A to Z Gaming: Oceans

We evolved exotic ocean life in Oceans, the next game in our A-Z game shelf play-through.

Basic Info: Oceans
Players: 2-4
Time: 60-90 Minutes
Designers: Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Brian O’Neill
Artists: Guillaume Ducos, Catherine Hamilton
Publisher: North Star Games

In Oceans, players manage an ecosystem of a variety of underwater creatures, by developing new species, evolving them, and creating an engine to feed as many of them as possible. Whoever creates the most robust set of creatures that can feed without overpopulating and while collecting the most population over the course of the game, wins.

The game is set up with the reef and ocean trays in the middle of the table, and the stack of species boards nearby. Two scenario cards are chosen at random and placed in the first two slots in the ocean tray. The Cambrian Explosion card is also placed in the first slot of the ocean tray. Then a number of fish tokens, depending on player count, are roughly divided between the reef and each of the sections of the ocean. The top card of the surface deck is turned face up into a discard pile, and a number of fish tokens equal to its migration number are moved from the reef to the third (deepest) ocean spot.

The surface cards are shuffled and a hand of six are given to each player. The deep cards are shuffled, and two are placed face up to create discard piles. Players each get either a shield or a bag to keep their population tokens hidden throughout the game. The first player is chosen, and tokens are given out based on player order with additional game-end points.

Each player’s turn has four phases: Playing Cards, Feeding, Aging, and Drawing Cards.

During the Playing Cards phase, they play 1 or 2 cards (depending on whether or not the Cambrian Explosion has triggered yet) from their hand. The card can be played to create a new species, in which case the player takes a new species board, placed it in front of them — it can go between any existing species or to the right or left of all their species, but once the position is set, the species can’t be moved. The card they play becomes a trait on that species and is placed to the left of the species board. The card can instead be played as a new trait on existing species, though any given species can’t have more than three traits (unless one of their traits specifies otherwise). Finally, they can play the card to migrate fish between any one of the reef or three ocean spots to another location. The card shows how many population migrates in the lower left corner.

Players can not play Deep cards until the Cambrian Explosion has triggered. These are played just a little differently, if they’re played as traits. In that case, the player must pay for the card using population they have collected through the game. The cost is equal to the migration number at the lower left of the card. The population all goes into either Reef or any single Ocean zone. The card can be played to migrate population as normal, but then the card goes out of the game, rather than simply being discarded to the Deep discard piles.

During the Feeding phase, players choose one of their species to feed. That species can either forage from the reef or attack another species. If they forage, they count up all of the numbers in the green circles on traits of that species and take that many population from the reef. If there aren’t that many in the reef, the species can only take as many as are present (unless specific traits break this rule). If they attack, they sum up the numbers in the red diamonds on traits. They choose another species to attack and take that many population from that other species, minus any defense the species might have (indicated by numbers in a yellow shell icon). Regardless of the feeding mechanism, the new population is placed on the feeding species. If this triggers an overpopulation (i.e. if all of the spaces are filled up), the species suffers and loses half of its population to the reef.

Feeding may also trigger other abilities around the table. All of the species on the table form an ecosystem with each players’ species adjacent to the species of players to their right and left. Some traits on others’ species can be triggered by feeding, including leaching, symbiotic feeding, and “cleaners.” These are all resolved for each feeding before play moves on.

Next, during the Aging phase, the player takes 1 or 2 (if the Cambrian Explosion has triggered) population off of *each* of their species. If they need to take a population off and can’t, that species goes extinct — the traits are discarded and the species board goes back to the supply.

Finally the player Draws Cards. The player may draw one Deep card, either from the two that are face-up or by taking 3 from the top of the deck, keeping one and discarding the other two, one on top of each of the two discard piles. Then they may discard as many Surface cards from their hand as they want and finally draw back up to a hand of 6 cards from the Surface deck.

If at anytime the first or second ocean zones empties of population, the scenario cards in those zones activate. The timing and effects of those cards vary — some are ongoing effects that are active as long as that zone is empty while others trigger once each time the zone empties out. Through migrations and extinctions, these zones can empty out, refill, and empty out again several times during the game.

The game end is triggered once all of the population is gone from the reef and all three ocean zones. The Reserve population tokens are then added to the third ocean zone and play continues until everyone has had equal turns.

Then, players count up how many population they have collected through the game — the ones hidden in their bag or behind their shield and the ones on their current species. The player with the most accumulated population wins!

I actually first heard about Oceans when I saw a call for play testers on the North Star Twitter feed. After applying (there were a LOT of volunteers), I was chosen as one of the official play testers. So, between November 2018 and January 2019, my game group played through it 15 times, providing feedback for each play and learning a few rules tweaks each month.

I really like the puzzle that Oceans presents — because you are only feeding one species each turn, but aging all of your species, you need to figure out how to keep all of your species going through symbiosis or other means. While the theme and some of the game elements feel familiar to the earlier Evolution, the game itself feels quite different because of this puzzle.

The one problem I’ve had playing the final, published game is that there are still a few rules in my head from our earlier play tests. Of course, that’s not the fault of the game! It’s just a little extra challenge for me and my game group to make sure we’re playing by the right rules.

How is it as a 2-player game? Oceans is okay as a 2-player game, but because of the connected ecosystem, I definitely prefer it with more players.

How about the art and component quality? The components are really good quality, though I did get the deluxe version from the Kickstarter, so I’m not sure how the “regular” version compares. The cards came with sleeves, with different back for the Deep cards versus the Surface cards. The plastic fish look great in the Reef and on the species cards. There are some scenario cards that are holographic, and I find these a little harder to read, but they do look cool. The art is amazing, as usual for the Evolution games, and I particularly love the underwater theme.

Will this stay in my collection? Yes! I really enjoy this game, and I would probably keep this over Evolution, if I ever had to make that choice.

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