Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 45 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Low
Website: SeaFall | Board Game | BoardGameGeek
Apparently, Rob Daviau started designing Seafall before even Risk: Legacy, and certainly before Pandemic: Legacy, though issues with getting it designed and published led to it coming out after either of those games. As such in design terms it is arguably the progenitor of one of the hottest trends in gaming today. Which is something to be said for it since it appears to have been a solid, copper bottomed, nailed on, failure, commercially, critically and with fans. I don’t want to be harsh, but it’s hard not to make this review a catalogue of the many things wrong with the game, and there are things that are good about it which I will strive to recognize, but in short, it’s hard to deny that at the very least, Seafall represents a good degree of missed potential.
I’ll run through the gameplay as well as I can without ruining any surprises. Players get a home territory and a couple of ships, they sail about discovering what’s on some local islands, and eventually in the wider sea, building stuff, fighting, exploring and trading. Players choose a guild each turn, allowing them to perform two of three actions such as buy, sell or move. Buying, building and selling are largely pre-set while exploring and fighting are based on rolling dice against set target numbers, some actions (mostly exploring) allow you to look up results in a book with special entries and change the board permanently. Each game has some goals worth bonus victory points, most victory points in a game wins.
To his credit Rob Daviau has acknowledged many of the game’s failings. Specifically, he has in the past stated that it was a mistake to make a Legacy game not based off of an existing game, a statement that he has apparently stuck to since, creating Betrayal: Legacy and Machi Koro: Legacy. Personally, I feel that its less about not making a Legacy game based on another game and more about making a Legacy game not based on a bad game. Interestingly, Rob wrote an essay some time ago for Mike Selinker’s Kobold Guide to Board Game Design in which he argued that a game should always be intuitive, he sets out the claim that with any given game you should be able to set out the components without the rulebook and players should have a decent chance of being able to play the game. Its not often that a designer’s past self makes one of the biggest criticisms of their current game in a review, but past Rob has a decent point. Not everything should be expected to be clear from the board, but the intrinsically twiddly icon matching and rule stepping that abounds in Seafall makes the game a constant system of checking and re-checking, passing rulebooks and campaign books back and forth, forgetting exactly how this or that works, wondering about timing steps and such like. The game has a comprehensive FAQ, but boardgames are meant to be self-contained systems, I expect FAQS for open massed combat systems like Warhammer, not for a boardgame, and certainly not an FAQ as lengthy and in-depth as the one needed for Seafall.
Which brings me to the first of the meat of the complaints. Anyone who has played Warhammer or a similar system and has taken a pop at running a campaign will be aware of the dangers of avalanches. Not the snowy downfall, but the tendency in campaign games to reward the winner meaning that they become better as games progress, so the person who is best at the game wins game one, and gets better, and so inevitably wins game two, and its often pointless playing game three. Its for this reason that most campaigns most players engage in never actually reach their conclusion, everyone wanders off to better things once it becomes clear what the deal is. At least in most campaigns they are a series of one on one games, meaning that its not always clear who the strongest player is until several games in when at least all participants have faced each other. With a game like Seafall, everyone has to face each other every game, and the rewards for victory can be crushingly demoralizing to face off against. After just a few wins a player can have such an opening advantage as to make the game either moot, or a crushing grind. I’ve known a lot of people who played Seafall, and not many who have completed it, and this is the most often quoted reason.
Which is a pity, because I’d suggest there is a better reason, and that is the crushingly unpleasant grind of the game. As stated, there are goals, milestones, available in each game. These are worth so many victory points that its rare to have a game where the winner hasn’t completed at least one, so the game ends up practically being about racing for those milestones. Which is all well and good if you reach them. If you don’t reach the milestone you were racing for before someone else triggers the end game, everything re-sets and next game you get to try to do the exact same thing again, only thanks to the winner’s reward for last game, you’re now one step back. Fail and you get to do the same thing again, and again, and again. It can feel like a Sisyphean task if you get into a nasty cycle of getting close through several games, its grinding and nasty and frankly, soul destroying. There quickly comes a point where the prospect of a game of Seafall brings nothing close to a sense of joy.
Funnily enough, neither of these are the complaint that I hear most often actually directed at Seafall. The most popular complaint can be largely summed up as: if you decide to trade the game hates you. To explain, Seafall states up front that it has multiple routes to victory, players can trade for goods, sell them and build fine structures for victory points, they can raid settlements or other players for goods or sheer victory and power, they can explore the seven seas and gain points that way. This statement is to all intents and purposes, a lie. The game wants you to explore, and if you do anything else, it hates you and will punish you. For example, tracking back to what Rob Daviau said about intuitive gaming, in a Legacy game a player has two options, building a massive brick structure in their home port, or wandering into a jungle. Intuitively, which is most likely to give the player long term permanent advantage from game to game? The jungle wandering, clearly, which sometimes hands up long term rewards while between games your people will industriously dismantle anything you build, for, you know, reasons. Apparently, there was one a plan to give permanent effects for buildings in Seafall, but it was hard to balance so they didn’t bother.
It is possible to claw out a winning long-term strategy by aiming for trade, but it does feel like exactly that, clawing out a win. Worse, it constantly feels like the game is treating players who have gone the explore route like favourite children, encouraging them with rewards and fun for what can feel like un-earned luck since exploration is based on the rolling of dice. I won’t spoil what happens in the game (if that is possible) suffice to say that nothing ever turns up to willfully cripple the explorer strategy but, and you’ll see this coming now, something turns up that horribly hamstrings any player pursuing a peaceful trading and expansion strategy. It is ultimately extremely unpleasant, it feels like a bait and switch, as though the game should have somewhere in huge red letters a warning not to go after anything but the exploring strategy, which it should. Frankly it should have mostly dropped the other strategies, because they are embittering and unpleasant, or at least it shouldn’t have been so damn mean to them.
On the subject of exploring, it’s the centre of one of the weirdest and most unpleasant parts of the game, which is a weird Euro/Ameritrash disjunct at its heart. To clarify, the trading part of the game is pre-planned and pretty much inevitable, you turn up in one place, you pay a certain amount for goods, you ship them back and you sell them for a set amount. At various points certain goods will be better or worse, certain advisors can slot into your engine and certain buildings can benefit your process. It’s a little Euro game to all intents and purposes. The exploring and fighting, however, are done by rolling dice. You can increase the dice you roll, and you can earn re-rolls or automatic successes, but its down to dice rolling. You go into a jungle, roll some dice and then maybe get to read some exciting narrative text about what happened. It’s a little Ameritrash game to all intents and purposes. Separately they’re probably fine. Together, its not pleasant, because the game ends when a player scores a set number of points. The effect being that the Euro player can be working towards a reasonable and cunning set of conditions with acceptable aims that they may well feel, in a little Euro way, that they deserve to be able to complete. They then discover that they have three turns fewer than they thought because someone playing a largely disconnected Ameritrash game at the other end of the table managed to roll twelve successes on six dice. Its sometimes like a theoretical game presented in a game theory paper which no one believes would ever be made because it would be so terrible like random Chess, and the experience is one of the most unpleasant things you can possibly do to a Euro player. Its exacerbated by the fact that once a huge dice fluke has ruined their set of carefully laid out plans they get to scrabble around for the points to keep them in contention then, next session, do it all again.
In relation to session-to-session play, progress for non-winners in a game involves colouring in a small white box on a player board representing a stat bump for one of your ships. If you were wondering, that being the only thing that you achieve after a one hundred and twenty plus minute game of reversals and frustration is exactly as rewarding as it sounds. Given the available scope of the game for rewards and advantages with home locations and slots on ships and islands its positively obtuse. Its also a real issue because if you do discover that the game hates the strategy you’ve opted for, there’s very little chance of turning the ship around.
Okay, break for good points. The product is of a decent quality. Not amazing, but solid and professional.
I will try to standardize my Legacy reviews by using several categories: Legacy Presentation, how does it physically present its Legacy aspects during the game; Legacy access, what level of elements can players reasonably expect to unlock through play and what will be lost; Life length, specifically re-play value before, after and during the campaign mode; Advancement satisfaction, whether the upgrades given to players during campaign mode come at a rate that feels worthwhile; Rules Progression, whether added rules slot in naturally or come and go at such a rate that players never manage to settle into play; Group consistency, how necessary it is to keep the same gaming group from game start to end and Storyline, Legacy games generally present an overarching story which can be successful or not.
Legacy Presentation: This forgoes the now fairly standard Legacy deck for a book-based format with events that are player triggered by in-game actions. This means that the pace is set by players, which can make for a game that is punishingly quick or that drags depending on the group. Legacy elements are presented via a series of unlockable boxes and sets of stickers. The result is patchy at best, fiddly most of the time and at worse leaves players blundering around unsure of what’s going on or their part in it.
Legacy access: Poor, it is I think literally impossible to unlock all of the content as some parts overlap each other. Even with that aside, most groups will miss a lot of the content since it is buried and locked up in various places. The boxes should all be opened by the end of the game, but not all of the game’s entries will be triggered.
Life length: In that the campaign can take as long as it takes players to get through it the life of the game is in theory good since it appears to outlive the interest most players have in it, but that doesn’t feel like a positive. Theoretically this is playable after the campaign is complete, but it is unlikely that anyone would want to.
Advancement satisfaction: Advancement feels minor and without a sense of strong direction or building up skill engines or production. Losers have a sort of pity advancement that feels pointless, winners are given quite brute strength advancements that while advantageous lack any quality of interest or integration.
Rules Progression: The rules remain as clear at the end of the game as they were at the start, which is to say, not very. Added rules are clear enough, though they are not organic or expected and can seem to go off on tangents.
Group Consistency: In theory players can dip in and out since the game allows for their points in the campaign to be bought up. In practice, the exact same set of players is necessary for the game to have much chance of being thought of as enjoyable.
Storyline: Seafall has a lot of story. Sadly, it’s a little all over the place with plots and sub-plots springing up without much notice or pre-figuring. My personal play through was quite broken up between various sessions and frankly it was rare that more than a couple of sessions went past with anyone involved being able to follow what the overarching story was meant to be. Again, without wanting to spoil anything, what begins as a fairly clear and understood tale of colonization and discovery becomes convoluted and not particularly elegant.