Board game design, Learning from Existing Board Games

Introduction

Recently I had the joy of a weekend away with friends. In between sleeping late, hiking, great food and a beer or two, there was ample time to play games. And by far the biggest hit was “Evolution” (or specifically “Evolution – Climate”, which is the game with an expansion built in, though in this post I’m going to focus on the Evolution game, without the Climate expansion).

In this post I’ll do my best to dissect the game, trying to glean some insights as to why it’s such a good game (so that you can make yours equally great!).

Evolution in a nutshell

In Evolution you get a bunch of cards, with which you can create awesome animals with which you will compete in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Cards can be discarded to start a new (“blank”) species, to increase population of a species or to increase body size. These cards can also be played to give your animals up to four “traits”: A long neck to get additional (plant) food, a hard shell or horns to protect against carnivores, or your species can become a carnivore itself so it can eat other animals. Finally, you have to discard a card to add (plant) food to the central food stockpile (called the watering hole).

Then it’s time to feed your animals. Herbivores eat from the watering hole and carnivores eat other animals. You decrease the population of your animal(s) if you can’t feed them (there are no more plants for your herbivores or all animals are protected against your carnivore) or when they get eaten by a carnivore. If the last animal of a species dies it goes extinct. But not to worry, you can start a new species!

Final scoring is for the amount of food your animals ate during the game, how much population you have left at the end of the game and how many traits your surviving species have.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the game, let’s delve into its brilliance!

The periphery

There are a few reasons that, though they aren’t central to the game, certainly help:

  • The game is relatively simple: There are only a handful of rules to remember and they’re all reasonably intuitive
  • The only real resource the game uses is cards, which are used in many capacities, lending the game a beautiful elegance
  • The cards are just beautiful to look at

The core

There are a number of elements that I believe are at the core of what makes Evolution such an enjoyable experience. The following paragraphs try to show these off.

Immersion

Evolution is very strong at immersing you in the game, making you care.

During the game you’re building a species: A pack-hunting, climbing, horned, carnivore or a burrowing, hibernating, migrating, long-necked herbivore? You take your pick! creating something gives a sense of “ownership”, which makes it much more likely that you’ll care about it.

This is enhanced by the fact that you’re creating a creature. We’ve all had a pet rabbit or gazed lovingly at an elephant in the zoo. There is something about animals that makes our human hearts skip a beat. Something that a city, civilization or farm just won’t do. The graphics on the cards help with this, turning any “mud-wallowing” (yes that’s a trait!) animal into a cute wart-hog and a “furry” animal into a great big ox.

These animals even act like (very stylized) versions of the real thing: They need to eat and they can breed, making them seem even more “real” to the mind’s eye.

And when the game has done everything it can to make you care about your make-belief animals, it does something wonderfully horrible: It kills them! Either because there just isn’t enough food, or because they become a tasty snack to another player’s carnivore. This creates a roller coaster of emotion from happy conception to tear-jerking death, helps to pull you even further into the game.

See this post for more on immersion through story telling.

Player interaction

Hey buddy, pall, friend… Wouldn’t you rather interact with someone else?
I love modern (Euro)games. But too often it feels like I’m playing on my own with people sitting nearby who only happen to be playing the same game.

Evolution has a healthy dose of player interaction: Which carnivore is preying on my cute bunny-like animal? What would be a good snack for my tiger-equivalent? Can my turtle get some food or is that lizard on the opposite side of the table going to grab the last vegetation?

Through this you’re constantly looking out for what your opponents are doing. It’s very figuratively a matter of eat-or-be-eaten.

And even if there is currently nothing that can touch my almost-dinosaur, I have to be acutely aware of what some player might evolve next turn: Can any carnivore grow large enough to eat it?

Obviously, getting your animals eaten by someone else isn’t good for your point total. Luckily it’s generally fairly doable to protect your animals, or at least make it costly for someone else to go after them. You might very well lose a bit of population, but getting an entire species eaten is generally more due to your own inattentiveness than what exactly your opponent does.

And of course, turn-around is fair game! Nothing is more fun than turning that cuddly prey-animal into a ferocious hunter itself!

The circle of life

Many games have a sense of buildup: Get resources to build something up so you can get more resources (rinse, wash, repeat). Mostly however this progression is either (almost) straight up (e.g. Agricola) or it’s a back-and-forth where my progress is your downfall (e.g. Risk).

In Evolution you’re definitely building things up (cool species, to be exact!). There is something very satisfying with creating the perfect killing machine or an animal that eats all available food before anybody else has the chance.

But there is a very real possibility of loss as well: Your apex predator can suddenly find itself going hungry as all prey has suddenly “evolved” powerful defenses against it. And one of your animals might go extinct, but it’s easy enough to create something new (and even more awesome!).

The result of this is that it’s never a case of “the winner keeps on winning”. No species is invulnerable for very long, the high will be brought low and the low will rise up. Possibly even multiple times in the same game.

Tension

Tense as a steel cable!
Is that carnivore coming after my cute little pig, or is my neighbor’s gecko a better bite? Will there be enough food to keep my species from losing half its population? Is that last prey animal my species can eat going to evolve the ability to climb so I can’t get at it?

Through a combination of never knowing what your opponents are going to do and some hidden information, there is a lot of tension in the game (see this post for more on tension in board games).

This partly overlaps with the paragraph about “immersion” about. Because you get so into the game, any threat is felt even more acutely. It’s not some abstract bits of wood and cardboard, it’s a magnificent species that might get wiped off the face of the earth (well, tabletop)!

Meaningful decisions

The amount of resources (see this post for more on resources in board games) you have available is very limited: You only get a few cards per turn. This means that you have to make those cards count! Increase population for additional points when feeding, but running the risk there might not be enough food? Increase body size to protect against predators? Start a new animal in the hopes that nobody will eat it straight away? Add further protective traits to your strongest animal? But which traits to give up?

And what’s nicest is that these choices are not made once, but every round again. A species is never “finished”; that great defense last turn might be a liability this turn. And where food was the limiting factor in the beginning of the game, maybe it’s all those pesky carnivores at the end. You’re constantly reacting and trying to foresee what the game (other players) are throwing at you.

An unfortunate choice might mean a wasted card, a significant loss of population or even the extinction of your species, so these choices matter!

And there are generally multiple ways of “solving” a problem. Predators roaming? Protect your species with traits, grow it too large to be eaten, breed it faster than it can be consumed, or have your own carnivore eat the other’s!

Lots of meaningful decisions to be made (see this post for more on meaningful decisions)!

Closing thoughts

Evolve, or you might end up as these guys
Evolution” certainly isn’t perfect. There is a bit of a learning curve for all of the different cards, it can be hard to keep track of exactly what all the other animals are capable of (especially with many players) and having a hand full of cards can lead to serious analysis-paralysis (see this post about how to reduce analysis-paralysis in your own game).

All of that doesn’t stop Evolution from being a great game! And it certainly doesn’t stop it from being a good example of how you can improve your own game.

Are you immersing the players in your game? Do they care about what it is they’re doing?

How do your players interact? Is your choice for multiplayer solitaire (or all-out war!) a deliberate one or just the easiest option? What do your players feel about their opponents at the end of the game?

What are the sources of tension in your game? Are they at the edge of their seats or looking at their phone most of the time?

Do players have meaningful decisions? Are there multiple choices that give distinctly different outcomes? Is there an always-best choice?

Good luck with your design endeavors!

Feedback please!

Wisdom evolves through discussion: I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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