Life Is the Bubbles
Game design is principally iterative. How’s that for an axiom? Although board gaming is no stranger to innovation, these are occasional detonations compared to our hobby’s long, slow, uphill periods of refinement. If that doesn’t sound glamorous, don’t shoot the messenger. Even less glamorous, the best refinements are often so granular that they often escape the untrained eye. How many cards you draw. The difference between drawing blind or from a market of visible offerings. The clarity of a user interface. Whether a defensive ability trumps all comers or merely hampers them. How smoothly points are calculated. What determines when the final tally is counted. The hundred small decisions that sum into a game that’s wildly different from another game, despite any number of outward similarities.
Oceans, designed by Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, and Brian O’Neill, raises a sound question: how different is it from Evolution or Evolution: Climate? All were released by North Star Games. All are about explosive biological transformations and player-generated ecosystems. All are about eating your friends. Not like that, you dirty dog. With so many similarities, are there enough changes beyond the setting to warrant a second look?
Here’s a hint: everything I mentioned up in the first paragraph is something Oceans gets right, and those improvements still aren’t the best thing about it.
At the risk of letting this become too comparative, let me give you one example of how smartly Oceans advances the Evolution formula.
Oceans, like Evolution before it, is about change. In fact, that’s one of the oft-repeated complaints about it, as befits our era of friends huddling around a shared table to play solo games in parallel, bridged only by scoring rounds. It’s too aggressive. Too changeable. Too capricious. Never mind that those adjectives give entirely the wrong impression. Played well, Oceans resembles two people arranging the pieces of a suit of armor while taking turns digging an ice pick into each other’s weak points. You clink around until you draw blood, at which point your opponent shores up the dent with another plate. The blade nicks your armpit, so you either lash mail over the hole or wriggle away. Sometimes you’re so hungry that you jab yourself.
And just like that, we’ve exhausted the limitations of this metaphor.
Oceans is also about eating. Sometimes you’re consuming metric tons of the microscopic plant and animal matter of the reef, the stuff that’s too small to be controlled by a player. Other times you’re gorging on an opponent’s whale. When you’re desperate, maybe you’re picking at one of your own species, ideally one with enough population to spare. In any of these cases, the necessity of transformation arises from the uncertainty of your position within the food chain. There isn’t enough plankton for everyone, and you’d rather not become the blubbery water-loaf everybody is nibbling from. Maybe you should grow some teeth of your own.
In Evolution, this dance posed a problem. A good problem, a central problem, but still a problem that was, in hindsight, often too linear in its resolution. Oceans is like that, revealing the problems of its predecessors by hindsight. By being that good, basically.
Here’s the original problem. To become a carnivore, and therefore to predate upon rival species, you played the proper card on one of your creatures. Protecting a species also required a card, something like burrowing or climbing or a hard shell. The problem was that these defensive cards were often narrow in their scope, making their bearers conditionally immune to attack. Burrowing creatures couldn’t be eaten if they’d already consumed enough food. Climbing creatures couldn’t be eaten unless their pursuer also sprouted sticky pads. Shelled creatures were often too tough to crack unless someone developed intelligence and smacked them with a rock. But these measures weren’t always commensurate — or rather, they were too commensurate, leaving predators feeling stuck. Eating leaves risked the communal source of food drying up; eating flesh risked… well, any number of countermeasures, and sidestepping them required specific solutions that might or might not be available before you went extinct.
Oceans solves this problem. Actually, Oceans double-solves it. Triple-solves it.
First, anyone can eat. Maybe that sounds obvious, but it’s one of the central rules of being a creature in Oceans. There are two types of eating — three if we count triggered bonuses, which we aren’t right now — and both are available right from the start. Foraging means your species claims fish tokens (points, basically) from the reef, while attacks chomp them out of the sides of other species. In Oceans, rather than waiting around for you to bestow a mouth upon your fish, everyone can perform these basic functions right away. Even your newest, wimpiest, smallest fish can nip at an established creature. Barring any defenses, of course.
Those defenses are the second solution, and speak to one of Oceans’ broader strengths — that its cards are utterly perfect. There are only twelve in total, duplicated endlessly within its ample deck, enough to provide some diversity but not so many that you can’t learn them all within short order. And unlike the cards in Evolution, they’re more open-ended. Becoming a carnivore doesn’t require a card; you’re already a carnivore by default. Instead, creatures become better eaters, swimmers, foragers, killers, leeches, or whatever else based on what you play, without necessarily locking them into a single narrow role. The same goes for defensive cards. Rather than saying “nobody can attack you unless they have a specific counter-card,” most give you a defense number. Being fast means two defense. Same for apex predators. Squirting ink gives you four. These aren’t insignificant amounts. They’re often enough to prevent a creature from being hunted. But they’re also small enough that dedicated predators can amass attack numbers that break through. My predator has seven attack to your four defense, so I eat three of your fish. Simple, straightforward, and entirely open-ended based on what everyone gives their creatures.
It also helps that extinction isn’t something that happens on a whim this time around. Evolution was played largely simultaneously. We fill the watering hole with food together, then we evolve together, then we snack together. Oceans returns to a more familiar turn-based structure. One player adds cards to their creatures, then eats, then scores, then draws new cards. Around and around. But your creatures only age on your turn — by which I mean they move fish tokens into your scoring pile. By extension, if they can’t age, they only go extinct on your turn. No matter how thoroughly dog-eared they become, there’s always a chance to resuscitate them when your turn rolls around. Eating is easier, but so is survival. Vulnerable creatures abound, but they’re more readily recovered.
If those sound like minor adjustments, they nearly are. Smart adjustments, game-changing adjustments, but still not enough to differentiate Oceans from the formula laid down by Evolution. That task falls to the Deep Deck.
Over the past year, we’ve looked at a number of games that transition from one thing into another over the course of play. The resource-gatherers and resource-consumers of Flotilla. The island investigation and boat hunt phases of Jaws. The successively farther-ranging spheres of SpaceCorp. Around the halfway point, Oceans goes through a similar transition, except very little actually changes. No boards are flipped. No systems are altered. No genres are bent. In fact, the most substantive alteration is that you switch from playing one card per turn to playing two cards. That’s a big difference in the ever-shifting seas.
The other big alteration — and the one that earns Oceans a place alongside those other titles that feature midpoint sea changes — is that you can now play Deep cards. From the very first turn, you’ve been free to draw them, whether blindly from the deck or from one of two discard piles. Not that you were claiming them because of any immediate benefit. Really, if they were being measured by what they provided right away, they’d be worth less than zero, hogging space in your hand without providing any advantage. But once the game reaches that midpoint, cutely named the Cambrian Explosion, Deep cards are suddenly worth a whole lot. Potentially, anyway. There are otherworldly parasites that suck points straight out of somebody’s score pile, pack hunters that multiply their attack numbers, warm-blooded walruses that age faster (and therefore score faster), tusks, imposters, gigantic krakens and filter feeders and poop-eaters and—
—and not all of them are going to work with the creatures you’ve been putting together over the past half hour. Too bad. It helps that you draw three blindly and pick one to keep, and it also helps that you can always see those two discard piles. Even with that, there’s a chance you’ll draw nothing but flotsam. That’s why you need to draw them earlier. If you draw two or three Deep cards early enough, it’s possible to build a strategy around them, like a creature lurking in cold waters for the right moment to enjoy brunch at the beach. Otherwise their cost, paid in victory points, might be too high.
Where the regular deck provides the structure, the Deep deck brings the crazy. One of my early worries with Oceans is that it would lean too heavily toward its back half. The first part would be played with those twelve original card types, but all that work would soon be eclipsed by the emergence of the Deep deck’s ninety unique leviathans and gotchas. All that work, rendered trivial alongside the monsters from fathoms deep.
In practice, these halves are both crucial to success. The first half is tightly-spooled, building a foundation from interlocking archetypes. Here are the filter feeders and tentacled scavengers that suck up food; here are the whale cleaners and leeches feeding off their work; here are the predators culling everyone’s numbers; here are the mounting defenses and counter-defenses. From there, each Deep card is only as useful its role within that foundation. A super-predator with a megamouth (yes, that’s a card) might be able to gobble up an entire whale in one bite, but too much consumption will see half its fish lost to overpopulation. Far better to begin building it early, perhaps onto the flabby but well-protected frame of an inking filter feeder that can’t possibly swallow too much krill.
Two halves, then, but halves that align perfectly. Masterful card play early on, the boundless discovery of the seas later, lashed together by their need for the other. Together, Oceans hands over ecosystems both small and large: those right in front of you, with symbiotic species and mutualistic defenses, and the ecosystem at large built by everyone at the table. When it really gets rolling, it’s a sight to behold. And then, if possible, to chomp in half.
Between the tune-ups and the Deep deck, Oceans sets itself apart as a supernal card game, one that builds on its own foundation while striking out in exciting new directions. It’s familiar in all the right ways, but doesn’t use the success of Evolution as a crutch; instead, it examines its predecessor’s weaknesses with a shark’s pitiless gaze, trimming and adding and adjusting until the result feels like a true successor rather than an expansion or a spinoff. Between innovation and iteration, innovation is the flashier of the two; but gradual improvements like this one are where truly great games come from. In that regard, and as one heck of a smart card game, Oceans is masterful work.
A complimentary copy was provided.