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


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.


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


(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. 


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:


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

Announcing Evolution: The Oceans


No one has confirmed it for me yet but I’m pretty sure I’m exactly like a character in a Jason Statham movie. I have an indulgently English name, I get paradoxically sexier the more hair I lose, I have a hottt accent (assuming someone, somewhere finds Wisconsin accents hottt), and most important, I’ve been drawn back into a former life for ONE. LAST. JOB: 

To create Evolution: The Oceans for North Star Games, which I’m officially announcing in this post.


Jason Statham or Nicholas Bentley? We’ll never tell.

As I write, the design process is well underway. We know we’re on to something and we’re ready to discuss it. Let’s start with the cool way the project took form.

From 2014-2016 I worked for North Star Games on game development and marketing. I loved it. Under the mentorship of North Star co-founder Dominic Crapuchettes, I learned the business, enjoyed some puny successes in which I still take unreasonably great pride, and made fine friends. My daydreams about how nice it would be to work in the board game industry were accurate. That’s not how my daydreams usually work.


Evolution dev people: (from left) Dominic, Me, Jonathan D’Angelo, Ben Goldman, Edoardo Kulp

I also fell in love with North Star’s card-driven strategy game Evolution and subsequently helped develop Evolution 2nd Edition, Evolution: Flight, Evolution: Climate, and Evolution: The Beginning. My enthusiasm owes partly to my background as a biologist, but an even bigger factor is that Evolution is a landmark in game design.

My reasons for saying so are beyond the scope of this essay, but in summary: the game goes deeeeeeep while staying dead true to theme, two things forbiddingly difficult to do in tandem – laughably difficult in games with simple rules, which Evolution is. It’s even been featured in the world’s leading scientific journal: Nature. Getting into Nature is like getting into Harvard.


I joined North Star as Evolution 1st Edition was shipping and the company was deciding what to do next with the system. In the process, we polled the Kickstarter campaign’s backers to see what they wanted. The most popular idea was a marine life expansion.

Duh. The oceans teem with iconic species (whales! sharks! dolphins! octopi! starfish! etc!) Plus they embody a grand, alien sense of mystery.


But when we started laying the groundwork, we stalled. The problem: ocean ecosystems are both fairly separate from and different than land ecosystems. The most thematically true schemes didn’t allow for enough interaction between land and sea to make for a great game. That was a deal-breaker for an expansion because Evolution is a theme-first system.

The system was screaming at us to make Oceans a separate standalone game. But a) that was a bigger project than we had bandwidth for, and b) we wanted to expand the original game first.

So we did. With Dominic leading the design team, we created Flight, then Climate.

I didn’t forget about the marine standalone though. It kept stewing back in my parietal lobes or wherever it is ideas go through puberty.

Then last summer an offer I couldn’t refuse came along and I left North Star to help found a new game company. It was the hardest professional decision I’ve made. I assumed that was the end of my work on Evolution.

It wasn’t. The game in my head was about to breach.

It Emerges

It’s November 2016. We’re having a birthday party for my wife. One attendee, Brian, is a Marine Biologist who specializes in food webs. Knowing this, I buttonhole him about the game in my head.

AHA THAT’S RIGHT! Brian is a gamer. And then: SWEET HEAVENS! Ideas are geysering out of him. Non-stupid ideas. Now he’s buttonholing me. A rare reverse-buttonhole. Something is happening here. My spidey sense is tingling. I ask him if he wants to try co-designing. He says yes. We are game-design married. The game’s development goes nuclear

This is a good moment for Brian to introduce himself:



BRIAN: Hi, I’m Brian O’Neill, science nerd. I’ve wanted to be a biologist since I was a boy. I grew up camping and exploring the outdoors, and for my 6th birthday my grandpa gave me what I thought was THE COOLEST GIFT EVER: a book about marine biology. That sealed the deal—little did I know I’d go all the way to 24th grade (college + master’s + PhD) studying water critters.


the book that sealed Brian’s fate

I now spend my days chasing my year-old son, hanging with my wife, researching aquatic bugs, and showing college students that marine biology is exciting, interesting, and important.

I’m also into euro games. Favorites include Carcassonne, Tikal, Dominion, and Settlers of Catan. My collection has grown malignant, as my family has realized they can’t go wrong gifting me games.

The day I heard about Evolution, my ears perked, my eyes widened, my heart raced. Could there really be a game combining biological processes and traits with a great game mechanism? I had to play. Turns out a fellow professor’s husband was involved in the production. So the first time I played Evolution, it was with Nick — what an awesome experience.

Nick and I have known each other for a couple of years, and knowing about my biology nerdiness (is it so obvious?!) [editor’s note: yes], and my specialty, he said he wanted to pick my brain about an idea he was toying with: making a marine version of Evolution. Oh boy, was I excited to get any tiny piece of my knowledge into a game! He explained his concept, and let me go wild with ideas. I don’t think he was ready for how many I’d have [editor’s note: I wasn’t]— after all I study the relationships between what eats what in the water…exactly what the game is about. After a night brainstorming what marine Evolution might look like, we decided to be co-designers, and the rest has been a blast.

Back to Nick

NICK: Working with Brian has been beautiful. It’s rare for subject matter experts to understand how their expertise should and shouldn’t be used in game design. For many there’s an impulse to go haywire with detail. Not Brian. He understands games are about feeling, and the goal is the artful implementation of key dynamics, so theme emerges. As a result, we’ve been able to put his prodigious knowledge to powerful use. We’ll write about how in future posts.

After we put pedal to metal, a problem arose: because I no longer worked for North Star, there wasn’t a clear path to publication. The Evolution games have all been designed in-house, for good reason: quality control. North Star publishes selectively and puts major resources into each game. Avoiding duds is critical with that strategy. If you have a top-shelf designer in-house (Dominic in North Star’s case), that’s often the best way to go.

Nonetheless, I told Dominic about the project, and he suggested we set up a licensing agreement. That was a big deal. Evolution is Dominic’s baby. It’s a major vote of confidence and it affords me the ability to do what I love most for a company I believe in.

So here we are. We’ll deliver the game to North Star in time for Gen Con 2017, and it’s likely to Kickstart in 2018.

If you’re a fan of Evolution, we hope this comes as good news. If you’re not, we hope to interest you with our posts about the project. One post every two weeks through at least July 2017.

You may be hoping for a hint about what the game will actually be like. Here are three key facts of ocean life:

  • the base of the food chain is plankton
  • ocean critters can get really big
  • most non-tiny ocean critters are carnivores

Great White Shark Followed by Schooling Fish

From the Sea,

Brian and Nick

p.s. Evolution: The Oceans is the working title; it may change.



Smart Toys Gift Guide 2016 – Hackable Toys for Kids

I’m part of a company building a hackable tabletop game platform with digital components. We’ve been doing research on other hackable tech toys (sizing up the competition), and thought our research might be useful for folks shopping for non-frivolous, non-boring gifts for kids this season. Enjoy:

Our Guide to Hackable Tech Toys for Kids


Our newborn game company is hiring


I’m a co-founder of an MIT Media Lab spinoff called Move38, commercializing a smart tabletop game platform that might be mistaken for a new form of life. We’re hiring employee #1.

Read about the job, the work, our philosophy, and how to apply here

We’re grateful to those willing share this around, especially with anyone who might be a fit.

We were finalists at IndieCade! A postmortem


We got accepted into IndieCade and my partner Jonathan went to show off our game. Against expectation, we ended up finalists. Jonathan wrote a little report about it. Enjoy!

Stinker Challenge #65: What to give a beggar if you are out of change


Every week, I and a bunch of other people play a social media version of my doofy game Stinker on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, and Facebook, using a bit of functionality from the new app we’re developing for the game.

Here’s this week’s Stinker Challenge on each of the three platforms: