A natural selection: Evolution evolves from board game to digital app

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North Star Games has been developing the app version of its popular board game Evolution (read our review) for years, showing demos as far back as PAX Unplugged in November 2017. Now the game is out for Steam, iOS, and Android—and the results have been well worth waiting for. The final version is immaculate in look, feel, and ease of play. Even if you didn’t love the cardboard version, the digital adaptation offers a new and better gameplay experience.

Players in Evolution compete to create and grow their species to consume more food tokens, which are worth points at the game’s end and which become scarcer as the game progresses. Each species can have up to three Trait cards that give it extra powers or makes it harder to attack. One of the Traits makes species (which are herbivores by default) into Carnivores, which feed by attacking other species—including your own, if you can’t feed them by attacking species belonging to other players.

Each species can have a “population size” from one to six, which also becomes the amount of food that species must consume in each round. Species also have a “body size” from one to six, which matters for attacking and defending. At the end of the game, you count all the food your species have consumed, then add one point for each Trait card applied to your active species as well as one point per population of your remaining species after the final feeding.

The Evolution app looks spectacular, with brighter colors than in the physical game, and clear, easy-to-read text on the Trait cards (once you zoom in to see them). There’s a fun animation when a Carnivore attacks, and a clear depiction of population loss or extinction at the end of each round. You have to look quickly, but you can also see how many food tokens each player gets to store for points at the end of each round—though they show simultaneously, so your eyes have to work fast. (Points aren’t secret, but because they’re stored in each player’s bag, the game doesn’t display running totals.)

Gameplay is simple and intuitive, with the option to drag cards or tap and place them. The standard view shows you all players’ tableaux, so you can see at a glance other players’ species, populations, and whether they’re herbivores (which compete with you for food at the watering hole) or carnivores (which might eat you). The artwork on the cards is easy to discern even in the full-table view, so once you’ve played the game enough to familiarize yourself with the different Traits and their associated images, you may not need to zoom in to read other players’ Traits. You can also see species’ populations and body types clearly from any view.

This is all especially important if you decide to go savage and turn any of your species into Carnivores, because you need to scope out whether there will be other species for you to eat—or if all available food sources are protected by cards that make them difficult or impossible to attack.

The AI options are adequate but prone to self-defeating moves, such as putting low-numbered cards into the food supply (thus limiting the number of new food tokens in a round) even when the AI has several herbivorous species to feed. AI opponents will attack you as well as attacking other AI players, and they’re strongest at deploying their own Trait cards to their advantage—such as using cards that allow them to gain extra food before feeding or giving them extra pulls from the watering hole on each turn. (Ordinarily, you get to take one food on each turn as the feeding goes around the table, until the food runs out.) If you’ve played the tabletop game at all, you’ll probably want to jump right to the intermediate or, more likely, hard AI options—or just play live opponents online.

The game has a campaign mode that serves as an extended tutorial, adding additional trait cards during each of the first seven stops while also varying how the AI opponents play the game. This forces you to adapt your strategy. For example, there’s one game where you play a single opponent in a setting where nearly all of the trait cards have very low or negative numbers, so there will be little to no plant food in the watering hole during each round. It’s a clever and different way to teach a game, without the excessive hand-holding of most tutorials, and it gives you the satisfaction of beating an opponent that’s actually trying to win still while forcing you to react quickly to the constraints of each new scenario.

The app includes some time-saving features that weren’t strictly necessary but which certainly speed game play. The biggest is the auto-feed feature, where the app will handle all feeding for you when 1) all remaining, unfed species are herbivores and 2) there’s more than enough food in the watering hole to feed everyone. I also enjoyed the quirky animations of carnivores feeding, which change if you or your prey have certain trait cards that alter battle dynamics. The app also highlights the active player and uses an image of the first-player token, a green brachiosaurus, to show who places traits and feeds first in each round.

This is a thoughtful adaptation, one that shows the time North Star put into it. Other than the strength of the AI players, it has no real flaws. A North Star employee told me at the 2018 PAX Unplugged show that the company wants Evolution to be seen as a best-of-breed board game app—like the app version of Galaxy Trucker or the iOS version of Carcassonne—from the first day of release. I think they’ve pulled it off.

Credit: A natural selection: Evolution evolves from board game to digital app