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Oceans Review

oceans

I went scuba diving in the Maldives years ago. And the world under the waves was like nothing I had ever seen before. The colours, the textures, the tastes….. (okay so I shouldn’t have had my mouth open, but sharks were about, and bubbles were coming in and out!). Not a massive fan of getting wet all over all at once, however, Oceans looked like it might deliver the same visual wonder. And do you know what? It does a mighty fin job!

Underwater Evolution

Now, I haven’t played the other games in the Evolution series by North Star Games. They look gorgeous though, and are on my wish list to try. But I have a feeling I might have been spoiled going straight in with Oceans. Because this is one beautiful engine builder about surviving in our mysterious underwater world!

Fish Food

Oceans is a turn based card based game. In it, you are basically trying to encourage your species to eat for England! Eat so they can grow stronger and older! Eat so they can fend off predators! Eat so they can use their newly found vim to withstand disruptions caused by other players! Under the waves, everything that is not you is basically trying to kill you! But if you can stop staring at the gorgeous illustrations for a second, you’ll notice that species can adapt in special, survival supporting ways.

Play.Feed.Age.Discard.Repeat

Played in two halves, your first underwater task is to establish some aquatic beauties using Surface cards. Yes, it’s round one and time to start building those engines. Each turn in a given round, you’ll be adapting existing/adding new species to your play area.

Surface cards are how you adapt – they add super thematic and specific traits to your species, or become new species themselves. You can tack on aggressive powers and turn your Apex Predator into an even speedier, scarier teeth gnashing, carnivorous fish feeder. Or you can boost defensive powers and help protect your adjacent species from attacks when your opponent tries to make waves in your eco-system. You’ll potentially still lose fish, but not as many as if you were completely unprotected! And development a massive part of ensuring your watery world works – synergising species with complimentary traits so that you can go forth and prosper amongst the porpoises and puffa fish in the second half!

Then you are feeding one species of your choice by foraging for fish from the Reef, or by attacking and chomping up an opponent’s fish!. Each species can hold a certain number of fish (which may be affected by traits added to it). Beware, however, as too many fish are going to come back to bite you. Overpopulate and you have to discard down (unless you have a trait that overrides that effect!).

Finally, you age every species you have by transferring one fish token from each of your species into your score pile. In Oceans, fish is ultimately your scoring fodder. If your species have evolved and survived long enough to eat fish, they “age” on your turn. This means you can move a fish they have each been feeding on into your score pile. But if they can’t grow older, they go extinct!

But wait? Is that it? We get a free pass to rev our underwater engines and crank out species that eat or be eaten? Nope! In each game, there are also scenarios (beneficial and destructive) that affect game play, so no getting too comfortable feeding and fighting!

The round continues like this until all the fishies in the Reef and first ocean zone are gone…..

Kaboombrian Explosion

Then…….suddenly something called the Cambrian Explosion happens. And boy does it happen! Kaboombrian Explosion more like! Once that first ocean is empty and the Cambrian Explosion card comes out, we are now ageing twice as fast and playing 2 cards on a turn. Not only that but we are adding mega muscle in the form of powerful Deep cards. Deep cards are available to pick up in the first half too (drawing three and keeping one each time), but they won’t really do anything until this point except take up hand space. But, having said that, having certain ones ready as your species are evolving could make banking some deliciously devilish Deep cards worth it!

Whilst the Surface cards are a small bijou collection that you’ll quickly become familiar with as base species and traits, the Deep cards are literally game and momentum changing. They offer more than 100 different ways to beef up your evolving species, and cause serious havoc for fellow ocean dwellers! You have to pay their cost from your score pile, but it’s almost always worth it. The sea just got rough, and you need to swim head on into the oncoming chaos!

Final Thoughts

This is a beautiful game – football fans are chanting about the wrong thing entirely! And it’s also beautiful in its simplicity:strategy:replayability ratio. The order and limit of actions per turn are simple and do not change. BUT, because of the myriad ways in which you can each create and evolve your species, every game is going to be an opportunity to try a unique strategy. It’s going to take time for us to get familiar with all the ways we can combo things together, and luck of the draw does impact. But there are ways to mitigate, and so far we like what we see!

Synergising and synchronising different traits and using Deep cards in new and effective ways is thinky and fun. The salty strategies we adopt are going to be different every time we hit the water!

I feel I was initially quite hesitant about using the parasitic trait. Like I was shooting myself in the flipper when sucking fish off another of my own cards. Leeching also created the same watery wobble for me. But as part of an overall strategy, they have an extremely useful and powerful place. And that’s because reallocating fish across your species is key. Having empty tums is going to be fast track to losing them. So having a few that forage greedily plus making use of adjacency and the way the cards effectively wrap around the players is a critical part of every strategy. Being able to predict how to adapt is going to get you further than waiting for the attacks to drop! But then, not all assumptions play out, and being left with a bunch of traits and Deep cards that do nothing is real caviar on face time!

We also really like the direct interaction. I know 2 Player can feel sometime feel too personal for some gamers, but being able to attack each other and wreck a killer whale combo plays right into our happy-mean place! We like games with big bite and don’t let the pretty colours in Oceans fool you. There are definitely some sharp teeth in there. With more players though, the pain can be shared out, I’m sure. At the moment, Oceans is one of our longer play time games – coming in at 1 1/4+ hours.

We are both experiencing a little early AP over the choice of traits and deep cards and that slow engine crank is stretching out the game play. But, the up-shift the Cambrian Explosion creates in terms of moving the game along faster is very apparent and a welcome effect. And with familiarity will no doubt come speed. Plus more frequent use of the migration power of each card to empty ocean zones faster should also make the game more pacey. But even if it doesn’t. Even if we luxuriate in the water like we do in the habitats of Wingspan or amidst the spires of the Red Cathedral, Oceans has its place on our table for sure!