I once saw a barracuda while diving. He shot in close range, glistening silver, his features reminiscent of a high school bully: skinny, sharp, with an underbite that stuck out in defiance of both authority and band kids.
If I built that creature in Oceans, the newest card game from North Star Games, featuring Speed, Apex Predator and Scare The Crap Out Of Fourteen-Year-Old Dan. (The latter is a promo card. It’s not available, so don’t ask for it.)
The first thing people ask about? Oceans is if it’s different enough from Evolution, North Star’s previous game, to take a closer look. (Read our review of that game.) This is a valid question. Both games revolve around similar concepts and mechanics, right down to the evolution processes themselves. Creatures are assembled from trait cards, resulting in wacky (but feasible) creations like filter-feeding parasites or schools of transparent fish tentacles.
As they evolve, those creatures are released into an ecosystem of your fellow players’ swimmers, predators, scavengers, and octo-things, where they must eat. Like its predecessor, Oceans deals with collecting the most food, although certain creatures would rather get their food from your tail than graze off the reef. That is, until you develop a defense – at which point your pursuer can try to evolve around your evolution. The game is basically an arms race, except the “arms” in development have slimmer 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 manifest themselves almost immediately – and for the most part they result in a more confident and interesting game.
One of the great advantages of Evolution was the scalability. Since the most involved gameplay segments could be performed almost simultaneously, the time investment wasn’t much different whether you were sitting with two or six people. Evolution was also an incredible penalty game, for herbivores as well as predators. Being eaten by a hungry carnivore could mean an early extinction; so you might realize your deadly species had evolved and millennium wouldn’t eat voles.
On the other hand, Oceans appears more traditional at first. Turns are turns rather than split phases. Extinction is possible, but it only happens if you are negligent or significantly outplayed. And the regular edition is limited to four players instead of six because each additional player adds more playing time. (The extended version offers two extra players, but I can’t recommend the extra resistance.)
But that’s as far as Oceans can be described as ‘traditional’. Everything else is a radical departure from what this series has shown us in the past.
Fear the Cambrian Explosion
Here’s the big change: Oceans is two very different games layered on top of each other. The first is known. There is a large deck of trait cards from which you can evolve your creatures, but it only has twelve types of traits, so you always know what to expect. Filter feeders suck nutrients from the reef, Apex Predators and Parasites steal what other creatures have eaten (yes, by eating them), while Bottom Feeders, Symbiotic Species and Whale and Shark Cleaners collect the leftovers. Add in some other modifiers like Speed, Tentacles and Schooling and you have hundreds of possible combinations to consider.
This part of the game is intentional – sometimes even dabbling. Each player uses only one card during their turn, feeds a single species, and then “ages” all of their species at once, removing one fish each from their hidden stock of Victory Guppies. Over time, everyone will likely get somewhere between two and four species that are more or less stable and interlock with each person’s personal ecosystems.
Then something important happens. When a species forages, it consumes the reef’s food, the first of four boxes full of small guppy pennies. When a species “obtains,” meaning it earns food in some way other than foraging or attacking, that food comes out of those other three boxes instead — the ocean. Over time, these boxes will also become empty, leading to various events and eventually the end of the game. But first, the Cambrian explosion will rock everyone’s world.
It goes like this. Everyone takes turns laying the foundation for their species and eating from one of those food sources. Around the center of the game, the first ocean box is emptied and the Cambrian explosion arrives. Now the playing speed doubles. Two cards per turn. Two guppies from each species grow older. And, more importantly, you can play “deep” cards. Unlike the stuff found in the regular deck, deep cards can dramatically shake up the game. What does it say? It would take longer than my word limit to list them all, but you can count on huge super predators, tiny bodies that no one notices, parasites that steal points straight from opponents’ stash, regenerating limbs, warm blood, large brains and infinite life and coprophagy and poisonous ink and…
See, the point is that each card in the deep deck is unique, powerful, and potentially shocking to the careful balance that all those competing suits struck in the first half of the game. The trade-off for all this power is that deep cards represent a bargain from the devil, only for sale as traits when you pay “victory guppies” from your stock. Each card is therefore an investment, leaving you wondering if it will recoup its cost before the game is over. And of course, they can really hurt your final score if someone finds out how to dodge or disrupt your expensive new trait.
Smash the glass
The careful arrangements made in those first few rounds may sound rudimentary compared to the tumultuous second half of the game, 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 laying a foundation for success, with the right mix of strains to protect or support the deep traits you’ll use later. This is a tightrope act. You may draw from the deep deck from the 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 final appearance of your future properties, it is possible to develop a strategy for the entire game within the first few turns.
With a methodical foundation and a furious second act, Oceans is the best of both worlds, rewarding both careful control and a willingness to break the glass in the aquarium if it means victory. Like Evolution for the, Oceans deserves to be a hit – and, more importantly, it’s as sleek and sharp as a barracuda.