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Subject: Geeks Under Grace Review: Evolution: the Beginning rss

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Derek Thompson
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INTRODUCTION

One thing players find as they delve deeper into the board game hobby is that it’s easy to forget about the barrier to entry. If you are regularly playing board games, even allegedly “gateway games” like Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan, you might forget that these games are not nearly as simple as mass market hits like Apples to Apples or Pie Face. It’s a bad habit among gamers to be condescending and blame the education system when new players are turned off by the complexity of “simple” gateway games, and I think we as a community have a bit of selective memory about this. (After all, Settlers of Catan has an almanac!)

No one knows this lesson better than Dominic Crapuchettes, owner of North Star Games and designer of the brilliant party game Wits & Wagers. When demoing that game around the country, Dominic found that non-gamers could not handle the complexity of simply laying out numerical trivia answers with respect to different odds. The subsequent result was the leaner Wits & Wagers Family and Wits & Wagers Party–the important point being that Dominic met his potential audience where they were at, instead of turning his nose up at people who didn’t want to wade through all the rules before they started playing.

A store that has also learned this lesson is Target. They’ve grown the board game section extensively, and sometimes had trouble with customers who aren’t fully aware of what they’re buying. Target’s become more and more cognizant of this issue, and asked North Star Games to take their strategy game Evolution and trim it down to as simple a game as possible to make it appropriate for Target shelves. The product of that conversation is Evolution: the Beginning, a game exclusively available at Target for its first year starting this August. And if anyone can make a game simpler and even better, North Star Games have already proven that it’s them.

THE REVIEW

had already played the original Evolution before playing Evolution: the Beginning, and I thought that the game was good but perhaps a bit rules-intensive for what it was (just barely). And for me, personally, I lean heavily towards games that pack a lot of punch in a short amount of time, so I was excited as anyone else to see how barebones Evolution could become and still be fun.

The artwork and components for Evolution: the Beginning are just as fantastic as the original, which is no surprise, since much of the artwork is borrowed from that release. It’s so beautiful that the self-plagiarism doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The artwork is full of beautiful watercolor paintings of various animals and does a great job evoking the game’s theme. This game comes with much fewer components due to the trimmed-down rules, allowing it to be priced at $24.99 MSRP instead of $54.99. There is one type of token, a board to place them on, and bags to put them in for scoring purposes; but the game is first and foremost about its 88-card deck.

Evolution: the Beginning takes a hint from games like Race for the Galaxy and San Juan, where the cards in the central deck are used for many purposes–to make new species, to increase the population of a species, or to actually be used for its card text as a trait on any species you control. Traits can be added to each species and discarded when they’re no longer useful, loosely simulating the concept of evolution. And the centerpiece of this simulation is the carnivore card, which shows up twice as often as everything else.

The carnivore card allows a species to forego eating from the central watering hole (which has a limited supply) and, instead, attack other species, even possibly other species controlled by the same player. This is hugely beneficial to the carnivore’s owner, since it can kill opposing species and also provides food fairly quickly. Therefore, five of the ten traits are actually ways to stave off carnivores, and the last four are about ways to sneak in extra food and increase population. This means that the game is very combative–a constant back-and-forth between players vying to keep their species alive and gain the most food (which are victory points). It also means that the game is somewhat draw-dependent: although you get three new cards each turn, I’ve played games where a player never drew a single carnivore card and could never approach the game from that angle. To be fair, that meant the player had lots of cards to provide him with food in other ways or to protect himself from carnivores–and he still had a strong showing. Overall, I think the card design allows for a strong mix of strategy and tactics, and is generally forgiving enough to keep players from being frustrated (if your species goes extinct, you get a replacement card for every trait lost).

Perhaps most interesting about the game, and most contentious among Christians, is the game’s theme. Evolution: the Beginning does an expert job simulating the concept of evolution, and the gorgeous artwork and enjoyable gameplay paint it as a beautiful, natural part of life. To its credit, the game does not involve or imply anything about humans; the cards are illustrations of birds, dinosaurs, rodents, and so on.

For me, personally, a game like this with otherwise no offensive content (no foul language or nudity) is a non-issue, just like playing a game with djinns would not imply a concession that genies exist. Furthermore, if the game sparks dialogue, then it’s accomplished an important goal.

But all of this is tangential to the actual reason for the existence of Evolution: the Beginning: can Target shoppers learn the game on their own? I would say, yes. Evolution has been greatly streamlined, with fewer traits, fewer concepts (no more body size or adjacency), and fewer rules interactions; but it has maintained, and even improved, the fun. I love how quick and simple this game is, and I still get to try to work out cool card combos or take advantage of a miscalculation by an opponent. For me, this is the premiere version of Evolution, and I’m happy to keep it in my collection. Hopefully, Target shoppers will feel the same.

POSITIVES
+ Faster, streamlined version of Evolution
+ Rules are silky smooth with no confusion
+ Still lots of room for strategy and tactics
+ Stunning artwork
+ Scales well for different player counts
+ Aggressively priced

NEGATIVES
- Can be dependent on card draw (carnivore in particular)
- Fairly combative (not for everyone)
- Only one player aid
- Only available at Target (for now)

BOTTOM LINE
Evolution: the Beginning is a wonderful refinement of the gorgeous art, thematic simulation, and cool card-combos that made the original great. Now beginners can enjoy this great game as well.
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Chris Currie
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I saw you mention your review on Geeks Under Grace in another thread and I sought this out over there. I'm glad you posted it here, too!

I largely agree with your assessments. I don't think that the luck of the draw is a particularly strong negative because there's a lot more to the game beyond hoping to draw a Carnivore trait. I think Dominic et al have done a great job of making Carnivores one of many good strategies in the game, but they are well and truly balanced. I think it was a design decision in The Beginning to create a safety net against true Total Player Species Kill (TPSK) by always giving a player enough food to string a couple of species along even if the Watering Hole is empty and every other species on the board is turtled up. So players shouldn't feel particularly stressed by not drawing the Traits for their favorite strategy; there's a lot of great combos to play that are just as strong (if not stronger) than Carnivore.

And that safety net is great for soothing the burn of the direct confrontation of having another player craft a Carnivore to specifically eat your big-points species. It is definitely a confrontational game, but it's not "take that and drown in your tears" gameplay. As you said, there's a balance that makes almost every turn's draw feel useful.

You make an interesting point about the theological appeal/apprehensions to the game. One of the things I've noticed about the tabletop gaming community is that it seems that outwardly religious folks make up a larger part of the cross section of the population, versus many other hobbies that I've been involved in. I think it's great; it's neat to meet a new group of players and to realize that they all started playing together at a Church game night or a retreat. Community of any kind is so rare to find these days and I think getting together to play games and socialize is wonderful, regardless of the setting. In short, I think that Church-affiliated gaming groups are a healthy, positive aspect of organized religion that is a strong counter to the outspoken "my way or the highway" perceived-intolerant types.

I say all of that because I demo Evolution, both to friends and at shows and cons. The crowd at shows are self-selecting; if someone objects to the whole concept at first blush, they're not going to come sit down at my table. (And I've never had anyone stop just to 'give us a piece of their mind', either.) In my private gaming circles, I've never had anyone outright object to playing the game. And I think the game of Evolution is a beautiful way to explore the concepts in a non-threatening, apolitical way. If one were to feel conflicted regarding the debate over the validity of Intelligent Design or be staunchly against the 'Godlessness' of Darwinian evolution, playing a few games of Evolution and actually paying attention to the environmental pressure and the way in which species must adapt via random card draws may give some insight into what all of the hubub is about. And, based on my own spiritual journey, I know that the Catholic church actually embraces broad swaths of the science, using it as a way in which to better understand our world and as a lens to view some of the mysterious ways in which God works. Like you said, sparking dialogue is a great collateral effect for a game to have.

Thank you for the review!
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Chet C.
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I appreciate your review of the game and your standing up for your convictions. I attended a private Christian university in which (my guess is that) a majority of the student body would have said evolution is not real. I majored in genetics and a majority of my chemistry and biology professors (including my evolutionary biology professor) said that their career and learning in science strengthened their faith in God. I remember my evolutionary biology professor said that evolution was proof to that God exists, that His ways are higher than our ways, and that He can see the end from the beginning. I certainly don't want to have a debate of evolution on BGG and hope that nobody responds purporting to know "the truth" one way or another, but thought you might find this as interesting as I did.

Again, thanks for the review. I hope to pick up the game shortly.
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Derek Thompson
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Cheddarific wrote:
I appreciate your review of the game and your standing up for your convictions. I attended a private Christian university in which (my guess is that) a majority of the student body would have said evolution is not real. I majored in genetics and a majority of my chemistry and biology professors (including my evolutionary biology professor) said that their career and learning in science strengthened their faith in God. I remember my evolutionary biology professor said that evolution was proof to that God exists, that His ways are higher than our ways, and that He can see the end from the beginning. I certainly don't want to have a debate of evolution on BGG and hope that nobody responds purporting to know "the truth" one way or another, but thought you might find this as interesting as I did.

Again, thanks for the review. I hope to pick up the game shortly.


I'll just say that this sounds very familiar
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J.M. Diller
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Enjoyed your review, thanks!
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John Rudolph
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I think the game more simulates survival of the species than the concept of evolution. It isn't about everything coming from the big bang theory. Great looking game and concept.
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