Evolution and the competition between species is such a great theme for a game that it’s surprising that it hasn’t spawned more board games. There is of course the game Evolution, first published by North Star in 2014. It’s a game that has proved a big hit and it has given rise to several expansions. Design credits for the North Star edition go to Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre and Sergey Machin but the game actually originated in Russia, published in 2010 by Rightgames as Evolution: The Origin of Species. The original Russian version has also seen a succession of expansions, and, like species on separated continents, it is interesting and instructive to note how it has evolved slightly differently to its more lavishly illustrated North Star iteration.
Darwinning! is predicated on the same theme. As you’d expect, players are developing their species and adding traits that give them an evolutionary advantage. As in Evolution, species need to eat in order to sustain their population and that includes predating other species. In Darwinning! players compete for their places in the food chain: species can usually only eat those positioned below them on the board…
At its heart, Darwinning! is an appealing, cleverly designed trick-taking game. It is designed by Timo Multamaki, Tiinalisa Multamaki, Nikolas Lundstrom Patrakka and Vaino Multamaki: a family game that really was designed by a family! It is published by the Finnish company Dragon Dawn Productions, who are best known for their innovative roundel-driven dungeon crawl game Perdition’s Mouth, which we reviewed on Board’s Eye View in the summer.
Players have a hand of ten cards and they use them either singly or in poker-style combinations to win tricks played across four rounds of ‘eras’. Winning a trick entitles a player to immediately improve their species. They can use a card for its specific trait (special ability), increase their population, add to the environments in which they can find food or move up their position in the food chain. That’s giving players a lot of agency and choice over the benefits they take, so this is a game where you may need to inject some time pressure on ditherers or those that take overlong in analysing options. It’s easy enough to incorporate a two-minute timer if you find a player is making a meal over their evolutionary choices.
Quite aside from the captivating evolution theme, the combination of poker hands and trick taking of itself gives rise to some intriguing strategies and mechanics. Players need to weigh up carefully how best to utilise the cards in their hand. Because each round runs until a player has exhausted his hand of 10 cards and players are expending cards at different rates (a player may contribute just one card to a trick while another might be contributing up to four), there is uncertainty over when an ‘era’ will end. This is given added importance because the final trick in each era is treated as a misère: the winner of this trick gets no benefit and it is the losers who will have the chance to improve their species.
Although it affords players a lot of choices over how they develop their species and interact with those of the other players, Darwinning! can be quickly picked up and played by children as well as adults. It’s a rare game of strategy and judgement that allows children and adults to compete on fairly even terms. The art, by Akha Hulzebos, Lars Munck and Jamie Noble-Frier, is both whimsical and appealing; all of which will help ensure that this is a game you will return to play many times. In a world where only the fittest games survive, you should expect to see a lot of Darwinning!