Scientists have opened a portal to another dimension, and brave adventurers have ventured into the alien world to research the flora and fauna before the portal closes. Will you join these Darwinauts?
What Is Darwinauts?
Darwinauts is a tile-laying game for 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 20 to 40 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $39 for a copy of the game (or $55 for the game with a playmat). I think the game’s theme and complexity level would be fine for kids as young as 10 (especially if they’ve got some gaming experience).
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.
- 4 Player boards
- 36 Terrain tiles (including 2 Rift tiles)
- 64 Species cards
- 12 Explorer meeples (3 each in 4 player colors)
- 120 Resource tokens (30 each in 4 colors)
The graphic design is still being worked on, so the final version may vary from what you see in the photos. The terrain tiles are square tiles (like Carcassonne) and each one is divided diagonally into two regions with different terrain colors. Each region also has a small resource icon on it, and it’s important to note that the four different region colors do not match up exactly with the four different resource tokens: you will find all four resource types on all four region types. However, they’re not evenly distributed, either. You’re more likely to find the green resource on the green or blue terrains, and less likely to find it on yellow terrain.
The species cards range in point value and the number of resources required to record them, and are categorized into four different color types that correspond to the terrain colors: yellow is land animals, blue is aquatic animals, white is flying animals, and green is plant life. Each one requires a mix of different resource types, but each type generally requires at least one of the resource type matching its domain. The species are illustrated by Vincent Dutrait, and they’re really wonderful and bizarre, while still seeming plausible. The species cards are small Euro cards, which is plenty big enough for the information conveyed on them, but it does mean that Dutrait’s spectacular artwork doesn’t get as much room for display.
Hopefully, the player colors will not overlap with the terrains and resources, because that can always get a little confusing. I’m guessing the prototype just used whatever meeple colors were available. I’d also prefer if the resources and terrains either matched one-to-one (with the related resources) or were totally different—as it is, the green is the only color that is present as a resource and a terrain color.
The player boards are primarily a reference aid for the types of actions you may take on your turn and end-game scoring, along with an area to store your explorer meeples and collection of species.
All of this will come in a box the same size as Best Treehouse Ever: Forest of Fun. Green Couch Games has been publishing mostly pocket-sized games, but this will be their second larger game.
How to Play Darwinauts
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to score the most points by recording alien species and creating valuable sets.
Each player takes a player board and 3 meeples of their chosen color. Choose a starting player and give them a Rift tile as a start player marker.
Set aside the other Rift tile and shuffle the rest of the terrain tiles. Remove a number of tiles (based on player count) and return them to the box. Then deal each player 2 tiles. Finally, shuffle the Rift tile with 6 tiles and place those 7 tiles at the bottom of the stack.
Start the portal by placing the first 5 tiles face-up in a “+” configuration.
Shuffle the species cards and place them near the play area. Reveal the top 3 cards face up next to the deck. Deal 1 card face-up to each player to place next to their player board as a “discovered” species.
Place the resource tokens nearby in a supply.
On your turn, you take 2 actions. (You may take the same action twice.)
- Place an Explorer
- Place a Tile
- Remove Explorers and Draw Tiles
- Discover a Species
- Record a Species (+ Bonus Action)
Place an Explorer: Place one of your explorers onto half of a tile. You may not place an explorer in a contiguous color region that already has other explorers in it.
Place a Tile: Place one of your tiles adjacent to another existing tile, in any orientation. Colors do not have to match. You may place tiles so that they connect color regions, which means that existing explorers may end up sharing color regions.
Remove Explorers and Draw Tiles: You may only take this action if you have no tiles in your hand. Remove all of your explorers from the map; each explorer gains the resources in the entire contiguous color region that it occupied. Then, draw 2 tiles from the stack—check to see if the Rift tile has been drawn.
Discover a Species: Take a species card (either a face-up card from the supply or the top card from the deck) and place it face-up next to your player board. Note that “discovering” a species doesn’t cost resources and doesn’t earn you points—it just reserves it so that no other player may record it.
Record a Species: Spend the resources shown on a species card (either a face-up card from the supply or one next to your own player board). Place the recorded species face-down in your collection on your board. Then take one of the bonus actions. You may always exchange any 3 resources for 1 of any type of resource as a free action during your turn.
Bonus actions are taken immediately after you record a species:
- Rotate a Tile
- Move a Tile
- Discover a Species
- Refresh Species
- Take Resource
Rotate a Tile: Rotate any unoccupied tile to any orientation.
Move a Tile: Move an unoccupied tile (that has at least 1 free side) to any available space; you may also rotate it to any orientation. You may not move a tile that would break the map.
Discover a Species: Same as the regular “discover” action.
Refresh Species: Discard the 3 face-up species from the supply and draw 3 new face-up species, and then discover a species.
Take Resource: Take 1 of any available resource from the supply.
When the Rift tile is drawn from the supply, the portal will start to close, and players will have a limited amount of time before the game ends. Any remaining tiles in the supply are immediately removed from the game.
Starting from the next player’s turn, each player will remove 3 unoccupied outside tiles (tiles that have at least 1 free edge) from the map and return them to the box. The game will end immediately when the last possible tile is removed.
(If you have no tiles in your hand, you may use the “Remove Explorers” action to collect resources, but will not draw tiles because there aren’t anymore.)
If you have discovered species that have not been recorded, they are discarded and aren’t worth any points.
- Each species is worth its face value.
- Each set of 3 species of the same color is 5 points.
- Each set of 4 different species colors is 5 points.
- Every 2 resources in your supply is worth 1 point.
Note that each species card may only be in one set.
The player with the most points wins, with ties going to the most recorded species.
The rulebook also says: “If there is still a tie, all tied players should find a quiet spot to lie down and go to sleep. The player who naps the longest wins.”
Why You Should Play Darwinauts
Darwinauts blends tile-laying, resource management, and set collection in a tightly paced race for scientific knowledge. I particularly liked the idea that the scientists are “recording” species rather than capturing them and putting them in jars (at least, that’s how I chose to interpret that wording). The tile-laying (and removal) does a good job of simulating a portal to another world expanding slowly and then collapsing rapidly.
When you’re placing your tiles and explorers, you’re generally trying to create large color regions so that you can collect as many resources as possible in a single action. As with Carcassonne, you can’t directly jump into a color region that already has an explorer there, but you can hang out nearby and try to connect to the region later by placing a new tile (or potentially manipulating existing tiles). Unlike Carcassonne, however, once a color region has been vacated, anyone can put a new meeple there and reap the benefits—so creating large color regions can often end up helping your opponents, too. There’s a tricky balance involved there: maybe you wait until your next turn so that you can remove explorers on your first action, and then replace one as your second action to take that spot again.
You also can’t remove your explorers (and thus gain resources) unless you have no tiles left. I’m not sure what that means thematically, but practically speaking it means that the map continues to grow fairly quickly as everyone tries to play all their tiles so they can retrieve their explorers. And the more quickly players are retrieving workers and drawing new tiles, the more quickly you’ll hit the end game, when the Rift begins to close the portal.
Of course, sending your explorers in to collect resources doesn’t do you any good if you don’t use them to record some species! So you’ll have to decide when to use your actions for that. There’s also a tough choice in whether you spend actions to “discover” species. Since you can record species from your own supply or from the general supply, it can feel like a wasted action to discover a species. Better to just spend those actions collecting resources and then skip the discover step altogether, right? The problem is, of course, that other players may get to it first. Or, if they see that you have the resources to pay for a particular species, maybe they’ll use a bonus action to discard it and refresh the species supply. Discovering a species guarantees that you—and nobody else—will be able to record a species later, but at the cost of an action.
It also may seem like you could just pile up a bunch of resources for the first half of the game, and then spend turns just cashing them in for species later, but the game can surprise you with its pace. Once the Rift begins, each player is removing three tiles per turn, and that map begins to shrink rapidly. If you still have tiles in your hand when that happens, you’ll be forced to make a tough decision about whether you have time to play the tiles (which are just going to get removed by the next player anyway) so that you can retrieve your workers for one last resource collection. It won’t help you to have a ton of resources if you run out of time to spend them.
Deciding which species to record is where it can get a little mathy, depending on who you’re playing with. You may have the player who is running through all the possibilities: “Resources are worth 1/2 point each, and I could spend 3 resources on this species for 4 points and it’ll help me get to a set of 3 matching, but I could also spend 6 resources on this one for 12 points, but it’s a different color…” Or you may have the player who says: “Awwww, look at that fat butterfly! I have to have that one.” And, of course, you’re often going to be disappointed because another player takes or discards a species that you wanted—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The trick seems to be adjusting to what’s available and what resources you have on hand.
The game does play pretty quickly—in the times I’ve played, we never feel totally prepared by the time the Rift begins, and then it’s a mad scramble to score a few more points before the game ends. I like that, though: it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging, and it also means that you’re limited in the number of different sets of species you’re going to be able to make, which means that you can’t do everything. That limitation makes your choices more significant (though potentially more paralyzing, too).
Darwinauts has a little bit of the feel of other tile-laying games like Carcassone, but the “remove explorers” action to acquire resources is new. I like how it keeps the game clock ticking, and pushes everyone inevitably toward the end. The one thing it doesn’t share with other tile-laying games is the way you can enjoy the map at the end of the game—because, by the end, there’s almost nothing left! If you like tile-laying games and far-out alien creatures, maybe you’ll want to become a Darwinaut yourself.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Darwinauts Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype copy of this game for review purposes.