Evolution Game – North Star Games (2014)

The concept of evolution is one of the central themes in Nature Documentaries.

A review of games designed to teach evolution in Nature Magazine prompted a search for other endeavors. Among the three games reviewed Evolution was evaluated as by far the best.

There has been quite a few attempts to introduce evolution in game format. One game called “Life as a Lizard” is adapted as a role play in classroom setting. Another game also explores major tenets of evolutionary theory by performing natural selection in classroom setting. There are a few more games with advanced content aiming to teach concepts such as co-evolution of host-parasite species simulating the Red Queen Hypothesis through an interactive card game. Another card game simulates natural selection and explores exciting concepts such as heritability, selection differential and response to selection. A board game is designed to teach mutation. A computer application called Oyun aims to teach the Prisoner’s Dilemma which explains evolution of cooperation in biological systems. Another game also explores maintenance of cooperation by a NetLogo game developed by MIT. Evolution and maintenance of cooperative systems are a curious subject among biologists and has been covered in a 1987 BBC Horizon documentary “Nice Guys Finish First”.

The aim of the Evolution board game is to evolve as many species as possible under limited food supply. Players start with forming their species using trait cards. Traits could be affecting feeding efficiency such as a long neck or a scavenger (when a predator gets food the scavenger also gets food). Other traits may have defensive function (horns, shells, poison) that protects against predators. In this manner players form a biological community interacting among each other living in an ecosystem with only one habitat: a waterhole. How cool would it be if the habitats or landscapes could also evolve (ecological succession) and change (catastrophic events such as sea level rise or fire). A few something to add to our wish list perhaps to improve the game.

The winning strategy depends on choices of other players in a frequency dependent selection manner. A surplus of herbivores for example leads to an advantage to being an efficient forager, with traits such as cooperation. On the other hand, abundance of herbivores also means a big advantage to becoming a carnivore. When carnivores evolve, herbivores must evolve defenses. Carnivores also must find a way to beat those defenses. Thus a co-evolutionary interaction develops throughout the game.

The game successfully employs trade-offs observed in nature. Even in this highly simplified, animal-centric (the game terribly misses plants) and static version of life players will realize that survival is difficult. It is difficult for carnivores who are at the top of the food chain with low population numbers and requirement for large territories. The carrying capacity of the ecosystems impose limitations for predators. It is also difficult for herbivores who are sandwiched between carnivores and plant defensive strategies. They must be on the run and resist nasty chemicals and thorns of the plants at the same time. Success in life manifests itself in so many ways. The game shows how “survival of the successful” becomes the winner. It is also quite Malthusian where food resource and population size interplay throughout the game. It is highly educational since it helps understand evolution by some clever oversimplification. We are in a a way like the first evolutionary biologists who for obvious reasons had no idea about how genetics played a role in evolution. Therefore we play the game with the most perceivable concepts of the evolution. Let’s keep in mind that major forces of evolution such as mutation, gene flow, genetic drift and recombination act on the gene pool of species.

Nevertheless, the game introduces biologically important concepts such as symbiosis, competition, extinction and predation. If we try a bit harder we could perhaps squeeze in a few more esoteric concepts such as r-selection and K-selection within the scope of the game.

You can read a few more reviews about the game from here and here.

A longer review that shows a full run through:



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