Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Dominic Crapuchettes of North Star Games. Almost ten years ago, my introduction to Wits & Wagers was one of the key experiences that unlocked my own pursuit into the mystical world of modern board games. I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about Dominic over the last few weeks, but I’ll let him describe his own journey as a board game designer and publisher:
My family did not watch much TV. We played board games instead. I still have a copies of several games I designed when I was 11. When I was 13, one of my games (Kabloogi) was banned from school because too many students were playing it during class. My final project in high school was a business plan for the game company I dreamed of starting.
I became addicted to Magic: The Gathering in college, but after taking home $15k from the 1998 New York pro tour, I realized I was more passionate about creating games than playing them. So I jumped ship as the captain of an Alaskan salmon fishing boat and started North Star Games. I’m glad I did – our three most popular games (Wits & Wagers, Say Anything, and Evolution) have sold over 2 million copies combined.
North Star Game’s latest project, Evolution: Climate is fully funded on Kickstarter and currently knocking down stretch goals at it approaches the final days of the campaign. Dominic sat down with us to answer our questions about his latest design work, game development and his thoughts on trends in the industry:
Games Precipice: Welcome Dominic, thank you for joining us! For those of us who may not yet be familiar with it, what is Evolution and how did its ideas hatch into a game?
Dominic: Evolution is a family of games that builds upon the ideas of a Russian biologist, Dmitry Knorre. It has made a name for itself in the scientific community because of the vivid way it simulates an ecosystem. An article about Evolution was recently published in the journal Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal. It was written by Stuart West, a professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oxford, who is currently using Evolution in one of his classes.
Previous attempts at evolution-themed games have approached the subject by applying mechanics from one of two genres: area control wargames, or civilization games with tech trees. Both of these frameworks don’t quite work for evolution. The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem where players continually adapt in order to survive and thrive.
The brilliant part (inherited from Dmitry Knorre) is that the very act of adapting your species is what changes the ecosystem: Every player’s turn creates a feedback loop which keeps the system in continual flux. When you play Evolution, you’ll feel like you’re immersed in a dynamic rainforest with exotic species and symbiotic relationships.
Evolution is not about dominating an area or racing down a tech tree to acquire the best adaptation. It’s about finding and exploiting a temporary niche and adapting quickly when that niche disappears. There is no superlative combination of cards. Every adaptation that is well suited for one situation is poorly suited for another. There is room in every vibrant ecosystem for multiple species to co-exist and flourish. The same is true with Evolution.
GP: Evolution has gained critical acclaim for creating a “survival of the fittest” gaming experience. The name “Evolution: Climate” would be one indication, but what can we look forward to in this stand-alone update to Evolution?
There are two threats in the base game of Evolution: starvation and predators. Climate is a stand-alone game that adds another layer to the simulation: Mother Nature. In addition to starvation and predators, your species might have to contend with the desert sun or the biting cold of an ice age.
Climate is a stand-alone because as development progressed, we became more and more excited about the possibility of creating a truly brilliant and unique experience. But to make everything work perfectly, we had to modify an increasing number of components from the base game. At some point we realized that we had changed enough of the base game that it made sense to sell Climate as a stand-alone. This would enable people who do not have the base Evolution game to purchase Climate for $25 less than purchasing both the base set and the expansion.
Climate is the game we expect to be most loved by the BoardGameGeek community because its depth and complexity is most similar to the highest ranked games there. If you are a veteran gamer who likes any of the top 10 ranked games on the BoardGameGeek, then you should take a serious look at the Evolution: Climate Kickstarter. This is a game you are likely to love.
GP: How did the Climate addition to the game system evolve to become more fit than it’s parent? Can you give us a sense of the development timeline of the game, preferably by incorporating geologic eras or time periods?
Over the past 3 years, I’ve logged nearly 500 games of Evolution (with and without expansions) and we have data recorded from over 300 external playtests. That experience has enabled us to add another layer to the game while simultaneously polishing the rough edges that have shown themselves over those years.
In the beginning, Nick Bentley and I came up with an architecture for the Climate expansion that was extremely simple to understand and had the potential to drive a tremendous amount of variety. We’ll call this time period the Cryptic era since it takes place before the game had any life.
The original Climate Track was very elegant with each movement on the track being exceedingly impactful to the game. But we soon realized people wanted a more nuanced experience, especially players who had never played the base set. So we created more spaces on the Climate Track with less impactful changes between the spaces. The gameplay experience became more fluid and better integrated. This time period shall henceforth be known as the Paleozoic era because ended with the biggest mass extinction of mechanics that Climate has ever endured (the Great Permian Extinction).
One of the gameplay elements we missed during the Paleozoic era was the ability to develop a plethora of species. Mother Nature was so harsh that it took your entire focus just to keep 1 species alive (or sometimes 2 if you were lucky). But in reality, our planet is teeming with diversity when the climate is warm (like in the Amazon). So we threw everything out the window (the Great Permian Extinction) and worked on a system that would reward tons of species when the weather was warm, but would punish that strategy when the weather was cold.
During our research, we came across the “Surface Area to Volume Ratio” which is what drives the phenomenon in reality. So we added a simplified version of the phenomenon to the Climate Track. The result is that large species have a difficult time dissipating heat when the climate is hot, and small species have a difficult time retaining heat when it is cold. This made Climate tremendously more thematic and varied, but it also grew the complexity of the game. It was during this time period that Climate crossed the divide from potential gateway game into a meaty game for veteran gamers. This time period has become known as the Mesozoic era because it is the era in which everything as we know it began to emerge.
Once we crossed that divide, we increasingly saw Climate as having the potential to become a BoardGameGeek favorite like Terra Mystica, so we gave ourselves more leeway with the development of the game. One thing holding back the design was our desire to fit it into the framework of an expansion for Evolution. But as Climate increasingly became a stand-alone game with a different target audience from the base set, we increasingly let go of any criteria that held back the development. In the end, we had to modify 38 cards from the base set and create a new central Watering Hole in order to give the rich experience we envisioned. All of this happened during the Cretaceous part of Mesozoic era.
The final development time period is the Cenozoic era. This when the Climate Event cards became fully integrated into the game. These cards had originally been conceived as exclusive stretch goals to make our Kickstarter backers salivate with anticipation. The problem is that it made people salivate a little too much! Many of our playtesters remarked that people would be downright angry in the future if they were not able to get a hold of these limited edition cards. So we decided to integrate the Climate Event cards into the core game and commission Catherine Hamilton to paint the art. Now Climate comes fully equipped with Wildfires, Volcanic Eruptions, and epic Meteors!
GP: Were there any interesting design ideas you explored early in development of Evolution that unfortunately didn’t make it through the natural selection process?
Most of the ideas that didn’t make it through the natural selection process failed for good reason. But there were two fantastic ideas that were dismissed because the level of complication would have changed the target market for the game:
- The species boards used to have a track for Speed (on top of Body Size and Population)
- There originally was not a hard limit for the number of traits you could put on a species.
Instead, you had to discard one card for every row of traits below the newly added trait. Both rules are still on the back burner and will probably be introduced in a future Evolution product.
GP: Recently we’ve been exploring motivations behind player actions in games. The most primitive and organic motives are on display in Evolution – a dwindling food supply and the perpetual need to evolve new traits to stay one step ahead of larger predatory species.
The Climate addition introduces new variables through a continually changing ecosystem. What are some interesting observations you’ve seen in how players have adapted to the new environment of Evolution: Climate?
Theme drives everything in Evolution. Before we start to think about game mechanics, we first look to nature and think about how things work. The same is true with the overarching scoring structure. I don’t want Evolution to become an abstract resource management game with a bunch of arbitrary ways to score (as is common with your typical point salad eurogame). We structured the scoring to line up with an activity that is inherently satisfying: growing your species and watching them flourish. People often make an emotional connection with their species and build stories around them. So the final score in Evolution reflects a player’s natural inclination.
Food is the only limited resource in Evolution. It’s the scarcity of food that drives the entire game forward. It’s what drives a species to gather food quickly, what drives a species to become a predator, and consequently what drives a species to adapt with defensive traits. The carrot is that it’s fun watch your species grow and thrive in a dynamically changing ecosystem. And the stick? The stick can be brutal: the species you love can die from starvation or worse, be eaten by predators. The carrot and the stick are visceral and obvious. They are the two forces that keep Evolution interesting to play again and again.
GP: Evolution is a fascinating subject matter and one entirely entrenched around the idea of purely natural competition. One success factor of the game system is that it represents the thematic competition of Evolution without forcing players to engage in highly hostile interactions.
What were some of the original design goals surrounding player interaction in Evolution and later, Evolution: Climate?
One of my goals with Evolution is to create an environment where people can play in the style that is most comfortable to them and still have a reasonable chance of winning. Gamers who prefer Euro-style resource management games can play extra defensively and mind their own business, while gamers who prefer aggressive Ameritrash-style games can go on the offensive. But a player who can change their play style depending upon the current situation is the one who will win most consistently.
In Evolution, adapting to an ever-changing ecosystem means paying attention to the current cards in play as well as the tendencies of the players at the table. Evolution is not a game where you can ignore the other players. If you are the type of gamer who prefers cooperative games because conflict makes you feel uncomfortable then be careful when you play this game. Although Evolution gives you all of the tools you need to protect yourself and thrive, it can be downright brutal to those who are not prepared!
GP: North Star Games is one of a few notable publishers that experienced the tabletop industry before Kickstarter and has embraced its Darwinian rise in utility since. Where do you see the industry moving and what industry ideas do you observe now that may be a “butterfly effect” for which we’re only beginning to see prolonged effects?
I don’t think Kickstarter changes anything in a fundamental way. The financing aspect of Kickstarter is actually more expensive than most of my personal credit cards (and more than twice as expensive as financing options available to North Star Games). Kickstarter is best thought of as a marketing platform whose meteoric rise in popularity allowed new companies to enter the market before established companies were able to change their internal business patterns.
But Kickstarter has already become crowded, which means the first-mover advantage doesn’t really exist anymore. Companies like Tasty Minstrel Games, Cards Against Humanity, Cool Mini or Not, and Stonemaier Games were able to take advantage of the large platform while it wasn’t crowded. Becoming noticed on Kickstarter now is much more difficult.
The butterfly flapping its wings is the smart phone / tablet market. I expect face-to face board games to become increasingly played on interconnected digital devices in the future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the board game aisle at Target disappears over the next 25 years.
The Precipice of Conclusion: The Lightning Round
Which trait or trait combination in Evolution is your personal favorite?
Card synergies are exceedingly important in Evolution, but combinations that are effective at one time are relatively useless at another. So my favorite card combination depends upon the situation.
If you’re going to be stranded in the Paleozoic era with four of your friends, which version of Wits & Wagers are you bringing with you?
Wits & Wagers Epic Geek edition! It’s by far my favorite version of the Wits & Wagers concept. The questions are about the biggest geek blockbusters (like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), the art and components are the highest quality I’ve ever seen in a party game (we commissioned original art from several well-known fantasy painters), and each player has an in-game power that is thematic and generates tons of player interaction. Every time I play it I’m struck with how much fun it is. I can’t wait until it hits the market.
What is the most recent game innovation that made you say “Wow”?
Legacy story telling that span several games.
What is one idea you feel is underutilized in game design?
Worker placement… Just kidding. Negotiation games.
What do you find most frustrating about tabletop game design?
That a thousand hours of refinement is often over-looked by someone’s first impression.
If an aspiring designer approaches you, what is one tip you could give which helped you reach your continuously high level of success?
Playtest, playtest, playtest. Playtest every game regardless of the intended audience with gamers, families, kids, grandparents, and drunken college kids.
Games Precipice has no affiliation with any publishers but from time to time we really like to spotlight projects that we find interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to interview Dominic to discuss the design and development of Evolution: Climate. At the time of this writing Evolution: Climate by North Star Games has funded on Kickstarter with more than 4600 backers with just over a week to go. We look forward to seeing future enhancements to the series from Dominic and the North Star Games team.