“Evolution”: a board game review

By Florence Sullivan MSc student, Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Another grad student once told me that in order to survive grad school, I would need three things:

(1) an exercise routine, (2) a pet, and (3) a hobby. My Pilates class on Wednesdays is a great mid-week reminder to stretch. I don’t have a pet, so that advice gets fulfilled vicariously through friends. As for my hobby, I think you’ll find that even when scientists take a break from work, we really don’t get that far away from the subject matter…..

Board games have evolved significantly since the early ‘90s when I grew up on such family staples as Monopoly, Risk, Sorry!, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders, etc. Now, table-top games tend to fall into three loose categories – “Euro-games” that focus on strategy and economic themes as well as keeping all players in the game until the end, “American-style” that tend toward luck and direct player contact so that not everyone plays until the end, and “Party” that are easy to learn and are often played in large groups as social icebreakers or to provide entertainment.

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A few of my favorite games.

As board games proliferate, we see the use of many themes and often, there are valuable educational lessons included in the game design!  There are militaristic or survival games (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Dead of Winter), economic and engineering (Settlers of Catan, Istanbul, Ticket to ride, Carcassonne), fantasy and art (Small World, Dixit), cooperative vs competitive (Hanabi, Forbidden Desert vs. 7 Wonders), and some of my favorites – the sciences (Compounded, Bioviva, Pandemic).

Today, let’s talk about my current favorite – Evolution. It is immediately obvious that the game designers responsible are either giant nerds (I use this in the most loving way possible) or have spent some quality time with ecologists.  Not only is the art work beautiful, and the game play smooth, but the underlying mechanics allow serious ecological theories such as ‘predator and prey mediated population cycles’, ‘co-evolution’ and ‘evolutionary arms-races’ to be acted out and easily understood.

Players set up their species around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.
Players set up their species (1 green/yellow tile = 1 species) around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.

In game play, as in life, the point of the game is to eat – victory is achieved by the player who has managed to ‘digest’ the most food tokens. All players begin with a single species, and with each turn, can either add traits (ie. fat tissue, scavenger, etc.) to the species, increase the body size of a species, gain a population level, or gain additional species.  Next, players take food from a limited, random supply until there is no food left. Species that have not been fed to their full capacity (population levels) will starve, and can even become extinct – much like the reality of environmental cycles.  Finally, all food that has been ‘eaten’ is digested, and the next round begins.

Since a player can never be sure how much food will appear on the watering hole each turn, it is a good strategy to capitalize on traits like foraging which allows a species to take twice as much food every time it feeds.  If your species cooperates with another, that means that it gets to eat every time you feed the first species. A player who combines foraging traits with multiple cooperating species in a “cooperation chain” can quickly empty the watering hole before any other players get a chance.  Much like a species perfectly adapted to its niche in the real world will out compete more generalist species.

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The pack-hunting carnivore on the left can easily take down the fertile defensive herding species in the upper right. The efficient foraging species in the middle is protected by its horns, and cooperates with the next species to the right. The burrowing species is protected from carnivores only as long as it is full (and presumably no longer needs to venture out of its burrow).

One way to avoid the competition for food at the watering hole is to play the carnivore trait.  This species must now consume other species in order to feed itself.  A few caveats; a carnivore must be larger in body size than anything it tries to eat, and can no longer eat plant food as it is an obligate carnivore. As soon as a carnivore appears on the board, the evolutionary arms-race begins in earnest!  Traits such as burrowing, climbing, hard shells, horns, defensive herding and warning calls become vital to survival.  But carnivores can be clever, and apply ambush to species with warning call, or pack-hunting to a species with defensive herding.  In everything, there is a certain balance, and quickly, players will find themselves acting out a classic ‘boom and bust population growth cycle’ scenario, where herbivores go extinct due to low food supply at the watering hole and/or high predation pressure, and carnivores soon follow when there are no un-protected species for them to feed upon.

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A flying creature must first pay the ‘upkeep cost’ of its body size in food, before it can feed its population. Good thing it has the extra cliff-side food source that is only accessible to other species with wings!

An expansion has been released for the game – it is called Flight – and introduces traits such as flight, camouflage, good eyesight, and others.  From an ecologist’s perspective, it fits the original game well both scientifically and thematically.  To achieve flight, a higher price must be paid (in terms of cards discarded) to gain the trait card, and unlike other species, an ‘upkeep cost’ must be gathered in food tokens before the species actually eats any food tokens during the round.  However, flight also gives access to a cliff-side watering hole that is not accessible to earthbound species. This neatly mirrors the real world where flight is an energetically costly activity that also opens new niches.

The next expansion is just arriving in stores, and I can’t wait to play it! It’s called Climate, and adds traits such as nocturnal, claws, and insectivore. Perhaps more exciting though, are the ‘event cards’ which will trigger things like desertification, cold snaps, heatwaves, volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes. A climate tracker will keep track of whether the planet is in an ice age or a warming period, and certain traits will make your species more or less likely to survive – can you guess which ones might be useful in either scenario? I think it will be enormously fun to play through different climate scenarios and see how traits stack and species interactions evolve.  Perhaps this new addition to the game will even cause a new game review in Nature – check out their initial assessment here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v528/n7581/full/528192a.html

Games like evolution are useful thought exercises for students and researchers because they promote discussion of adaptive traits, predator-prey cycles, climate, and ecosystem dynamics as related to our own projects. Watching a story unfold in front of you is a great way to truly understand some of the core principles of ecology (and other subjects). This is especially relevant in the GEMM lab where we continuously ask ourselves why our study species act the way they do? How do they find prey, and how are/will they adapt(ing) to our changing climate?

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