Genetics and gaming, a strategist’s dream
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Niche Animal Genes Image Credit: Niche

Warrior, hunter, gatherer, or breeder? What does your tribe lack? There’s a delicate balance to maintain in this game of survival

Too few gatherers and your hunters starve as they stalk their prey. Warriors who can’t move quickly might not reach enemies in time to protect the tribe. Your gatherers must have the proper skill to acquire as much food as quickly as possible. Breeders can pass on the best or the worst genes to their brood, so being selective about who mates with whom is imperative. And don’t forget, even your best specimens will eventually grow old and die, so you have to always keep the line going!

This is Niche: a genetics survival game. In this turn-based strategy game, you must strategically breed the best animals for the survival of the community. The objectives for your furry wards are to explore your island, find food, kill predators, and grow your tribe. Climate change and illness can wipe out your best specimens if you’re not careful, and resource management is always at the forefront of your best strategies. If your animals can’t eat, they can’t do their jobs!

Where the game gets especially interesting is its genetics features. Animals can be good at picking berries, be able to move quickly, have a strong attack, be able to smell predators and prey, as well as have physically attractive characteristics, like different fur color, eye color, spots, stripes, antlers, etc. You have to worry about dominate and recessive genes, mutation, and even the problems that arise from incest.

Though it may sound complicated, Niche’s in-game menu makes it simple. You can always open an animal’s traits and genetics and see what they have you might want to pass on to a new spawn or what animals you may want to avoid letting others mate with so they don’t pass on something detrimental to the group.

The game lends itself to a few different playstyles. There are those who want to explore the unknown, build the biggest tribe, breed the strongest or fastest animals, or want to do all of the above. There are several different biomes the animals can explore, such as grass, jungle, and water biomes. The islands in the game also have varying difficulties and complexities, so players can challenge themselves as much as they like.

Niche isn’t only about being the strongest or the fastest, but having your tribe adapt to new opportunities, threats, and environments in order to survive. The game is truly unique and is one using a great combination of attractive game design and interesting biology. When I talked to Philomena Schwab, game designer, and marketing lead at Niche, she explained that she “couldn’t decide if she wanted to study biology or game design.” This juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous interests blended beautifully into the creation of Niche.

Schwab doesn’t work alone, though, and has explained that “around this prototype, a crowd of biology nerds gathered and have been hard at work ever since.” Their expertise and input are conspicuous as the team aimed to create a world that inspired its players not only to survive, but to create their own species, adapt them to their environment, and to base all their decisions on real genetics. As explained in the game description on Steam, players are “introduced to the scientific mechanics of genetics (featuring dominant-recessive, co-dominant inheritance, etc). The game also features the five pillars of population genetics (genetic drift, genetic flow, mutation, natural selection, sexual selection).” What sounds complicated is surprisingly user friendly. “All knowledge is interwoven with the game-mechanics. This creates the effect of learning by playing.”

Image Credit: Niche

What has stood out to me about the game throughout its development (other than the innovative gameplay experience itself) is the devotion of its fans already. On the Niche Facebook group, (which is closed to supporters and early-access players), there is an outpouring of praise and support of the game already. Niche has already inspired player artwork from sketches to digital paintings to sculptures. Additionally, the developers are also very engaged with the Facebook group, responding to and even sometimes implementing player suggestions, which just gets fans more excited to play and share strategies and discuss what they’d like to see come next. With such a solid following already, it’s exciting to imagine where this game will go.

Niche Family Tree Image Credit: Niche

This game got started on Kickstarter, and some of the many promises made to backers are the inclusion of prehistoric genes and interspecies breeding, so those updates are still on the horizon, along with streamlining of the game itself and scores of new features as production and development continues. They succeeded in pulling in nearly 5X of their $15,000 ask, raising $72,375 from 2,838 backers.

The game is available in its current form through Steam Early Access and full release is slated for July.

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Kelsey Fox

About Kelsey Fox


Kelsey is a born-and-raised Arkansan who migrated to the Northeast for a taste of that big-city life. She is a professor by day and an avid gamer by night.

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