Cubicus Genesis - Evolution Review

Evolution isn't exactly a recent game to bring to the review panel, but it's getting more buzz lately because of the current Kickstarter running for the Climate standalone expansion. It wasn't on my radar to try as it was practically unheard of for a while in its first edition and I knew no-one who owned it.

The premise sounded promising, being able to develop species in a variety of ways with the use of a mix of trait cards. OK, fair enough that's a good start, potential here for a thematic experience. Although my first knowledge of North Star Games is their popular party games Say Anything and Wits & Wagers, both of which are fine, but not on my shelf in favour of ones I prefer.

With that in mind, this seems a little out of their comfort zone, but hey I'm all up for diversification. Opening up the box however revealed a lot of boards used to track statistics by way of cubes. Uh oh, I've seen these before. Pandemic Contagion and Progress: Evolution of Technology, both of which were disappointments for me. Is this going to be a similar engine building game with a similar sandpaper-like theme?


Designer: Dominic Crapuchettes
Publisher: North Star Games
Age: 10+
Players: 2-6
Time: 60-90 Minutes
RRP: £29.99



Survival Of The Fittest


In Evolution players adapt their species in a dynamic ecosystem where food is scarce and predators lurk. You play trait cards on your species such as Hard Shell, Symbiosis and Scavenger to develop them and allow them to survive and grow either against food shortages or other carnivores. The population and body size of each individual species is tracked on a small board much in the same fashion as Pandemic Contagion.

Players have a choice of whether to opt for an aggressive take and build up dangerous predators or to rely more on survival and defense and take a vegetarian approach. Food available will chop and change based on which cards players discard at the start of each round. If you cannot adequate feed your species at the end of a round after playing cards whether by meat or vegetable means, they will slowly die off making them worth less points at the end. Any food eaten by your species is placed into a bag in secret which makes up the bulk of your victory points at the end.

Once the game ends, players will total up the total population, size and number of traits on their respective species as well as all the food in their bags, the winner of course is who has the most.



Bigger Doesn't Always Mean Better!


The component quality overall is fairly decent, but we're not talking anything spectacular here. You get a ridiculously oversized start player marker, a ton of cube tracking boards, some food tokens of varying types (even though it makes zero difference in-game which ones you collect) and cards with fairly decent artwork, though it's not for everyone. A board for the watering hole is also provided, although again it seems a little overkill because all it does is house the location for the food tokens. All in all though it's good enough to justify the cost and  you'll never be short of a species board. There are some neat touches though like the player boards being double sided and able to be used horizontally or vertically. That's clever thinking, though why the bags? They look great, but I feel there is little point in having the food tokens hidden from view, it's pretty easy to tell who's in the lead so just have them out on the board, save a few quid and do without the bags.

The rulebook is nice and clear, but again we seem to be going with an oversized theme here. There's barely any rules to learn aside from the cards themselves and yet the book likes to make its presence known. At least it makes Evolution very accessible, though I'm still not sure I'd use it as a gateway game. It can get quite fiddly remembering all the combinations of abilities that are present on the board especially when someone plans out an attack move only to then realise they forgot about one card's power. It's a suitable next step up, but I'm reluctant to recommend you teach a new player this game, find something a bit more asthetically pleasing first. The first bite is with the eye after all.




Scavenging For Theme and Each Other


I hear a lot of people speak highly of Evolution being incredibly thematic. To be perfectly frank, even though some theme is present, I'm not sure where they are coming from. Sure the cards make sense to their titles, but that's to be expected in general. Otherwise you are essentially just playing cards and pushing cubes. Attacking other players is simply a case of saying "I'm attacking you" and them reducing their cube a space. It's not bone dry, but I don't see no carnivore's teeth dripping with theme here. Like Pandemic Contagion and Progress, it's a fairly dry affair, but I'll conceed it's the most thematic of the three as it at least makes a decent effort. But it will take more than 3 cards and a wooden track board to make me feel like I've got this cool new species sitting in front of me.  

Where Evolution will pull some of you in will be the depth involved in how you build your species and play your cards. You play your cards one at a time so you get to observe what others are doing first, although because all information is hidden until revealed at the end you can only speculate what everyone is doing so you never have perfect information present. This is especially apparent at the start of the round where you discard a card with a value that shows how much food is present at the watering hole. Except this is also done as hidden information so you can only decide how you're going to influence things, you've no idea whether anyone else is going to dry it up or make it abundant other than pure guesswork. A little heavy on the randomness there, but not to a painful extent. It did however make me not particularly care what card I gave away for that purpose as long as it wasn't one I wanted to play on a species. All in all though there's enough to keep you engaged for the most part, though I found myself a little bored occasionally as the decisions you make aren't that difficult to figure out, having to keep myself entertained with trash-talk banter about other players species.

The biggest flaw however is the confrontation. Be prepared to be wailed on every now and again if you make a wrong move, because carnivores will eat you alive quite literally if your defenses aren't up. Unfortunately some of that depends on what cards you draw and that's purely a luck affair, but there's quite a few that aid defense, in fact I'd say more aid the vegetarians in this game then the meat lovers. Get your body size up and chances are you're pretty safe from most threats, but it's no guarantee and of course you're missing out on doing other things. It certainly isn't fun to constantly be attacked if you're that unlucky one and be prepared to essentially lose the game if you are because it will set you back considerably. It fits with the game for carnivores to do that, but a new player is more than likely going to be the victim of this. If you don't like take-that confrontation in games, stay away from Evolution because it's going to happen more often than not.



Keep Your Population Down!


Evolution will go up to 6 players, but for the love of the holy meeple, do not play this game with more than 4 and even then be wary of anyone who is AP-prone. Because of the combinations all over the board, the slow players will take as long as it takes to evolve a species in real life to take their turn. This is a fault of the players more than the game, but be warned that the potential is there. There is a quick-play variant for 6 players where all cards are played at once and even though it does quicken things, it removes some of the depth that was present in seeing what other players do first. Just tell the 5th and 6th player to play a 2 player together and you're all better off, although it's still going to take between 60-90 minutes to play and you'll notice it dragging its heels towards the end.

In terms of variety we are given 17 different traits, technically 16 because one simply means you're a carnivore. At first this sounds pretty good and it seems like it for the beginning, but quickly especially with 4 players you start seeing the same traits come into play and in repeat games it gets incredibly repetitive. If you're only going for vegetarian or carnivore solely, then some of the cards will be worthless to you anyway as they only relate to their respective type. The combinations that you can make with all 3 traits on one species are what save it, but even so not every trait is particularly interesting. A Hard Shell gives you a simple boost to body size for defense. That's a very powerful ability, but not very cool or anything. And the balance is a little questionnable as was proven in games where you never saw 3-4 trait cards being played and always saw the same few appearing. I swear if I see one more species running around with those annoying Horns. . . . Now with Flight already out as an expansion and the new Climate on Kickstarter, I'm sure this minor issue is well and truly resolved now, but expect some heavy repetition in the base game and budget yourself to get one of the expansions.


Verdict


Evolution fits very squarely in the "meh" department. There is potential here for something good, but the variety and choices just aren't plentiful enough in the base game to keep you engaged for long despite have 17 different trait cards. However this is something that has already been mitigated by way of expansions both current and upcoming. The game isn't quite dripping with theme, but it's not completely lost either. The cards themselves make a little sense to what their title suggests, but otherwise you are essentially advancing cubes on lots of little tracks so know that you're getting into a fairly dry Euro here. The abilities aren't entirely balanced either, some are clearly better and worst than others which reduces that magic "17" number down considerably, but again expansions have helped to resolve this.

There are some positives though. Downtime is generally kept to a minimum with everyone taking their actions in turn, but avoid slow players and going over the magic number of 4. With only usually a choice of 3 things you can do on your turn it's not too overwhelming and there's a decent amount of depth given that the rules are very easy to learn, though combo-ing certain abilities together can be a little fiddly for new players and as such I don't recommend this for a gateway choice.

For me it's fairly forgettable, but it was an interesting decent ride for a little while and it beats down the likes of Contagion or Progress easily. As I said, it's OK, not bad, but for me it's nothing special either. Perhaps cube tracking, engine-building games just aren't for me, I didn't feel gripped enough. It is however gaining its fans so there is plenty of love for it out there.



YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF:


You enjoyed games such as Pandemic Contagion or Progress: Evolution of Technology where you had to micro-manage several tracks and build your engine up.


You want an easy-to-learn Euro - the rulebook is oversized for how much you need to know.


You intend to get the expansions if you like the base game as it does need that extra variety.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS GAME IF:


You don't like confrontation in games - it's a strong take-that mechanic here and if you're caught by it, it's a long, slow game for you.


You're only going to stick with the base game.


You play with too many players - I wouldn't advise 5 or more despite the turn sequence being relatively quick.



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