I first discovered the game Evolution as a low-budget Russian game designed by Dmitry Knorre and Sergey Machin and published 10 years ago by Rightgames. It was a little rough round the edges but I was taken with the idea of using cards to represent the evolution of species and the competition between them for food. I loved the game even more when Dominic Crapuchettes added his take on the original design in the edition published by North Star Games in 2014. The North Star edition boasted great art and high production values, and helped to make Evolution a modern classic.
Since then, the game has had several tweaks and expansions, along with a new standalone edition, Evolution: Climate, which was published in 2016. You need then to think of Oceans as the latest instalment in the evolution of Evolution. It's designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Nick Bentley and Brian O'Neill and it's sure to bring out your inner David Attenborough.
In this standalone game, you'll be evolving aquatic creatures. Each turn, you'll add a card either to add a trait to one of your existing species or to start off a new species. One of your species will feed and all will age (the population will be reduced and the tokens that are removed are added to your scoring pile). You'll need to keep a constant watchful eye on the traits of your opponents' species because some species will be predators that feed on others rather than on the general food supply in the reef; so you'll maybe look to develop traits that make you a target that is harder to digest. And even species that feed from the reef will be in competition as the food supply runs down... As in Evolution, position relative to other species is important: certain traits directly affect or are influenced by the species (your own or an opponent's) immediately to the left or right.
The sea is divided into different zones. Non-predator species mostly take food from the reef so players will need to migrate fodder from other zones to the reef as supplies are depleted. This is done by using cards for their secondary ability instead of using them as traits. When the first Ocean zone is empty, it triggers the Cambrian explosion. This mirrors the evolutionary event 540 million years ago that accelerated evolution and resulted in a dramatic increase in animal diversity. In game terms, it doubles the number of cards played each turn and the rate at which species 'age'. It also allows players to utilise deepwater cards. These are much more powerful than the shallow water cards that everyone starts off with. After the Cambrian Explosion has been triggered, they can be added as traits, albeit that you have to pay their extra cost by sacrificing tokens you've previously taken to score... To add variety to every game, scenario cards are randomly allocated to two of the ocean zones. These are rule changing events that become active when their ocean zones are empty. You may find yourself using a card for its migration effect with the deliberate aim of switching one of the scenario cards on or off...
As we've come to expect, the art in this game is fantastic. Guillaume Ducos and Catherine Hamilton have created glorious illustrations, and every card in the deep water deck has unique art. North Star have knocked the ball out of the park with the production of Oceans, tho' the small screens designed to hide your scoring tokens from public view are a little skimpy: we miss the bags for tokens that we had in Evolution.
Oceans has a charm of its own. You need to think of it not as a reskin of Evolution but as a sister game with its own very distinct characteristic and feel: it's certainly not just more of the same. The game is not hard to learn but there's nonetheless ample scope for strategy. Your species will be severely penalised for overpopulation, so you need to ensure a certain equilibrium. The species that are all in play will constantly be in interaction with each other, so when I add a trait to one of my species, it may well have a knock-on effect on the entire ecosystem. If it weren't off-theme, you could describe this as the butterfly effect. Just don't expect Oceans to be a genteel swim. It may not have Evolution in the title but it's still a 'take that' game predicated on the survival of the fittest.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)