The turbulent waters of the ocean contain about 300 different types of squid. This fact was a surprise to me. The reason for the existence of more than one or two kinds of squid is beyond my comprehension, but it led me to a question: how many different types of giant squid are there? The simple answer is that no one knows for sure, but some scientists believe there may be as many as eight.
But, the question as to the size of the giant squid species is not why I’m writing this review.
Way back in 1998, over twenty years before we hoarded toilet paper to prepare for a respiratory virus outbreak, a young fellow named Dom Crapuchettes took on famed Magic: The Gathering pro, Jon Finkel in a battle for the New York Pro Tour finals. Dom played very well, but was not the victor.
But, his march to the finals is not why I’m writing this review, either.
Louisiana declared in the middle of March of 2020 that all public schools in the Bayou State would close through at least April 13, 2020. LSU and UL had already taken the unprecedented step of moving to tele-learning for all classes, which meant both of my college-aged sons came home. In addition to stocking up on more food, we needed something to occupy our time together.
And that, dear readers, is why I am writing this review of Oceans. When schools close, what can a family of board gamers do to pass the time?
Oceans is an absolutely gorgeous card game published by North Star Games and designed by a host of really smart people, all named either Nick Bentley, Dom Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, or Brian O’Neill. Set in the realistic and yet fantastical world of The Oceans of the Earth, Oceans plays from two to four players in about an hour to just un ‘tit peu above that. (Your first game will probably run 90 minutes, but we’ve been rockin’ and rollin’ since our first play in about an hour.) Oceans is not an expansion to any of North Star Games’ previous Evolution games; it is a stand alone game in the series, and by all accounts departs pretty wildly from the original games. I have yet to play Evolution, so I will just have to take the Krewe de Gumbo at their word. .
NOTE: North Star Games was kind enough to provide us with this review copy, although to be fair, in exchange I had to lug around this big box in the back of my truck, so that’s kind of a trade off there.
Wow, is this game beautiful. The front cover is a kaleidoscope of pastel colors representing the teeming life forms that abound in the ocean. Inside the giant box, primed for expansions in my opinion, lays a plastic insert and tons and tons and tons of cards.
I mean it, there’s a ton of cards in this game, starting with the starter cards (called ‘surface cards’) which come in twelve standard types, each with different varieties of migration power, and the awe-inspiring deck known as ‘The Deep.’ (More on that deck later.) Throw in forty or so scenario cards for good measure, which change the rules to the game every time you play. How in the heck did Dom et al have the time to design and play test this many different cards? The world may never know.
The rest of the “limited” edition is comprised of what seems like hundreds of tiny little cardboard fish in six different colors. These are the “points” in the game, and it is a sweet and satisfying move to drop them behind the player screens like chocolate chips on your pancakes. (The screens are there to hide the amount of points you have from Bradly, but don’t worry, he already has twice what you have.) I have seen the Kickstarter ‘deluxe’ edition when Dustin brought his copy to Gumbo Game Night, and if I recall correctly, the screens are exchanged for beautiful little cloth bags, and the fish are solid pieces instead of cardboard bits. .
All in all, this is a stellar production, one that will look amazing on your game table but most certainly will not be mistaken for a surface level salt-water tank if that’s your plan. Every time I have played, I have marvelled at the amazing pieces of art that North Star commissioned for this game.
I’ll be brief here, because it is so much more fun to shill our YouTube channel and point to my interview with Dom, where he explains the game better than I ever could. But, the game essentially boils down to four things:
- Players will Play a card from their hand, which either brings out a new species, enhances one of their already created species, or migrate fish;
- Then players will Feed just one of those species — either by foraging for food in the reef (yum!) or attacking another species (maybe even your own, if your preferred mode of play is ‘The Carlos Gambit’);
- Next, it is time to Age all of your fish, which gives you points for the end game (or ‘fish dollars’ to play The Deep cards); and
- Finally, we refresh our hand. You may grab one of The Deep Cards, and then discad any Surface cards you do not want, and finally, draw back up to six for your hand.
All of this is tempered by the two acts in the game. In the first Act, players can only play surface cards, which all have cool but uninspiring traits that are there to set up your engine and give you an inkling as to what strategy you will use in this game. Of course, you have to keep an eye on the scenario cards, too. They might give you a boost in terms of food production or make it easier to play more traits.
But then Act II arrives, when the Cambrian Explosion happens. Apparently, a gazillion years ago, The Big Man Upstairs put a little too much cayenne in his tasso sauce piquante, and the next thing you know, hundreds of gazillions of new species were formed. The game simulates this by doubling the amount of cards you can play as well as aging your species twice as fast. Yes, I realize that comparing the doubling of cards to a spicy Cayenne Explosion sounds a bit underwhelming, but trust me, it really is an explosion in terms of gameplay.
The spice comes in how each of those The Deep cards enhances your species. Unless cards or scenarios say otherwise, players can only play three traits on each species. But, even just playing three cards can rapidly evolve your species. In no time at all, your species will turn from a tender, algae eating bottom feeder to a hangry shark searching for the fish equivalent of Captain Quint. (I’d buy that promo card, Dom!) Finding the right combination of over-the-top traits for your species, and balancing them with the adjacency rules as well as the species in your own corner of the ocean, is the name of the game.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
I gave up a long time ago trying to predict, dear reader, whether you will like games that I like. I thought for sure that Bradly and Carlos, two guys in our game group that love card games and especially love interactivity, would instantly take to Oceans. Yet, somehow, Oceans went over with them as well as serving two week old salmon to a Seattle restaurant critic.
So, I put it away for a while.
And then, the Great Plague happened. My college-age boys returned to the reef, and we did a weekend long deep dive back into Oceans. (If only I were getting paid in fish puns.) I am so glad I did, because what I rediscovered that Oceans brings to the table not just Fun™ but also Joy™.
After our latest play, I was drinking coffee with my wife in the kitchen. (Well, she was drinking coffee, because as you well know, I wouldn’t drink coffee unless the coronavirus infected every sweet ounce of Mt Dew ever created) She remarked to me that amidst all of the doom and gloom on social media, it was nice to hear her boys cackling up a storm as we attacked each other’s species, or added crazy traits to our cards, or tried hard to pick one of three amazing cards that came up in our card draw from The Deep. She said she absolutely loved the joy that Oceans brought to our household this past weekend.
That’s what I love about Oceans, too. The first half of the game, before the Cayenne…I mean, the Cambrian Explosion happens, it feels like the gameplay kind of putters along. Everyone is playing interesting combinations that might generate two or three fish here and there for your species, but the tenor is so very genteel.
And then, bam! The explosion happens, which not only allows you to play more cards, and put more points behind your screen, but you can also play The Deep cards! My mind instantly conjures up a scene from a few years ago. I can imagine Nick and Dom and the rest of the Oceans krewe sitting around a table at the end of a Mardi Gras ball, after quaffing a little too much Abita. All of sudden, Nick mutters: “Oceans is fun, but it needs more cayenne.” (In my world, every one talks about cayenne.) And then Dom replied, “That’s exactly what we need, more cayenne.” And then Ben said “Let’s create a deck full of cayenne!” (See?)
Why is The Deep deck such a game changer? Great question, and if I were a better reviewer, I would have probably told you already. The Deep is a deck of OVER ONE HUNDRED different spicy cards, each with unique powers that literally will figuratively break the game. Just when you think you have the perfect combo of traits that is going to create a cavalcade of fish to come storming behind your player shield, someone else plays a card that stops the school of fish in their fish tracks. Or vice versa.
The Deep cards are game altering and game changing and game cards, and really ramp up the replayability. There are so many cards in that deck that I still have yet to see them all in action. In each game, you will only put about five or ten of The Deep cards in your hand, and maybe get a good look at twice that many, so it feels like there is so much more to explore.
So, who will this game appeal to? Anyone that likes playing card combolicious games will probably dig Oceans. Anyone that is not afraid to play a game where each flip of the top card in a deck can alter the game play will enjoy Oceans. Anyone that likes a little player interactivity mixed in with their combo play is going to enjoy Oceans.
Unfortunately, that applies in reverse, too. My wife watched us play, but some of the card play was pretty aggressive, and I think it has given her a little pause. Here’s a good time to talk about a note the designers put in their rulebook. Near the back, they suggest that each game group make the game personal to them, by adding or subtracting The Deep cards that come out and do not fulfill the goal of bringing joy to the game. I can only assume that Marie Kondo took a pass at the rule book, and added the little phrase, but it is a cool touch. If you want more take that cards, add them into the deck. If you want less interactivity, take them out. If you want more mind-blowing chain reaction combolicious cards, make it so! It is your game, make it the experience you want, and have fun.
Oceans has been a blast to play with my college aged sons, less so with the guys from the Krewe. I’m not sure why, and I wish I did. The ocean itself is a big, deep, dark, scary place for most people, and yet, for sailors for time immemorial, the sea has been a place of adventure and daring.
Oceans the board game is a little bit like that. The base game is a bit like wading around in the shallow edges of Perdido Beach, but if you look ahead of you, you can see deeper colors that signify deeper waters are just a swim stroke or two away. With The Deep cards in play, Oceanst is deep and the cards that come out are scary powerful, but if you have a sense of adventure and daring, and you have a group of friends who do not mind the vagaries of drawing cards from decks with immense potential power, I imagine that Oceans will be as fun for you as it has been for my family.
Or, you can watch reruns of SeaQuest 2032. It’s your call. (I’d pick Oceans, instead, if I were you.)
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo