Joel Bodkin Chats About Open Ocean

Joel Bodkin Chats About Open Ocean

June 8, 2020 0 By Ryan Sanders

Interview with designer Joel Bodkin about his game, Open Ocean.

Joel, thanks for joining us to talk about Open Ocean. Could you share with us a little rundown about the gameplay?

Joel: Sure thing! Open Ocean is a reef-building card game for 1-5 players that combines the fast-paced dynamics of card drafting with the puzzley strategy of tile placement. It’s like if Sushi Go and Kingdomino had a baby…shark.

In Open Ocean your goal is to create the highest scoring combination of colorful creatures in your Reef over the course of 3 rounds! Each round players start with a hand of 6 creature cards, and there is a shared pool of 8 creature cards out in the “open ocean” in the center of the play area.

Each turn players:

Pick: Players pick one creature from their hand they want to play into their reef, and put it face down in front of them.

Play: In turn order, players reveal their chosen card, play it into their reef connecting it to another creature, and then take the card’s action. Card actions let you attract, swap, or steal cards in either the ocean or another player’s reef.

    • You score points for each creature you connect to your reef. but if you strategically combo your card actions you can attract even bigger fish from the ocean.
    • You earn extra points for schooling fish of the same type together, and can maximize your rainbow reef bonus by collecting as many colorful coral as you can!
    • You can strategically time special cards like sharks, and sea turtles to snag that last card you need from the ocean to complete your combo, or also protect your creatures from being stolen by another player’s dolphins with a well placed sea anemone!

Pass: Once everyone has revealed and played their cards, all players pass the remaining cards in their hand to the player on their left and a new turn begins.

At the end of three rounds, everyone totals up their points and bonuses, and the player who built the most vibrant reef wins!

Every game has a story behind its creation. What is Open Ocean’s?

Joel: Oooh where to begin is the real question! So I won a goldfish at the county fair when I was 3…

So Open Ocean was born from observing how everyone in my family plays games together. We love playing games, but there is often a negotiation about what to play because we each enjoy something different. Lily (7), loves pattern recognition and placement (her favorite game is Kingdomino and Azul); Walt (10), enjoys open & hidden info strategy and planning (he loves Splendor and Chess) My wife Allison loves drafting, puzzles and light engine building (she loves Clank! and Quacks of Quedlinburg)

I wanted to make a game where everyone thoroughly enjoyed one aspect of it. That’s what Open Ocean evolved into over time but it actually evolved out of a different drafting game that I was working on that is still waiting to be finished. Now I LOVE drafting games, I feel like they strike a great balance of strategy, reading the people you are with, and a little bit of serendipity. But I felt like every time we played one as a family, the thing I missed most was the player interaction. It always felt like we were playing multiplayer solitaire and everyone got really quiet as we played.

I really wanted more interaction because it was time together as a family, and we were being totally silent. I wanted those “Aw man you took my thing” moments. I wanted those “Wow that was an awesome play that actually came together” moments. I also wanted to avoid too many take that mechanics because while fun for some, it ends up not being fun for all.

So one day on my drive to work, after a Protospiel weekend I had this idea for a shared pool of cards that everyone was competing for. It naturally lent itself to the idea of fish, and it all just came together really quickly in my head. I quickly drew it out on a piece of paper in between meetings and I brought it home and pitched it to my kids. I was surprised when they both said “Dad you have to make that game!” So I made a quick prototype with free icons and card sleeves and we started to play with it! I took it to another Protospiel the next weekend and met some fantastic guys who loved drafting games. They were awesome and we sat and played, prototyped, changed rules, and just talked about the experience for 2 hours. By the end of that, we had about 80% of a game, and it was fun!

I played it the next day with my kids and they loved it and had SO MANY new ideas for additional cards and mechanisms because it was sea creatures! From there it’s been this ever evolving ecosystem of cards that flow in and out of playtests and after a year of playtesting and doing the art (which is one of my favorite parts), I took it to GenCon and showed it around to some folks. They were very complimentary and said I should consider self-publishing it since it was 90% done already.

Then it was more edits and back to another Protospiel where I was trimming and smoothing the final card types and counts. That was January of this year, and then late one night in February I had an idea for a solo variant using the bonus goals we’d been working on. The first time I played it was at 3 am and I was hooked and played 3 more games. I feel like it scratches that same itch as minesweeper or candy crush with a dash of Tetris. Thinky placement and strategizing about what is next.

What makes Open Ocean different from other family drafting games?


  • The Ocean – I feel like it strikes a great balance of strategy and surprise! You can see what you are going after when you choose your card, but based on where you are in relation to the first player, it could be a gamble.
  • Positive Player Interaction – Hate drafting is a thing, and honestly it’s not really that fun to be on the receiving end of. I tried to create a point system and card interactions that focused on building your ecosystem vs penalizing others. Even when you steal someone’s creature from their reef with a dolphin, they still get a point. It softens the blow but keeps it competitive for kids and families!
  • Layered complexity – I wanted you to be able to dial up or dial down the complexity based on who was at the table. So I built in multiple ways to play with bonuses, habitat goals and depending on which stretch goals get hit, event cards that affect the draft.
  • Solo Mode Drafting – This is one thing I’m particularly proud of because sometimes you just want to play a thinky puzzely drafting game by yourself. It scratches that same itch that games like, Candy Crush, minesweeper and tetris do. Print and player’s have told me it’s better though. ️

You actually did the art one this one which I love. What inspired the art style (or your style) of the game?

Joel: HA! That’s actually a funny story.

So I’ve been drawing all my life and growing up, I wanted to be an animator for Disney (amongst many other things). There was only one problem. I couldn’t draw the same things twice. I found I’d get stuck on the line or the rendering, and spend way too much time on the details and would be afraid of screwing up the drawing. Then much later in life, I had the opportunity to attend comic con and sit with a bunch of artists I really admire and draw and discuss the creative process. I was shocked to find that 2 of the 3 shared that same fear of screwing things up and avoided sketchbooks entirely, only drawing on copy paper and then moving into digital for the rendering pieces. Mind Blown!

Right before I got into game design I was reading a lot of books at bedtime to my daughter and the illustrations were gorgeous and using flat shapes. Eric Carle has a ton of beloved books and his technique was to paint paper and then cut and reassemble it into animals. I’d always loved those books growing up, and then reliving them with my kids and seeing how many other wonderful illustrators were using similar techniques got me to start experimenting. I really explored a lot when I was working on my first game Winterhaven Woods, and so then when I had the idea for Open Ocean I was much faster at creating the art which let me dive right in because my kids had soooo many ideas!

Two other huge inspirations were Blue Planet 2 which is an amazing series about ocean life. I’ve probably watched the Coral Reef episode 10 times as I sit and draw. I also own and love the Art Behind Finding Nemo and the color palettes and color studies that the concept artists created to set the mood of the story are AMAZING! It really influenced how I wanted the game to feel as it took shape on the table over the course of the game!

As we wrap things up, is there anything else you like us to know about Open Ocean?

Joel: Open Ocean is a passion project. It’s a game I designed with my kids with the intent to help teach them more complex mechanisms for other games, but really evolved into something more over time. It has a Solo variant that I’m really proud of and people who have printed and played it have had a lot of praise for it. It plays best at 3-4 and is a great teaching game because it’s quick (less than 30 min), light and accessible, but doesn’t lack for strategy or interesting choices. I like to describe it as it’s a lot like if Kingdomino and Sushi Go had a baby…shark.

It’s currently up on Kickstarter and I’d love for you to check it out. There are some cool art stretch goals I’m going to be creating throughout the campaign and I’d love to have folks be a part of that.

Thanks again for the opportunity to chat about Open Ocean and hopefully we’ll be able to play a game together soon!

Thank you for taking the time out to do this interview, Joel.

If you like to check out Open Ocean on Kickstarter, you can do so by linking this link:

Ryan Sanders is the founder, owner, and editor-at-large of Adventures in Gameschooling. He’s also the guy behind its social media accounts. God has blessed Ryan and his wife Mary, with five children, which he homeschools. As a Christian, he believes that he should not only look out for your own interests but other peoples too (Philippians 2:4) and this is one of his guiding principles for Adventures in Gameschooling. Ryan’s expertise is informed by almost two decades of experience as a stay-at-home father and from the running The Inquisitive Meeple where he performed over 300 written and podcast interviews within the board game industry.