Randy D

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Met up with Dominic & Nick today at UnPub in good ol' Grand Rapids, MI today. They are very down-to-earth guys and fun gamers. Was able to play a full game of Oceans with Dominic, Nick, myself, and another gaming buddy.

Here's my initial takeaway from that experience.


Overview
At the beginning of each round, players get 7 trait cards. With them, they place one in the reef (aka. watering hole) for food, they discard 2, and with the remaining 4 they play out the round. After the numbers on the cards in the reef are tallied and food added, the start player begins his turn and play proceeds clockwise. On his turn, a player must play one of their trait cards (starting a new species, adding to an existing species, or discard to add more food to reef) and then choose one of their species to feed, placing the obtained food on their fed species to indicate its current population (max. 8). If feeding from the reef, food is taken from the reef board. If feeding on another species, food is taken from that species (thereby reducing its population). Play then proceeds to the next player until all cards have been played. At the end of the round, any species that have no food left has gone extinct and all their trait cards are discarded. The players then take all food remaining on their species and puts it in their food pouch, leaving 1 behind on each species. The following rounds each play out the same way with the next player being the start player for that round. In a 4-player game, we played 4 rounds. Final scoring is a tally of food in the pouch plus all trait cards currently applied to the player's species.


Summary
Being a Kickstarter backer of the entire line of Evolution games, beta tester of the Climate expansion, and a frequent player of them all, I considered myself well-versed with the mechanics of the game. So when Nick Bentley was explaining the rules to my friend, I admittedly was only half listening -- not too dissimilar from how a frequent flyer might listen to the whole pre-flight service announcements on an airplane. (sorry Nick ). Anyway, I quickly found out that my fluency with Evolution was actually becoming an obstacle because of the differences. For example, here are a list of some of the differences:

Eating... only 1 species may feed on a player's turn. The player chooses which species gets to eat that turn.
Carnivores... Oceans has no "Carnivore" trait. Every species by default may either eat from the reef or attack another species (unless an applied trait says otherwise).
Body Size... Oceans only tracks a species population, body size is not a thing in this game.
Adjacency... adjacency extends to species beyond the current player. My right-most species is considered adjacent to the player on my right's left-most species.
Cooperation Chain... the ever popular cooperation chain (when a species feeds, the species to its right also feeds from the same source) is officially a broken chain in this game. If a species gets food because of a cooperation trait, it does not trigger cooperation of its own. (Nick told me this little rule change after I set up my awesome chain... thanks for the head's up, Nick!

Round 1 started and I looked at my trait cards. All of them were new to me and so I took a little time to read all the descriptions, not understanding all of them or how they play out. One trait said something about feeding when a Bottom Feeder is attacked or another one said I could feed when a Filter Feeder fed. However, I did not see any Filter Feeder or Bottom Feeder traits, so I wasn't sure what the reference was to. Also, since the players get multiple turns before a round is over, it is not necessarily a big deal if their species loses all population because they can still feed it on future turns before the round is over so it would not be counted as extinct. Because of the all new traits and the changes (from Evolution) in the way a round plays out, I did not entirely comprehend all the dynamics of this and other trait pairing combinations on the first few turns. However, I soon found my stride and was able to make some pretty decent plays.

Nick kept trying the Bottom Feeder strategy but it was not working for him as well as he hoped so he changed things up. Dominic got a lot of species to the table. This particular game was not hurting for food in the Reef, so there arose a lot of Filter Feeders and, by extension, a lot of Cleaners (feed whenever a Filter Feeder feeds). Also, Transparency was a popular defensive because it protected a species as long as there was food in the Reef. There was a lot of back-and-forth player interaction and food was changing species' "hands" frequently. In the end, it was a close race between myself & Dominic with Dominic eeking out the win (78-81). I forget what Nick & Ben ended with.


Review
I thought the game was fun and had some memorable moments. As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest things that stood out to me initially was how my familiarity with Evolution actually created some obstacles in this game as I kept trying to refer to body size or looking for "Carnivore" traits, etc. and this game does not operate that way. I had to shift my understanding and strategic way of thinking, not a lot, but more than I expected. Also, a whole new set of traits means I entered the game completely unfamiliar with any sort of preconceived strategies and I felt like I was playing a little blind (especially compared to if I played Evolution where I am familiar with all the traits and many potential trait pairings), which was a bit of a double-edged sword. It was exciting to learn new traits and discover new pairings, but at the same time I felt at a disadvantage playing with folks I assumed already knew of some good pairings.

During the game, I did find myself constantly asking who I could attack when I wanted to attack someone. I was often looking over the table trying to read upside down (to me) traits to determine who was defended and how they were defended to see if I could counter their defense. This is actually something I experience in regular Evolution as well and find that it can bog the game down and halt its flow. However, it is more pronounce in Oceans because there is no Carnivore trait (everyone can attack other players by default) and therefore there is more attacking player interaction going on. The cards are color-coded based on their type (feeding traits = green, attacking traits = red, defensive traits = grey), however, the one trait that should be most prominent to other players (defensive) is the most muted in color (grey), so it was tough to always see them at a glance. I spoke with Nick afterwards about brightening them up since they are most important to be prominent from across a table. I also began putting any defensive traits in a top row and other traits in a bottom row on each of my species and when the other players followed suit, it made it much easier to quickly see at a glance who was protected and by how many traits. I even went so far as to rotate these defensive cards in the top row so they were actually upside down to me and right-side up for everyone else. I actually really like this idea and might try using it in Evolution as well.

There were the occasional turns where players took a bit longer to plan out their strategy, but for the most part turns moved along at a fairly reasonable pace. However, despite this, the game felt like it went on a bit longer than it should have. I think all-told it took around 1.5 hours (correct me if I'm wrong, Nick). It's always tough to gauge timing of a game when new players are involved because of the learning curve involved, however, I felt like it could use something to help the timing along. It seemed like an hour would have been a good length for the game.

The classic watercolor artwork of Catherine Hamilton that initially grabbed my attention back in the Kickstarter days of the first Evolution is back again and does not disappoint. I'm not sure what creative well she draws from but it is a well that does not appear to run dry anytime soon. The designs are thematic and fun with good combinations of the familiar with the unusual. In retrospect, however, the artwork had a very "samey" feel to it. All the different traits had very nice thematic artwork, but the color palettes and overall tone felt similar from card to card so when I was looking across the table to glance at what traits were applied to species, it was tougher to instantly recognize what was applied. The colors in Evolution seemed more bold and vibrant and diverse so it was easy to distinguish right away, but in Oceans they were a bit tougher. I suppose the artistic decision for a more bluish watered down color tone was thematic because they are all underwater, but it did make it a little more difficult to distinguish them at a distance and it would be nice if the various traits had a bit more of a differentiating pop to them.

Ironically, this game is simpler than Evolution with things like the removal of body size, but it felt more complex because I was learning all new traits and constantly refraining from mentally adding in the extra complexity present in Evolution.


Pros
• Uses the popular Evolution gameplay mechanic (evolve your species to better feed, attack, and stay alive)
• Great looking artwork.
• Lots of player interaction (species can attack by default)
• Overall simpler than Evolution, allowing it to potentially reach a wider audience.

Cons
• Enough differences from Evolution to initially trip up veteran Evolution players
• Artwork/defensive traits were not as distinguishable at a distance.
• A little long
• Starting set of traits might be a bit limiting once the game is played a few times, especially for veteran Evolution players who are used to a large collection of traits from several expansions and promo packs.


Rating
After my one experience, I would rate this a solid B. It is a good game that I would like to play again, perhaps implementing a few of the changes I mentioned above and hopefully the game wouldn't take as long. Nick also mentioned a few changes they plan to introduce as well, so I know the game is still in development and I look forward to seeing how they continue to improve upon this game.


Thanks for the game, Dominic & Nick! It was great meeting you both.
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Nick Bentley
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Thanks Randy! It was great to meet you in person and play with you.

Also, I want to emphasize we're still very much in development, the rough edges will be sanded off by the time we publish.

The final game will be shorter than the version you played, the defensive cards will be more easily distinguishable across the table, and we'll add more traits.

The thing that won't be "fixed" is that the mechanics will remain pretty significantly different from those of Evolution. A major design goal is to create something that feels new, but an inevitable byproduct of that is that is that if you bring assumptions from Evolution to the game, it could be disorienting.
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Randy D

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milomilo122 wrote:
Also, I want to emphasize we're still very much in development, the rough edges will be sanded off by the time we publish.

I figured as much. I just thought that an in-depth review might be helpful as you do your sanding.

milomilo122 wrote:
The final game will be shorter than the version you played, the defensive cards will be more easily distinguishable across the table, and we'll add more traits.

Great!

milomilo122 wrote:
The thing that won't be "fixed" is that the mechanics will remain pretty significantly different from those of Evolution. A major design goal is to create something that feels new, but an inevitable byproduct of that is that is that if you bring assumptions from Evolution to the game, it could be disorienting.

My intention in describing that experience was not so much something that needed fixing as much as something veteran Evolution players might want to be aware of. I like that this is not simply a new set of traits for the same game, but that you are trying to introduce something familiar yet new. Perhaps this is more of a "fault" of Evolution being so popular that that fans have become very familiar with the mechanics of that game.
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Dominic Crapuchettes
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randyd42 wrote:
My intention in describing that experience was not so much something that needed fixing as much as something veteran Evolution players might want to be aware of. I like that this is not simply a new set of traits for the same game, but that you are trying to introduce something familiar yet new. Perhaps this is more of a "fault" of Evolution being so popular that that fans have become very familiar with the mechanics of that game.


I think Oceans will find a niche for these people:

1) Evolution players that want to introduce the system to friends. It is considerably more simple to teach.
2) Evolution players looking for a fresh take on the "adapt to a changing ecosystem" genre. Like me! I'm having a great time exploring the new system.
3) Gamers who missed the Evolution bus. Oceans will be more inviting to these players because it is easier to learn and because there will not already be a bunch of experienced "sharks" waiting to eat them alive. It's always nice to get in on a strategy game at the ground level.
4) Anyone who loves the ocean and sea creatures. The art is spectacular.

My guess is that we'll make a believer of you too when you play the final product. We're still early in the development cycle with regards to final polish. Most of the heavy lifting so far has been working on the architecture of the game.
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Randy D

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domcrap wrote:
My guess is that we'll make a believer of you too when you play the final product.

Perhaps you got the wrong impression. I found the game enjoyable. I feel that both veteran Evolution players and players new to the genre will like it as I did. When I began to play the game I assumed my experience with Evolution would help me in this game, perhaps giving me an advantage over Ben, who had never played it before. However, in a very unexpected and interesting turn of events, I actually found my experience didn't help me as I thought it would and left me very much on an equal playing field with Ben. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Additionally, I found that I had to correct myself when I lapsed back into my Evolution mindset to implement a strategy I would have done there, but no longer applied here (ie. no body size, can attack other players by default, etc.). Since this was my experience, I included it in my review. It doesn't take away from the game itself, but I thought it would be helpful for other veteran Evolution players to have this expectation going in (so they will remember to pay close attention to the rule changes), otherwise their experience with the game might not be as good as it could be.
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Dominic Crapuchettes
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I'm not offended in any way and I don't think I got the wrong impression. I think you expressed yourself very well. By making you into a "believer" I mean that your B rating might become an A rating after we've put the final polish into the game. We'll find out soon...
 
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