The biggest difference between Evolution and Oceans (besides the fish)

I’ve played Evolution more than 500 times and taught it to at least 2000 people. It used to be my job. You’d think I’d hate it but I love it more than ever.


me, 3 years and more than 400 games ago

One thing I’ve learned: it’s deep. I keep finding new layers without hitting bottom. I’ve also run lots of tournaments, some with more than 80 players. At a table full of skilled and experienced players, it’s a different game. Its depth isn’t something you can see right away. If you’ve only played a few times, it’s easy to conclude Evolution is a family game (as for example Quinns over at Shut Up and Sit Down did). And it is a family game, but not only. It’s somehow both a family game and a tournament game. To prove it, I’ll be happy to put anyone who thinks otherwise on ice (are you reading this Quinns!?)


(probably not)

I like deep games. If we let them, they can shake us from habits of careless thought, show us our unconscious assumptions, and remind us our problems are there for the solving. As I become skilled at a deep game, I become a better version of myself. This is why I fell in love with games many years ago, and why I’ve devoted my life to designing them.

Evolution is that kind of game, so we feel profound respect for it and big responsibility in designing the next Evolution game: Oceans, a standalone game we’ve been writing about for the last 6 weeks (see here, here, and here).

We’re also excited. We know the system like we know our own hands, and now we get to use that knowledge. Instead of trying to design a good game from scratch, we’re starting with a great system and trying to make it better.


this is how we think of ourselves

This post is about how we’re doing that. In fact it’s about the biggest change we’re making to the system. Here we go:

For those who haven’t played, Evolution is played in rounds. Each round has two main phases:

Phase I – species adapt

Phase II – species compete for food

Over time, I’ve developed two niggles with this scheme:

1) It’s not as thematic as it could be –  in real-life evolution, mutation and selection aren’t separated into phases. Rather the two interact continuously. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened in the game too? and 2) It can confuse new players – the two phases have different turn rules, which is a bit choppy and hard for some new players to remember.

So for Oceans, we’ve merged these phases into one. Of all the mechanics we’ve tried, none has gotten more positive feedback. Every play tester who knows Evolution (about 30 currently) has told us they prefer it.

How the new round structure works

In Oceans, in each round, you must take 1 of five possible actions on your turn:

  1. alter a species’ body size
  2. raise a species’ population
  3. give a species a trait
  4. feed a species
  5. create a new species

Players take turns until all players are out of actions, and then a new round starts.

I won’t describe how each action works because it’s not relevant here. But bear in mind they don’t all work like they do in Evolution. If you play Evolution and think something might be broken or missing here, note you’re not getting the whole story. We’ll discuss the actions in future posts. Bear with us for now.


How the new round structure changes the system

First, indeed it feels more thematic, and it’s easier for new players to learn, as they no longer have to learn two sets of turn rules. Those are the first things you notice, but there are other effects too.

Scope for new traits

In Evolution, the traits exert their effects only during the feeding phase, not when species are evolving. So the traits in Evolution mostly affect species’ ability to eat or avoid being eaten. In contrast, because mutation and selection happen together in Oceans, we can design traits with wider-ranging effects. We’re working on traits that effect how body sizes change, how populations change, how species acquire other traits, how new species evolve from old, and how all these things interplay with the need to eat.

New, thematic tactics and strategy

In real evolution, the rate at which a species evolves depends how much selection pressure it’s under. If a species is starving or being predated heavily, it’s likely to change faster than a species that isn’t.

Thanks to Oceans’ new round structure, that now also happens in Oceans. If you can feed and protect a species without modifying it, that’s the way to go, because it allows you to preserve your cards (and thus your available actions) until later in the round when other players may have run out and can’t respond. So it’s not just the rules that reflect real life, it’s also the dynamics that emerge from them. It’s emergent theme!

It also means there’s a new, and central, strategic consideration: how to preserve and maximize the number of turns you’ll be able to take now and in future rounds? That didn’t exist at all in Evolution.

These new dynamics put us in new design territory, and we’re still trying to understand the implications. We still sometimes make dumb design choices based on old assumptions. But we’re ok with that because it’s part of the thrill of creating something new. No one will feel like we’ve re-skinned Evolution, which is good because it would just about kill us if we ended up with a game like that.

Next up

In our next post, we’ll start discussing how the actions work. Tentatively, because we’re still working on them.

So long and thanks for all the fish,

Brian and Nick




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