evolution symbiosis

Evolution Loses Out with Flawed Progression

The app version of Evolution is out from North Star Games, and I should be delighted. It’s a strong adaptation of my second favorite game — so what went wrong?

If you haven’t played Evolution, you’ve been missing out on one of the best board games of the past five years. Using cards that represent genetic traits, you create species and build up their populations, scoring points by eating as much food as you can.

There are lots of combinations, and a Cooperative Foraging Burrower plays very differently from a Carnivorous Ambushing Pack Hunter. Success usually comes from anticipating your opponents’ moves, avoiding their predators, and manipulating the food supply.

evolution nom
Just another day in paradi… OMG the carnage!

All this is faithfully reproduced in the app version. Evolution: The Video Game brings players together around the watering hole with the same cards and gameplay. The interface is clean and easy to use, with rare bugs. The AI is decent, though multiplayer against live humans is always better.

There are also some nice additions. Multiplayer matching is fast and efficient, and there’s a solid single-player campaign that teaches the core strategies of the game. But what I really love is the sketchbook depicting animals that embody the combinations of traits that you use successfully in the game. I’ve collected 18 sketches over a couple of weeks, and I love the feeling of progression that comes from feeling the book.

Losing Progress

Progression is at the root of the game’s one great flaw, though. Evolution has two progression systems: multiplayer rank and named titles. The multiplayer rank is innocuous — it seems to be based on ELO, and rises and falls as you expect.

The named titles were a lot of fun for the first week. You gain stamps for making progress in the campaign and beating multiplayer opponents. Four stamps levels you up to various ranks like “Associate Professor”. So far, so good — but somewhere along the way North Star must have decided players were advancing too fast. After an update, players began losing stamps for being beaten by other players, and if you lose enough stamps you lose ranks.

This is a serious design no-no, and loss aversion is the reason why. Humans usually value something higher when they have it than if they don’t, which means the pain of giving something up usually exceeds the pleasure of getting it. That’s especially true with social signifiers like titles.

There’s no good reason why I should be bothered about dropping from “Associate Professor 4” to “Associate Professor 3” — but it stings just the same. And since most players lose in a multi-player game, you’re far more likely to feel that sting of regression than the joy of progression. This one little change has drastically reduced my joy in just playing the game, and I’ve reduced how much I play as a result.

That’s too bad. Evolution is a great port of a great board game, and it should have been easy to avoid this misstep. (Losing a few stamps doesn’t hurt, as long as you don’t lose the associated title with it.) I’d like to spend a lot more time with this game, I’m having trouble overcoming the dread of losing progress. At least I still have my awesome animal sketches!

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