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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!

Previous posts in this series

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:

img_0098

…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

Previous posts in this series

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

Previous posts in this series

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.

trex-napolean-2

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.

bear-with-us

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

thanks-for-all-the-fish.gif

 

 

New Game: Bobina

bobina-game-end

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 1-3 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).

Designing the Species Boards in Evolution: The Oceans (plus a free game offer)

IMG_5147

Brian (marine biologist and co-designer) likes woodworking so now we have a second start-player marker. It looks like it’s for a Little Mermaid game but who cares IT’S OUR WOOD WE CAN DO WHAT WE WANT. 

In our last post about Evolution: The Oceans, we described the food chain at the core of the game. We mentioned, among other things, it’ll feature lots of predators (as there are in real life oceans).

Consequently, you tend to watch opponents’ species like a hawkfish. Especially body sizes, since body size is the main determinant of whether one species can eat another.

This points to a practical issue, which is the subject of this post. The way species were presented in Evolution made it slightly hard to see at a glance how big your opponents’ species are. It wasn’t an issue there, because there weren’t as many predators and they worked a little differently. It is here, so we’re redesigning the species boards.

Here’s how a species is represented in Evolution:

evo-species-board

The brown cube’s position along the brown track represents body size, and the green cube’s position along the green track represents population.

There are two factors which complicate body size tracking here:

  • Population and body size are represented in the same way (cube + track), and side-by-side. Consequently you can confuse one for the other, and even when you don’t, there’s a small extra cognitive burden in making sure that you’re looking at the right thing. The color-coding helps, but there still seems to be a little burden.
  • You have to do a bit of  (mostly subconscious) counting to confirm a species’ body size, which is another burden.

These burdens are small, but when you’re checking body size across the table a lot, they add up to an inconvenience.

To solve these problems, we should represent body size in a manner visually distinct from population, and body size should be a number rather than a position along a track, so you can just see rather than count.  Here’s our current solution:

IMG_5150

When you use this board, all the numbers face away from you, to make them easy for your opponents to see. So from an opponent’s point of view, it looks like this:

IMG_5159

Note we’ve added scalloping, so food can be arrayed neatly and we have an excuse to use the word “scallop”

Body size is represented by the top face of an 8-sided die (tilted a bit towards the opponents by it’s position in a triangular cutout on the species board), and population is represented in the original way, with a cube track.

This satisfies both constraints. It also allows us to represent a larger range of body sizes and populations compactly. That’s important because an ocean is a big place with big creatures and we’d like to represent that.

This seems to solve the problem well. When we teach new players we get way fewer “which one is body size again?” questions than we do with the original boards, nor do we see players miscalculating because they mistook body size. The problems we’re trying to solve appear solved.

This doesn’t mean we’re done, however. There are aspects of this solution we find imperfect. For one, we might like to have the food be placed on the board itself, as in Evolution. We’re not sure yet. Second, it’s aesthetically displeasing to have the upside-down number on the front face of the die showing. One way to fix that might be to make a little stand for each die:

IMG_5173

This covers the number. It looks cleaner, but it might make it too hard to see your own species’ body sizes (because they face too much away from you).

This also brings up another issue: cost. There will be as many as 20 species boards in the game, which means providing that many D8’s. D8’s can add significant cost. If we have little stands for the D8’s as in the picture above, that could juice the price even more.

One way to keep the cost from ballooning is to reduce the cost of other components, and there’s an argument for focusing $$$ on the species boards because players spend so much time looking at them.  North Star has already found a way to replace the (costly) food bags so they can reduce the retail price on the next printing of Evolution, with player screens that create a diorama with the watering hole. I LOVE this solution because it brings out the theme better. Something similar could be done for Oceans.

watering-hole-new

There’s no one right answer. Ultimately, answering these questions will be up to North Star. But we wouldn’t be responsible designers if we didn’t present reasonable and attractive options. Our ultimate goal is to find a solution so good North Star can place the order and be done with it.

So this is an issue we’ll ponder for a while. We’d love to hear your brightest suggestions. In fact, how about this: if you offer a species design we end up using, we’ll give you a copy of the game when it’s published. Here’s the complete set of constraints for the design:

  • should make it easy for players to see and distinguish body size and population across the table
  • should make it easy to adjust body size and population
  • should accommodate 8 body size and 8 population
  • should be compact enough that 4 players can each hold 5 species with 3 traits each while playing on a standard card table
  • shouldn’t cost too much
  • should be awesome

600-grey-goblin

(this is you attacking the problem)

From The Sea,

Brian and Nick

Building a food chain in Evolution: The Oceans

octopus-600 It might be hard to make those tentacles for the production version of the game, but this is the first player marker we’re using for playtesting.

Two weeks ago we announced the development of Evolution: The Oceans, the next game in North Star Games’ line of Evolution themed games. Today we get into the (sea)weeds about the game itself (there will be poorly executed water puns throughout these posts). First, a caveat:

Evolution: The Oceans is under active development. We’ve got a long way to go and nothing is sacred. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings and we’re natural born killers. 

us-stupid-rules

Parenthetically, this project has given me an enormous appreciation for killer whales. They’re giant genius murder dolphins in tuxedos. Here are three killer whales catching a seal, brilliantly:

orcas-attack-seal

Anyway. One of virtue of working on a game system several times over is you come to know it deeply. Its strengths and weaknesses, its points of flexibility and rigidity. Having participated in the development of 4 Evolution games (Evolution 2nd Edition, Flight, Climate and The Beginning), we now have that kind of perspective.

That’s important, because Evolution: The Oceans will be a departure, and our experience provides a much-needed roadmap.

Two reasons for this departure:

  • previous Evolution games have been on land, and marine ecosystems work differently. We can’t honor the theme without significantly changing the system (theme is the first consideration in every design decision for these games).
  • after several Evolution releases, we’re at risk of going stale. We don’t want to create Munchkin Evolution: Star Wars Edition, if you smell what I’m stepping in. Now’s the time to put what we’ve learned into the service of something new.

Today we describe the one feature that’s been in The Oceans from the beginning. It’s the kernel from which the rest of the design has grown. It’s not the most drastic change (we’ll talk about that later), but it was the spark.

In terrestrial Evolution, when you create a species, it’s an herbivore by default and it eats plants at the watering hole:

watering-hole The Watering Hole

To turn a species into a predator, you have to give your species a special Carnivore trait. It makes being a predator a special thing.

FullSizeRender The Carnivore card

But it wouldn’t make sense in the oceans. In the oceans, most non-tiny animals eat flesh, especially most of the species you know. Sharks, dolphins, killer whales, rays, anemones, starfish, octopuses, squid, seals, walrus, lobsters, crabs, most eels, and most fish eat flesh. About the only non-tiny creatures which don’t are filter-feeders (like some whales, some fish, and mollusks, which eat plankton) and the odd plant-eating fish or mammal.

Herbivores, at least as we think of them on land, are rare in the oceans because plants aren’t the base of the food chain. Plankton is. Plankton is made of a mix of many different tiny species, both plant and animal, floating around in massive quantities in the ocean’s upper layers (the deep oceans are mostly desert). A rough shorthand way to think of plankton is “all the tiny floating stuff”.

When we first started thinking about the specifics of a standalone game about marine ecosystems more than a year ago, our first thought was about how to embody this food chain in game rules. The idea we had then has remained in every iteration of the game since.

Here’s how it works:

  • The base of the food chain is plankton. You get it from the reef. This works just like plants and the watering hole work in regular Evolution.
  • If a species’ body size is 1, that species is a plankton eater.
  • If a species’ body size is greater than 1, that species is a predator, unless it has a trait that changes that.
  • Right now, the only trait that allows you to eat plankton at larger body sizes is Filter Feeder, which makes you to eat plankton at any body size.

So there are a lot of predators. Here’s how they work:

In real life, Ocean predators generally only eat prey in a limited range of body sizes. The limit is set by two factors, one which limits maximum prey size, the other which limits minimum prey size

First, most Ocean predators eat their prey whole, in one gulp. Since it’s hard to swallow something larger than oneself, Ocean predators limit their meals to critters smaller than themselves. That sets the maximum prey size. Eat something too big and you end up like this:

fish choke

The second factor is energy. It takes energy to catch prey. Because most predators fail a lot when hunting (they’re generally only successful about 10% of the time), they need to make sure each hunt yields a big payoff.  If a big shark can only find minnows, the energy spent chasing them won’t be replaced by the energy they provide. So predators don’t eat things too much smaller than themselves, and all their predatory machinery reflects that. A shark mouth isn’t designed to enjoy a minnow. It’s designed to terrorize seals.

seal murder.gif

Because body-size is explicitly represented in the Evolution games, these dynamics are easy to implement! In The Oceans, a predator can only attack a species which one or two body sizes smaller. There are obviously exceptions: huge animals that eat tiny ones, or small animals that eat big ones. But that’s what traits are for and thankfully, Evolution has traits.

There’s a lovely parallel here between the structure of the game and the nature of biology itself. Biology is about finding patterns in living things and making generalizations, but also cataloguing the ways the generalizations are wrong, the ways species deviate from “the rules”.  Whales eat plankton, piranhas team up to tear apart bigger animals, parasites eat from the inside out, etc.

The core rules of Evolution embody the generalizations, and the traits embody the deviations. The structure of the game mirrors the structure of biological theory. Dope.

So in the game and in real ocean ecosystems, one way to escape predation is to be too small. We’ve strengthened this defense further by allowing species’ body size to evolve up or down during the game, which has the nice benefit of being more true to nature than the original game (which only allowed species to get bigger).

It also creates new, realistic tactical dilemmas. I may want to remain size 3 so I can eat a size 1 species, but if I do, I remain vulnerable to that size 4 species over there. What do I do? It’s a true food chain. 

We’re excited about this, first because it makes the game feel both new and true to life, and second because, as a knock-on effect, it points the way to other changes.

In the next post we’ll describe one such change. Because body size considerations now create a food chain, we want to make it easier for players to see other species’ body size at a glance across the table. And THAT has lead to a new way to represent species on the table. Stay tuned…

From the sea,

Brian and Nick