Games about the evolutionary process are a thing. A bit of a contradictory thing, actually: by their very nature, they simulate intelligent design or Lamarckian adaptation rather than the inherent randomness of mutation and survival of the fittest. Otherwise they would just be sims with no player agency.
The evolution-themed games of the last 20-odd years run the gamut. The lighter ones aren’t very “scientific”–but that doesn’t mean the heavier ones necessarily embody evolutionary theory any more accurately. But they all have something to offer in terms of gameplay:
Primordial Soup (1997) is a classic first-generation area-dominance Euro, with players controlling amoeboids vying for space in a square-gridded ocean. Cubes drift or propel themselves around the grid, random events affect ocean current and genetic makeup, and players use points to purchase new genetic adaptations.
Evo (2001) to me hits the sweet spot between gameplay, fiddliness, and theme. Players take the role of dinos who must adapt to changing climate and each other by moving and fighting their way around an isolated island.
Dominant Species (2010) has its share of devotees by virtue of its depth and strategic depth. Worker placement and area majority are the main mechanics. To me, having to constantly recalculate which species dominates each terrain tile makes the game tiresome.
Evolution (2014) might be the most commercially successful game of the genre thus far, with two expansions and a standalone introductory game (Evolution: the Beginning) which was a Target-only exclusive. The focus on the game is feeding and growth through the play of species and adaptation cards. It’s simple enough to bring n00bs aboard but with enough interesting decisions to engage more veteran players.
Inhabit the Earth (2015) has the appearance of a kid-friendly game, especially as it uses HABA’s colour palette and aesthetic, but anyone who bought this for a niece or grandchild was sadly misled because this ain’t no HABA game. In fact, it was designed by Richard Briese of Keyflower and the whole Key series, and it’s about as weighty. Players construct teams of species that race across each continent.
Darwin’s Choice is a card-driven game for 2-6 players that plays out over four Eras. Depending on the player count, four or five Biome cards provide the focus for competition. Players are vying to have the best-adapted species across in each Biome by the end of each Era, in which case the player owning that species gets Darwin Points equal to the Biome’s value. Also, the most competitive species across all Biomes score points for coming first, second, or third.
The cards in Darwin’s Choice are the strongest selling point of the game. The work of French illustrator Rozenn Grosjean, they are stunning, and almost worth the price of the game alone. Each card illustrates the head, trunk, legs, or tail of a species, along with icons representing its competitiveness and adaptive abilities.
An Era begins with each player taking one Main action and optionally other Additional actions. Main actions are creating, mutating, and migrating. Additional actions are taking a mulligan (at the beginning of an Era only) and trading. Darwin’s Choice to its credit presents two options for trading: players can wheel and deal a la Catan or instead trade with a central market of cards. This flexibility leads to very different types of game depending on your group’s preferences.
After all the DNA manipulation #glavin, players determine which species die out due to maladaptation, being eaten, or starvation. Simply surviving to this point in the Era earns a base of 1 Darwin Point, after which the prizes mentioned above are given out. If it’s the final Era, points are totalled and highest score wins. Otherwise, an event card is drawn that will change the rules for the upcoming Era, some Biome cards are replaced (modelling climate shifts over time), and players do a general cleanup.
Darwin’s Choice is a beautifully-illustrated game; playing around with the cards for its own sake, just to create awesome/monstrous hybrids, is an activity in and of itself. And while it has solid mechanics that provide good gameplay, it does require constant checking and re-checking of species stats (reminiscent of Dominant Species) which can result in an agonizingly slow pace, even without Analysis Paralysis.
The game also takes up a huge amount of space for what it is, because every species needs to be laid out and visible to all players. There’s no way around this, and players should set aside considerable tabletop space in preparation.
Of course, there’s a ton of replayability, even without the event cards. Some may find it tempting to set the latter aside, because an adverse event can arbitrarily (and without a chance for preparation or mitigation) change a player’s fortunes. But I would recommend against that, for theme’s sake if nothing else. Nature is ruthless; live with it.
Overall, Darwin’s Choice sits about midway on the light/heavy spectrum, arguably sharing the sweet spot where Evo sits. To me, its splendid almost (but not quite) compensates for the caveats I mentioned above; ymmv.
Thanks to Treecer Games for providing a review copy of Darwin’s Choice.