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Darwin’s Choice Review

DARWINS CHOICE

Survival of the Fittest with a ‘Sh–’

Darwin’s Choice, Treecer’s eco-aware Kickstarter darling gorgeously hand-illustrated by Rozenn Grosjean, sees players moulding the primordial goo of natural selection like Play-Doh to create the kind of animal abominations you’d find only in a child’s drawing of the ‘best creature ever’. It’s got a scorpion tail, and gorilla arms for strength, but the legs of a cheetah for speed! Just try to ignore the fact that most of your ultimate apex predators wouldn’t be able to hold up their own weight.

Darwin's Choice sees up to six players (although when a three-player game lasts three hours and hogs more space than an entire dining room table with the side-extensions pulled out, heaven knows why or how you'd play with this many) competing to become the titular most-adapted species. Using head, body, leg, tail and wing cards, you will create, mutate and migrate species across four constantly-shifting biomes over four rounds or 'eras', battling catastrophic global disasters as well as the monstrosities created by your opponents. Only survival until the very end of the game will secure any points your creatures have received, so constantly evolving (*wink, nudge*) your strategy and your species is key to securing victory.

Seeds of Life

Kickstarter is infamous for creating the phenomenon of board game bloat, in the sense that many of the platform’s ‘stretch goals’ (adding more content to games if higher funding levels are reached) so often muddy and overcomplicate games to the detriment of the original concept. Always keeping a keen eye out for unnecessary expansions and additions when scrolling the latest crowdfunding campaigns, I eventually happened upon Darwin’s Choice a project whose creators, Treecer, seemed a cut above the rest, pursuing eco-friendly solutions to packaging and manufacturing in line with the game's themes, and providing almost immediate replies and information to any fan queries. This all besides the fact that the game looked absolutely gorgeous.

Positives first, then: the component artwork is absolutely sublime, and this should go without saying as it was a major draw towards backing the game for many people, myself included. Grosjean did an incredible job, and I've since ordered artwork from her Etsy store (not sponsored!) which I am very happy with. However, I'm already a little confused with some animal choices - whether that’s down to Treecer’s delegation or Grosjean’s artistic licence - like a number of animals that look almost identical, and for which the same body part was used. Instead of having, say, a jaguar head and a leopard body, there are leopard and jaguar bodies with no heads available for either. These two cards look identical and have almost identical stats (without getting my copy to check I'm actually 90% sure the stats are the same too because the animals are so similar). As a Brit, it's a shame that there are many fairly everyday animals that aren't included at all, like a badger, fox or stag, yet there are easily three or four almost identical generic, brown, deerlike creature bodies, along with some absolutely bizarre examples that even I, as an animal-lover and nature enthusiast, have never heard of, including but not limited to a strange flying marsupial which I cannot for the life of me find on Google as I type this review at my desk.

Quirk of Evolution

We seem to have already plummeted into the negatives like an extinction-level asteroid, so we’ll move onto the rulebook. Let's get the Crocophant in the room out of the way first. Never in my life have I run into such a convoluted series of issues as I did trying to work out one specific rule in Darwin's Choice. I am still adamant that I am not at fault for this. Reading the rulebook, there is an explanation of what actions you can take on your turn: Create (make a creature from body part cards in your hand); Mutate (add, remove or replace cards on a creature); and Migrate (move a creature between biomes). Whenever you perform an action, you flip the player marker on that creature - denoting it is yours - to the side with the check marker on it. You may perform an action as long as you have at least one player marker face up, as that creature has not used its action yet. However, when you create a creature you place the player marker check side up. Looking at the play area, once you've created one creature, you have no more player markers without checks. So... Your turn is over. The verbatim rule is "You may perform one action for every creature you have." Seeing as you only have one creature, that's your one action. Long story short, I was forced to have a long exchange with the creator over many days in order to clarify this, and all that would have solved it would be a line in the rulebook that says the ACTUAL RULE, which is "You may create as many creatures as you are able with the cards in your hand." As it stands, nothing of the sort is in the rulebook so I have no idea how I was supposed to just assume this was the case.

Now, I don’t know if this problem would lessen with more players, but it's interesting that it is simply the species with the highest amount of 'adaptability' - having traits that match your biome, e.g. 'swimming' in the ocean - that gets either two or three points depending on the harshness of the biome. This makes very tactically-played creatures a little pointless, because you don't get points EQUAL to the number of adaptability traits like I assumed you would because it feels the most natural, like five points for five 'swimming' symbols in the ocean biome. Instead, even if you had fifty swimming symbols, you’d only score the regulation three points. All a creature with high adaptability signifies is that you will never have to change or migrate it, and no one (including the person who owns that creature!) will build any more creatures in that particular biome because there's no point trying to compete with it. It becomes a steady stream of points, an invasive species hoovering up all resources, until the game ends with absolutely no input from the player who created it; the game starts running itself.

Through the Ages

One thing I wish ran itself is the setup. Even with three people shuffling the different decks, there are so many cards and tokens to separate and shuffle and place that the setup feels like you're the one waiting to evolve from a single-celled organism. Even when you've got it down to a science, once you've finished setting up there's definitely a table-wide sense, every time I've played Darwin's Choice, of 'Finally, can we play now?' It becomes an arduous task, and when you have such a huge barrier to entry looming over you before you've even opened the box to play, it becomes an obstacle to getting the game to the table at all.

This only further increases the glacial pace of the game itself. I can safely say I've never played a game that takes as long to complete as a match of Darwin's Choice. Even after our five or so playthroughs we still cannot finish the first three eras in under two hours, making playing it quite an endeavour that must be saved for a rainy afternoon. A LONG rainy afternoon. Maybe a weekend in a tropical rainforest just to be safe. Combine with the above-mentioned setup and you've got a bat-winged, seal-flippered monster of a total runtime on your hands. Whenever I suggest Darwin's Choice to the group, everyone around the table checks their watch in one fluid movement.

Unidentified Flying Ocelot

I must say, some naming has either been strangely translated or not looked over properly, despite the creators informing backers they are "very happy with the translation." Finding myself staring at a large, flat, grey body card called a ‘Cachalot’, I had to stop the game to do a quick Google. Apparently it is the (I quote) "Old-fashioned term for a sperm whale". Why use the archaic form of something instead of the easily-recognisable term? Another example is the ‘Tiliqua rugosa’, the latin name for the blue-tongued skink. Wouldn't... ‘Blue-tongued skink’ have been simpler, more recognisable, and better overall?

These odd design choices extend to the creatures themselves. Some large cards (which are normally double sets of legs or bodies you can attach at least a head, wings and tail to, if not legs) are completed bodies, like that of an eagle. You cannot add feet, legs or a tail but you can add… Oh. Wings. Seeing as nearly all of the cards that are composed of these 'completed' bodies are birds, why would you need to add wings to it? It's already got wings! That just feels like a deliberate dead-end in the gene pool.

This creates a lack of late-game options, like a crocodile which has fulfilled its niche so well that it’s barely changed in the last few million years. By the time you reach the end of the second era, most players have so many species on the board that if they were to make any more they either wouldn't be as adapted as their existing creatures, or they'd be too adapted and steal food from (consequently killing) their existing species, forfeiting all the points those creatures have accrued. This seals off the Create action and leaves only Mutating and Migrating as viable options. “Great”, I hear you say. “If the ice biome melts to a polar ocean and your creature can’t swim, just mutate it and add flippers! Well... that’s the ideal scenario. But evolution runs on random mutation.

Global Warning

What a strange criticism to have to bring up, but I have seen the overreliance on temperature resistance negatively affect every game of Darwin's Choice that I've played. Let's go by the numbers: Of the 135 small animal cards in the box, a mere EIGHT heads provide any adaptation other than swimming and/or cold resistance (for reference, there are a whopping 35 heads - that's 26% of all the small cards available - that provide ONLY those two traits). Of those eight heads, only three provide something other than heat resistance. The rest of the heads provide nothing other than (if you're lucky) competitive strength, which will nab you a maximum of three points at the end of each round, so is fairly inconsequential, especially if your creature doesn’t survive to the next epoch anyway. What's even worse is that for many of the hot and cold biomes, temperature resistance is the only adaptation that is needed! So, in terms of the above point on dwindling player input, whenever the biomes change, chances are you will not have to change a single thing about your creature. The tundra will change to an ice cap, and you already have cold resistance so have nothing to do on your turn. This means that you can essentially coast all the way to the end of the game if you get a lucky starting hand and create an amazing creature with lots of temperature resistance. If by some miracle the biome changes to a landscape that does not allow temperature resistance (i.e. a creature with cold resistance cannot survive in a desert by default) then you can easily just migrate it - which becomes less March of the Penguins-style epic odyssey, and is instead about as exciting as picking the cards up and putting them down a few inches to the left.

The Way of the Dodo

In theory, I like that the elements of chance in the game like the random event cards and the biome changes thematically reflect what would happen in the wild. Climate change is real, people! And the dinosaurs didn't just up and leave of their own accord. But the aspect of Darwin's Choice I'm starting to detest - and for all my criticisms, this is really the only part of the game that makes me genuinely angry every single time - is the randomly drawn player hands. Every single time we've played, no matter how we draw the cards (alternating between players, all in one go, free-for-all, dealing clockwise, etc.) we all end up with hands of either five legs and five tails (meaning you cannot make any creatures as they must consist of at least a head and body), or five heads and five bodies (meaning you can make creatures, but good luck if you want any adaptation other than cold resistance or swimming because, as already stated, only THREE of the heads in the entire game will offer anything but). It all gets a bit messy at this point, and the strategy that feels so good in the first two rounds devolves (*wink wink, nudge nudge*) into fighting against the hand you've been dealt and how you can use it the least rubbish way possible, rather than optimising an elegant puzzle.

Stunted Growth

You'd think for all my grievances, this game would be nowhere other than the shelf of shame right now. But in all honesty, it's... still a little enjoyable? But when you're actually sitting down with other people, and a hippo-croco-bok wanders onto the planet, you can't help but laugh and point and clap, because it's just so silly that it’s charming a lot of the time. Even so, it can't be overlooked that the majority of the experience is players getting increasingly frustrated at their persistently useless hands, how little they have to do during the last two rounds, and really how little agency any of their decisions have on the game.

This has drastically lowered my opinion of the game because there are just too many random factors at play here. As there's no way to influence any of the unseen elements like biome changes and events, there's always the uncomfortable possibility that any of the issues mentioned here will crop up and, as a result, they always do. It may be Darwin's choice… but I can’t say it’s mine.

 

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