Three dimensions of theme in Oceans, and one challenge

In Lewis Carrol’s classic tale, Through the Looking-Glass, Alice asks the Red Queen why she’s running everywhere. The Red Queen answers, “…It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”


What does this have to do with Oceans, the soon-to-be greatest board game of all time? There’s an aspect of gameplay in Oceans that embodies what’s known as “The Red Queen” hypothesis, a biological idea named after the passage above. We’re using today’s post to describe how it works, along with a couple of other thematic points of interest in Oceans. Here we go.

#1 – The Red Queen

First, remember the rounds in Oceans don’t have distinct evolution and feeding phases like in Evolution. Instead, Oceans plays out in fluid rounds where evolution and feeding happen together in an intertwined way. See this post for more about that.

One result of this change is what we’re calling “body size races”. They appeared in our first playtest: There Nick and Brian were, sitting across the table from each other with boyish grins [editor’s note: Nick’s grin is more ‘roguish’, really] for the first play. We played a round or two eating plankton from the reef, but then Nick raised one of his species’ body sizes to 2, to become a predator.

Because Brian lacked good defensive traits, he raised his species’ body size too. Then Nick raised his body size again, and Brian responded again.

Except Nick had 1 more card than Brian, so he was able to get one bigger than Brian and eventually eat a member of his species. Brian should’ve evolved better.

What we were doing was coevolving. You can think of coevolution as Alice and the Red Queen trying to keep up with each other. Two species continuously evolving to keep ahead of each other to stay alive. This is especially easy to see with a predator-prey pair, for example cheetahs and gazelles. Slow gazelles are eaten and slow cheetahs starve. Play this out in nature and what do you get? Faster cheetahs, but also faster gazelles.


This kind of thing happens in all kinds of ways, and one them has to do with body size. Because ocean creatures tend to eat their prey whole, species can often avoid predation by being too big to eat. This leads to an arms race where predator and prey get bigger together in a coevolutionary spiral.


There is absolutely no point in trying to eat something the size of a commercial jet

In our game this happens most often in 2 player games, and there are 2 main ways to win the race. You can win by having more cards (plasticity in genes), or you can win by abandoning the body size race and playing a defensive trait. In fact sometimes, you can pretend to be invested in the body size race to push your opponent to raise a predator’s body size, when really you know all along that you have a defensive trait that will prevent an attack. A body size race can be a poor investment for a predator that doesn’t get anything out of it.

#2 – No Place to Hide

Another thing we’re striving to model in Oceans, is that in the biological world, nothing is safe. There’s no such thing as an invulnerable organism, and in fact nearly all critters live one false move from becoming lunch.

The original Evolution game had several ways that you could make a species fairly invulnerable, which is never true in biology. The largest, strongest, and toughest organisms can be taken down by the smallest bacteria or virus. To model this in Oceans, we’re making the defensive traits less reliable. For example, Transparency only protects your species from attack if plankton is in the reef (transparency only works in murky water).


Sitting there in the middle of a round not knowing how long the plankton will hold out makes for a dramatic experience. These dynamic moments are key to making a great experience/game, something we will kill ourselves to accomplish.

At the same time, however, we still want you to keep your species alive, so we’re also striving to make it easier to keep your species from going extinct despite their heightened vulnerability. For example, by giving you ways to grow populations faster than you could in the original game, or to speciate more easily. Which, incidentally, are also ways real ecosystems remain viable despite the fragility of the critters that comprise them.

#3 – A new way to model natural selection

We want Oceans to represent natural selection really well. Natural selection is the most common and easily recognizable evolutionary process, yet it’s notoriously hard to model within the architecture of a game. One of its defining features is that nothing controls it. Nobody is sitting behind those cheetahs, making them faster. It’s just that the slow ones die, thus boosting the average cheetah speed. The death causes the change. That gave Brian the idea of making traits that don’t defend your species, but rather cause your species to change when its members are eaten!

The idea lead Brian to conceive what is his current favorite trait, Rapid Evolution, which changes a species’ body size following an attack.


This is Brian’s thinking face. This is how he comes up with all of his awesome ideas. Beard-stroking is key to coming up with awesome stuff!

The great thing about this trait is that it mimics real ecosystems. Predators often prey on the smallest member of a group, which raises the average body size of the group with each predation. This is mirrored in our Rapid Evolution trait.

As soon as Brian thought of this trait he called Nick right away and to put it lightly Nick freaked out. Nick thought the trait was so on-theme he wanted to make this the default consequence of a successful attack [editor’s note: If we’re being honest here, Nick still kind of feels this way]  

There are lots of crazy tricks you can play with the trait. Brian likes to keep an Unhinged Jaw on a Rapidly Evolver, which creates opportunities for unexpected counterattacks (Unhinged Jaw allows you to attack species larger than would otherwise be possible). We’ve seen playtesters use it to their advantage by attacking a Rapid Evolver with one predator so they can bring it into the body size range of one of their larger predators. Double whammy. It combos with many of the other traits, and deepens the game nicely.

An unexpected challenge to theming a scientific game

Our push to make Oceans true-to-life has exposed a thematic catch-22:

On the one hand, we want to create a game that works like people would expect a game about ocean ecosystems to work. On the other, many people have misconceptions about how such systems work! So, by being accurate, we risk making the game feel “unthematic” to players who don’t understand why things happen the way they do!

For example: when people imagine how a swordfish uses its sword, they imagine it must spear things. It doesn’t. Instead, swordfish wave their swords around, specifically in schools of fish, to knock the fish silly.


When we put a “Sword” trait in the game that reflected this reality, play testers didn’t get it. So we took out Sword.

This kind of thing has now happened a bunch of times. The upshot is there are some things we can’t put in the game because they just confuse people.

Thankfully the ocean has more imagination than we ever could have and it surrounds us with plenty of compelling ideas. We have way more content than we could ever possibly put in the game even without the stuff that feels nonsensical to non-scientists.

From the sea,

Brian and Nick

P.S. Moby Dick sized thanks to those who contributed to the mountain of traits in the last post’s comments (more than 380 comments!). Today is the last day for submission. We’ll consider all the suggestions over the next 2 weeks and announce the winner in our next post. Good luck!

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