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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.

drinking

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

tiger-seal

Until next time, our advice is to avoid Tiger Seals

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Streamlining Oceans with our Designated Blowhard™ (and trait contest winner announced)

This post was written by Nick, one of Oceans’ co-designers (Brian, the other co-designer, added remarks in italicized parentheses). 

My favorite thing to do in life is design games. My second favorite thing is to develop techniques for designing games better (His third favorite thing probably has something to do with thinking about how to think about how gamers think about games)

FullSizeRender_3

Here we are designing Oceans using the “Staring Ruefully out to Sea” technique

Now and then I write essays about my techniques. For example: the 100:10:1 method, my most popular technique. I rely on it heavily, and it was a key factor in my decision to work on Oceans, the next game in the Evolution series, the game we’re writing about here today.

In designing Oceans, we’re also relying on another method, which we’ve come to call The Designated Blowhard™. The game has recently changed dramatically as a result. The story behind that change illustrates the method’s value.

What’s a Designated Blowhard™?

Greatness isn’t the usual outcome of game design. Thousands of table games are published each year and how many are truly great? One? Zero? (2018 will have at least 1, obviously) There are dozens of ways to biff a design and it’s achingly hard to avoid them all.

One of the most common biffs comes from ego attachment. You construct some system that you, the designer, personally love, and then stop. If everyone on earth were a clone of you that might be fine, but they’re not. The problem is worse for the fact that most people don’t like to give really broad negative feedback. You can have 100 play testers and not one willing to give that kind of feedback.

Specific negative feedback is easy. The more specific the criticism, the easier it is to remedy. But broad, negative editorial judgement is hard, because it feels like telling someone they’re whole project is crap, because that’s sort of what it is.

But every game designer needs broad negative feedback. You need someone standing over your shoulder, insisting over and over “this isn’t good enough”. That someone is your Designated Blowhard™

The Blowhard’s job is different from normal editorial oversight. It’s editorial oversight PLUS unbending clear-eyed no-bullshit drill sergeant nosebleed standard-setting. Likewise the designer shouldn’t treat the Blowhard’s feedback as like normal editorial feedback. He should treat it as chapter-and-verse capital-T truth. If your Blowhard says it’s not good enough, you don’t question. You go back to the drawing board.

designated-blowhard

It’s hard to find the right person for the job, because:

  • he must feel comfortable telling you you’re failing over and over. Real candor is harder than it looks. (Not for me! I tell Nick he sucks all the time and it rolls right off the tongue.)
  • you have to trust him entirely; enough to 100% believe him EVERY TIME he tells you your project isn’t good enough (like even the 35th time, when you start to wonder if you’re subject to a secret government psychops torture program).
  • he has to fully understand what it takes to make a great game, so he can accurately assess when you meet your standard. Not many people have that understanding. He should have invented at least one great game himself.

For most of my life as a game designer, I’ve not had a Designated Blowhard. Instead, I would take years to design a game, which allowed me to set it aside multiple times, and return to it later with fresh eyes and fresh dissatisfactions, so I could be my own blowhard.

That’s great if you can do it, but if you want to design professionally, you don’t always have that kind of time. You need to maintain a 10,000-foot perspective (I think he means 10,000 fathoms amiright?) and the highest standards without stepping out of a project in which, by necessity, you have completely lost yourself.

A good Designated Blowhard makes that possible, and it’s a beautiful thing. For the design of Oceans, we have one, and his involvement has recently transformed our game.

The Great Streamlining (of 2017)

After working on Oceans from November 2016 through April 2017, we began sending prototypes to North Star Games for assessment.  The main guy doing the assessing is Dominic Crapuchettes, the lead designer on all the other Evolution games. No one understands the system better, and no one is more interested in our success, since his company will publish the game. He became our Designated Blowhard.

dom-600

Look how mean he looks

As soon as he began testing, Dom began pushing us to simplify the game’s architecture, but without sacrificing any magic; to distill, nay amplify, the thematic and strategic richness through simplification.

So we’d return with something simpler, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough. So we’d redo it again, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough, so we’d redo it again, and he’d tell us it wasn’t simple enough and it wasn’t good enough. And again. And again.

What he was looking for was starting to feel like a pipe dream.

This is where the trust comes in: he kept believing it was possible, and we kept believing him. His standards became ours. I spent a lot of time angry with myself for not seeing the way through (I spent those days bipolar, swinging from excited about the fun we were having playing to being depressed about our lack of progess)

But that anger became fuel, and the fuel lit the afterburners. We got to playtesting every day, often in multiple locations, Brian doing tests in one place and me in another.

Then, one day, after another futile 7-hour design session (That session SUCKED), we broke through. It felt like a rainbow after a storm.

Here’s what the turn structure used to look like:

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 10.31.49 AM

Here’s what it looks like now:

 

player-aid

How it works

Notice there are no discards in the current version of the game. In Evolution, as well as in previous versions of Oceans, players discard from their hand for the right to upgrade their ecosystem in various ways.

We had a realization about these discards: they were the least fun way to use cards. There’s no pleasure in paying for something. To pay is to sacrifice. However, there IS pleasure in building your ecosystem. It’s the heart of the game. So what if you incorporate all your cards into your ecosystem and use none to pay for it? Would that be more pleasurable? Answer: yes, emphatically. It’s also smooth and simple.

In the current version, the only thing you do with your cards is give your species traits, but when you give a species a trait, that card also gives you the right to change that species’ population and/or body size by up to a certain amount.

A single card in Oceans now has the same total power on average that 4 cards do in Evolution, which has two other benefits (besides simple turns):

  1. each played-trait feels BIG
  2. your ecosystem can be built out quickly, which means you can get into the heart of the game, the combos and synergies, quicker. Each round, you give your ecosystem the equivalent of 16 Evolution cards’ worth of development, with just 4 cards. The system we were using before felt like plodding drudgery in comparison.

This is, frankly, the best idea we’ve had so far. Our playtesters, gamers and non-gamers alike, are unanimous in the opinion it’s our best version yet.

alewives-600

Eating some well-deserved alewives to celebrate our breakthrough

It’s unlikely we would’ve hit on it without Dom’s goading. And THAT’S why, if you design anything, you should find a good Designated Blowhard™ and then lean like hell on his judgment.

Trait Design Contest Winner

Congratulations to the winner of our trait contest, William A. (Acreman), whose Algae Bloom is the winner of our trait contest.

Algae Bloom – Add plankton to the reef equal to the number of players

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim. “Isn’t that an event card? How can it win a trait contest?” Well, we turned it into a trait called Massive Spawning (you can read about the biology here):

Massive Spawning – When revealed, put plankton into the reef equal to the population of this species

massive-spawning

It provides a thematic way to add plankton to the reef, which can create nice dynamics in the context of the game’s other cards. Transparency for example. A species with Transparency is protected from predators only so long as there’s plankton in the reef (Transparency only works in murky waters). Massive Spawning allows a transparent species to regain its protection after having lost it. (in a recent playtest, one player flipped a Massive Spawning to protect someone else’s Transparent species with population 1, just so he could eat it to extinction later in the round. BEAUTIFUL)

Acreman will receive a free copy of Oceans, and if we use his idea in the game, we’ll credit him for the idea in the rulebook. Thanks for being brilliant Acreman!

From the Sea,

Nick (and Brian)

P.S. It occurred to me after writing this that the Designated Blowhard bears similarities to Pixar’s famous Brain Trust, to which many people at Pixar attribute the company’s success. Check that out for another perspective on the same ideas.

P.P.S. fabulous final tentacles art from artist Catherine Hamilton, who is clearly on something:

Tentacles-final-600

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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.”

red-queen

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.

cheetah-gazelle

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.

blue_whale

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).

img_0096

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.

brian

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.

bluemarlin

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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Ocean Traits! Artist sketches, a call for trait ideas, and a free copy of Oceans

Cover-character-600Cover art character sketch

The thoughtfulness of BGG commenters is a constant surprise. When we started writing about Oceans, we didn’t expect readers there to help us design the thing. We expected death threats and sarcasm. But BGG isn’t like the rest of the internet.

First, BGGers helped us name the game. After more than 1000 reader votes (here and here) and a long comment thread about naming, the working title is now Oceans: An Evolution Game, for which commenters are almost entirely responsible. We’ll be surprised if it doesn’t stick.

Then commenters produced a 218-comment thread of suggestions about the species boards, some of them head-blow-uppingly brilliant. That discussion deeply informed our thinking and the game will be better for it.

Now that you’ve been so helpful, we repay your help by soliciting more! The task before us is perhaps the most fun part of making an Evolution game: the traits. But first, we have early sketches to show you.

Sketches

Catherine Hamilton, the illustrious wildlife artist who did the art for the previous Evolution games, is doing the art for Oceans too. We’re lucky to have her because demand for her work has gotten even nuttier lately. She also loves marine life and has attacked this project with uncommon gusto. She’s given us a cover-art character sketch and three trait sketches.

You’ve seen the cover sketch at the top of this post, but here’s another one:

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…and here are the traits:

Tentacles

Brian would need to change his wetsuit if he came across this beast on one of his dives

Transparency

Notice the plankton obscuring half the fish. It’s only when the water clears that you can see the transparent fish

Filter Feeder

filter-sketch-600 A gentle giant

We want your traits

Now’s a great time to suggest trait ideas because we’re entering a phase of intense work on them. There’s a free game in it for you (see below for details)

To brainstorm traits, you may or may not want to see the current traits (spoilers!) and the current rules (also spoilers!) All this is work in progress so don’t expect perfection. Note these aren’t living documents and they’ll go out of date fast (like, by tomorrow).

Here are our design goals for each trait:

  • Fun – if it isn’t fun the other constraints are pointless
  • Iconic – everyone has heard of the trait and associates it with the ocean
  • Functionally thematic – creates game dynamics you’d expect from it
  • High dynamic value – it’s power waxes and wanes with game state
  • Not over- or under-powered
  • Interacts with multiple other traits in cool ways
  • Easy to understand 
  • Expressible in few words (and errata-free)

Every constraint is important. Satisfying all at once is brutally hard, and astronomically harder when you haven’t played the game. Most of you haven’t, so it’ll be tough to be brilliant. But we can have interesting discussion in any case, and we’ve learned not to underestimate BGG.

To get you started, here are some iconic ocean things for your edification:

ocean-icons

Free copies of Oceans incoming

  • If you have a trait suggestion, put it in the comments here.
  • We’ll let this thread bake for two weeks and then pick our favorite suggestion. It’s author will get a free copy of Oceans upon publication.
  • In the event we use a suggested trait in the game, its author will get a free copy of Oceans, credit for designing it in the rulebook, and our gratitude.
  • It’s possible we’ll use traits proposed here as promo traits in the Kickstarter campaign. In that case, their authors will get attribution and kudos in the Kickstarter campaign.

We encourage the thoughtfulness and civility BGG is known for, so future anthropologists can one day point here and say “There was once a place on the internet that was not engulfed in stupidity and flame…”

From the Sea,

Brian and Nick

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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.

all-good

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

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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.

Nick-Bentley-Demoing-600

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!?)

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.

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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.

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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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New Game: Bobina

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Bobina is a game for two players, played on a hexhex board. One player plays black stones, the other plays white, and both players may play grey. At the start of the game, I recommend placing a grey stone on each of the 6 corners of the board, or even spreading some grey stones about randomly (and non-adjacently), but it’s a matter of taste and not necessity. Otherwise the board starts empty.

Rules

  1. The players take turns. On your turn you must either place 1-2 grey stones or 1-2 stones of your color onto any empty spaces.
  2. The first player who plays a stone of her own color must place only 1 stone on that turn.
  3. The first player to form a loop of her own color, possibly including grey stones, wins.
  4. If the board fills without a loop of either color forming, the player who was the first to play a stone of her own color loses.

 

Design Background + Discussion

Bobina is the love child of two previous games: Coil (which currently pleases me) and Glorieta (which currently doesn’t).

I know little about the play experience, as I’ve played it against myself exactly once (resulting in the picture above), but its rules are elegant and it’s self-evidently balanced so I thought it worth a share. I suspect it should played small boards at first (hexhex4, maybe)

This is part of a longstanding project to design games with a hex loop win condition (Havannah long ago convinced me it’s a worthy project).

In Bobina, the players are bidding for a tie-breaker by playing neutral stones that both players can use to make loops. But the more neutral stones are on the board, the less likely the game will end in a tie. The value of the tie-breaker falls as the bid rises.

The bidding comes from Coil, and as in that game, it generates brinksmanshipy tension.

The neutral stones come from Glorieta. In Coil, after the bid is over, only one player can win by forming a loop. The other player wins by stopping him, making the game asymmetric after the bid. In Bobina, thanks to the neutral stones, both players can win by forming a loop, as in Glorieta. This makes Bobina more symmetrical than Coil after the bid ends and will ensure a higher proportion of games end with loops.

Why so loopy?

What I like about these games is that loops have many degrees of freedom and come in many sizes. A loop, in addition to being intuitive and easy to visualize (especially on a hex board), can be BOTH a grand strategic objective and a local tactical objective. With the right mechanics, these two kinds of objectives can be balanced.

In Bobina as in the other games, a well-played stone will contribute to several ends. It can:

  1. build toward local, tactical loop threats
  2. build toward big strategic loop threats
  3. defend against the opponent’s local loop threats
  4. defend against the opponent’s big strategic loop threats

 

Playwise, if this game has a problem, it’s that figuring out when to stop placing neutrals and start placing your own stones could be a *very* difficult proposition (more difficult than in Coil and Glorieta), not to mention you might not want to stop placing neutrals until pretty late in the game, at least for rookie players. Hence my recommendation to play on a small board and add some neutrals to start (so “late in the game” comes fast).