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An underwater arms race drives a vibrant new game


Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, and Brian O’Neill
North Star Games
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North Star Games’ new board game, Oceans, simulates marine evolution, modeling the fierce struggle for existence among competing species in an “eat or be eaten” environment. It does this by enabling players to create species whose feeding strategies are dictated by one of 12 trait cards. “Filter feeders,” for example, forage exclusively from the fish tokens in the game’s reef zone. “Apex predators,” on the other hand, must successfully attack other players’ species. Players can react with defensive behaviors, such as “inking” and “schooling,” which, in turn, create pressure on other players to produce predators with ever-stronger attacks, in a coevolutionary arms race. The food tokens a player earns from feeding attempts are added to the individual board of each species and are eventually converted into the final points that determine victory at the game’s conclusion.

Oceans is the latest addition to the highly praised North Star Games Evolution series (1–3). Veterans of the earlier games in that series will recognize Catherine Hamilton’s mesmerizing illustrations on the box and on the game’s main (“surface”) deck of cards. Her vibrant watercolors simultaneously capture the elegance of real species’ forms while leaving room for players’ imaginations to complete the canvas of their new creations. The “deep” deck, however, which comprises 89 unique abilities, includes designs from other talented artists, lending to their distinctive feel.

The game preserves one of the key elements of its predecessors, illustrating trade-offs associated with certain feeding strategies. Food tokens are limited, and players must either keep the reef well stocked, or species that feed from the reef must eventually adapt to life in deeper habitats. But Oceans really ups the ante when it comes to species and player interactions.

Catherine Hamilton

The game cleverly incorporates a host of traits that create symbiotic relationships between and among players’ species. For instance, “parasitic” creatures leech food tokens from adjacent species, whereas “shark cleaners” gain tokens when a large attack has been made. A single feeding event can trigger a cascade of effects among a species’s symbionts, highlighting the interconnectedness of life in such ecosystems and illustrating the vital role of keystone species. Abrupt changes to these species send reverberations across the community and spell extinction for those that cannot evolve fast enough. Players are also discouraged from allowing their species to indulge in unbridled feeding frenzies: those that gain too many fish tokens overpopulate, and their numbers collapse by half.

Every game of Oceans features an event known as the Cambrian Explosion, named for the period in Earth’s history characterized by rapid speciation rates and a burst of morphological innovation. Here, players use double the amount of trait cards per turn, thus hastening the evolutionary turnover of traits. This second half of the game also requires species to consume more food per round to survive, intensifying the game’s tempo.

While it is possible to play the game using only the 12 surface trait cards, the game gets really weird (in a good way) if players choose to add in the cards from the deep deck after the Cambrian Explosion. This deck features powerful and mysterious cards that lean into science fiction and embrace the unknown lurking in our thalassic depths, as deep-sea krakens, leviathans, and behemoths rear their heads. It also features a range of real, magnificent, and game-changing traits found in the deep sea, such as intelligence, bioluminescence, and coprophagia (yes, the game goes there). It is worth noting that gentle giants can also evolve with great success, lest it seem as though the game is biased toward aggressive strategies at this phase.

Oceans invites players to marvel at the rich diversity of ocean life, from the vivacious reef to the mysterious ocean depths. Building on the prior successes of the series, it packages all this into a fast-paced and dynamic strategy game with high replay value.

1. S. West, Nature 528, 192 (2015).
2. A. Chuang, Science 355, 587 (2017).
3. M. R. Muell et al., Evolution 10.1111/evo.13924 (2020).

About the author

(1) Department of Psychology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.

(2) New Mexico Consortium, Los Alamos, NM 87544, USA.