Will your water dwelling species reign supreme?
Android & iOS
# of Players
North Star Games
North Star Digital Studios
Oceans is an engine building game for one or two players from North Star Games. In this standalone sequel of the popular Evolution game players use a hand of cards to evolve sea creatures, attempting to be the most efficient feeders in the ocean. At the end of the game, all food your creatures have managed to gather is tallied up, and the player with the most wins. A game typically takes about 15 minutes.
The first thing to note here is that this game is actually titled Oceans Lite. The “Lite” is, as you might expect, quite important here. Evolution, the first game from North Star’s in-house digital team, is one of the most feature-packed digital board games out there. It is bursting with options, play modes, and extras. Oceans, quite simply, is not that. At least not yet. The apparent model for this one is to roll out more features and content over time as in app purchases. We’ll get into that a bit more later.
In Oceans, players start out with a hand of cards that represent traits of an ocean-dwelling species. To create a new species, simply play any card from your hand onto a new space in your tableau. That creates a new creature with the given trait. A trait might allow your species to feed twice, gain a defensive power, bulk up for attacking other creatures, and so on.
The goal of the game is to collect fish tokens onto your species and age these tokens at the end of your turn. Aging occurs automatically, with a single token being removed from each of your species and placed into your point bucket (unofficial name). Should one of your species not have any tokens to age, that species goes extinct and gets removed from your tableau entirely. Fish tokens are stored in a few sections in the middle of the game. The reef is the starting section with three adjacent slots in the row.
The game plays until the fish tokens in the reef and first slot are depleted. This roughly marks the halfway point in the game and opens up a few different changes. First, the Deep cards are now available to be played. This is a separate deck of trait cards that players can choose from (either one of two that are face up, or draw a few blind and choose one) which provide stronger abilities than the standard deck. Every card in the deep deck is completely unique, which gives the game amazing depth as you won’t see all that many in a given game.
Along with the deep, the Cambrian Explosion occurs when that first fish slot empties. This allows all players to play two cards per turn and age each fish twice. This, obviously, accelerates the pace of the game for a more frantic finish. The final twist after the Cambrian Explosion is unique game conditions for the game now come into play, these are referred to as scenario cards. Scenario cards are generally in the form of beefing up all species across the board, such as giving them all a defense or starting bonus.
The game continues at its accelerated pace until all of the fish on the board are gone, at which point each player gets one more turn (using backup fish, so you can still score) and the game ends. The player with the most fish, both in their bucket and on their species wins the game.
That’s Oceans. It is similar to Evolution on a basic level, but different in a few key areas. Primarily, your feeding (and therefore, survival) are more dependent on your species and their ability to feed themselves than relying on how much food is available in a common area. Your species in Oceans don’t die because there isn’t enough food to eat, they die because you weren’t able to feed them. It still all comes down to your ability to chain together symbiotic species, but the details are somewhat flipped.
A related major change is being less concerned about predators. Sure, they will still attack weak species and steal fish tokens, but you don’t lose a species unless it can’t age on your turn. So, your opponent attacks your weak species and steals all of its fish, but if it can feed on your turn, it will live on. Perhaps long enough for you to play a strong defensive trait to prevent future attacks. This makes predators much less terrifying than they are in Evolution. They are still quite powerful, but there is a bit less finality to a powerful attack in Oceans.
I have come to enjoy Oceans more than Evolution. The games share a lot of DNA, obviously, but I enjoy the slight twists and tweaks Oceans offers. The Deep cards along with the ocean powers provide a ton of variety outside of just random draw of the main deck. The fundamental change in scoring and when species die is a positive change that gives players more time to adapt. There is still the potential for getting far behind in Oceans and not being able to catch up, but I feel that is less so than in Evolution.
Barrier to Entry
Oceans is taught through a tutorial which steps you through a few turns but covers the basic events for a full game. I think I would have been a bit confused after playing the tutorial if I weren’t familiar with Evolution, but that’s an onion I can’t unpeel so it’s tough to say for sure. The tutorial skims over most of the explanation in favor of telling you how/what to do.
The lightness goes along with the entire feel of the game, so it makes sense in that regard, but I suspect players unfamiliar with Oceans or the Evolution games might find themselves wanting a bit more hand holding from the tutorial.
Look and Feel
The game looks good. The artwork is a little cramped on phones, but it shines in load screens and menus. The game runs smoothly, giving you the option to speed up the in-game animations to make things play a bit quicker if you please.
Controls are handled primarily through drag-and-drop. You create new species, or improve your current species, by dragging cards from your hand into your play area. You feed in the same way. Options such as declining to draw a deep card or discarding are handed with a button confirm. It all works simply and intuitively.
The free version does not include any multiplayer options. Local pass-and-play can be unlocked with the first in-app purchase.
Single player is played against a single AI opponent. In the free game you can play against Beginner or Easy AI, with Medium being unlocked via in-app purchase. Beginner, as you would expect, makes a lot of glaring mistakes and is best used for those just learning the game. Easy plays a more competent game, but doesn’t provide too stiff of a challenge.
Oceans Lite is looking to follow the freemium model. The game is technically free, but with limited content. The IAP available at launch time adds ten more deep cards, three more scenario cards, pass-and-play mode, and medium AI. This is available for $0.99.
The Wrap Up
Oceans Lite is an interesting entry into the digital tabletop world. Evolution was fully jam packed with features from the start and they added more over time. Oceans is pretty slim for now, near release, but it’s also free and there appear to be plans to roll out more features over time. Many games take the freemium model, or “free to try”, but I can’t recall any that slowly roll out content/features for small IAP. This certainly doesn’t seem like a bad approach, it potentially allows users to purchase only what they want, depending on how future IAP are added. Don’t care about full online play? Don’t buy it! That has some potential, for sure.
The monetization model aside, Oceans Lite is a free way to try out a fun game. If you have any curiosity around Oceans, you should go try the app now and you will be able to learn the game and play against some lightweight AI to get your feet wet. If you like what you see, you can cheaply add pass-and-play, medium AI, and more cards. It’s hard to see Oceans Lite, in its current form, becoming an obsession for anybody. There’s simply not enough there as I type this, shortly after launch. If it follows the path of Evolution, however, it will add features to get to that point. As it stands today, if you want to try Oceans, this is the best way to do that and for a small price you can play locally or against a decent AI.
This is a tough one to score. As a free app to let you play a game, it’s five stars. Intentions and price aside, the app is extremely bare bones. The final score here weighs the intentions, which is why it has been given a good score. It’s really difficult to bash a good, free implementation of a game, even if it’s lacking in features.