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.
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.
Wolfgang Warsch is on a roll. Within the past year, he delivered the mathy Ganz Schön Clever, a great game that certain doofopoda don’t consider a game, a bunch of stuff I haven’t played because their titles are in German, and now The Quacks of Quedlinburg. I’d call his output improbable, except his games seem to truck in probability, so it’s… good odds? A fair shake? I have no idea.
On the surface, Quacks is about charlatan doctors peddling fake potions. But forget about that; it’s what we hoity-toity professionals call “setting pasta-toppa.”
From Beau Beckett and Jeph Stahl, the creative duo behind 1812: The Invasion of Canada, 1775: Rebellion, 1754: Conquest, and 878: Vikings, comes their most important and serious cultural contribution yet—
A game in which you say “dude.”
And although it would be easy to repurpose the game’s tagline for my review — “it’s a game where you say dude” says everything about how amusing you’ll find it — I have opinions. Though most of them deal more with the sequel. Yes, you read that right: this game already has a sequel.
To this day, Happy Salmon remains the only game to occupy the hallowed annals of Best Week without first getting reviewed here on Space-Biff! Doubly embarrassing, considering that it earned its spot two Best Weeks ago. That’s right, way back in the dark ages of 2016.
But today I’m setting things right. Especially because North Star Games has since rounded out their Happy Planet line with two more creatures.
Evolution has always been a game of counting calories, though in a different sense than most of us are accustomed to. It’s anything goes all the time, with everyone consuming every last leaf, berry, and scrap of meat they can clamp their jaws around. I’ve both written and spoken about my love for Evolution in the past, but now it’s time to explain why Climate is the pinnacle of the series thus far.
If you haven’t played Evolution from North Star Games, you’ve been missing out. Not only was it incredibly smart, rightly portraying evolution as a raging contest of one-upsmanship between ever-changing species, it was also one of my favorite games of last year, and has been a regular feature at Château de Thurot game nights for so many months that we now play hands in between discussions about our vestigial kidneys and budding telekinetic powers.
Well, for all you creatures who missed out on the first (and second) of Evolution’s appearances, here’s your chance to finally shed that tail. Climate is soon in coming, and it’s set to heat things up a bit.
Look, we’re all grownups here. By now it’s obvious that the theory of evolution is a hoax. Just like dinosaur bones and Plaid Hat Games being sold to F2Z Entertainment, it’s there to test our steadfastness. So yeah, maybe I was tempted into agnosticism when Evolution appeared at my doorstep, box buckling under the pressure of a thousand demons and belting passages from The Communist Manifesto at the top of its lungs. It took a lot of soul-searching before I came to the realization that I’ve survived dozens of Tolkienist fantasies brimming with wizards and talking trees. Why not give a Darwinist fantasy a shot?
Long story short, I’m happy I did, because Evolution is easily one of the best card games of the year.