Two articles by yours truly appeared on Ars Technica over the weekend. The first is a list of thirty games to play while surviving a global pandemic. Since I wrote only six of the thirty entries, it’s a good thing we’re not currently stuck at home with nothing but the list’s flimsier offerings. Which six did I write about, you ask? Good question. I’ll give you an easy clue: the best six.
The more substantive piece focuses on a handful of titles that are good picks for Earth Day. These are my favorite games for learning about this little blue marble we all happen to share, the interconnectedness of its climate and inhabitants, and our responsibility for its well-being. The first few titles are familiar family fare, but props to my editor for letting me include the last third, which consists of games you usually don’t see discussed on more mainstream sites. I hope someone picks up the Bios trilogy and goes cross-eyed at the lexical carpet bombing that is Phil Eklund’s principal mode of communication.
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.