Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Thursday 7 May 2020

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Oceans

Game: Oceans

Publisher: North Star Games

Designer:  Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, Brian O'Neill

Year: 2020

Oceans is a standalone game in the popular Evolution series from North Star Games. This 2-4 layer game is all about creating underwater species who have a symbiotic relationship that allows all of your species to feed and thrive. Only one of your species is actually able to forage for food at the reef or attack another species per round, but you need every species to be able to feed. To solve this, you might have some species who are whale cleaners or shark cleaners, activated by their respective co-dependent buddies. Or perhaps a parasite, feeding off others.

When the cambrian explosion comes, evolution is suddenly happening a whole lot faster - you need to grow your population quicker to feed more and weird and wonderful creatures from the deep will also be injected into the game.

Oceans really captures this colourful underwater word, but did it captivate us more than Evolution?


For those who have already played Evolution, the basic gameplay in Oceans will feel extremely familiar. You start the game with no species and a handful of trait cards, on your turn you can play exactly one trait card in order to boost a species' odds of survival, and then feed one, and only one of your species. Each species may typically only have 3 traits in total. Should you think you are ready to support them, you can create a new species during your turn too. At the end of your turn every species you own will age, consuming one food off its species board and placing it behind your player screen as points. Any species which cannot age will go extinct, being removed from play.

Feeding a species happens in one of two ways. You can either feed from the reef, which contains a limited pool of fish (though you can forgo placing a trait in order to move more fish into the reef), or you can attack another species directly. All species can eat one food as a baseline, but as traits start to come out you can improve your ability to forage and/or attack. You can also gain shells which work as defense against attacks. But feeding isn't the only way to get food, many traits offer passive food when certain actions happen. For example whenever a species with 3 or more attack feeds on a species, the first shark cleaner to the attacker's left and right will also gain food. With clever placement of traits you can generate huge amounts of food without ever having to feed that species! But be careful not too overfeed your species, should any species reach 10 food then the population crashes, going back down to 5.

Approximately halfway through the game you will have consumed enough food to trigger the Cambrian Explosion. This event doubles the number of traits you can play in a turn, doubles the amount each species needs to age every round, and also allows deep traits to be played. Deep traits come from a special deck which you can always choose to draw from even before the explosion. Every single deep card is unique, powerful and requires you to sacrifice stored food if you want to place it. Every game also has 2 more events which trigger as food stocks dwindle, making each game have a new twist on the best way to survive. Eventually food stocks in the central area will run out entirely. At this point everyone continues until they have had the same number of turns (there is s special bag of reserve food for the remaining players to eat) and then the player with the most food behind their screen and on their surviving species wins.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

Simple enough to play, and yet incredibly deep once you get past the surface. Every time you play Oceans it does exactly what you want it to do, it creates an ecosystem. You can strip it down to its bare mechanics and call it engine building, sure. But to me those collections of cards are so much more. You see my speedy tentacled apex predator isn't just extremely deadly in its own right. It's also the parent of a whole ecosystem. From the parasites that feed off of it, to the shark cleaners that live along side it, it doesn't just look after itself, but a whole trickle down economy. The great thing is those parasites might not be mine, my fellow players are making the most of my creature's power by learning to feed from it.

Oceans has a huge amount of player interaction and the fascinating thing is that it isn't necessarily hostile interaction. It's perfectly viable to create species who want to be attacked, and even surround them with species who can hide from attack, while feeding on the corpses of their neighbours. The key to Ocean's ecology not feeling aggressive is the fact that species don't go extinct until the end of their player's turn. It doesn't matter how much you get targeted, so long as you can get some food in their mouths before the end of our turn then they will survive. With the constant risk of over overpopulation even the most powerful predators are brought to heel, generating 9 food in one feed might be impressive, but now you need to wait for that species to age for several turns before they can feed again.

The standard deck of cards that you play with contains many copies of basic traits. These are the cards that you will get to know, they have standard, incremental, buffs to your foraging and attack strength, ways to hide from predators and ways to get minor passive food from various actions. This in itself would make for a huge amount of variety, but once the Cambrian Explosion hits, all bets are off. The deep cards range from bizarre, but potentially very useful to simply ridiculously powerful. With 100 unique cards in the deck it's going to be a long time before you get used to what this deck contains. They bring with them so much potential for unique and powerful creatures which keeps dragging me back.

The game is also beautiful, the card art follows on from Evolution's somewhat alien animal designs. Combine this with the bizarre reality that is what actual deep sea lifeforms look like and you create a a deck of beautiful, though occasionally somewhat disturbing cards. On top of this the food your eating is little cardboard fish, colour coordinated to match your player count. So long as you can get over eating dozens of little Nemos and Dorys they are fantastic components.
I really can't recommend Oceans enough, I fell in love with the first play and each subsequent one has been unique, noticeably different, but no less enjoyable. Far more than its terrestrial predecessor, Oceans makes you create a (usually) functioning ecosystem which evolves as the game progresses. Winning the game isn't about making the biggest-baddest fish or the fattest forager around, it's about reading the state of the ecosystem around you and adapting to change. Oceans is absolutely, utterly phenomenal.

Fi’s Final Thoughts

When we first played Oceans at SHUX last year, I knew we'd found a new game for our collection. It really is engine building at its best and it's been a joy to play upon repeat plays too. There's two big appeals to engine building games for me, it's the combo creation and the ramp up of the game, and Oceans offers both in spades. In terms of engine building, planning you species so that they all work in harmony is key and it can feel like accounting at times, but the best kind! Each species needs to find ways to feed off others in your ecosytstem, or perhaps off the species that other players have. The ramp up is intensified, not only by getting your engine running well, but also by the Cambrian Explosion, which really notches up in the pressure, because species start ageing twice a turn, but you can also start playing two trait cards to compensate.

There's not a huge variety in the basic deck for Oceans, so your strategy will possibly only vary a result of the starting couple of hands of cards. I don't particularly enjoy predator strategies, but I've still played them and found new ways to enjoy the game. Luckily in Oceans, a lack of card variety can never be a significant complaint. The Deep deck is a deck of 100 completely unique traits that you an add to your species at a cost.

One other aspect of this game that I really love is its aesthetic. In terms of the actual production, the insert doesn't make a lot of sense and slotting together your cardboard components is a painstaking operation, but the actual look of the game is super appealing to me. The cardboard fish beat wooden meeples for me any day - they have so much charm and I love how when you add another player, you don't need to count out the components, you just mix in another different patterned fish type. The deep deck is a deck of unique cards and everyone has unique artwork by a host of different artists. They've really very beautiful, even though some capture some rather gruesome and menacing looking creatures. I really feel like I've been thrust into the world of BBC's Blue Planet. Oceans makes a lot out of lovely artwork and simple component design, meaning it's quick to setup on the table and looks amazing once its there!

Oceans stands head and shoulders above Evolution for me. While the same genetics to the two games are obvious, Oceans just feels far more refined and sophisticated. I love the way it really feels like you are creating an ecosystem that works together with all sorts of symbiotic effects. The level of player interaction is really high, both in terms of attacking opponents but also feeding off the species of your neighbours, but it never feels mean like it does in Oceans. If you species goes to zero population, it's really your fault for not having a contingency plan, not particularly your opponent's fault for eating them in a prior round. If you're looking for a great engine building game, or even a tool for home schooling, then Oceans is a superb pick!

You Might Like...
  • Whilst you can still attack other players,the game is far less confrontational than Evolution.
  • The deep cards add a lot o potential variety to a game that otherwise might feel a bit limiting.
  • In terms of production, Oceans does amazing things with cardboard!

You Might Not Like...
  • With the right scenario cards, the end game can come a little too quickly.
  • The box is far larger than it needs to be, but hopefully that's a sign of many expansions to come.

The Verdict
9/10 Oceans is a lovely production of a fantastic game. The unique artworks and cardboard components give it a beautiful look on the table and it's clear how much love and research went into the theme. The gameplay is a superbly satisfying engine builder with lots of player interaction that does feel aggressive. We will be exploring the deep for many games to come.

Oceans was a review copy kindly provided to us by North Star Games. Photos are from the Kickstarter Limited Edition.

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