Oceans is a standalone game in the Evolution series, by North Star Games. This time players are developing underwater species, and there is a deck of unique traits called The Deep.
Designer: Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Brian O’Neill
Artist: Guillaume Ducos, Catherine Hamilton
Publisher: North Star Games
Category: Card Game
Player Count: 2-4 (5-6 with Kickstarter expansion)
A few years ago, I interviewed the owner of North Star Games, Dominic Crapuchettes, and asked him about his company’s goals. His were simple: he wanted to win the Spiel des Jahres, the game of the year award in Germany. Shortly afterwards, the party-game company moved into the strategy game market with Evolution, which has been iterated upon with an expansion (Flight), a standalone expansion (Evolution: Cimate), and a beginner’s version (Evolution: the Beginning). Now, Evolution is back with a new setting, and a considerable reworking of the game’s DNA (see what I did there?). Welcome to Oceans..
Christians who are adamantly opposed to evolution may have a problem with this game, as that’s its entire focus. (Although I would argue that playing a game about the “false” scenario of evolution, if you believe that way, is no different than playing a zombie horror or medieval fantasy game.) Players evolve species by playing cards to give them new traits, and develop new species as they go. There is nothing visually inappropriate or anything problematic written in the text.
On the side of the box, Oceans says something like “A game in the Evolution series.” I like this: the game has its own name and identity, but the origin and branding are clear. This is essentially another Evolution game, along with everything that that means.
Most obviously, that means that Oceans is beautiful. The artwork for this series is some of the best for any board game ever made. Screenshots do not do the cards justice; the game is a joy to behold. The iconography is also the clearest it’s ever been, with only a few, very specific, very helpful icons indicated on the Trait cards. However, I did find a lot of the actual components to be rather clunky. Collecting dozens of fish (victory points) in only denominations of ones is extremely tedious, the player screens are far too small, and the box insert makes zero sense. The contraption that holds the fish is also a bit stiff and hard to use. But did I mention how gorgeous this game is?
I’m a card gamer through and through, so I felt predisposed to like the original Evolution from the outset. However, my biggest complaint about the original was the simultaneous card-play phase. It felt like, as soon as you look up from doing that, you suddenly have no clue what’s going on. Oceans makes the biggest shift here, and makes the game entirely a turn-based affair. This is both good and bad.
Turns have been incredibly simplified: play one card, feed all your species (tricky!), draw new cards. Overall, this is fantastic, but… tedious. This game allows for some crazy combos (woohoo!), but the continued growth of your species mean that feeding phases become more and more complicated, and moving around a bunch of individual fish tokens can take a while. Our 2-3 player games were repeatedly taking us 90 minutes or more. (My copy game with a Kickstarter 5-6 player expansion, which I would never recommend using.) During the second half of the game, when turns essentially double, this gets even worse.
Instead of growing your species, a new action is the ability to use a card to migrate population. There are four different areas where fish (food you convert into victory points) can live, and whether each region is empty or not can cause events to trigger, or cause foragers (as opposed to predators) to fail to find food. This is a clever idea in theory, but the strategy was somewhat opaque — which is fine, except yet again it involves a fair amount of tedium.
The coolest new edition of Oceans is by far The Deep, a separate deck of completely unique trait cards. These have insanely powerful abilities, but cost a certain number of victory points to put into play. This makes every game of Oceans unique, and is by far the most exciting part of the game. Furthermore, the deck is huge, and you can completely customize it to your own tastes. I hope something similar is included in every future iteration of Evolution.
Overall, Oceans is beautiful, with clear and accessible rules, and probably the most strategic iteration of Evolution. But the clunky accounting has me more than a little excited to see this eventually in app form instead.
Thank you to North Star Games for providing a review copy of Oceans.
+ Tighter iconography and rules than Evolution
+ Gorgeous artwork
+ Underwater theme
+ Cool card combos
+ Unique cards in The Deep deck
- Far too much bookkeeping
- Too hard to track everything going on, especially with 4+ players
- Turn-based is necessary, but the game is too long
- Not everyone will like the meanness