13th Nov2020

‘Oceans’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

If you look back at my review for Evolution Climate back at the start of 2019, you’ll note that I absolutely loved it. With thematic, educational links between visuals, components and mechanics, Evolution Climate struck the perfect balance between learning and enjoyment. However, where Evolution Climate focused on the development of birds and mammals and how temperature affects them, Oceans takes us right back to the start – to a time before creatures emerged from the primordial waters.

I must admit, I was extremely excited about Oceans and what it might have to offer. The box are is gorgeous, with the front depicting a beautiful, stylised scene depicting the kind of artwork that you’ll see throughout about half the cards in the game. The front also depicts basic information – the publisher, the names of the designers and so on. The rear, on the other hand, literally just shows an image from the other set of cards in the game – those that depict the deep. There’s no other info here besides the name of the game, and that kind of “style over substance” approach rang alarm bells with me almost immediately.

Within the box, there is even more beauty, but functionality begins to appear as well. A number of cardboard pieces slip together to form a “reef” box and then a second box divided into three ocean zones. Each of these boxes, when built, still slips perfectly back into the box within a custom insert that is perfectly specified for the purpose. There are fish in four different colours (each group used at different player counts) and a number of player aids that support a clear, well written manual filed with examples.

The species boards from Evolution Climate make a return, but this time they are printed on thinner card – which is a small negative, but probably helps to reduce cost in the most appropriate and least gameplay-affecting way. A deck of small “variation” cards is also present, and each game you’ll chose two from a deck of about twenty, introducing welcome variety to every game. The stars of the show, of course, are the two decks that apply traits to your species, but before I get into those, let’s recap what Evolution Climate and Oceans are all about.

In a nutshell, the players (two to four of them) will take turns to create new species, or evolve existing ones to be more efficient at surviving, eating and aging throughout the course of the game. In the “main” mode of the game, players will initially draw the trait cards that make up species from a deck of 120 “regular” traits that are split into twelve groups of ten. These standard traits include the kind of things we’re quite familiar with – Apex Predator, Filter Feeder, Tentacles or Transparent.

Each species, by default, can benefit from up to three traits, and during the early phase of the game, a player can place one card per turn – either adding a trait to an existing species or by taking a new species board and making a new one. As an example, you might take a species board and add the Speed card to it, making a new species with only the forage, attack and defence values shown on the Speed card, as well as the text (which in this case happens to allow one additional trait.) If you were to add the speed card to a species that already had a card, like Apex Predator, then you would combine the features shown on both cards when determining how that species behaves.

So let’s imagine we’ve played our card and added a new species. Now, one of our species (only one per turn) needs to feed. Species can do this in one of two ways – by either foraging or attacking. The forage and attack value of any species is either one (if there no values shown on any trait cards) or equivalent to the total green (forage) or red (attack) values across all traits. If a species forages, it takes food (fish tokens) directly from the reef box, whilst if attacking, it must take fish from another species (controlled by any player.)

Either way, the fish gained through feeding are placed onto the board of the chosen species, and then all species controlled by the curent player must age – which means one fish is taken from the species board and placed behind the players screen. If, at this point, any species cannot age (because it has no fish on its board) then it goes extinct. Critically in Oceans, a creature will not go extinct if it reaches zero population on another players turn – unlike in Evolution Climate, where extinction can happen following a hostile attack.

With aging done, that players turn is over, and the next player takes theirs. This makes Oceans feel very, very streamlined. Play one card, feed, age, done – it’s as simple as that. There are a few elements that introduce light complexity as the game goes on, including the “gain” mechanic, which allows species to gather food from the ocean box (not the reef) when somethng else happens. For example, a Whale or Shark Feeder trait will enable a species to gain food whenever a filter feeder or carnivore in an adjacent space feeds.

On that note, adjacency in Oceans is interesting. Various trait cards indicate that effects (often gaining, as I described above) occur based on the adjacency of one species to another. The thing that makes this interesting and perhaps unusual is that adjacency wraps around the entire table, meaning that all players ultimately begin to feel more and more as though they operate in the same ecosystem. New species are introduced either between or to the side of those existing ones (which otherwise cannot be rearranged) and in doing so, their neighbours can be affected in material ways.

Even with the basic twelve cards, Oceans provides a fair bit of variety and a real feeling of diversity among the species. You might have a fast, bottom feeding filter feeder – or a transparent apex predator that also has tentacles. Sometimes the simplest creatures, placed in the right location and with sufficient protection, can quietly do their thing turn after turn, just as they have for millions of years in our actual oceans. And all of that is fine, up until the Cambrian Explosion.

With the reef running out of food turn after turn, the players will be forced to use their cards (from time to time) to migrate fish tokens. A card can be used for its migration value instead of being added to a species, in which case that player can choose fish from any ocean box and move them to the reef. Should the first ocean box be emptied, then in the main game, the Cambrian Explosion will trigger and one of the two variation cards that I mentioned earlier will trigger. These two things change the game considerably at roughly the mid-point.

Firstly, the Cambrian Explosion itself means that players must now use two cards and age two fish, each turn. Secondly, the variation card that comes online may introduce major or minor rules of its own. Some cause predators to become more powerful, whilst others affect all species negatively. There are literally loads of different effects, and when the next ocean box is emptied and the second variation comes into play, the two can compound with the Cambrian Explosion to create some powerful effects that the players must prepare for in advance, and respond to in the moment.

Not only do these things begin to affect decisions turn to turn, but a deck of deep cards that contains something like an additional hundred cards or so that are each unique. These cards can be picked instead of “normal” cards when drawing cards even from the start of the game, but can only be played after the Cambrian Explosion. These cards include effects like Gargantuan, Bioluminescence, or having a lure, each of which has its own benefits and sometimes weaknesses.

Deep cards can create a practically invincible species that doesn’t age – and therefore doesn’t score – but which can create a “feeding engine” with parasitic species that its owner controls. Conversely, Deep cards might create a creature that is absolutely dominant (and indefensible) which results in the rest of the species in the ecosystem having to develop traits like tiny, ot invisible, in order to avoid it – at which point it’s appetite may well force its extinction.

Oceans is interesting in comparison to Evolution Climate, because it is simultaneously simpler (it has none of the management associated with the climate board, or the changing of hot to cold etc) and more complex. The additional complexity comes from the Cambrian Explosion and its introduction of deep cards, and through the variation cards which really do range from “not at all complex” to “completely bonkers” and everything in between. Some combinations are certainly best avoided with nexperienced players, whilst others are tantalisingly fiendish.

The art, of course, is glorious here just as it was in Evolution Climate, and players will want to get this game out just to show it off. It’s the kind of game your “non gamer” friends will see, love and want to play, but might not quite be ready for. Thankfully, the inclusion of a simpler “Reef Variant” which removes the deep cards, the Cantabrian Explosion and possibly one or both variation cards can make for a much, much simpler learning game, and that’s not a bad place to start with a complete newcomer to either games in general, or the Evolution Climate/Oceans series.

As a fan of natural history, of good games and of beautiful artwork, you can imagine that I’m going to recommend Oceans, and if you guessed that, then you’re correct. This is a beautiful, amazing game that (like its predecessor) captures the feeling of both evolution over time and evolution within a single, conjoined ecosystem that all players have to be respectful of. Adding a new species can affect the balance for everyone, and the swings and roundabouts of power in this delicate landscape are constant.

It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but I think that it’s exactly what designers wanted you to feel. The winner is often the player who is most prepared for (or at leasy responsive to) the changing environment, and maintaining a healthy balance is absolutely paramount. It’s never the biggest or most extreme species that win the day, it’s the most consistent, and I think that speaks volumes about what has worked so well for the most successful creatures in our oceans today. After all, you can’t argue with millions of years of history when it comes to determining what works. There’s no doubt in my mind, Oceans is a must buy, whether you have the original or not.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Oceans was provided for review by Coiledspring and North Star Games.

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