Bluffing and surprise in Oceans

Last week we described a big change we’re making to the Evolution system to create Oceans, the next standalone game in the series (specifically, we’re merging the main phases of the game into one). We also gloated about the excellent effects it would have on the game. How lucky are we that everything we do is exactly right and free of downsides! Our lives are buttercups and rainbows.


Alas it’s not true. The new system has weaknesses. There are pleasures from Evolution we’ll lose if we’re careless.

This post is about one such weakness. However it’s a weakness we’ve fixed, which allows us to retain our smug self regard for another post before finally sinking into the abyss of unresolved challenges.

To review: unlike in Evolution, mutation and selection are fused into one interactive process in Oceans. On your turn, you must, if possible, take one of 5 actions:

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

Let’s talk about the third action: give a species a trait. 

We realized early in testing this scheme risks losing something from Evolution: the bluff and surprise that comes from that game’s mutation phase. In that phase, players give their species traits, but they play them face down and only reveal them when the selection phase begins. It has nice effects:

Bluffing: You can modify your species to make opponents think you’re evolving one way when you’re actually evolving another. For example: when you replace a “Carnivore” trait on a species with a face down trait. Other players may assume the species is now an herbivore and may therefore replace their defensive traits with others. But what if you replaced your Carnivore trait with another Carnivore trait? Joke’s on them!

Surprise: Before the feeding phase begins, all face down traits are revealed, which produces “HA!” and “ARG!” moments as it dawns on players how the changes impact their prospects.

oopsour typical expression when the traits are revealed

We want to retain that (or something like it) in Oceans, but we can’t do it the same way Evolution does because in Oceans there are no phases and therefore no big reveal between them. We needed to find a new way, so here’s what we did:

  • When you give a species a trait, you may place it either face up or face down.
  • Your species cannot use the power of a trait unless it’s face up
  • You may turn a face down trait face up at any time, whether it’s your turn or not, it doesn’t cost you an action, and it’s power immediately takes effect.

This allows you to hide your intentions. It also ratchets the tension. You can use face down traits to hide your ability to eat plankton or other creatures, hide how fast your body size can evolve or your populations can grow, etc. We’re even playing with a trait called Convergent Evolution, which effectively turns a species into the species next to it. We love when a player turns that face up and the other players realize the species is a completely different kind of critter than they thought it was. It can turn the tide quickly.

things aren’t always what they seem

The most dramatic effect is when a species tries to eat another species with a facedown trait. The attacked species can reveal a defensive trait that prevents the attack, and in that case, the attacking species loses one from its population. The predator either got injured or wasted too much energy and starved.

We like this system because it preserves the bluffing, and also because it’s thematic. When a predator goes hunting, it doesn’t always know how its target will react, and it doesn’t always succeed. Maybe the target will defend itself. Maybe it’ll swim too fast for the predator to catch it. To survive as a predator is to cope with failure. Most of the time when predators go hunting in real ecosystems (land and sea), and we mean like ~90% of the time, they come up empty.

This is a good thing for an ecosystem. If predators were successful in every hunt, they would clear their ecosystem of prey and starve themselves to extinction. It would lead to unstable ecosystems and in our case unstable game play.

The uncertainty of attacking unfamiliar species also means predators prefer to attack species they already know. Why take a chance on unknown prey? Oceans replicates this: predators prefer to attack species whose traits are known over species with face down traits. We like it when game tactics replicate real life tactics.

We hope it sucks you in.

but not like this

From the sea,

Brian and Nick

Previous posts in this series

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