Full disclosure: A preview copy of Oceans was provided by North Star Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Sequel games are always an interesting business, aren’t they? On one hand, they invite comparison to the original, but on the other, you want it to be a distinct enough entity that both games can thrive in the marketplace. It’s why for video games you’ll see significant plot changes (generally speaking) or things like that, or some board games will integrate with their predecessors (like ICECOOL2) or significantly change a mechanic (Paperback / Hardback). The risk you run with edging too similar is that you might not appeal to people who already have the original game or you might make that original game obsolete. Either way, Oceans is a brand-new game in the Evolution card game system set inside the vast seas, so let’s dive right in.
In Oceans, you’re trying to raise up species throughout time by equipping them with traits that will keep them best suited for long-term survival. Be careful, though; your opponents are developing sleeker bodies and sharper teeth, and they may have other plans for your populations. And then there’s The Deep, where creatures beyond your imagination lurk. What will emerge from the water, and what will survive? Only one way to find out!
Setup isn’t too bad. Set out your boards:
The right three (darker ones) are the Ocean Boards. The leftmost one is the Reef Board. I’ll refer to them as such. Now, take the fish:
You’ll want to take certain colors ( / numbers, depending on your color perception) and set them in a pile:
- 2 players: Only the Blue fish (96)
- 3 players: Blue and Light Blue fish (138)
- 4 players: Blue, Light Blue, and Yellow fish (168)
- 5 players: Blue, Light Blue, Yellow and Red fish (186)
- 6 players: Blue, Light Blue, Yellow, Red, and Dark Blue (192)
Mix them up properly. You’ll notice I didn’t refer to the Aqua fish (which look pretty similar to the Light Blue, unfortunately; hopefully they change the colors a bit more for release). Set those on the far right of the rightmost Ocean Board; they’ll comprise the Reserve. In the final version there will be walls so they don’t spill everywhere. Also note that they’ve already changed these colors in the latest edition of the rules, so focus on the numbers instead. Previews!
For the others, split them into three approximately equal piles and put each pile on an Ocean Board; don’t put any on the Reef. Now, put a Scenario card on each of the two smaller Ocean Boards:
More on those later. Shuffle the Surface Cards and deal each player 7:
Now, flip the top card of that deck over and start a discard pile. There’s a number on the bottom-left; move that many fish times the number of players from the left ocean board to the Reef.
Shuffle the Deep Cards and reveal 3 to the right of the Ocean Boards; this is known as the Gene Pool:
Finally, give each player a score bag. None came in my preview copy, so I’m using the ones from Evolution: CLIMATE for this game. Once you’ve got all that, you should be ready to start!
So, as I mentioned, you want to build up great species that can survive (and thrive, if you’re lucky) in the big open ocean. As you do, you’ll increase your population, which will be worth points at the end of the game. Naturally, the player who earns the most points wins.
On your turn, you’ll do five things:
At the beginning of the game, you get one Play Cards action, and you can use that to Evolve or Migrate. You may also remove any number of traits from your existing species for free. If you remove a Surface Card, discard it; if you remove a Deep Card, return it to the box.
Certain Cards have a Card+ icon on them (an icon of two cards). If you play one of these cards as an action, you may play one more of these cards as another free action on your turn (to a maximum of one additional free action).
- Evolve: When you play a card as a Trait, you may play it on a new or existing species with 2 or fewer Trait Cards (unless otherwise stated). Unlike CLIMATE, you are allowed to have multiple copies of the same Trait Card on a species.
- For a new species, take a species board and add it to the left of a species you control, to the right of a species you control, or in between two of your species you control. Then, gain a population from the leftmost board with fish on it, placing that on the fish space with the eggs. Finally, add the card face-up to the left side of the species board. Then move on to the Feeding Phase.
- For an existing species, just add the card face-up on the left side of the species board. Move on to the Feeding Phase.
- If a card is a Deep Trait Card, you may play it by removing population tokens from your score bag equal to the number in the bottom-left corner and returning them to any Ocean Board then playing the card as normal (on a new or existing species). The Cambrian Explosion must have occurred to play Deep Trait Cards. More on that in a second.
- Migrate: You may, instead of playing Trait Cards to your species, move Fish from one board to another by discarding a Trait Card. The number in the bottom left is how many fish you can move from any one board to any other board. As you might guess, you cannot migrate to or from the Reserve, however. If the chosen board has fewer tokens than you want to move, you may only move that number.
- If you’d like, you may use a Deep Card to migrate after the Cambrian Explosion. If you do, move tokens equal to the card’s cost (in the bottom-left corner).
The Cambrian Explosion
It is possible to activate the Cambrian Explosion as part of a Migrate action during this phase by clearing one of the Ocean Boards for the first time. After the Cambrian Explosion, for the rest of the game all players have 2 Play Cards Actions per turn.
This also allows you to play Deep cards. Some of these cards are Events; pay the cost at the appropriate time (indicated on the card) and then remove the card from the game.
Now to eat, the most important part of both life and this game. Choose one species to take a Feeding Action; they may either Forage or Attack.
No matter what, you must always take as much food as you can; your only limits are available spaces on your Species Board, various card effects, and food tokens available from your Feeding source. Even if you wanted to take less food (perhaps to avoid overpopulation?), you could not.
If you have no Forage / Attack value (all species start at 0), any Forage or Attack action you take will allow you to take 1 population (before card effects are calculated, of course).
To Forage, add up all the green icons on a species and take that number of tokens from the Reef. Place them onto your Species Board. If the Reef is empty, you may not Forage, as you are not allowed to Forage unless you can gain at least 1 population.
To Attack, add up all the red icons on a species and choose another species to attack. You may target your own (the ocean is cruel that way). Remove population tokens equal to your attack value from their Species Board (if there are fewer, remove what you can) and add them to your Species Board. Like Foraging, you must be able to take at least 1 population in order to attack.
Some species have Defensive Traits, or traits with black boxes. These may limit the amount of population you can take (by providing defense, which decreases the number of population your attack takes by that value). If you attack a species with a Defensive Trait, you may not make any more attacks this turn.
Other species may have Gain actions, which are reactive by nature. These are usually activated by other cards effects or actions (such as Shark Cleaner, which gains population when a nearby species attacks). Gains work differently than foraging; they take from the leftmost available pile that isn’t empty (ignoring the Reef entirely).
Finally, some species eat a bit too much; if that happens, they Overpopulate. You’ll know this has occurred when you cover the bones space on your Species Board (meaning the non-bones spaces are also filled). This can happen even if it’s not your turn (thanks, Gains!). Once you’ve resolved the action that caused you to Overpopulate, place population from your species into the Reef until it has 5 remaining on its Species Board. If this happened during your Feeding Phase, that species may not feed again this turn.
Aging is surprisingly straightforward. Move 1 population from each of your species and place it in your score bag. If it has no population to remove, do nothing for it.
Extinction is also surprisingly straightforward; at this point in your turn, any of your species with 0 population go extinct. Discard its Surface Trait Cards; return the Deep Trait Cards to the box. Place the Species Board back in the supply.
The important thing to remember is that this only affects your species on your turn; if another player attacks your species and reduces their population to 0, you can still try to save it during your next Feeding Phase.
Now, you have the opportunity to draw some Deep Cards. As mentioned earlier, they can only be used after the Cambrian Explosion, but they’re all unique and very powerful in the right context. You may do one of two things:
- Draw three Deep cards and keep one. Place the other two on top of any two different Gene Pool piles.
- Take one face-up Deep card from the top of any of the three Gene Pool piles. If you take the last one from a pile, flip the top card of the Deep deck face-up in that spot.
Now, discard as many Surface Cards as you want and draw until you have 7 total cards in hand. Your turn has ended.
One thing that might happen during any phase is that a Scenario Card may activate. For the two center Ocean Boards, if they are ever depleted, their corresponding Scenario becomes active until an action puts fish back onto their Ocean Board. Some are Events, which activate every time the board is depleted; others are ongoing effects, which are in effect as long as their boards are empty. When the first scenario card is activated, the Cambrian Explosion occurs.
End of Game
Once someone dips into the Reserve via a Gain, the end game occurs. The current player completes their turn, and then each player gains a bonus population for each of their surviving species directly into their score bag.
After you’ve scored your surviving species, take all population tokens on their Species Boards and add them to your Score Bag.
- Turn Order: The first player gains 1 point, the second player gains 2, and so on.
- Score Bag: Every population token in your Score Bag is also worth 1 point.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Whew, the major thing you’re going to see is that the game is going to take longer with higher player counts. Evolution’s major issue remains that you kind of need to know what’s going on in other players’ tableaus (because you can affect them), so players need to do a lot of reading. Add in 50 unique cards in the Deep and now you’ve got more cards that everyone should have a basic idea of prior to their turn and it’ll slow down a fair bit. It’s already a bit long when you’re learning how to play at two or three players; I suspect a six-player game could be looking at upwards of two hours, and I’m not about that life. Plus, the chaos increases at higher player counts, and the delicate ecosystem maintenance might not be there in a way that stops players from ganging up on each other (especially since the scores are roughly hidden). At lower player counts, I feel you have a bit more control, so that’s generally where I prefer to keep my plays, all things considered.
- I think Predation is pretty clutch. There are a lot of ways to tear through other players in this game, and it can get kind of aggressive. There are cards in the Deep that let you ignore defensive traits or add overpopulation directly to your bag; both are pretty wild, even moreso when they’re together. I had a setup where my deep sea squidmonster could attack 5 times per turn; every attack after the first skipped my Species Board and went straight to my bag. Got 20 points in one turn off of that. Needless to say, the other players ended the game pretty quickly once that engine started up.
- I think the only way to beat superpredators is to starve them out. You’d basically have to waste a few rounds letting your vulnerable species die out, but it’s possible to focus on one good species and let them stay alive, I think. It’s just hard, since you need the right cards to make it work. The problem is that all other players have to get with it, otherwise the superpredator will just happily eat them, instead. That’s tough to do at higher player counts without actively colluding, which seems against the spirit of the game.
- Know the Deep cards. You should literally look at them before you play; there’s 50, they’re all unique, and knowing what the possibilities are is crucial to forming a strategy.
- Gigantic Brain can work really well with the right setup. If you have an aggressive forager who can’t be attacked but can forage from the Ocean, you can use Gigantic Brain to just add a ton of extra traits onto it and continually cycle them for points. It might be able to outpace a superpredator if you’ve got the right Defensive Traits.
- It’s totally fine to attack your own species. Sometimes it’s the best move, in fact; you may be able to create a symbiosis where your larger species thins the population for your smaller ones, and even smaller ones swoop in to clean up the scraps after the fact. It’s a circle of life, or something like that. Just make sure you don’t do too good of a job.
- You need to get the Cambrian Explosion happening. Otherwise the game just kinda stalls in the early parts; it moves a lot faster once you can drop traits and migrate in a turn, or create new species even more quickly. Players are a bit reluctant to open things up for their opponents, but sometimes you have to do that.
- Never Overpopulate. It’s like, the worst thing you can do, essentially. But making your opponents do it by mistake is often useful…
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is pretty impressive. It’s reminiscent of the classic Evolution, but with even more variety from the Deep Cards. I’m a huge fan of it and I can’t wait to see the final result.
- Still somewhat similar to CLIMATE. It definitely feels like its own distinct thing but they share some similar DNA, which is nice. Makes it easier for me to learn, to be honest.
- I like the simplified Surface Deck. It makes the beginning of the game less complicated for new players, which is always nice.
- I’m actually a fan of hiding scores. On one hand, it encourages ganging up on people with potentially bad information, but on the other it prohibits explicit counting, which is nice. I’ve seen that happen in games before and it’s just … very annoying.
- I love the cards’ potential. There are so many interesting creatures you can create and weird synergies that emerge; this is one of my favorite engine-building games for a reason, and more games in the series is always a delight. The Deep cards especially do not disappoint.
- I love ocean-themed games. Ocean creatures are weird at best, and now you can create them! I love it a lot, and I can sense the game’s joy in its theme as well. It shows in the game, and I appreciate that a lot. It’s an exciting game to play, because of that.
- I actually really like the Scenario Cards? I think they do a super-cool thing and add a lot of rewarding variability to the game, especially since you can shut them off or turn them back on with various card effects after they’ve been activated. The choice about which one to have on and which one to leave off (or both on / off) is usually an interesting one, and clever manipulation of those cards can be a good strategy in it of itself.
- A fair number of Scenarios just extend the length of the game. They add defense, slow down gains, things like that. I haven’t played with all of them, but it would be nice to have some ways to make the game a bit shorter, especially since I still don’t have a good read on how long it takes.
- Some sort of automatic migration might have been a bit nice. It incentivizes predation because nobody wants to be the person who fills the Reef, feeds on it, and then immediately gets attacked. If the Reef or the Oceans worked on cycles or something, it would be more about making sure you could capitalize on the timing, which is more my speed.
- There are … a lot of fish tokens. In kinda-similar colors, too; there’s easily 200 in the box, and sometimes that number mildly matters. Hope you enjoy rough estimates of large quantities!
- This is much more conflict-oriented than CLIMATE. In CLIMATE, there are a lot of ways to ward off predators, mostly via Body Size; in Oceans, there is no such luxury. You either need defense cards (which aren’t terribly common / can be almost or entirely ineffectual against Deep cards) or to hope that eventually the superpredator gets overstuffed, which is sort of macabre and inefficient simultaneously. I’m not a huge direct conflict person, but I would love a version with a bit less fighting.
- That direct conflict means that the game becomes a complex balancing act at higher player counts. If you don’t know who the leader is, you may be ganging up on a player and inadvertently helping another. That’s never a great feeling (or a particularly effective way to play the game). I find this tend to lead to not-great behaviors with some of my game groups, whereas in CLIMATE most of the conflict is around fighting over scarce resources.
- You need to know the Deep cards. If you don’t know what cards are in the Deep, you’re at a fairly significant disadvantage as far as planning is concerned. They’re game-changers, quite frequently, but most players aren’t going to read through 50 cards before the game starts. This means that they end up reading through them as they pop up, so they don’t get the advantage of being able to plan for them and it slows the game to a crawl. Neither of those things is a particularly good outcome for everyone.
- Some parts of the game just … feel clunky. There are a few things, like the game feeling a bit slow until the Cambrian Explosion or the rules around Defensive Traits that could use some streamlining. I’m hoping that these things will be ironed out before the final copy arrives for players (and I’ll be excited to try the final version), but I am reviewing the game as it currently is. A number of my players struggled with turn order and understanding all of the symbology; I think the game has a steeper learning curve than CLIMATE, which may appeal to the heavier gaming crowd.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I’m still pretty excited about Oceans! Like I said, some parts of the game feel a bit clunky, yes, but I’m super excited about another game in the Evolution series and this one doesn’t disappoint; it just takes some getting used to. These are always kind of interestingly tough reviews to write; there are a lot of things I’m really excited about, like new combinations of cards or the new game system, but there are also things that I’m not as enthused about, like the fairly lengthy playtime or the seemingly increased focus on combat and take-that predation. Thankfully, for instance, if someone attacks you, you can get most of your population back by attacking them the next turn, if you can, so there are multiple different ways to solve the issues that I have. If you’re a fan of the series, though, there’s a lot to look forward to! I particularly like the idea of the scenario cards being toggleable; you can turn them off or on when you want to, especially if it’ll help you or hurt your opponents. I am, for the purposes of this review, assuming a few of the rougher edges will be smoothed out by the time it hits retail. Either way, though, I’m definitely looking forward to playing it again. If you’re a long-time fan of Evolution, this is a similar game with some wildly new approaches that are quite interesting, and if you’re new to the series it’s not a bad place to dive right into, if you’re okay with a game that can potentially run a bit longer. I’ve had a lot of fun with Oceans, and for fans of engine-building with a predator / prey spin, I’d recommend checking it out!