Beneath the surface of the water is a complex ecosystem: each species has to evolve and adapt, finding ways to find food—and keep from becoming food itself! Let’s take a dive into Oceans!
What Is Oceans?
Oceans is a game for 2 to 6 players, ages 12 and up, and takes about 45–100 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $45 for a copy of the standard game, or $70 for the deluxe edition (plus shipping, which will be charged later). The gameplay can be pretty deep (ahem), but there are variants for less experienced players to ease you into the depths. Although Oceans is in the Evolution series of games, it’s a stand-alone and does not combine with the other Evolution games.
Oceans isn’t just a prototype I’ve been sent for review—I’m personally involved in the project as well. I’ve been a fan of the Evolution series of games from North Star Games for some time, and I was excited when Oceans was first announced. Early this year, North Star Games approached me and asked if I would like to work on the rulebook for the game; they had already been doing some extensive playtesting and had a working draft, but needed somebody to take that to a final version. Clarifying the rules and making sure everything clicks has meant that I’ve also gotten a peek at how the sausage is made, which has been pretty fascinating. Because of my personal involvement, I’ve decided to refrain from adding the GeekDad Approved label to this one, though I do really like it; when the finished game is produced, we will probably try to have one of our other reviewers give it a spin before we make the final decision. All that to say: I don’t make any claims to be unbiased, so take that into account when you read this review!
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality. For instance, the prototypes I’ve used had flat Reef and Ocean boards, but the final game will have shallow boxes (seen below). The number of Deep cards has also not yet been finalized. Also, the prototype used score bags from Evolution, but the final game will have small player screens and you just pile your tokens behind them.
Here’s what will be included:
- Reef board
- 3 Ocean boards (2 small, 1 large)
- 120 Surface cards (10 of each type)
- 1 deck of Deep cards (1 of each type)
- 31 Scenario Cards
- 35 Species Boards
- 215 Population tokens:
- 96 Light Blue, 42 Salmon, 30 Yellow, 18 Blue, 6 Midnight, and 23 White tokens
- 6 Score Bags & Player Aids
- 6 Bonus Score tokens
The Reef and Ocean boards will be shallow boxes, designed to hold the population tokens in their various piles, with spaces to place the two scenario cards.
The fish tokens in the prototype are wooden, but the final version will use cardboard tokens instead; the species boards are designed so that the tokens fit on the spaces. The prototypes did not have the boxes for the Reef and Ocean boards, so I think that will definitely help keep the various piles of tokens separate so they don’t spill over into each other. The deluxe edition will include clear acrylic tokens, as well as cloth bags for scoring and card sleeves.
The game features artwork by Catherine Hamilton, who also did the watercolor illustrations for the Evolution series, as well as additional artwork from Guillame Ducos and other artists for the many Deep cards—and since each Deep card is unique, that’s a lot of art. I really love the way this game looks, from the colorful Reef and fish tokens to the wild and imaginative creatures found in the depths.
How to Play Oceans
You can download a copy of the rulebook here (which I wrote, so let me know if you find any typos that I need to fix!).
The goal of the game is to have the most population (in your score pile and on your surviving species) by the end of the game.
Place the Reef and Ocean boards in a row, with two randomly drawn Scenario cards placed on the first two ocean boards. Make a pile of population tokens (the colors used will depend on the number of players), and divide those roughly into thirds, one third in each Ocean board. The white tokens are placed in the “reserve” section of the last Ocean board.
Shuffle the Surface cards, and flip the top card into the discard pile. There’s a small number at the bottom left—multiply that by the number of players, and then move that many population from the first Ocean board into the Reef. Shuffle the Deep cards and turn the top 3 face-up as the Gene Pool. Set the species boards off to the side.
Deal 7 Surface cards to each player, and give each player a player screen. Each player also receives a bonus score token according to the turn order. The first player gets 0 points, second player gets 1 point, and so on.
On your turn, you do the following:
- Play cards (evolve or migrate)
- Feed a species
- Draw cards
At the beginning of the game, you may play 1 Surface card per turn to evolve or migrate. To evolve, you place it on a species (new or existing), with up to 3 traits allowed per species. You may have any number of species, arranged in a row in front of you. New species automatically get 1 free population from the first available Ocean pile (placed on the species board). To migrate, you discard a card, and then refer to the number at the bottom left: move that number of population from Reef to Ocean, Ocean to Reef, or Ocean to Ocean. (You can’t play Deep cards until the Cambrian explosion—see below.)
During this phase you’re also allowed to remove any number of traits from any of your species; Surface cards are discarded and Deep cards are removed from the game.
Feed a species
Pick one of your species—it may forage or attack. Foraging lets you take population from the Reef and place it on your species board, equal to the total of the green numbers on the forager. Attacking lets you take population from any other species on the table (including your own!), equal to the total of the red numbers on the attacker, though of course there are defensive traits that come into play. (If you have no green or no red numbers, you can forage or attack for 1.)
Some cards have blue “gain” icons on them, which may be triggered by various types of actions even when it’s not your turn. When you gain population, you take it from the first available Ocean pile, moving to the next pile if needed.
If you ever put a population on the last space of your species board (with the fish skeleton), then your species overpopulates—discard population to the Reef until you have 5 population left.
Every one of your species ages: take 1 population from each species and put it in your score pile, behind your screen.
If any of your species has no population left, it goes extinct: discard the trait cards and return the species board to the supply. Should’ve eaten some more!
You may draw 1 Deep card—either from the Gene Pool, or draw 3 from the deck and keep 1, placing the rest in the Gene Pool. Then you may discard any number of Surface cards, and then you draw Surface cards from the deck until you have 7 cards total. (Note that I haven’t explained how you can play Deep cards yet, but you can still start stockpiling them.)
The two scenario cards on the Ocean boards will activate when their corresponding Ocean piles are empty. A few cards are immediate events, and others have ongoing effects. As population is migrated back and forth, the scenario card can be deactivated and reactivated over the course of the game.
The first time a scenario card is activated, it kicks off the Cambrian explosion, which ramps up the pace for the rest of the game (even if the scenario becomes deactivated later). From now on, you may play 2 Surface cards per turn, and you may also play any number of Deep cards per turn.
Deep cards have a cost: you pay the cost from your score pile, placing the tokens into the Reef, an Ocean pile, or even the Reserve. Each Deep card is unique, and they have powerful and unusual effects: some may let you exceed the 3-trait maximum. Some might let you store more population on your board before you overpopulate. Some Deep cards aren’t traits, but are actually events, which take effect and then the Deep card is removed. (Deep cards are never placed into a discard pile; they’re removed from the game.)
You may also use Deep cards to migrate, in which case you don’t pay a cost. You just migrate population as usual, equal to the card’s cost.
The game end is triggered as soon as any player dips into the reserve. The active player completes their turn. Then, all other players get a bonus 1 population for each species they currently have.
You score as follows:
- 1 point per population in your score pile
- 1 point per population on your surviving species
- Bonus points from your bonus score token
The highest score wins, with ties going to the most total trait cards on their species.
There are a couple of variant rules for less experienced players: you can start without scenario cards and Deep cards, using just the Reef and a single Ocean pile. Then, introduce specific scenario cards that aren’t too complex. After that, try using randomized scenario cards. Finally, throw in the Deep cards and you’re playing the full game!
Why You Should Play Oceans
I’ve already written about how much I enjoy the Evolution board game: the Climate expansion was one of our Game of the Year finalists in 2017, and the digital version that launched recently is fantastic. So when Oceans was first announced in early 2017, I was eager to see how it would work. While I was a little surprised when I discovered that it was a standalone game and couldn’t be combined with earlier Evolution games, I like the way that the gameplay has been streamlined and simplified, while the potential card combinations has grown and become more complex.
In Evolution, players had to play cards to add food to the watering hole (a step that was often forgotten), then played cards to evolve their species, and then everyone took turns feeding their species until the food ran out. Each species had a size and a population, and you had to discard cards to increase those, plus discard a card to create a new species.
In Oceans, you no longer deal with separate size and population numbers, and there’s also no separation between population and food. Your species eats: it gains population. It gets eaten: it loses population. Also, on your turn, you only play 1 card (or 2 cards after the Cambrian explosion), and you only feed 1 species. The turn order becomes a lot simpler.
Where it gets more complex is in the card interactions. Since you only feed 1 species, but all of your species age and are at risk of extinction, you have to figure out how to build synergies to keep them alive. Play Symbiotic to let a species gain population whenever the one next to it feeds. Play Parasitic to leech population away from a neighbor. Whale Cleaners and Shark Cleaners can gain when species forage or attack with big numbers. The key is setting up chains that will gain population even when you’re not feeding, so that your species can survive aging and extinction. The more species you can keep alive, the more you score: one per species!
And then, of course, there’s the complications of attacks and defenses. In Oceans, every species is a predator by default: every species can attack or forage (barring traits that prohibit attacking or foraging). That means you have to start thinking about defenses: some cards just prevent you from being attacked if certain conditions are met; shell icons reduce the number of population you lose from an attack. Or, you can use some Bottom Feeders so that even if you do get attacked, the target’s neighbors benefit from it.
Once the Cambrian explosion occurs, the Deep cards enter play, and that’s where things really start to get wild. You can start drawing Deep cards from the beginning of the game, but that effectively reduces your hand size of Surface cards, since you can’t discard Deep cards you don’t want. However, those Deep traits can be extremely powerful, and with a deck of over 60 unique traits, there are oodles of possible combinations. Bear in mind, though, that playing Deep cards costs you points—so you want to be sure that it’s worth the cost of playing them. I like the way that the game starts off more simply, so that you can start building up your species, before the Cambrian explosion dials it up.
The scenario cards are a fun environmental factor that will tweak the game a little each time you play. Some scenarios result in a much more aggressive ecosystem that encourages attacks. Others may make overpopulation more devastating. Because you can spend cards to migrate population, players have a little bit of control over the timing of scenario cards… but it’s only putting off the inevitable, because the game doesn’t end until the Ocean has been emptied. In some cases, a player may try to trigger a scenario sooner because their species are well-suited for it, and it will give them an advantage over other players.
If there’s a downside to Oceans, it’s that the depth of the game can be a little intimidating, and it can be unforgiving for new players. A key part of the strategy is knowing how to combine traits effectively, so familiarity with the 12 Surface traits definitely gives you an advantage. Experienced players will be able to create chains that feed several of their species efficiently, while newer players may struggle to keep more than two species alive round after round, and it can be difficult to catch up if somebody gets a substantial early lead. That said, the Deep cards can be game-changers, and I’ve seen combinations that led to enormous gains in a single turn. Like Evolution, Oceans is a game that rewards repeated plays so that you start learning the patterns and interactions.
I do really enjoy the puzzle-like aspect of building a group of species that work symbiotically. The varying ecosystem—based on what other players have, the state of the Reef and Ocean piles, and the scenario cards—presents a challenge to the players, who must find the best ways to adapt and survive. It’s fantastic when you discover a powerful combination, and then devastating when another player finds a way to circumvent your carefully crafted systems. Because there are so many Deep cards, there’s no guarantee that you can rely on the same combinations each time you play. Before the Cambrian explosion, you’ll see familiar patterns and systems, but then once the Deep cards enter play, all bets are off.
If you enjoyed Evolution, you’ll want to take a dive into Oceans for sure. If you’ve never tried any of the Evolution series of games, Oceans is also a great place to start (both mechanically and thematically)!
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Oceans Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: I received a prototype of this game for review purposes. In addition, I have been hired by North Star Games to work on the rulebook, though I am not being compensated for this review.