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'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're 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 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
From the Sea,
Brian and Nick
p.s. Evolution: The Oceans is the working title. Help us decide on the title with this poll:
Click on the "subscribe" button if you want to follow my journey. I'll post something every 2 weeks.