Evolving underwater: Oceans board game review

Enlarge / The game in all its glory on the table.

North Star Games

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I once spotted a barracuda while scuba diving. It darted in close, shimmering silver, its features reminiscent of a high school bully: lean, sharp, with an underbite that jutted forward in defiance of both authority and band kids.

If I were to build that creature in Oceans, the latest card game from North Star Games, its traits would be Speed, Apex Predator, and Scare The Crap Out Of Fourteen-Year-Old Dan. (That last one is a promo card. It isn’t available, so don’t request it.)

Evolution redux?

The first thing people ask about Oceans is whether it’s different enough from Evolution, North Star’s previous game, to warrant a look. (Read our review of that game.) This is a valid question. Both games revolve around similar concepts and mechanics, right down to the processes of evolution itself. Creatures are assembled from trait cards, resulting in wacky (but feasible) creations like filter-feeding parasites or tentacled schools of transparent fish.

As they’re developed, those creatures are set loose into an ecosystem of your fellow players’ swimmers, predators, scavengers, and octo-things, where they need to eat. Like its predecessor, Oceans is about gathering the most food, though certain creatures would rather take their food out of your tail than graze from the reef. That is, until you evolve a defense—at which point your pursuer may try to evolve around your evolution. The game is effectively an arms race, except that the “arms” under development are sleeker fins, sharper teeth, and the ability to squirt ink when startled.

With so many similarities, it’s natural to wonder if Oceans is just Evolution with bluer illustrations. In practice, however, differences assert themselves almost immediately—and for the most part, they result in a more confident and interesting game.

One of the big advantages of Evolution was its scalability. Because its most involved gameplay segments could be performed almost simultaneously, the time investment wasn’t much different whether sitting down with two people or six. Evolution was also an incredibly punitive game, both for herbivores and for predators. Getting eaten by a hungry carnivore could mean early extinction; so could realizing your killer species had been out-evolved and wouldn’t be snacking on any voles that millennium.

By contrast, Oceans initially comes across as more traditional. Turns are turns rather than shared phases. Extinction is possible, but it only happens when you are negligent or significantly outplayed. And the regular edition caps at four players rather than six because each additional player adds further playtime. (The expanded version offers two additional players, but I can’t recommend the additional drag.)

But that’s as far as Oceans could be described as “traditional.” Everything else about it is a radical departure from what this series has shown us in the past.

The open ocean...
Enlarge / The open ocean…

Dan Thurot

Fear the Cambrian Explosion 

Here’s the big change: Oceans is two very different games layered one over the other. The first is familiar. There’s a big deck of trait cards that you’ll evolve your creatures from, but it has only twelve types of traits, so you’re always aware of what to expect. Filter Feeders suck up nutrients from the reef, Apex Predators and Parasites steal what’s been foraged by other creatures (yes, by eating them), while Bottom Feeders, Symbiotic Species, and Whale and Shark Cleaners glean the leftovers. Toss in some other modifiers, like Speed, Tentacles, and Schooling, and you have hundreds of possible combinations to consider.

This portion of the game is deliberate—even plodding at times. Each player only employs a single card on their turn, feeds a single species, and then “ages” all of their species at once, removing one fish apiece into their hidden stash of victory guppies. Over time, everyone is likely to gain somewhere between two and four species that are more or less stable and that interlock with everyone else’s personal ecosystems.

Then something major happens. Whenever a species forages, it consumes food from the reef, the first of four boxes packed with little guppy tokens. When a species “gains,” meaning that it earns food by some means other than foraging or attacking, that food instead comes from those other three boxes—the ocean. Over time, these boxes will also empty, sparking various events and eventually the end of the game. But first, the Cambrian Explosion is going to rock everyone’s world.

It goes like this. Everyone is taking turns, laying the foundations for their species, eating from one those food sources. Around the game’s midpoint, the first ocean box is emptied and the Cambrian Explosion arrives. Now the speed of play doubles. Two cards per turn. Two guppies age from each species. And, far more importantly, you can play “deep” cards. Unlike the stuff found in the regular deck, deep cards are capable of shaking up play dramatically. What’s on them? It would take longer than my word limit to list everything, but you can count on massive super-predators, tiny bodies beneath anyone’s notice, parasites that steal points straight out of opposing player stashes, regenerating limbs, warm blood, big brains and infinite lifespans and coprophagia and poisonous ink and…

Look, the point is that every card in the deep deck is unique, powerful, and potentially upsetting to the careful balance all those competing species struck in the first half of the game. The tradeoff for all this power is that deep cards represent a devil’s bargain, only purchasable as traits if you pay “victory guppies” out of your stash. Every card is therefore an investment, prompting you to ask whether it will recoup its cost before the game comes to a finish. And naturally, they can cause real damage to your final score if someone figures out how to evade or disrupt your expensive new trait.

Smash the glass

The careful arrangements made in those first few rounds might sound vestigial compared to the game’s tumultuous second half, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the beauty of Oceans is that both halves of the game are essential. Early moves are about establishing a foundation for success, with the right mix of species to safeguard or support the deep traits you’ll use later on. This is a tightrope act. You’re allowed to draw from the deep deck from the very first turn; it’s just that those cards will sit in your hand like sea cucumbers until the Cambrian Explosion rolls around. But by drawing early and planning for the eventual appearance of your future traits, it’s possible to develop a game-long strategy within the first few turns.

With a methodical foundation and a furious second act, Oceans is the best of both worlds, rewarding both careful mastery and a willingness to smash the glass at the aquarium if it means victory. Like Evolution before it, Oceans deserves to be a hit—and, far more importantly, it is as sleek and sharp as a barracuda.

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