I’m not much into what happens below the Oceans. My wife constantly tells me I don’t eat enough fish. Additionally, I’m still recovering from the shock of the Shark I encountered 10 years ago on my only attempt at snorkelling. (It was only a foot long but I think the googles distorted it.)
It was with some trepidation then that I approached Oceans by NorthStar Games, the latest in their Evolution series. Having not played any of the previous games and with no interest in the theme was this going to sink without a trace? (sorry, won’t happen again)
Diving Right In
Oceans is a card drafting, engine building, fish munching game. Each player builds a sea creature from various fishy attributes. These creatures then fight over a central resource of smaller fishies or attempt to snack on each other. The central resource here is a series of containers representing ever deeper areas of the titular Ocean(s). The hundreds of little fishes act both a timer to limit the length.
Each game of Oceans takes places over a number of rounds and is very straightforward. Play a card from your hand of six, either creating a new species or adding the card to an existing one. Then, take an action. Either play in the friendly paddling pool of the reef or attempt to munch on another fish. Without card effects getting in the way, this is a simple process of taking a number of fish from the reef equal to your forage level. Or alternatively, from another fish equal to your attack value. After this, you discard cards and redraw to six.
A Mile Wide But Still Quite Deep?
So, seemingly an Ocean as deep as a puddle then? Not quite, for this game has quite a few wrinkles to keep things interesting. Firstly, the cards themselves. In Oceans you are drawing from a shared deck of cards that define your fishy friends. It’s important to keep an eye on your opponents as the game progresses.
In an excellent design decision, the board wraps around left and right to other players. In a two-player game, for example, the left side of your fishy tableau connects to the right of your opponent and vice versa. Perhaps your opponent has a fearsome Apex predator. That could be a tricky situation if they can constantly eat up all the food from your Filter Feeders population. But, you could play a Bottom Feeder fish down that feeds when the attack happens negating any real advantage. A game of Oceans is made of tiny little decisions like this as your species struggle for dominance.
The other great touch in the basic rules is that each fish species in Oceans has a food tracker that can hold ten fish. Each turn you take a fish off in the process of ageing, this goes straight behind your personal screen and is your score at the end of the game. If you go to take a fish off the species and there isn’t one then it goes extinct and is removed from the board. If however, you place a tenth fish on a species then you overpopulate and disease strikes. You would then lose half of your population. This system stops a strategy of putting all your caviar in one basket. It also makes it tricksy to create your engine of multiple symbiotic fishes.
Depth Of Play
Ok, so that’s a game of reasonable depth. Not quite Marianna trench level here but certainly a decent sized lake. Ah, but we have the biggest twist in the tail to come. Oceans pulls off a fantastic trick that evolves it into a game of greater depth than something like Wingspan. Now I like Wingspan as a game, it’s relaxed, pretty and has lots of nice decisions to make based on its objective cards. Oceans meanwhile, has objective cards but uses them in a very different way.
When the first level of the Ocean is emptied of little fishes the game enters the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion is a real period of history. Species proliferated and changed faster than ever before. The pace of play quickens as you play two cards a turn and gain access to new more powerful cards from the Deep.
Each time these levels of the ocean become depopulated an event card is triggered. This changes the game mechanics. Sometimes these are subtle, just making some types of cards more effective. Other times these cards can completely up-end the game, forcing faster ageing of species and changing the way you have to play. Even better the glorious Deep cards that are introduced add massive variety to the game. \you can draft one each turn and playing it costs the fish which are your victory points.
It’s a decision as delicious as a slice of curried Monkfish. You have to weigh up the long term benefits against the short term costs. It’s also a decision you’ll enjoy as the favour of each card is excellent. With tentacles, advanced eyes and sharp teeth abound, and each card is individually illustrated with great style.
Oceans offers us a game of great depth. It is not the simplest game to teach and, appropriate for a game of this theme the direct aggression between players gives the game a lot of bite which many players might find too confrontational.
In summing up though I would, again, compare this game to Wingspan. Wingspan has, for me at least, a much more appealing theme and artwork but I’d much rather spend some time swimming with Oceans. It’s a game with great adherence to its theme, good strategies and tactics at 2 or more players and plenty to think about on every turn.
Do yourself a favour and dive in. (sorry, not sorry)