting next to Phase10, Rummikub, and a cribbage board in a family's hall closet.

I like Base (and the expansions) with 3-5 players the most, but it's the most fun when you're playing with people who are familiar with the meta, combos, and know the game well enough to think ahead and read the ecosystem. I don't have as much fun when it's a mix of experience and you have some players absolutely smoking the new guys. I think E:tB is a very tactical game of hand management that new players start picking up on the finer points around their fourth or fifth turn. The Base game usually takes a couple of full playthroughs before you've seen most of the major strategies play out and can start being competitive.

One of the only criticisms that I see of the Evolution Base Set is that new players play one learning game and see a runaway leader, or carnivores wreck shop, or super low interaction. These are all fairly common in games of Evolution where all of the players are new. I've seen replies to these criticism that say, "Yeah, but it gets really good when you've played it ten times." To which, the inevitable reply is, "If it takes ten plays for me to enjoy a game, I've got better things to do." I think Evolution: The Beginning is the solution to that problem. New players get to learn the major mechanisms in an ecosystem with some great safety nets, and when they step up to the Base game, they'll experience a feeling of freedom and expanded options instead of frustration.

I'm also really impressed with the production quality, especially at $25. You can't tell when it's in shrinkwrap, but the big sauropod on the cover is embossed and glossy while the rest of the forest is matte. It's a really nice looking game with really solid components. I've spent more than $25 on expansions for other games that didn't have nearly as much gameplay.

I have no qualms with having E:tB in my collection right beside the rest of the games in the system.
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will Jones
United States
South Carolina
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Just wanted to say thank you for such a great review! I love Evolution base game and backed "Climate" as soon as it was on kick starter, but then heard about "The Beginning". After reading your review, I am most excited about this version of the game! Thank you!
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James
United States
Fort Worth
Texas
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Excellent review. I picked this up to try out on my wife and kids. They like playing games, but in depth, heavy games just aren't on the menu these days.

Cheers!
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Myles Carey

Seattle
Washington
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Great review - thanks!

I like that North Star did this. I'll probably pick up today for use on summer camping trips where we want a smaller footprint for our trailer table. Have a few games for that purpose: base game 7wonders, travel Catan, dday dice, zombie dice and will add this.

Cannot wait until Climate ships in next month or so.

Myles
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Chris Gallo
United States
New York
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Great review of a great game. I usually game with my fiancée and sometimes her nephew who are both really non gamers so since the sweet spot for this is 2-3 it's awesome. It's a little simpler and streamlined than the original base set but that's not a bad thing at all. It still produces a lot my meaningful decisions and always plays out slightly differently than the last game. This also packs up small if I ditch the box to take on vacation for my fiancée and myself.
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