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Subject: Geeks Under Grace Reviews: Oceanos rss

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Derek Thompson
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INTRODUCTION

Antoine Bauza first established his fame among hobby board gamers with his hit drafting game 7 Wonders in 2010, which won the first Kennerspiel des Jahres, Germany’s award for advanced games. Since then, he’s went on to win the “standard” Spiel des Jahres for the innovative cooperative game Hanabi, and has put out a slew of other popular titles like Tokaido and Takenoko.

In Oceanos, Antoine returns to drafting with a variety of new mechanisms and a much more accessible rule set than 7 Wonders had. 7 Wonders is one of my favorite games of all time. Does Oceanos retain the fun despite all its tweaks to the formula? Let’s find out!

REVIEW

When Oceanos had shipped to me, I only knew it because I had a notice from UPS that I was getting something from a game distribution company. What in the world was I getting that weighted seven pounds, I wondered!? While Oceanos wasn’t the only game in the box, it turned out to be surprisingly heavy!

That’s because Oceanos comes with a ton of “chrome” in true IELLO fashion, despite being a card game first and foremost. Players could have kept track of in-game upgrades with cards or small tokens, but instead players have huge, thick modular submarines with five upgradable compartments. Since the game supports five players and each component has three possible levels, there’s 75 huge chunks of cardboard in the box in addition to everything else—three decks of cards and more tokens.

The game actually centers on the cards, which are how turns are taken. Fortunately, the cards are also gorgeous, with some of the clearest, most beautiful iconography I’ve ever seen in a board game. There are three “avenues of fun” in the game—the tough decisions of drafting, the joy of playing cards in the right spot in your tableau, and the cool upgrades to the submarine. The last two are actually somewhat tactile, and made immensely more fun by the wonderful components. Yes, this could have been a small, cheap card game and is seriously overproduced, but I love that it is. It’s the same kind of treatment IELLO gave King of Tokyo, and it worked then, too. I was actually surprised to see this game for only $39.99 MSRP, and I think that’s a fair price.

Now how about those “avenues of fun” I was mentioning? The game is primarily done through a drafting of the cards, though it’s rather atypical. One person (the Expedition Captain) deals everyone else cards, of which they keep one. They can possibly keep more, if they have precious fuel tokens on hand. The Captain then chooses his own card(s) from among those discarded. This allows for perhaps a tiny bit more interaction than with a normal draft. It also makes it easier for the game to have a clear sequence of turns. You also get to look through a lot more cards as a group with this method compared to standard drafting.

Once those cards are picked, they are played from left to right in the player’s tableau. In subsequent rounds, cards are laid underneath the previous, allowing for scoring mechanisms that consider both vertical and horizontal alignment. Those mechanisms form a nice mix. Some are scored every round, some at game’s end; some are majority, some are set collection, and so on. In addition, under the right conditions, players can upgrade their submarine.

The drafting and tableau building are immensely fun. But the submarine upgrades are the chance you get to differentiate yourself from other players and make yourself, well, better. It’s always an exciting thing to do in the game, and fortunately those three “avenues of fun” are more like interconnected streets. The upgrades allow you to do things like see or keep more cards, score more animals per round, or have more scuba divers ready for their end-game scoring. And those choices tie into the fact that Oceanos is very clever with its scoring mechanisms—you definitely can’t do them all, so you need to focus, but focusing on only one avenue won’t win you the game either. This is not Bauza’s first rodeo; he employed a similar tack in 7 Wonders, but the spatial elements of the scoring here just make them more fun.

However, this does lead me to my only real complaints with Oceanos. The first is that the rulebook has some glaring ambiguities. In our first two games I could not decide from the rulebook if all animals are scored each round, or simply the ones in the current row, and I don’t think you can make a clear justification of one or the other from the rulebook. Likewise, it is never stated or explained who starts as the Expedition Captain in rounds two and three, or in final scoring. If you both learn and teach this game verbally, you may never really encounter this issue.

I also think the game has just barely too many rules to be a true gateway game. Granted, I put the bar in a much different place than most people. I would never start someone with Settlers of Catan or Dominion, but instead with something much simpler like Codenames, Las Vegas, or Karuba. Oceanos is definitely intended to be a light, quick family game. It’s simpler than Catan or Dominion, but it’s not where I would start with brand new players. If you’re playing with, say, video gamers, it’s probably not an issue. Just don’t start mom off with this one.

It’s also a fairly lucky game. Sometimes you will just be dealt a useless hand, or the exact card you need. You can use upgrades to mitigate this somewhat, but it can still happen. However, the game is too fast and smooth for this to really bother me. In any case, my gripes here aren’t enough to keep Oceanos from being the fantastic game that it is. It’s gorgeous, it’s cleverly designed, and outright fun to play not only mentally, but visually and kinesthetically too. That’s a rare feat, but Antoine Bauza shows that he’s up to the task, like usual.

POSITIVES
+ Gorgeous cards and components
+ Perfect iconography
+ Fast, fun drafting/tableau building

NEGATIVES
- Sometimes too lucky
- Just barely too many rules
- Mediocre rulebook

BOTTOM LINE
Oceanos is a great, light drafting game that would make for a great entrance to the hobby for anyone who's played a board game before. In addition to its accessibility, it is quick to finish, gorgeous to observe, and flat-out fun to play.
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