Oceans Review

Going scuba diving was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It’s at once impossibly serene, a blanket of subaqueous white noise and brilliant sights, everything moving in rhythm with an invisible tidal dance, and terrifyingly dangerous. You’re an alien in that space, an unnatural observer kept alive through mechanical trickery. The first rule of scuba diving is to keep breathing. Something about such a foreign context necessitates this terrifying instruction. If you breathe too much you’ll use up your oxygen too quickly and need to surface early. The right amount of breathing, then, is required, and all of a sudden you’re focusing on actively not dying more than you ever have. What I’m saying is that it’s a novel experience.

I suppose I live in a context—in a developed country in the 21st century—where I actively think about not dying less than anyone else in the history of the world. COVID aside, and speaking broadly, I live in the most peaceful, prosperous, technologically advanced time in all of history. I don’t have to worry about wild animals or hypothermia or where I’m going to get water. This represents an incredible achievement of dominance over the mercilessness of nature, to the point where, when I think about the word “nature”, I think about serenity and peace rather than cold cruelty.

Oceans understands the beauty and cruelty of nature. Its colorful, vibrant palette disguises just how much of a vicious grind it can be to play. Ostensibly you’re collecting a variety of aquatic creatures in a tableau. In reality you’re doing your best to keep your tableau from disintegrating at the hands of your opponents.

I don’t remember the original Evolution game particularly well, but I recall I found it compelling but a touch stale. I suspected that it worked best with a group dedicated to playing it frequently, but none of us wanted to do that so it sort of slipped out of rotation. Oceans is significantly more entertaining for the low-skilled player, mostly due to the second half switcheroo where all of a sudden turns get double actions and brand new, super powerful cards become available.

The tableau building of Oceans reminds me a bit of Martin Wallace’s London 2e, insofar as you want a large tableau in order to score more aggressively but the game actively pushes against expansion. In London those counter-forces are mechanical, while in Oceans they mostly come in the form of opponent aggression.

See, fish need to eat, and food in Oceans comes in the form of little fish tokens which populate in both “the reef” and the deeper ocean. If you’ve got a fish to feed, you can either gather food from the reef or from any other fish species in play. Once you’ve got those tokens in your fish’s belly they trickle into points for you at a rate of 1/turn. 

Of course, the incentive to attack is strong. All else equal, taking food from your opponent is strictly better than grabbing it from a neutral source. By doing so you both deprive them of potential points and threaten to cause their species to go extinct (which happens if you are unable to score from a species during your turn). Since you can only feed one of your species each turn, if you begin the turn with multiple species empty of fish you’re either going to lose one of them or you’ve got to figure out a non-feeding way of staying alive.

This is where evolution comes into play. Each turn you’ll get to play up to one trait card from hand to either start a new species or modify one you’ve already got. These cards are the core of the game, as players evolve and adapt in a sort of mutation dance. Each species is so fragile that the adaptation game isn’t just reacting to new threats, but anticipating the threats before they even arise. This creates a fascinating tempo battle, because if you preemptively build up, say, defense in anticipation of predatory adaptations, that might cause the player who was going to evolve aggressively to change their mind and advance in a different direction. Now your defensive trait is sitting there doing nothing and your opponent lands a free tempo on you. This would be a problem with the game if it wasn’t happening to everyone all of the time.

The game only has 12 different types of “surface” cards, used primarily in the first half of the game, so, with the help of a reference, you’re pretty easily able to understand the scope of potentialities. But the deep lurks, ever-present, and the moment a particular ocean segment is devoid of fish tokens the Cambrian Explosion tosses the game into overdrive. On top of doubling the number of trait cards you can play and increasing how many points you can score from each species you own, the post-explosion world allows the play of “deep” cards. They’re each unique, and range from helpful to stupid powerful, though each one costs points to play. Oceans comes alive in this phase, to the point where I’ve gotten in the (sloppy) habit of trying to accelerate its start even if it doesn’t seem strategically sound. It’s so much more bold than the first half of the game that it would feel tonally out of place if not for the fact that you can collect deep cards throughout the entire game, signaling your end game strategies to your opponents.

This takes the “react before it happens” theme of Oceans to new heights. If you aggressively draw deep cards in the early game you both signal information to your opponent and, due to hand limits, stifle your flexibility in the present. However, you also get to these potentially game-winning cards before anyone else. It’s a subtle tradeoff and it might be my favorite mechanism in the game.

Even with the added chaos of the deep cards, I suspect, like its predecessors, Oceans thrives once you really understand the card base and can readily understand the implications of all the card movement going on. The strategic complexities in how the cards interact with each other are somewhat lost on me, I think, and I never want to put in the effort to think through it all too much lest I grind the game down to a halt. I could be convinced to dive in (heh) to try to reach this level of play, but something’s holding me back. 

I think I appreciate Oceans as a design more than I enjoy playing it. I can’t quite get past the tonal dissonance inherent in the subject. It’s thematic that the game looks serene but is actually brutal, certainly, but some part of me wants to sit in my corner and make cool fish, undisturbed. The problem is that aggression in Oceans feels so personal. Not in a “why did you attack me?!” way, because everyone’s attacking everyone, but in a “this is my fish I’ve grown and nurtured over the last 10 minutes and you just caused it to die off the face of the earth” sort of way.

Oceans stands in contrast to Dominant Species, another brutal game of evolution, in its sense of scale. Jensen’s masterpiece is played out on a tectonic level, as climate shifts and the earth shakes and groans. Your animals are mere cubes, killed and tossed about by an incoming ice age, supervolcanoes, and deadly diseases. 

Oceans seems to take place at a single reef. The scale is off. It feels like a handful too-rapidly mutating fish are bickering with each other rather than an epic conflict of biological progression over millions of years. This is a minor complaint, to be sure, as Oceans engages with its ideas on a much higher level than most games. The micro-theming here is spot on and often a joy to discover. But the fact that someone killing off one of my species feels more like a targeted stabbing rather than collateral in a global conflict gets under my skin a bit.

Still, there is so much to like about Oceans. The production from North Star is spot-on. Discovering all of the deep cards is enough to keep the casual player (like me) coming back.  It’s an intelligent design with depth and layers; a game designed to be played many times, not merely a couple. 

Just when I thought such games were going extinct.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Score: 7.5/10

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