Unda da Sea: A Look at Oceans

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To this day, Evolution — and in particular Evolution: Climate — remains one of those accessible games I’ll gladly recommend to nearly anybody. Family friendly, beautiful, fiercely competitive, and effortlessly illustrative of its namesake theory, it’s as easygoing or carnivorous as the people you’re playing with. Sometimes both at once.

But after three major iterations from North Star Games, the last thing I wanted was Evolution: Yet Again. Fortunately, their latest project, Oceans, understands its theme well enough to stay competitive. Which is why it transplants its predecessor’s core experiences — clever cardplay and an ever-shifting ecosystem — to not only beneath the waves, but also into an entirely new shape. And although this shift in DNA results in some castoffs along the way, this new form is fitter than ever.

"But where do you track the size of your species!" wheezes the Strawman Manboy. He has returned.

Fans of Evolution will recognize a lot of Oceans’ gameplay.

At the risk of sounding negative, let’s open with my biggest caveat. But be sure to stick around, because although this caveat represents a considerable downside, like evolving big chunky flippers where your hands used to be, it’s also ultimately one of Oceans’ most necessary transformations. You wouldn’t want to be an oceangoing creature with fragile little fingers, would you?

If you’ve played Evolution, you probably know that one of its best traits was zippiness. Yes, that’s the biological term: zippiness. The game was bifurcated into two main phases. In the evolution phase you spent cards to create new species, grow their population and change their size, or develop specialized traits. In the feeding phase everybody fed their species until their bellies were full or all sources of food had run dry, at which point your feces were deposited into your scoring bag. Regardless of how many people you played with, from two to a full complement of six, the game usually topped off at sixty to ninety minutes. This was thanks to the simultaneous nature of the evolution phase. Everybody was heads-down, tinkering with cards and population, making little evolutionary wagers and hoping they paid off. Feeding was slower, but the groundwork was laid. All that remained was to consume leaf and flesh.

Oceans doesn’t do that. The simultaneous play thing, I mean. Instead of two major phases, the game is broken into turns. And on your turn, you do everything. Evolution, feeding, extinction, scoring, drawing cards — all of it. Then the next aquatic deity, or whatever you’re supposed to represent, takes their turn. Then — look, you know how turns work.

It can be slow, especially at higher player counts. Especially when learning the game. It never quite drags like actual evolution, although only because sitting at a table for one million years was too hard a sell. But a few hours? Two or even three? Sure. And planning your turn in advance isn’t always feasible — or at the very least not always reliable — because the game’s ecosystem is always in flux.

But here’s the important part, because what Oceans loses in scalability (and it is a loss), it gains in nearly everything else. That switch from simultaneous to turn-based play is neither a whim nor “fixable,” because it’s integral to the way Oceans functions. It’s the oxygen-enriching respiratory system that keeps this thing swimming. And in the end, it swims better because of it.

Fishdumps.

The reef and ocean boards are important for a number of reasons.

Peculiarly, one of the things that benefits most is the game’s pacing, especially in terms of the broad ecosystem you’re forced to inhabit. Where Evolution’s watering hole was a feast-or-famine buffet replenished by a few dumped cards each round, your sources of food in Oceans are more reliable, at least in the long term. There are fat times and lean times, and ways to adapt your species to those changing circumstances — and yes, we’ll talk a lot more about how you do that in a moment — but you can generally see these shifts coming from some distance. Time is more on your side.

As before, the goal is food. The more you eat, the more you score. Not that you’re a bottomless pit. After evolving, you’re allowed to feed a single species, either foraging from the reef or chowing down on prey. After that, all of your species age, removing only one of their food tokens into your scoring bag.

This does two things right away. First, it’s far more dynamic than Evolution’s focus on having everybody descend upon the watering hole in a gluttonous frenzy that sometimes rewarded player order over everything else. Each species scores one food per turn, but only one species gets to eat. This provides a fascinating decision space, forcing you to prioritize which creature will get a shot at some food, and allows for specialized species that can safely go without eating for extended periods of time — or sustain themselves from elsewhere. It’s a juggling act, especially once you have three or four species with their own traits and needs.

Second, this transforms the ecosystem from an ever-changing teeter-totter into something that can and should be cultivated and mitigated. The reef and ocean boards are sources of food, but also a game timer and source of events, which trigger when the corresponding ocean is emptied. You can still dump a card to bring more food into a depleted reef — or a depleted ocean, to block or re-trigger its event card — but that isn’t always necessary or even desirable. If you can get away with hunting other creatures, or evolve traits like parasitism or whale-cleaning that draw food from alternate sources, why waste cards and actions foraging close to home? It isn’t always easy to unshackle yourself from the reef, but it is possible.

I think you can only buy a Tail Whip at Disneyland.

Every ecosystem is unique.

Speaking of those traits, it’s apparent that the team at North Star has benefited from learned experience. The deck only contains twelve card types, but it’s better to think of them as compact than limited, in particular because they’re incredibly elastic. The real star of the show is how they accumulate, both on species to create distinct creatures and around the table to foster a unique ecosystem.

Let me give you two examples.

Early on, while the reef is bounteous, you create a filter feeder. This blubbery baby skims heaps of food from the reef, which means it doesn’t have to feed very often. More than that, it doesn’t want to feed too often, because any species can overfeed and promptly lose half their population. So to keep your own filter feeder’s numbers down, you put a parasite next to it. Over time, this will transfer population from the filter feeder to the parasite. On the other side you create a whale cleaner, which grows every time a big creature feeds from the reef. Meanwhile, to protect your species from opportunistic predators, you make the filter feeder transparent (can’t be attacked if there’s food in the reef), endow your parasite with ink glands (takes less damage from attacks), and have your whale cleaners protect themselves by schooling (can’t be attacked if their population is high).

As the cool kids say, synergistic. Perhaps you fiddle with your defensive traits, and maybe your whale cleaners take a population hit because they’re cleaning somebody else’s whale, too. But it works. You’ve carved out a niche for yourself, your creatures aren’t in any danger of going extinct, and you’re moving at least three fishies to your scoring bag every turn.

Until the reef runs dry and your species find themselves starving.

Unlike the immediate extinction of Evolution’s creatures, species in Oceans only die off at the end of your turn. This provides a crucial window for recovery. With careful feeding and the right traits, you can stave off disaster, even saving multiple species. Which is what happens now. Your filter feeder transforms into a speedy apex predator — and let’s go crazy by making it a tentacled speedy apex predator — feeding on everything it can catch. You develop shark cleaners, symbiotic species who gain population just by being near your predator, and a bottom feeder adjacent to a rival player’s creature that you love to snack on. Once again, crisis averted. Your ecosystem is stable.

Until the Cambrian Explosion. Then all bets are off.

RELEASE THE KRAKEN! says poor Liam Neeson, wondering when the studio will greenlight Taken 4.

Deep cards sport a mix of real and, ah, theoretical traits.

Oceans seethes to this rhythm of balance and collapse and renewed balance. You enter a niche, the ecosystem changes. You adapt back to stability, another alteration unsettles everything. Sometimes the change is a shift in the availability of the reef’s food. Other times it’s another player, developing a species to be exploited or avoided. Sometimes it’s a new creature of your own, straining your balancing act.

And sometimes it’s the Cambrian Explosion.

This change is every bit as radical as Oceans stepping away from simultaneous play. The basic idea is that eventually a second deck is unlocked, the DEEP DECK, which deserves to be written thusly because it’s everything that Oceans’ regular deck is not. For one thing, the cards within are unique. Each and every one of them. No repeats. And more immediately, they’re devastating.

I’ll give you some sense for how powerful a card from the DEEP DECK can be. With Cavitation Bullet, you can develop a pistol shrimp’s ability to attack at range for a small amount of food — while ignoring all of your target’s defensive traits. Slow Metabolism lets you age zero if you want, and being leeched renews the same population you just lost. Neurotoxin makes species lose population if they attack you, or even if you attack them. Extremeophiles can’t go extinct or overpopulate at all. There are even some preposterous offerings like the Kraken, which has an enormous attack, scores its overpopulation instead of losing it, and bypasses all defensive traits. Your only hope is to shed enough feeding traits to drop beneath its notice.

On the one hand, this deck is guaranteed to ruffle some feathers. It’s wild where the regular deck is measured. It’s more chancy. Some of its traits — but not all — are theoretical or even fantastical rather than biological evolutionary fact. This isn’t to say these traits are totally unbalanced. You can only draw one per turn. They’re purchased with points, and the most powerful offerings cost quite a bit. Too many can easily lose you the game. Crucially, you can draw these cards early enough to plan for their eventual deployment, but they’ll clog up your hand in the meantime. In other words, they aren’t necessarily as swingy as they first appear. Their inclusion may still feel like a step too far for some.

But the DEEP DECK does something critical by furnishing Oceans with a bombastic, inventive, and thrilling second act. The first act sets the scene by generating the ecosystem. Here are your predators and prey; here’s the lay of the reef and ocean; here are the parasites and cleaners along for the ride. Into this backdrop Oceans splashes the occasional deep trait, bought at a dear price, and hopefully upending the status quo so entirely that you’ll recoup its cost and then some. It’s a shakeup, and a necessary one. An entire network of codependent species can be undone by Poisonous Spines. Starving fish can seek unreachable food courtesy of Luminous Bacteria. A Hydra can consume multiple species at once. Coprophagia — poop-eating — lets you steal points, which you may recall is basically fish crap. Where the first act establishes equilibrium, the Cambrian Explosion dashes it against the shore.

Check out my swarming bastardfish.

Feeling powerful in the late game.

The consequences of this shakeup are far-reaching, keeping everyone on their toes until the final turn and often shattering any previously unassailable species. A compact set of cards was previously one of Evolution’s most sacred cows; in sacrificing it, Oceans transcends its predecessor’s limitations. Sometimes this is infuriating, sometimes it’s laughable. Either way, it’s always exhilarating, capturing the wonderment and weirdness of the natural world. And letting you chow down on your friends’ species. That’s the important part.

Even though it isn’t as scalable or zippy as Evolution, and loses that game’s simultaneous wagering and a portion of its hallowed sleekness, Oceans carves out a niche of its own. There’s a reason this isn’t Evolution: Oceans. It’s Oceans, fully deserving of its own place within the gaming vernacular. Smarter pacing, the subtleties of the reef and ocean, and the essential upset of the game’s wilder second act merge nicely with the variable cardplay and eat-to-win scoring of the original system, giving Oceans an approach that’s both familiar and fresh. It’s more thrilling yet less punitive, and allows for a wider breadth of approaches. In place of another Evolution, Oceans is far more than a sequel, and far better.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Oceans is on Kickstarter right now. A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on April 3, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Justin_T_Call

    Sounds like I’ll have to play some more rounds before I can make a final opinion! The six-player game was too long and too swingy (though I account that as much towards everyone learning how to play as towards the actual rules and balance of the cards).

    For myself, the zippiness of Evolution was one of its best traits, and Oceans sacrifices that. And while I applaud the concept of the Deep Deck and its crazy cards, I remain skeptical about them being properly balanced. True, the cost of paying for those cards goes a long way towards keeping that balance (as is risking to play them early enough to be profitable), and some crazy deep cards can counteract other crazy deep cards . . . but from what I observed, it largely remains a zero-sum game (sacrifice this thing to hurt one player but you will help all the others; sacrifice this other thing and to help yourself and you help the other players, too).

    But that was only my first game, and it was with six players, so I could be far off the mark. I’m glad you got to play the game several times and develop and more informed opinion. I doubt I’ll back the Kickstarter campaign, but I’ll try and play Oceans at least two more times before forming a final opinion of my own.

    • Agreed, I don’t think I’ll be playing it with six again. It’s odd because our six-player game was one of the worst plays of the year, but with two, three, and four it’s gotten better each time. I wish I could have tried it with five before my review, but it seemed like a good time to publish.

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