Nature in Boardgames – Evolution

Dominic Crapuchettes has been designing games since the age of eleven. His wargame, Kabloogi, was so popular amongst his classmates that it was banned from 8th grade. During college, he was an avid Magic: The Gathering player, even entering professional tournaments – which, for the uninitiated, is some top-tier nerdiness. Then, in 2003, after a decade captaining a fishing boat in Alaska, two years at business school, and hundreds of hours of thinking up weird and wonderful board game concepts in his free time, he finally founded North Star Games.

In 2004, North Star Games published a product that’s very special to me; a game called Evolution.

Evolution, in the simplest terms, is a game about creating animals and providing them with the right trait cards to help them survive. Traits could be anything from herd instincts, to climbing or mud wallowing. Each of your animals can have up to four trait cards, as well as a body size and population stat. If you run out of population, your creatures go extinct, which makes finding the perfect combination of cards vital for success. Changes in climate, shortages of food, and disastrous natural events all impact the ecosystem in which you play, and many of the most powerful traits end up being a double-edged sword. Having Heavy Fur, after all, sounds great in the chilly winter months, but once the temperature heats up you’ll be begging for a haircut.

Then there’s feeding time – which is where things get tricky. On any given turn, there will be a limited amount of food to share amongst players. Each animal will take one food token, before moving onto the next. Sounds fair, right? Except that someone has the nocturnal trait, allowing them to swipe a token before the rest of the animals are even awake. Another creature has foraging, which lets them take two food per turn instead of the usual one. Then there’s fat tissue, letting a creature store surplus food and… You get the idea. Very quickly, the situation around the watering hole gets tense.

Bits and bobs from Evolution.

In many ways, Evolution is a game of strategy. You must create the perfect combination of cards for a changing situation, with the goal of consuming more food than everyone else at the table. Many players will appreciate the game as a competitive struggle; a challenge to overcome. But for me, Evolution is something much more exciting. Evolution is a game of story.

Look, for example, at my latest animal. It has the maximum body size of six, a Hard Shell, and a Long Neck. Now imagine, for a moment, what this monstrosity must look like. By turn two or three in any game of Evolution, you’re no longer looking at cards on a table. You’re looking at bizarre, fascinating creatures of your own creation – creatures who are relying on you to make sure they don’t go the way of the dinosaurs.

Which makes it especially painful when somebody decides to create a carnivore.

There’s always one. A player who waits for your guard to be down. Who sees your animals not as fellow members of a thriving ecosystem, but as food. A carnivorous animal has no interest in the battle for fruit and veg, and instead feeds from the population of animals around it.

Dominic, who was the lead designer behind Evolution, tells me that “sometimes, a competitive player will just create a super carnivore and pound on people who don’t know how to protect themselves.” He worries that this is a flaw in the game’s design. “It’s not fun to have your creature that you love and that you’re evolving and that you’re telling your story about just get completely destroyed.”

For me, this threat is what brings the game to life. You must adapt not only to the landscape in which you live, but to the animals trying to hunt you down. It’s one of the key factors that pushes Evolution beyond its systems and mechanics and towards something rich with narrative and theme.

“Theme is so important,” Dominic tells me. “Other people on the [development] team usually start with mechanics. I’m always saying ‘this is an interesting mechanic, but there’s no theme here’. I feel like, in 2020, with the plethora of amazing games that are coming out on the market, you can’t fire on just one cylinder. You need to fire on simplicity, to bring people in easily. You’ve got to fire on theme – it’s got to make the story come to life. And it’s got to be well balanced and have good mechanics.”

For every hundred ideas for traits, the team would throw ninety of them away, filtering for those with the most narrative heft. As an example of the work behind a single card, Dominic describes to me the climbing trait. “Really, there’s no such thing as an evolutionary trait that’s called climbing. There are claws that help you climb… There are arms, there are all of these things.” At first, they tried developing trait cards in this vein, such as a long, dexterous tail that helps you scramble up trees. They soon realised a different tact was needed. “What [was] really going to bring this to life,” Dominic explains, was “the impact that these evolutionary traits have. So, when we call it climbing and we say that a carnivore can’t attack this species unless it also has climbing, it helps create an understanding of the dynamics that are taking place in this ecosystem.”

This is an aspect of game design I find fascinating; the ways in which designers, artists, writers and the rest of a team seek to draw narrative from mechanics and systems. Over the last year especially, the ability to explore nature through TV, videogames, and boardgames has been invaluable for me. Circumstances of all kinds can prevent us from engaging with the natural world as much as we would like, but there is some joy to be had in exploring stories and worlds from the comfort of home.

Boardgames, I believe, are especially brilliant at bringing us closer to the world around us. Perhaps it’s the tactility of the medium – the ability for players to touch and hold and interact with game pieces and art. In Evolution, there’s a chunky, wooden diplodocus meeple. He’s weighty, green, and absolutely brilliant to fiddle around with when your hands get antsy. “This guy? People love him,” Dominic grins.

Big ol’ diplodocus meeeple!

It’s a small element of the game, but one which really adds to the magic of play. The ability to feel a game’s components, to see the objects you are playing with, makes the whole experience more vivid and powerful.

Or perhaps that feeling of connection comes from the social aspect of many boardgames. Whilst watching movies or playing single player videogames, we are reacting to the rules and systems and stories that have been carefully crafted to evoke a singular response. A boardgame player, however, must also account for the ways in which their friends and family around the table will engage with such systems. We are reacting to other people, at the end of the day, and their strange, often irrational decisions.

Joan Moriarity, in the fascinating book about boardgames and play Your Move, writes: “perhaps it was inevitable that people would welcome the chance to turn away from their screens, seeking the warmth and connection you get from playing games together with live human family and friends.” This idea is essential to the stories Evolution can tell. It’s not just that my long-necked-turtle-looking animal got eaten. It’s that my friend – who I thought was my friend – did the eating.

Evolution, Dominic tells me, was actually inspired by an already existing game. “Some friends,” he explains, “found this game called Evolution: The Origin of Species. It was designed originally, I think, as a teaching tool in class.” He wanted to publish Evolution: The Origin of Species in the US, but saw too many flaws in its design. His team got to work finding the fun – because no amount of educational text or exposition can evoke a theme as much as the dynamic narrative you create through play.

“I received an engine that brought an ecosystem to life,” he explains. “Then I did a lot of research and tried to figure out how to keep as much of the science as possible, whilst turning it into a more polished game.” And in doing so, North Star Games have created a sandbox for stories of struggle, adaptation, and survival.

Long-necked-turtle-thing in its natural habitat, by James Keeling.

This website, of course, is ostensibly a place for stories of adventure, and Dominic Crapuchettes has had plenty of those. Speaking about his life on the fishing boat, he speaks fondly. “You prove that you can conquer all of this adversity and it fuels you when you do. You feel powerful, and then you come home, and you get paid way more than you could anywhere else in the world.”

But this is also a place to talk about the ways we can feel more connected to our world, and the people we share it with.

I ask Dominic, before I let him escape our conversation, if he misses his seafaring life. “I did for about a decade,” he says. “There’s a certain pleasure in being able to conquer adversity and getting rewarded for it with money. But, honestly, I’m glad not to be doing it now. I mean, it was dangerous, we were in life-threatening situations a lot, and I have kids now. Those days are gone, and I’m glad they’re gone.”

The reason boardgames are so special to me is that they give us challenges, puzzles, problems to solve. Adventures that we can have from home, cosying up with friends and family, gasping at each devious move and laughing at one another’s downfall. When we’re unable to leave our comfort zones, or step into the wider world, we can settle down and enjoy the act of play.

We’ve come a long way from Monopoly. That’s for sure.

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