Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Oceans’ Is An Engaging Deep Dive Into Maritime Strategy

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Let’s delve this week into another piece of educational gaming with Oceans, a recent hit from North Star Games Studio that hopes to make the process of evolution under the sea a little bit easier to understand. Designer Dominic Crapuchettes, who is also the North Star founder, grew up on a beach in Alaska and eventually ran a boat, and you can see quite a lot of his love for the sea in the design for this game as well as the new branding for North Star. They’ve also been successful recently with Paint The Roses and Evolution, a game I love that in many ways Oceans is almost a sequel to. With a brand new Kickstarter ongoing for the Legends of the Deep expansion, North Star was nice enough to send me a copy of the game and a demo of the expansion so I could finally check it out!

What’s In The Box?

Standard Edition

  • 120 Surface Cards
  • 89 Deep Cards
  • 200 Cardboard Fish Tokens
  • 25 Scenario Cards
  • 24 Species Boards
  • 1 Reef Board
  • 1 Ocean Board
  • 4 Player Screens
  • 4 Bonus Tokens
  • 1 Cambrian Explosion Card

Deluxe Edition

  • 200 Deluxe Acrylic Fish
  • 4 Deluxe Printed Score Bags
  •  7 Deep cards
  • 7 Promo Deep cards
  • 8 Promo Deep event cards
  • 15 Promo Scenario cards

The game is absolutely stunning no matter how you get it, thanks to the vibrant art from Guillaume Ducos and Catherine Hamilton. You can even choose which cover to display based on which you prefer.

Oceans Deluxe Edition Contents

When it comes to choosing between the two editions (or the legendary edition in the Kickstarter), I’d spring for the Deluxe. It’s not too much more expensive than the base game, and that extra twenty or so dollars gets you some great extra content AND really swag upgrades to the fish and the bags.

How’s It Play?

Oceans deluxe fish and reef
Image via North Star Game Studios

Oceans is sort of a remix of North Star’s previous game Evolution, being a more focused take on the concept incorporating a few years of experience and feedback. Like in Evolution, players are all playing as one or more species of undersea critter, eating, growing, and changing over time to adapt to the changes of the ecosystem. Each species has a series of traits that modify the way that it plays and the strategy needed to survive. You play these cards and can mix and match as needed, or use them to instead migrate a species to a different area.

Some of the trait cards of Oceans
Some of the trait cards of Oceans

After you’ve evolved and migrated, you must feed! Feeding is dependent on several factors, the most important one being whether a species needs to forage or attack (so basically herbivore or carnivore). Foragers have the benefit of more food options and don’t require other populations to do so, but Attacking fish get a bit more bang for their buck when it comes to the food. Building the perfect hunter or perfect defender is a key part of gameplay here. Traits can either be surface traits or, in the Deluxe version, more complicated Deep cards.

After feeding, your species will Age and, if the population isn’t big enough to sustain for long, it will go extinct. In some ways the game is like Small World with fish.

A few traits in play near a species board in Oceans
A few traits in play near a species board

A few other hiccups complicate the fairly straightforward gameplay. First off, there’s the scenario cards, two of which are used every game. These scenarios shape each game and help ensure that no two games of Oceans are the same.Some make things more aggressive, some make things more complicated, and some are special events that have game changing effects at certain times. Players also need to plan around the Cambrian Explosion, a real life piece of biological history that in this game makes you play more, score more, and have more opportunities for strategy.

Legends Of The Deep

Oceans legends of the deep art

So let’s talk about the most exciting part of all this! Legends of the Deep is the first big expansion for Oceans, and it takes a bit of a hard shift out of the scientific and into the beautifully fantastic. The new cards are powerful entities that are played similar to traits, but they can affect more than just one species at a time. They draw on the maritime myths of cultures all over the world, representing not just the usual Sirens and Cthulhus but also Japan’s Umibozu or the Songhai Zin Kibaru. Each one is lavishly illustrated by an artist from the represented culture. That’s a level of detail that’s utterly fantastic for a board game, and it shows just how much North Star cares about making their games the best they can.

The Verdict?

Oceans has been a big hit for North Star, and even with a COVID-19 release has gotten a lot of attention for its easy to learn gameplay and deep (heh) strategy. And that was clear in my playing of it. People can pick this game up fast but it might take a bit for the true possibilities to unfold. There’s no clear “dominant” strategy, and the random aspects of the game mean that you won’t see people playing the same way each time. You can experiment, let species go extinct, try other things, then move on.

Like similar aquatic game The Spill, it’s an educational game that helps illustrate things like overpopulation, biological niches, adaptation, and the way our strangest and most mysterious creatures came to be. But also like The Spill, it’s just a super fun game that would be right at home on the game shelf as it is in the classroom.

You can grab the Standard and Deluxe Editions of Oceans from the North Star Games Studio Shop, Amazon, or your FLGS, at an MSRP of $54.99 and $84.99, respectively. The Kickstarter for Oceans: Legends of the Deep is ongoing for the next few weeks, with the expansion pledging at $21 and the Legendary Edition
(which adds the expansion, the solo expansion, promos, and a custom game trayz insert) going for $85.

Images via North Star Games Studios and the BBC

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