Disclaimer: This review is from a review copy of the game that was provided by North Star Games to Open Seat Gaming, but opinions are our own based on several plays of the game.
Publisher: North Star Games
Design: Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Brian O’Neill
Art: Guillaume Ducos, Catherine Hamilton
Mechanisms: Hand management
Number of Players: 2 – 4
Game Time: 60 – 90 minutes
Description: Oceans is a standalone game in North Star Games’ Evolution line and sees players evolving aquatic species with traits, gaining and aging population, and experimenting with crazy mutations from the Deep!
Players begin the game by being dealt 6 cards from the Surface traits deck (which has basic traits) and shuffling the Deep traits deck and revealing 2 cards. Two random scenario cards are dealt to the trays over oceans 1 and 2, and the Cambrian Explosion card is placed on the bottom of the ocean 1 tray area. Population tokens (based on player count) are distributed roughly evenly between the reef and 3 ocean zones, with some population then migrated from the first two ocean zones to the reef by discarding the top card from the Surface deck and checking its migrate number.
Play then begins and continues in rounds. Each turn, a player plays 1 card and feeds 1 species. Cards can be played either to add traits to existing species, begin a new species with a trait, or migrate population from one area to another. Species can feed either by foraging or attacking. Some traits give species the ability to gain population when certain game effects happen, and this doesn’t count as your 1 feeding per turn.
After feeding, your species age by losing 1 population each. You place the aged population behind your player screen as part of your score (and also to potentially spend to play Deep cards later in the game). You then draw back up to 6 cards from either the Deep cards available or the top of either trait deck.
Once the first ocean zone is empty of tokens, the Cambrian Explosion triggers and changes the rest of the game. Post-explosion, players play 2 cards per turn, Deep cards can be played, and species age 2 population each instead of 1. Also, while the first and/or second ocean zones are empty of tokens, their Scenario cards are active. If tokens are later moved back into those zones, the Scenario cards deactivate, and then reactivate again once the zone is again empty.
Play continues until all 3 ocean zones are empty of population tokens, at which time a Reserve of tokens is added to the third ocean zone, and the current round is finished (so that every player plays the same number of turns). Players then calculate their final scores and the player with the most points wins!
Review: I first played the Evolution series with Climate, which I really enjoy. The tug of war on the climate track, and the random events that can trigger accordingly, really adds another layer of depth to the basic Evolution formula. While Climate is more of a linear progression on the base Evolution mechanics, Oceans is like a sequel that goes in a different direction. If y’all have played Manhattan Project and Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, Oceans is the Energy Empire to Evolution’s Manhattan Project.
You still have the basics of trait cards and evolving species, but the core of Oceans is quite different. There is no more “body size” for species, only population. Also you don’t add food to the watering hole anymore: instead there are a predetermined number of population tokens based on player count (at 3 players it’s 120) split between the 4 zones, and you manipulate their locations as species feed and remove tokens over the course of the game. The scenario cards add a level of strategy similar to the climate track and events from Climate, but are included from the get-go (even if you’re playing the “Reef Variant,” which is the introductory Oceans game).
Oceans feels like they took the core of Evolution, streamlined it (like having certain stats printed in color-coded symbols on the cards, so you can just add them up to find out what your attack or forage amount is, etc.), and then took it up several notches with the Deep cards, and I love that. While you can play Oceans without the Deep cards (via the Reef Variant), we found that there’s so much more to it if you use them.
The Deep cards are a deck of completely unique cards that you have to pay population you’ve already scored in order to play, and can’t be played until after the Cambrian Explosion has occurred. Some of them are upgraded versions of the basic traits from the Surface deck, but the majority are completely new and frequently crazy. Want to make your species a colossus? There’s a Deep card for that!
Stacking bonus traits and lining up the adjacency arrows to trigger cascading chains of bonuses is very much still present in Oceans, and has led to some pretty crazy turns when we’ve played. It’s fun when 1 species feeds and it triggers 4 other species to gain population as well. And the wealth of strategy in finding combos within both the Surface traits as well as the Deep traits cannot be overstated. It makes for a surprisingly deep and thinky experience.
Try, Buy, Deny: If you’ve played an Evolution game before and enjoyed it, then I would definitely recommend Oceans as a buy to you. Actually, I would recommend it as a buy for most people, as with the Reef Variant it’s a good entry into the Evolution series’ main mechanics and engine. It’s also just a really good game. Oceans is a great evolution (teehee) of the Evolution series.