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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Life - it gets everywhere

Back in the 1980s I designed a few simple boardgames for Discovery, an educational partwork magazine for children published by Marshall Cavendish. This game, "Survival of the Fittest", was included in their Charles Darwin issue.

I don't make any great claims for this. I designed it in a day or two and it was only ever intended as a fun play-around with the concept of evolution. Judging by the illustrations on the counters (not included here) the editors seem to have assumed the player was taking the part of a species. In fact you are playing different biological domains (if not entirely different DNA codes) although on any given turn you are playing a species within that domain. Easy enough to survive in warm tropical oceans, but can you make it all the way to the South Pole? If you do you'll probably be lichen, but at least you'll be the winning lichen.

If you want to try it out, you can download the game board and attribute cards here. The rules are below. And happy Christmas!

A game of natural selection for 2 to 5 players

The track on the board represents different habitats across the globe. Players start in the OCEAN DEEPS and try to reach the POLAR ICE CAP. In doing so, they move through different habitats, and have to mutate (that is, change by developing new characteristics) in order to survive in new surroundings. The species most able to adapt to its surroundings – not necessarily the most complex – will be the one most likely to survive.

Cut out the cards. (Do not cut along the diagonals – that is, each card should be rectangular.) You will also need dice and a counter to represent each player.

Each card shows two characteristics. All players must begin with a Swimming or Slithering characteristic, so put the seven cards with these characteristics face down. Each player takes one, and all the remaining cards are then put face-down beside the board. This is the Gene Pool.

Each player chooses a playing piece and places it on the OCEAN DEEPS space. Roll the dice to see who will go first. When each player has finished a turn, play passes clockwise to the next person.

Each turn, you can do one of three things:

  1. Migrate
  2. Mutate
  3. Roll for a Global Change

Migrating allows you to move your playing piece to the next space on the track. Look at this space to see if it lists any of the characteristics shown on your card(s) as advantages (+1) or disadvantages (-1). If you have neither, you have to roll 4, 5 or 6 to move on. Add 1 to the number you roll for each advantageous characteristic you possess; subtract 1 for each disadvantageous characteristic. If you roll a 6, you can have another go straight away. In assessing your advantages and disadvantages, you must also take into account any Special Characteristics (see below ).

A player has the Camouflage/Slithering and Pack Hunting/Courtship cards. This describes their organism’s current attributes. They are on the TIDAL FLATS space and want to migrate to the EVERGLADES space, and are lucky enough to have two characteristics listed as advantages (+1) for EVERGLADES. If the player rolls a 2 or more, they can  move to this space.

Mutating gives you a chance to change the characteristics of your organism. You use your turn to take a random card from the Gene Pool. If neither of the colours on the new card matches one you already have. you must return the card to the Gene Pool. If the new card matches, you can keep it and discard the old one if you wish. Whether or not you keep the new card, play then passes to the next player.

You can never retain more than two cards (listing a maximum of four characteristics) at any one time. You begin the game with a single card which represents a simple organism. You can increase this to two cards (representing a complex organism) when you take and retain a card from the Gene Pool. If you choose to become a complex organism (by retaining two cards) then you cannot return to being a simple organism except through a Global Change.

Cards are kept face up in front of you at all times. You do not have to show other players a card you have drawn from the Gene Pool unless you decide to keep it.

Rolling for a Global Change allows you to check to see if drastic environmental effects are happening to the whole planet. You roll the dice and consult the Global Change Table below. Global Changes affect all players regardless of habitat. Most are fairly extreme, doing no good to any player, but they can be useful for slowing up a player who is on the verge of winning.

Some characteristics have special effects, so keep a sharp eye on your card(s) to see if you have ones that help or hinder your survival. The game gradually shows you how organisms react to each other and their habitats in the battle to survive.

Sexual Reproduction This is incompatible with the characteristics Hermaphroditic and Parthenogenesis (both methods of reproduction which do not require a partner), and so if you have a card with either characteristic, you cannot keep Sexual Reproduction unless you discard the other card in the same turn. Sexual Reproduction counts as a disadvantage (-1) in all habitats. However, when you have this characteristic and opt to Mutate, you can draw two cards from the Gene Pool. (Remember you can only hold a maximum of two cards at a time.)

Sharp Claws counts as an advantage (+1) in all habitats, but only for a complex organism (2 cards).

Thick Hide counts as an advantage (+1) in all habitats. However you cannot hold this card at the same time as Climbing or Flight. If you already have Thick Hide, you cannot keep a card with Climbing or Flight unless you discard Thick Hide in the same turn.

Shell always counts as an advantage (+1), but does not go with Flight, Running, Climbing and Leaping, so if you have cards with any of these characteristics, you cannot keep Shell unless you discard the other card.

Intelligence is useless in isolation, but allows you to add 1 to any other advantage you possess when Migrating.

Symbiosis can be used when you are on the same space as another player who also has Symbiosis. You combine your advantages and disadvantages with those of the other player when rolling to Migrate. If this roll is successful, both players move to the next space.

Parasitic only works when you are one space behind another player. You can Migrate automatically to the other player's space without rolling the dice.

Parthenogenesis is an advantage (+1) in all habitats but only for a simple organism (one card).

  1. Environmental catastrophe threatens extinction. Each player takes one card from the Gene Pool. If one of the colours on the card matches a colour you already have, discard your current card(s) and play on with the one you have just drawn. If none of the colours match, you become extinct and start again in OCEAN DEEPS with a new species.
  2. Loss of ozone layer wipes out higher life-forms. Every player is reduced to a simple organism (one card). Players who previously had two cards miss a go, but can choose which of their two cards they will discard. Players with only one card play on.
  3. Ice Age. All players with complex organisms (two cards) move backwards three spaces to avoid the spreading glaciation. For each of the following characteristics that you possess, move back one less space: Fur, Fat and Hibernation.
  4. Solar activity promotes genetic changes. Every player puts a card back into the Gene Pool and replaces it with a new one drawn at random.
  5. A fierce new predator develops. Any player who does not currently have a red- and/or green-coloured characteristic must move back four spaces.
  6. Disease ravages whole populations. Any player who does not currently have a blue-coloured characteristic must move back a number of spaces determined by rolling the dice.


  1. Looks cool Dave! Question from quick reading of the rules:

    Ice Age. All players with complex organisms (two cards) move backwards three spaces to avoid the spreading glaciation. For each of the following characteristics that you possess, move back one space: Fur, Fat and Hibernation.

    So if you're a complex organism, we who is furry, fat and can sleep, like Barney the Bear, you'll move back 6 spaces? Wouldn't Furry/Fat/Hibernation be an advantage in times of ice and snow?

    1. Good catch, James. It's a typo - now corrected.

    2. Hooray! As a Yuletide present to myself, I'll be reading Heart of Ice in front of the Christmas tree while watching the Sleigh Ride and eating liqueur chocolates! Ho ho ho!

    3. GAIA knows if you've been good...

  2. Thanks a lot - looks fun to play... The evolutionary theme reminds me of another 80s game - a boardgame precursor to EA Games' Spore called "Quirks - the game of un-natural selection". I had long wanted to own it, sadly, I never got the chance...

    1. I remember the game, though I never got to play it.

  3. Hi Dave was just reading some posts from the end of last year and wanted to say -

    The one about the letter you got from the boy & his father made me cry - It was a lovely thing you did and a lovely letter the father wrote ( no blog posts then )

    I also enjoyed your honest wrestling with what to do with Blood Sword 5 ( string together your posts and they make a kind of soliloquy for Hamlet as a Gamebook writer ) - but for what it's worth I remember a lot of Blood Sword 1 - 4 episodes & none of BS 5 ... apart from the final act or what we might call the last 10 %

    ( on a humorous note loved that line to the effect of - forgot to tell them what the plot was )

    Anyway, best wishes for the NY here's hoping it's not the year 1K !

    1. Thanks, John - I think it's really a story about a father's love for his son, in which I played a minor fairy godfather role. I just have to hope the lad wasn't too disappointed after the wait. But maybe he liked joky dungeon bashes.

      Hamlet and gamebooks? Now there's a -- d'oh!

      Anyway, have a happy and Magi-free New Year.