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Four years ago, we raised a bunch of money to make a video game version of our strategy game Evolution. Evolution is a super-thematic game where you evolve species by giving them traits, to help them adapt and survive in an ever-changing ecosystem:
We've had 5 people working full time on the video game for these last 4 years. That may sound like overkill, but there's a reason: our goal is to make the best digital board game on Earth. The project's a failure if we don't blow the doors off.
The game has launched today (worldwide on Steam, iOS, and Android), and we're certain we hit our mark (we delayed this launch like 5 times to make sure of it).
Wise readers will be (and should be) skeptical of such claims, because companies crow so much about how awesome they are, even when they aren't.
So, to induce you to see for yourself, we're giving away 1000 copies of the Evolution board game to people who try the video game ($40,000 of games).
How The 1000 Game Giveaway works:
Every day for the next 100 days, we'll randomly select 10 winners from everyone who played an online game that day. It's free to enter on iOS and Android. Just download Evolution (free-to-try in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store), make an in-game account with an email address, and play an online match each day. We'll select new winners daily from those who play an online match each day. Winners cover the cost of shipping. You'll find more details about the giveaway here.
It's available in English on PC and Mac via Steam for $14.99. It's also available as free-to-try on iOS and Android with a full version available for $9.99 as a one time purchase. Those who purchase the game in the first week will receive a 20% launch sale discount.
While Evolution’s digital adaptation is loyal to the original board game, it has also done some evolving of its own. Stunning new artwork, animated cards, lush environments, distinct enemy A.I. Bosses, and a new campaign mode are just a sample of the new features exclusive to the digital edition.
Playing against human opponents from around the world provides its own thrill in fast-paced games. Cross-platform multiplayer provides a deep pool of players to battle wits with, and skill-based matchmaking encourages healthy competition.Evolution’s digital form has been crafted to play as fast as possible, so matches generally last less than ten minutes.
Check out our launch day activities
We're streaming all day today on our Twitch channel. In conjunction, we're running a funding drive for Stack Up, a military charity that delivers care packages of video games and nerd stuff to deployed troops, military hospitals, and stateside bases. You'll find a donation link on our Twitch channel and you can read more about it here.
In addition, we'll be posting like fools throughout the day on our social media channels. For all that follow us on Twitter and Facebook or visit the official website.
There's a new blog post (composed lovingly by yours truly) over at northstargames.com, reflecting on some things I've learned about depth in the aftermath of Evolution's publication (I'm a developer on the Evolution games, and designer of the upcoming Oceans).
We've been working on it for nearly 3 years. We could have made almost 4 babies in that time! Instead we've been trying to craft the best digital tabletop game ever made. Life is exciting when you shoot for the moon, so we're shooting. Some features:
fully cross-platform for Steam, iOS, and Android fast and fluid: you can play a game in 10 minutes beautiful animations that enhance gameplay instead of slowing it down online multiplayer mode that matches you with similarly skilled players campaigns offering new ways to play that don't exist in the physical version of the game a learn-by-playing tutorial that makes learning effortless
We've come a long way. We've posed hundreds of design questions and answered each dozens of times, always looking for a better answer than the one that came before.
In celebration of our launch, here's a look back at our progress through the lense of just one of those questions: how should a species be represented onscreen?
We started with two design maxims, diametrically opposed:
1. All information needs to be present when it's necessary; nothing is hidden behind a click. 2. The screen needs to have high over-the-shoulder appeal, meaning somebody walking by would say "that looks pretty".
We came up with 64 different solutions before finally settling on one. I won't show you all 64 because I'm not insane, but here's a chronological sampling:
First, the beginning. A screenshot of our first full-screen mockup:
This was as close as we could come to the look of the tabletop game. It immediately revealed a problem: the scheme wouldn't allow for more than two players. There wasn't enough room onscreen to add more species for the left and right players.
Another problem: early testers didn't look at the mix of population, body size, and traits, and see a "species". They just saw a hodgepodge of stuff. We wanted players to identify with their species and understand it as a creature. We begin experimenting with putting a picture of a species in the center of each species to tie all of the information together. Enter the species “badge”:
This helped tie things together and also allowed traits to be smaller. But in making the traits smaller, we realized we should emphasize the outline of the creatures on the trait cards to make them easier to distinguish from one another:
We also had the challenge that for population, a player has to know how many population are fed and how many are unfed. So we added population markers:
We wrestled a lot with how to best show this mix of fed and unfed population:
The above is the one we settled on for the first working prototype of the game. Population was represented by the bubbles on the left. This design carried us all the way through to the second version of the game, complete with production code:
The transition to 3D resulted in another variant of this badge, complete with a dynamic body size label that grows as the size increases:
Then we took it to our first public showing, at PAX East, and quickly realized we had two major problems:
First, players didn’t like counting lots of little pips.
Second, it wasn’t intuitive that the population pips are a “hotspot”. To add a population, you needed to drag a card to exactly the population area of the badge. A line of pips didn’t make an obvious target to drag to.
With that, once again we dove into another round of trying to get perfect mix of each of the elements of the species: population, fed and unfed states, body size, traits, and clear target hotspots:
The “Paw Print”
Having a number for population, and displaying the food eaten, proved particularly difficult.
And finally, a mere 64 versions later, we give you...drumroll please...
The absolute perfect mix of art, user interaction, and information, in an elegant package. Hope you like it. If not, no problem, no doubt Mark, Bree, and Jesse would love to crank out another 64 versions. Otherwise...
BACK IN STOCK From the "long-time-coming" department at NorthStar, I'm pleased to announce Evolution: Climate, which sold out weeks after its launch, is finally back in stock. To celebrate, we're giving away free copies of the neoprene CLIMATE mat ($20 MSRP).
CLIMATE MAT GIVEAWAY To celebrate CLIMATE's back-in-stockness, we're giving away a deluxe neoprene CLIMATE game mat to 5 folks who own CLIMATE. If you don't yet own CLIMATE, head over to our website, pick up a copy, and then enter the drawing.
we're talking SCUBA-quality neoprene here
How to Enter Email email@example.com with the subject "I OWN Climate and would LOVE the mat" with your name and address. We'll accept entries until 9/3/17. On Monday September 4th, we will choose 5 random people to receive the mat and send them out!
We will also have copies of the deluxe CLIMATE mat for purchase at Gen Con and on our website until supplies last. It's a beautiful piece of work and really helps to bring out the theme when you play.
GENCON North Star has so much stuff this year we had to get TWO booths. One of our booths is dedicated to all things Evolution. The other booth is dedicated to the rest of our product line. One of the coolest things we're doing this year is a sneak peek of Super Wits where the artist will be making sketches of the characters and giving them to people who play the game. More on that below. For now, here's the rundown of what you can find at each booth:
The Evolution video game has been 3 years in the making and will be Kickstarting in September. Here's your chance to let us know if we're reaching our goal: to set the industry bar for board game conversion.
Evolution: CLIMATE is finally back in stock after unexpectedly selling 18k copies in a few weeks. Come try it out on a super deluxe mat.
If you are extra lucky, you might be able to get an impromptu sneak peek of Oceans with the game designer.
We are releasing a blue version of Happy Salmon with 6 new card colors. Now you can play with up to 12 people when coupled with the original green version. You thought Happy Salmon was crazy with 6 player? Ha!
FREE ORIGINAL SKETCHES We will be hosting two Super Wits sneak peek events everyday with the game designer (Dominic Crapuchettes) and the artist (Naomi Stanton-Gullak). The artist will be hand drawing sketches of her characters as you play. The best part? Each player at these events will walk away with one of these signed hand drawn sketches.
Please do not expect the sketches to be as elaborate as the ones here. She will only have enough time to spend 10 - 15 minutes on each sketch. But they will be original sketches from the artist and you'll get to walk away with them.
How To Get A Ticket There are a limited number of slots for these events so come to booth #1803 as early as possible to get your free ticket. The first event each day will be from 10:15am - 11:45am and the second event will be from 2pm - 3:30pm.
Hope to see some of you there. I shall recognize you by your thumbs.
Disclaimer: this post is about a game we're currently designing - Oceans: An Evolution Game. Everything we say about it could be negated by future decisions we haven't made yet. We're potential future liars! Be warned.
We (marine biologist Brian O'Neill and game designer Nick Bentley) have been at work designing Oceans since last November.
Also drinking heavily. Our wine glasses have fish on them.
One aspect of the game we're currently happy with are the defensive traits - the traits which protect a species against attacks. The thing is: they're weak. They all tend to fail and it's up to the players to anticipate and navigate those failures to keep their species alive.
That may sound like a bad thing for gameplay (who wants to be eaten all the time?), but it's not. There are peculiarities in Oceans' design that make weak traits cool.
First, though predators abound in the game (because they abound in real life oceans), there are 4 mechanisms helping species to survive and thrive apart from the specific functions of the defensive traits:
Hidden Traits - When you give a species a trait, you can play it either face up or face down. Face down traits don't give species their benefits, but you may turn a trait face up at any time, on your turn or on anyone else's, including when a predator attacks. If you turn up a defensive trait that protects your species in response to an attack, the attack fails and the predator loses a population (it starves). As a result, predators are wary of attacking species with face down traits, and sometimes you can deter attacks by bluffing. This is nice because it reflects real life. Predators don't always know what kind of defenses prey may spring, and therefore prefer known prey. The mechanic is good for both gameplay and theme!
Ability to acquire traits on every turn - In Oceans, the species are constantly changing and you have the ability to give a species a trait on every turn, so long as you traits in hand to give. Consequently, if a defensive traits fails, you can sometimes replace it with another one before you get attacked, or at least replace it with a face down card that deters predators long enough that they fill up on some other poor species.
These four factors allow for (in fact demand) weak defensive traits. But why do we like that? Two reasons:
High Dynamic Value - we think it's cool when the power of traits change fluidly depending on context, and that's the definition of a weak defensive trait. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. That fluidity creates interesting tactical and strategic problems to anticipate and solve. How can I keep my species in an environment where it's defenses will keep working? How can I avoid being eaten even though a given defense is going to fail? A strong defensive trait, by contrast, is strong because it's fairly invariant to the environment.
Theme - In real life, species operate with little margin for error. Everyone is vulnerable. The fact that ecosystems thrive despite such vulnerability feels miraculous and we want to design that miracle into our game. Life always finds a way! The great tragicomedy of existence.
The defensive traits we're digging right now
You probably want to see our defensive traits. Here are 4 we like playing with at present, illustrated with crappy images stolen from the internet because the real art's not done yet.
We'll start with Schooling because it's the most familiar to Evolution players. It's essentially Defensive Herding from the original game. This is the only trait in Oceans that mimics a trait from Evolution. We're playing with it currently for two reasons: 1) it's one of the weaker traits in Evolution, which makes it perfect for Oceans (almost - we've weakened a bit more even); and b) we really want a Schooling trait. We're cool for school.
If a species with Schooling loses population either through starvation or predation from a species with higher population, the trait gets weaker. It can lead to a death spiral whereby the school slowly disbands.
Transparency has been in Oceans longer than any other defensive trait. It only works in murky water. So you watch as the plankton in the reef dwindles, and the water clears, and prey come into view. If you're a predator you lick your chops. If you're transparent, you panic. It's a ticking time bomb that ends in a feeding frenzy, if we may mix metaphors.
Ink is useless at the beginning of a round, but grows in strength as you eat enough food to make ink. However it can still fail if you run out of food to eat and some predator is willing to attack you so much that you lose all the food you've already eaten. It's often a big sacrifice for a predator to do that, however, so it only tends to happen when a predator is desperate.
Rapid Evolution is the weirdest defensive trait, and our favorite of this set. It doesn't stop any attack, but it allows you to evolve faster so as to avoid attacks (and make attacks of your own) later. It adds dynamism because it allows a species to jump to a different position in the food chain, which effectively restructures the food chain and shifts around other players' plans.
Of course we can't promise these will all make it into the final game. Traits are subject to a lot of, um, selection pressure, and many die off, bottom feeders collecting their carcasses on the ocean floor of yesterday's ideas. Or something.
From the Sea,
Brian and Nick
Until next time, our advice is to avoid Leopard Seals
This post was written by Nick, one of Oceans' co-designers. (Brian, the other co-designer, added remarks in italicized parentheses.)
My favorite thing to do in life is design games. My second favorite thing is to develop techniques for designing games better (His third favorite thing probably has something to do with thinking about how to think about how gamers think about games)
Here we are designing Oceans using the "Staring Ruefully out to Sea" technique
Now and then I write essays about my techniques. For example: the 100:10:1 method, my most popular technique. I rely on it heavily, and it was a key factor in my decision to work on Oceans, the next game in the Evolution series, the game we're writing about here today.
In designing Oceans, we're also relying on another method, which we've come to call The Designated Blowhard™. The game has recently changed dramatically as a result. The story behind that change illustrates the method's value.
What's a Designated Blowhard™?
Greatness isn't the usual outcome of game design. Thousands of table games are published each year and how many are truly great? One? Zero? (2018 will have at least 1, obviously) There are dozens of ways to biff a design and it's achingly hard to avoid them all.
One of the most common biffs comes from ego attachment. You construct some system that you, the designer, personally love, and then stop. If everyone on earth were a clone of you that might be fine, but they're not. The problem is worse for the fact that most people don't like to give really broad negative feedback. You can have 100 play testers and not one willing to give that kind of feedback.
Specific negative feedback is easy. The more specific the criticism, the easier it is to remedy. But broad, negative editorial judgement is hard, because it feels like telling someone their whole project is crap, because that's sort of what it is.
But every game designer needs broad negative feedback. You need someone standing over your shoulder, insisting over and over "this isn't good enough". That someone is your Designated Blowhard™
The Blowhard's job is different from normal editorial oversight. It's editorial oversight PLUS unbending clear-eyed no-bullshit drill sergeant nosebleed standard-setting. Likewise the designer shouldn't treat the Blowhard's feedback as normal editorial feedback. He should treat it as chapter-and-verse capital-T Truth. If your Blowhard says it's not good enough, you don't question. You go back to the drawing board.
It's hard to find the right person for the job, because:
he must feel comfortable telling you you're failing over and over. Real candor is harder than it looks. (Not for me! I tell Nick he sucks all the time and it rolls right off the tongue)
you have to trust him entirely; enough to 100% believe him EVERY TIME he tells you your project isn't good enough (like even the 35th time, when you start to wonder if you're subject to a secret government psychops torture program).
he has to fully understand what it takes to make a great game, so he can accurately assess when you meet your standard. Not many people have that understanding. He should have invented at least one great game himself.
For most of my life as a game designer, I've not had a Designated Blowhard. Instead, I would take years to design a game, which allowed me to set it aside multiple times, and return to it later with fresh eyes and fresh dissatisfactions, so I could be my own Blowhard.
That's great if you can do it, but if you want to design professionally, you don't always have that kind of time. You need to maintain a 10,000-foot perspective (I think he means 10,000 fathoms amiright?) and the highest standards without stepping out of a project in which, by necessity, you have completely lost yourself.
A good Designated Blowhard makes that possible, and it's a beautiful thing. For the design of Oceans, we have one, and his involvement has recently transformed our game.
The Great Streamlining of 2017
After working on Oceans from November 2016 through April 2017, we began sending prototypes to North Star Games for assessment. The main guy doing the assessing is Dominic Crapuchettes, the lead designer on all the other Evolution games. No one understands the system better, and no one is more interested in our success, since his company will publish the game. He became our Designated Blowhard.
Look how mean he looks
As soon as he began testing, Dom began pushing us to simplify the game's architecture, but without sacrificing any magic; to distill, nay amplify, the thematic and strategic richness through simplification.
So we'd return with something simpler, and he'd tell us it wasn't simple enough and it wasn't good enough. So we'd redo it again, and he'd tell us it wasn't simple enough and it wasn't good enough, so we'd redo it again, and he'd tell us it wasn't simple enough and it wasn't good enough. And again. And again.
What he was looking for was starting to feel like a pipe dream.
This is where the trust comes in: he kept believing it was possible, and we kept believing him. His standards became ours. I spent a lot of time angry with myself for not seeing the way through (I spent those days bipolar, swinging from excited about the fun we were having playing to being depressed about our lack of progess).
But that anger became fuel, and the fuel lit the afterburners. We got to playtesting every day, often in multiple locations, Brian doing tests in one place and me in another.
Then, one day, after another futile 7-hour design session (That session SUCKED), we broke through. It felt like a rainbow after a storm.
Here's what the turn structure used to look like:
Here's what it looks like now:
How it works
Notice there are no discards in the current version of the game. In Evolution, as well as in previous versions of Oceans, players discard from their hand for the right to upgrade their ecosystem in various ways.
We had a realization about these discards: they were the least fun way to use cards. There's no pleasure in paying for something. To pay is to sacrifice. However, there IS pleasure in building your ecosystem. It's the heart of the game. So, what if you incorporate all your cards into your ecosystem and use none to pay for it? Would that be more pleasurable? Answer: yes, emphatically. It's also smooth and simple.
In the current version, the only thing you do with your cards is give your species traits, but when you give a species a trait, that card also gives you the right to change that species' population and/or body size by up to a certain amount.
A single card in Oceans now has the same total power on average that 4 cards do in Evolution, which has two other benefits (besides simple turns):
each played-trait feels BIG
your ecosystem can be built out quickly, which means you can get into the heart of the game, the combos and synergies, quicker. Each round, you give your ecosystem the equivalent of 16 Evolution cards' worth of development, with just 4 cards. The system we were using before felt like plodding drudgery in comparison.
This is, frankly, the best idea we've had so far. Our playtesters, gamers and non-gamers alike, are unanimous in the opinion it's our best version yet.
Eating some well-deserved alewives to celebrate our breakthrough
It's unlikely we would've hit on it without Dom's goading. And THAT'S why, if you design anything, you should find a good Designated Blowhard™ and then lean like hell on his judgment.
Algae Bloom - Add plankton to the reef equal to the number of players
"Wait a minute!" you might exclaim. "Isn't that an event card? How can it win a trait contest?" Well, we turned it into a trait called Massive Spawning (you can read about the biology here):
Massive Spawning - When revealed, put plankton into the reef equal to the population of this species
It provides a thematic way to add plankton to the reef, which can create nice dynamics in the context of the game's other cards. Transparency for example. A species with Transparency is protected from predators only so long as there's plankton in the reef (Transparency only works in murky waters). Massive Spawning allows a transparent species to regain its protection after having lost it. (in a recent playtest, one player flipped a Massive Spawning to protect someone else's Transparent species with population 1, just so he could eat it to extinction later in the round. BEAUTIFUL)
Acreman will receive a free copy of Oceans, and if we use his idea in the game, we'll credit him for the idea in the rulebook. Thanks for being brilliant Acreman!
From the Sea,
Nick (and Brian)
P.S. It occurred to me after writing this that the Designated Blowhard bears similarities to Pixar's famous Brain Trust, to which many at Pixar attribute the company's success. Check that out for another perspective on the same ideas.
P.P.S. Fabulous final Tentacles art from artist Catherine Hamilton, who is clearly on something:
The thoughtfulness of BGG commenters is a constant surprise. When we started writing about Oceans, we didn't expect readers to help us design the thing. We expected death threats and sarcasm. But BGG isn't like the rest of the internet.
First, BGGers helped us name the game. After more than 1000 reader votes (here and here) and a long comment thread about naming, the working title is now Oceans: An Evolution Game, for which commenters are almost entirely responsible. We'll be surprised if it doesn't stick.
Now that you've been so helpful, we repay your help by soliciting more! The task before us is perhaps the most fun part of making an Evolution game: the traits. But first, we have early sketches to show you.
Catherine Hamilton, the illustrious wildlife artist who did the art for the previous Evolution games, is doing the art for Oceans too. We're lucky to have her because demand for her work has gotten even nuttier lately. She also loves marine life and has attacked this project with uncommon gusto. She's given us a cover-art character sketch and three trait sketches.
You've seen the cover sketch at the top of this post, but here's another one:
...and here are the traits:
Brian would need to change his wetsuit if he came across this beast on one of his dives
Notice the plankton obscuring half the fish. It's only when the water clears that you can see the transparent fish.
a gentle giant
We want your traits
Now's a great time to suggest trait ideas because we're entering a phase of intense work on them. There's a free game in it for you (see below for details)
To brainstorm traits, you may or may not want to see the current traits (spoilers!) and the current rules (more spoilers!) It's all a work in progress so don't expect perfection. Note these aren't living documents and they'll go out of date fast (like, by tomorrow).
Here are our design goals for each trait:
Fun - if it isn't fun the other constraints are pointless Iconic - everyone has heard of the trait and associates it with the ocean Functionally thematic - creates game dynamics you'd expect from it High dynamic value - its power waxes and wanes with game state Not over- or under-powered Interacts and combos with multiple other traits in cool ways Easy to understand Expressible in few words (and errata-free)
Every constraint is important. Satisfying all at once is brutally hard, and astronomically harder when you haven't played the game. Most of you haven't, so it'll be tough to be brilliant. But we can have interesting discussion in any case, and we've learned not to underestimate BGG.
To get you started, here are some iconic ocean things for your edification:
Free copies of Oceans incoming
If you have a trait suggestion, put it in the comments here.
We'll let this thread bake for two weeks and then pick our favorite suggestion. Its author will get a free copy of Oceans upon publication.
In the event we use a suggested trait in the game, its author will get a free copy of Oceans, credit for designing it in the rulebook, and our gratitude.
It's possible we'll use traits proposed here as promo traits in the Kickstarter campaign. In that case, their authors will get attribution and kudos in the Kickstarter campaign.
We hope the thoughtfulness and civility persists here, so future anthropologists can one day point to us and say "There was once a place on the internet that was not engulfed in stupidity and flame..."
Last week we described a big change we're making to the Evolution system to create Oceans, the next standalone game in the series (specifically, we're merging the main phases of the game into one). We also gloated about the excellent effects it would have on the game. How lucky are we that everything we do is exactly right and free of downsides! Our lives are buttercups and rainbows!
Alas it's not true. The new system has weaknesses. There are pleasures from Evolution we'll lose if we're careless.
This post is about one such weakness. However it's a weakness we've fixed, which allows us to retain our smug self-regard for another post before finally sinking into the abyss of unresolved challenges.
To review: unlike in Evolution, mutation and selection are fused into one interactive process in Oceans. On your turn, you must, if possible, take one of 5 actions:
1. alter a species' body size 2. raise a species' population 3. give a species a trait 4. feed a species 5. create a new species
Let's talk about the third action: give a species a trait.
This scheme risks losing something from Evolution: the bluff and surprise that comes from that game's mutation phase. In that phase, players give their species traits, but they play them face down and only reveal them when the selection phase begins. It has nice effects:
Bluffing: You can alter your species to make opponents think you're evolving one way when you're actually evolving another. For example: when you replace a Carnivore trait on a species with a face down trait. Other players may assume the species is now an herbivore and may therefore replace their defensive traits with others. But what if you replaced your Carnivore trait with another Carnivore trait? Joke's on them!
Surprise: Before the feeding phase begins, all face down traits are revealed, which produces "HA!" and "ARG!" moments as it dawns on players how the changes impact their prospects.
Nick's typical expression when the traits are revealed
We want to retain that (or something like it) in Oceans, but we can't do it the same way Evolution does because in Oceans there are no phases and therefore no big reveal between them. We needed to find a new way, so here's what we did:
When you give a species a trait, you may place it either face up or face down. Your species cannot use the power of a trait unless it's face up You may turn a face down trait face up at any time, whether it's your turn or not, it doesn't cost you an action, and its power immediately takes effect.
This allows you to hide your intentions. It also ratchets the tension. You can use face down traits to hide your ability to eat plankton or other creatures, hide how fast your body size can evolve or your populations can grow, etc. We're even playing with a trait called Convergent Evolution, which effectively turns a species into the species next to it. We love when a player turns that face up and the other players realize the species is a completely different kind of critter than they thought it was. It can turn the tide quickly.
things aren't always what they seem
The most dramatic effect is when a species tries to eat another species with a facedown trait. The attacked species can reveal a defensive trait that prevents the attack, and in that case, the attacking species loses one from its population. The predator either got injured or wasted too much energy and starved.
We like this system not only because it preserves the bluffing, but also because it's thematic. When a predator goes hunting, it doesn't always know how its target will react, and it doesn't always succeed. Maybe the target will defend itself. Maybe it'll swim too fast for the predator to catch it. To survive as a predator is to cope with failure. Most of the time when predators go hunting in real ecosystems (land and sea), and we mean like ~90% of the time, they come up empty.
This is a good thing for an ecosystem. If predators were successful in every hunt, they would clear their ecosystem of prey and starve themselves to extinction. It would lead to unstable ecosystems and in our case unstable game play.
The uncertainty of attacking unfamiliar species also means predators prefer to attack species they already know. Why take a chance on unknown prey? Oceans replicates this: predators prefer to attack species whose traits are known over species with face down traits. We like it when game tactics replicate real life tactics.
I've played Evolution more than 500 times and taught it to at least 2000 people. It used to be my job. You'd think I'd hate it but I don't. I love it more than ever.
me, 3 years and more than 400 games ago
One thing I've learned: it's deep. I keep finding new layers without hitting bottom. I've also run lots of tournaments, some with more than 80 players. At a table full of skilled and experienced players, it's a different game. Its depth isn't something you can see right away. If you've only played a few times, it's easy to conclude Evolution is a family game (as for example Quinns over at Shut Up and Sit Down did). And it is a family game, but not only. It's somehow both a family game and a tournament game. To prove it, I'll be happy to put anyone who thinks otherwise on ice (are you reading this Quinns!?)
I like deep games. If we let them, they can shake us from habits of careless thought, show us our unconscious assumptions, and remind us our problems are there for the solving. As I become skilled at a deep game, I become a better version of myself. This is why I fell in love with games many years ago, and why I've devoted my life to designing them.
Evolution is that kind of game, so Brian and I feel profound respect for it and a big responsibility in designing the next Evolution game: Oceans. It's a standalone game we've been writing about for the last 6 weeks (see here, here, and here).
We're also excited. We know the system like our own hands, and now we get to put that knowledge to use. Instead of trying to design a good game from scratch, we're starting with a great system and trying to make it better.
this is how we think of ourselves
Making Evolution Better
For those who don't know, Evolution is played in rounds. Each round has two main phases:
Phase I - Species adapt Phase II - Species compete for food
Over time, we've developed two niggles with this scheme: 1) It's not as thematic as it could be - in real evolution, mutation and selection aren't separated into phases. Rather the two interact continuously. Wouldn't it be great if that happened in the game too? And 2) It can confuse new players. The two phases have different turn rules, which is a bit choppy and hard for some new players to remember.
So for Oceans, we've merged these phases into one. Of all the mechanics we've tested, none has gotten more positive feedback. Every play tester who knows Evolution (about 30 currently) has told us they prefer this new scheme.
How the new round structure works
In Oceans, you must take 1 of five possible actions on your turn:
1. alter a species' body size 2. raise a species' population 3. give a species a trait 4. feed a species 5. create a new species
Players take turns until all players are out of actions, and then a new round starts (if you play Evolution and think something might be broken about this, note you're not getting the whole story. We'll discuss the actions in future posts. Bear with us for now).
How the new round structure changes the system
First, indeed it feels more thematic, and it's easier for new players to learn, as they no longer have to learn two sets of turn rules. Those are the first things you notice, but there are other effects too.
Scope for new traits
In Evolution, the traits exert their effects only during the feeding phase, not during the adaptation phase. So the traits in Evolution mostly affect species' ability to eat or avoid being eaten. In contrast, because mutation and selection happen together in Oceans, we can design traits with wider-ranging effects. We're working on traits that effect how body sizes change, how populations change, how species acquire other traits, how new species evolve from old, and how all these things interplay with the need to eat.
New, thematic tactics and strategy
In real evolution, the rate at which a species evolves depends how much selection pressure it's under. If a species is starving or being predated heavily, it's likely to change faster than a species that isn't.
Thanks to Oceans' round structure, that also happens in Oceans. On every turn, you have a choice: feed or evolve. If you can feed and protect a species without modifying it, that's the way to go, because it allows you to preserve your cards (and thus your available actions) until later in the round when other players may have run out and can't respond. So it's not just the rules that reflect real life, it's also the dynamics that emerge from them. It's emergent theme.
It also means there's a new, and central, strategic consideration: how to preserve and maximize the number of turns you'll be able to take now and in future rounds? That didn't exist at all in Evolution.
These new dynamics put us in new design territory, and we're still trying to grok the implications. We still sometimes make dumb design choices based on old assumptions (in fact some of the things I've said in this post might yet turn out to be wrong). But we're ok with that because it's part of the thrill of creating something new. No one will feel like we've re-skinned Evolution, which is good because it would just about kill us if we ended up with a game like that.
In our next post, we'll start discussing how the actions work. Tentatively, because we're still working on them.
North Star Games designs party games that don't suck! Play them with your non-gamer friends over the holidays.
First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we bring you Clubs. The suit of clubs finally gets some respect!
About 3 years ago, I convinced one of my MBA classmates to leave a cushy job at Intel to create a digital division for North Star Games. Our goal for North Star Digital was simple: to set the quality bar for digital board game conversions. Not just to set it, but to blow it out of the water! Scott Rencher sold his house in Oregon, moved his family across the country, and prepared for what is turning out to be the wildest ride of his life. Then he hired a team of experienced coders and artists from Hasbro, Booz Allen Hamilton, NBC Universal, Microsoft, and Wizards of the Coast. And they also left their cushy jobs to join us for the ride of their lives...
We had to make room in the office before the new team could get to work, so Scott gave my 4 year old son a sledgehammer and a bag of Halloween candy. Then he invited everyone else in the office for a "tear down those walls" party (ie HR's solution to pent up office politics).
Industry Previews The initial response to the alpha version has been very positive from video game reviewers. Brett Nolan from AppAddict says "Evolution Will Be My Next IPad Board Gaming Addiction."         - App Addict         - Gameosity
Free Access to the Alpha Now we're ready for widespread feedback! Click on the link below if you're interested in getting free access to the Alpha on Steam (or potentially on your iPad). Your feedback will be greatly helpful to us as we put the final polish on the game.