Enlarge /. The game in all its glory on the table.
North Star Games
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I once discovered a barracuda while diving. It shot in tight, shimmering silver, its features reminiscent of a high school bully: slim, sharp, with an underbite that protruded in spite of authority and band children.
If I built this creature in Oceans, the newest card game from North Star Games, its characteristics would be Speed, Apex Predator and Scare The Crap Out Of Fourteen-Year-Old Dan. (The last one is a promo card. It's not available, so don't request it.)
The first thing people ask about Oceans is whether it differs enough from Evolution, North Star's previous game, to warrant a look. (Read our review of this game.) This is a valid question. Both games revolve around similar concepts and mechanics up to the evolutionary processes. Creatures are put together from feature cards, which leads to crazy (but feasible) creations such as filter feeding parasites or tentacles of transparent fish.
As they evolve, these creatures are placed in an ecosystem of your fellow players' swimmers, predators, scavengers and octopus where they have to eat. As with its predecessor, Oceans is about collecting the most food, although certain creatures would rather take their food out of their tail than graze off the reef. That is, until you develop a defense – at this point your pursuer can try to develop around your development. The game is practically an arms race, except that the developing "arms" are smoother fins, sharper teeth and the ability to splash ink when scared.
With so many similarities, it's natural to ask if Oceans is just evolution with bluer illustrations. In practice, however, differences prevail almost immediately – and for the most part lead to a more confident and interesting game.
One of the great advantages of evolution was its scalability. Since the most involved gameplay segments could be played almost simultaneously, the time involved was not significantly different, whether you were sitting with two or six people. Evolution was also an incredibly punishing game for both herbivores and predators. Being eaten by a hungry carnivore could mean early extinction. could see that your killer species was overdeveloped and no voles would nibble in this millennium.
In contrast, the oceans seem more traditional at first. Turns are turns and not common phases. Extinction is possible, but it only happens if you are negligent or clearly outplayed. And the regular spending is limited to four instead of six, as each additional player adds extra game time. (The expanded version offers two additional players, but I cannot recommend the additional drag.)
So far, the oceans can be described as "traditional". Everything else is a radical departure from what this series has shown us in the past.
Enlarge /. The open ocean …
Fear the Cambrian explosion
Here's the big change: Oceans consists of two very different games that are on top of each other. The first is known. There is a big deck of cards from which you will develop your creatures, but there are only twelve types of traits so you always know what to expect. Filter feeders soak up 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 remains. If you add some other modifiers like speed, tentacles, and schooling, there are hundreds of possible combinations to consider.
This part of the game is intentional – sometimes even jogging. Each player uses only one card in his turn, feeds a single species and then "ages" all species at once, removing one fish per piece from his hidden supply of victory guppies. Over time, everyone will likely win between two and four species that are more or less stable and connect to everyone else's personal ecosystems.
Then something big happens. Whenever a type of food is sought, it uses food from the reef, the first of four boxes filled with small guppy tokens. If a species "wins", which means that it earns food in ways other than foraging or attacking, that food comes instead from these other three boxes – the ocean. Over time, these fields will also be empty, triggering various events and ultimately the end of the game. But first, the Cambrian explosion will shake everyone's world.
So so. Everyone takes turns, lays the foundation for their species and eats from one of these food sources. Around the center of the game, the first ocean box is emptied and the Cambrian explosion arrives. Now the game speed doubles. Two cards per turn. Two guppies of each species age. And more importantly, you can play “deep” cards. Unlike the things found in the normal deck, deep cards can dramatically shake up the game. What's happening? It would take longer than my word limit to list everything, but you can rely on massive super predators, tiny bodies under everyone's attention, parasites that steal points straight from enemy players' hideouts, regenerate limbs, warm blood, large brains and an infinite lifespan and coprophagy and toxic ink and …
The point is that each card in the deep deck is unique, powerful, and potentially disruptive to the careful balance of all competing species that were hit in the first half of the game. The compromise for all of this power is that deep cards are a bargain of the devil and can only be bought as properties if you pay for "victory guppies" from your supply. Each card is therefore an investment that asks you if your costs will pay off before the game ends. And, of course, they can do real harm to your bottom line if someone finds out how to avoid or disrupt your expensive new feature.
The food is available from the reef and the sea.
The scoring guppies!
The game before deep cards come into play.
Some of the game's "deep" cards.
Selection of the deep map to be used.
The deep card game has come into play.
Break the glass
The careful arrangements in these first rounds may sound obvious compared to the turbulent second half of the game, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the nice thing about Oceans is that both halves of the game are essential. Early steps are about building a foundation for success, with the right mix of species to protect or support the deep traits you'll use later. This is a tightrope walk. You can move out of the deep deck from the first round. It's just that these cards are in your hand like sea cucumbers until the Cambrian explosion rolls around. However, if you draw early and plan for the future appearance of your future traits, you can develop a playful strategy in the first few rounds.
With a methodological foundation and an angry second act, Oceans is the best of both worlds and rewards both careful mastery and the willingness to smash the glass in the aquarium if it means victory. Like evolution before, Oceans deserves a hit – and most of all, it's as smooth and sharp as a barracuda.