Why Oceans’ defensive traits are weak and why we love that

Disclaimer: this post is about a game we’re currently designing – Oceans: An Evolution Game. Everything we say about it could be negated by future decisions we haven’t made yet. We’re potential future liars! Be warned.

We (marine biologist Brian O’Neill and game designer Nick Bentley) have been at work designing Oceans since last November.


Also drinking heavily. Our wine glasses have fish on them.

One aspect of the game we’re currently happy with are the defensive traits – the traits which protect a species against attacks. The thing is: they’re weak. They all tend to fail and it’s up to the players to anticipate and navigate those failures to keep their species alive.

That may sound like a bad thing for gameplay (who wants to be eaten all the time?), but it’s not. There are peculiarities in Oceans’ design that make weak traits cool.

First, though predators abound in the game (because they abound in real life oceans), there are 4 mechanisms helping species to survive and thrive in apart from the specific functions of the defensive traits:

Fast Population Growth the traits you give a species also gives it some population. This can make it easier to keep a species from going extinct even if it’s successfully attacked a lot. Of course, reproducing quickly is one of the key ways real species remain viable.

Predators can’t just attack any smaller species – Like in real oceans, predators only attack species which are just a little smaller. Species which are too much smaller are safe. Sharks don’t eat minnows.

Face-down traits – When you give a species a trait, you can play it either face up or face down. Face down traits don’t give species their benefits, but you may turn a trait face up at any time, on your turn or on anyone else’s, including when a predator attacks. If you turn up a defensive trait that protects your species in response to an attack, the attack fails and the predator loses a population (it starves). As a result, predators are wary of attacking species with face down traits, and sometimes you can deter attacks by bluffing. This is nice because it reflects real life. Predators don’t always know what kind of defenses prey may spring, and therefore prefer known prey. The mechanic is good for both gameplay and theme!

Ability to acquire traits on every turn – In Oceans, the species are constantly changing and you have the ability to give a species a trait on every turn, so long as you traits in hand to give. Consequently, if a defensive traits fails, you can sometimes replace it with another one before you get attacked, or at least replace it with a face down card that deters predators long enough that they fill up on some other poor species.

These four factors allow for (in fact demand) weak defensive traits. But why do we like that? Two reasons:

  1. High Dynamic Value – we think it’s cool when the power of traits change fluidly depending on context, and that’s the definition of a weak defensive trait. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. That fluidity creates interesting tactical and strategic problems to anticipate and solve. How can I keep my species in an environment where it’s defenses will keep working? How can I avoid being eaten even though a given defense is going to fail? A strong defensive trait, by contrast, is strong because it’s fairly invariant to the environment.
  2. Theme! – In real life, species operate with little margin for error. Everyone is vulnerable. The fact that ecosystems thrive despite such vulnerability feels miraculous and we want to design that miracle into our game. Life always finds a way! The great tragicomedy of existence.

The defensive traits we’re digging right now

You probably want to see our defensive traits. Here are 4 we like playing with at present, illustrated with crappy images stolen from the internet because the real art’s not done yet.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 8.08.15 PM

We’ll start with Schooling because it’s the most familiar to Evolution players. It’s essentially Defensive Herding from the original game. This is the only trait in Oceans that mimics a trait from Evolution. We’re playing with it currently for two reasons: 1) it’s one of the weaker traits in Evolution, which makes it perfect for Oceans (almost – we’ve weakened a bit more even); and b) we really want a Schooling trait. We’re cool for school.

If a species with Schooling loses population either through starvation or predation from a species with higher population, the trait gets weaker. It can lead to a death spiral whereby the school slowly disbands.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 8.08.42 PM

Transparency has been in Oceans longer than any other defensive trait. It only works in murky water. So you watch as the plankton in the reef dwindles, and the water clears, and prey comes into view. If you’re a predator you lick your chops. If you’re transparent, you panic. It’s like a ticking time bomb that ends in a feeding frenzy, if I may mix metaphors.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 8.07.57 PM

Ink is useless at the beginning of a round, but grows in strength as you eat enough food to make ink. However it can still fail if you run out of food to eat and some predator is willing to attack you so much that you lose all the food you’ve already eaten. It’s often a big sacrifice for a predator to do that, however, so it only tends to happen when a predator is utterly desperate.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 8.09.00 PM

Rapid Evolution is the weirdest defensive trait, and our favorite of this set. It doesn’t stop any attack, but it allows you to evolve faster so as to avoid attacks (and make attacks of your own) later. It adds dynamism because it allows a species to jump to a different position in the food chain, which effectively restructures the food chain and shifts around other players’ plans.

Of course we can’t promise these will all make it into the final game. Traits are subject to a lot of, um, selection pressure, and many die off, bottom feeders collecting their carcasses on the ocean floor of yesterday’s ideas. Or something.

From the Sea,

Brian and Nick


Until next time, our advice is to avoid Tiger Seals

Previous posts in this series


2 thoughts on “Why Oceans’ defensive traits are weak and why we love that

  1. You said earlier you hope to have the game delivered to North Star in time for Gen Con, which I couldn’t make. Will you be at Essen?

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