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Survival of the fittest? – Evolution: The Beginning Review

You might think that a game with the title Evolution: The Beginning would represent the first in a line, the head of a new branch of gaming. In fact, the opposite is true. Evolution: The Beginning is a pared down and lean reinterpretation of Evolution and its offspring Evolution: Climate, a standalone card game for two to five players in which the thrust and parry of the quest for food and survival is played out through the simple placing of cards.

Low on components…but packing a punch!

The box is bright and colourful, announcing its lineage from the other Evolution games, and the components are at the same time underwhelming and impressive. That may sound strange, but in terms of quantity there really is not too much to behold in Evolution: The Beginning’s well-crafted insert. Piles of cardboard food tokens, five bags, a representation of the feeding hole, and a pack of cards – vaguely underwhelming. There are the rules and a couple of player aids as well, but you might very well raise a quizzical eyebrow, as I did, and wonder how much punch a game can wield with such an economical set of components.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

The box bears the family colours.

The good news is that the quality of the components is very high. The art on the cards is, like that on the box, bold and vivid, and the tokens are thick and sturdy, built to last. The rule book is also bright and clear, although sometimes it is not quite as precise as it could be, hardly enough to make the game unlearnable, but just enough to make its players tread carefully through the first few feeding rounds. The player bags are also lovely, pleasing to the touch and with animal images pictured on the side. These pouches (for they are pouches more than bags) will be used to hold the food a player has earned.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

The box is big but the insert holds everything in place neatly.

Only ten types of card?  Is it a winning trait?

Looking at the player aid reveals another interesting quirk of Evolution: The Beginning, confirmed by a quick browse through the deck of cards, namely that there are only ten types of card in the game. In other words, we are not quite looking at one of those eighteen-card micro games, but that same economy of thought and design is apparent. Without exception I have found those microgames to be too light for my tastes, so a game with only ten types of card is going to have to work very hard indeed to survive on my gaming savannah.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

Player aids are clear – but why only two?

The cards all depict different traits, which may be defensive, offensive, or to do with the gaining of food, but Evolution: The Beginning does something very clever with those cards, something I have seen in other games and which has always been one of my favourite things to discover, for its cards may be played face up, as traits, or face down, as species and populations. Gameplay aside, this also means that not every card will be seen in every game, and, at a push, means that certain cards might not appear at all. The Port Royal games do something similar in using cards as currency, Race For The Galaxy in using cards as goods, and it neatly swerves the problem of playing against those pesky card counters.

The game of life?  A gradually unfolding delight!

But I am getting ahead of myself, for all this is worth nothing if Evolution: The Beginning is the gaming equivalent of a wildebeest, wandering around gormlessly waiting to be picked off by the next lion to have a film crew’s camera pointed at it. The game is quick and easy to learn, helped by the (ever so slightly different) player aids, and a player’s turn progresses as follows. Two food tokens are placed on the watering hole, a card is placed face down to create a new species and the player then draws three cards. A player may then play cards face down to create more species or add to an existing species’ population, or they may play them face up to give a species up to three different traits. Traits may also be removed or replaced, if desired.  The final act of the round is when a player feeds their animals, and any unfed animal is removed from the board – a species with no surviving population has become extinct. After the deck has run out and all players have had the same number of turns the points are totted up in elegant and simple fashion – count your food tokens and all your cards, in hand and on the table, and that is your score.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

The bags and mountain of food tokens.

Evolution: The Beginning is therefore easy to teach and understand in a very short space of time, but only gradually does it reveal its many delights, for this is a game all about the traits. And about reacting to other players’ traits. And about feeding your animals. And about keeping an eye on your opponents’ populations…actually, there is a whole lot to think about in this game, and it is an unfolding delight.

Let’s talk about the traits. A species with a long neck will gain three food from the reserve before a player feeds their remaining animals, which can be decisive in keeping a population alive, while an animal with fat tissue will be able to eat extra food for handy points. Carnivores will attack other animals on the board, but they can be kept at bay by evolving defensive traits such as flight or burrowing, while defensive horns will ensure that your attackers will themselves take casualties. Or you could become a scavenger and instead pick off food from a carnivore’s kills.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

You will definitely need traits to deal with carnivores.

Fun with more!  Great with two!

While in three or more players Evolution: The Beginning is a fairly light card game of ebb and flow, it postively sparkles in two as each player struggles to remain a step ahead of what their opponent has done in the previous turn. It is a wonderful game of action, reaction, and counter-reaction, beguilingly thematic as the evolutionary arms race plays out on the table and once-powerful species, unable to adapt quickly enough, simply disappear from existence. One of the quailities that makes it so enticing with two players is that this is not one of those games in which you spend all your time trying to get cards to synergise with each other, any attack destroying all your plans. Instead your top down view of the evolutionary process is gloriously transient, subject to sudden and severe change at the vicissitudes of fate, and treading therefore the fine line between strategic (“I think I’ll go aggressive this game”) and tactical (“How am I going to deal with those nocturnal carnivores?”).

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

It all comes down to feeding.

Another reason I have preferred to play Evolution: The Beginning in two is that running out of cards to draw signals the end of the game – with fewer players you get to have more turns, and, simply put, that is just much more fun. A player gets more opportunities to tinker with their populations, balance the benefits of attack versus defence, of depth of population versus quantity of species, and so on.  Meanwhile those food bags keep getting fuller, but you never quite know if you are ahead or behind.

Space and tokens – two minor warnings!

There are a couple of small caveats about the game, though. Even at its lowest player count, Evolution: The Beginning takes up a disproportionately large amount of table space. If you are the kind of person who believes that you need as many species as possible on the table rather than specialising in a few then once all their traits are in place you are going to be tucking cards under each other and seeking out extra square centimetres of gaming space wherever you can find them. It is a luxurious indulgence to see your creatures laid out in front of you, but do not expect to play this as a coffee shop game. Despite having components you could conceivably carry with you in a pocket, this is not as portable a game as it would seem at first glance.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

Face down cards represent species and population, and take a lot of space.

Also a negative, but a very small one, is that counting out the food tokens at the end of the game is a fiddly process that is just asking for recounts and “hang on” moments as a token rolls onto the floor or gets found hiding in the corner of the (did I mention they were lovely? They are lovely!) individual player bags. With scores regularly heading into three figures in our games, that is a large number of tokens to count accurately.

Fight or flight?  Both are options!

So what is my overall view of Evolution: The Beginning? I went into my first play of this game with a sense of need-to-get-it-played duty, but swiftly realised that I was enjoying myself. In only my second game I noticed that I was getting something from this interplay of just ten types of cards that very rarely happens when playing a review game – a genuine rush of excitement.  I was deeply impressed with the way the ten traits played off each other, the thematic nature of the way species would rise and fall, and also the feint and counter-feint of the two player game.  This is going to sound odd, but it felt as though I had tricked my regular gaming partner into playing a fighting game with me, but instead of some random animé characters bashing each other to bits because of some gauche back story about an ancient tournament, here were animals struggling for their very survival, and it felt delightfully refreshing.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

The feeding hole.

Something inside me hankers after a couple more trait cards, simply because, you know – more!, but Evolution: The Beginning feels so exquisitely balanced as it is that I fear that any addition to its limited card pool would upset its ecosystem to a disastrous degree and destroy the delicate interplay of what is there. While it does mean that there is a strictly limited degree to the amount of surprises that can come up in the game, and therefore the number of plays it might maintain while remaining fresh, it does allow new players to get up to speed fairly quickly and give a good account of themselves.

Is it an apex predator?  Or just the weakest link?

Evolution: The Beginning has come as something of a surprise. It certainly was not a game that I was itching to play, and my expectations were low, but the game has proven to be a delightful and engaging revelation, even though I doubt that it has the traits to make its way right to the centre of my collection or the long-term variability to become a mainstay over the years. However, for players who are looking for a middle-weight head to head challenge wrapped up in the same box as a lighter game for more players, Evolution: The Beginning is certainly worth consideration. It is an impressive and potent piece of design, thematic too, playing in around half to three quarters of an hour once you know what you are doing.

Evolution The Beginning Card Game

Scoring is easy, and thumbs up for the tie-breaker!

I am going to put my scoring where my mouth is and award Evolution: The Beginning 9 out of 10 as a two-player game. Other players in my group rated it around the 8 mark, but I found the design so beguiling and taut, the stories it created so fascinating, and the excitement it generated in the playing so visceral that I think it would be churlish of me to award it any less.  As a game for more players it slips back into the herd and even now, as I write this, I find it hard to muster up much enthusiasm about a deck of cards and some tokens, but I know that all I will have to do later is shuffle the deck and I’ll be off once more into some alternative existence where nature, red in tooth and claw, plays out another story on my tabletop. Great stuff!

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.