SeaFall review


10 February 2017
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SeaFall_photo_hr-15330.jpg SeaFall
The first fully original legacy game boldly sets sail, but does it triumphantly discover new lands or end up lost at sea?

This is it, the big one. After sitting on the saddle with Risk Legacy and pushing away from the kerb with Pandemic Legacy, Rob Daviau’s legacy concept has taken off the stabilisers with SeaFall, the first legacy game to be created from the ground up without the support of a proven tabletop design to stop it steering off course. It’s the freedom found by ditching the framework of an existing game such as Risk and Pandemic that ends up being SeaFall’s greatest strength, as well as one of its greatest weaknesses.

Players each control a province located along the coastline of an unseen land at one edge of the central game board. Every game, two ships venture forth from the provinces to sail the open waters and visit islands, engaging in trade and exploration – or choosing to raid the regions for their goods. Two actions can be performed each turn, dictated by the moves permitted by a specific guild selected for that round. For instance, you might upgrade your ship and erect a structure as part of the builder’s guild, while buying and selling goods as a merchant – although all of the factions can choose to sail. This means that strategy must be considered carefully as, for example, you can’t explore a location (as an explorer) and then immediately raid it (as a soldier) for twice the potential reward.

The pool of actions is wide enough to allow for a variety of tactics, without feeling overwhelming – however, as the number of player turns per game (even stretched over multiple hours) is surprisingly low, the mechanics are conducive to severe analysis paralysis. Our group found it best to embrace the game’s fantastic sense of exploration and discovery rather than finely analysing every possible outcome for the most enjoyable atmosphere, but you may feel differently if you treat the game as simply a match to be won rather than a story to be told together.

That would be a shame, too, as it is world-building and storytelling that SeaFall really excels at, and that makes it quite unlike any game I have ever played – even Pandemic Legacy, which I would echo the apparent consensus in calling the best board game ever made. Far more than in Daviau’s collaboration with Matt Leacock, SeaFall weaves in elements conventionally found in roleplaying titles to apply an inescapable narrative grip. Players select and name their in-game personas, province and ships, as well as advisors they take on board and islands found in the world. This provides plenty of environmental dressing for the nautical theme, as well as the fundamental pleasure of coming up with silly names; our game included cameos from woodcutter Jacques Lumbah, snappily-clothed ruler Edvard von Fansidrezur and ‘Buddy’ the brute, to name but a few.

Intensifying the immersive roleplaying mechanics is the Captain’s Booke, a glossy extra rulebook that contains the details of hundreds of one-off events that occur throughout the campaign. At the front of the book is a map sprinkled with numbered symbols, one of which is chosen and crossed off when a new location is successfully explored, before the accompanying text entry is read aloud. Often these involve making a decision – ‘shall we work with the local natives to improve our ship or rob them of their wood and do it ourselves?’ – which then directs to another entry with the subsequent consequences, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The flavour text is effectively written and the situations are always good fun to parse with your fellow players – expect to encounter a few gasp-raising twists.

Most of SeaFall’s central actions are driven by dice rolls reminiscent of an RPG skill check. A number of the 15 custom dice are rolled dependant on the related state (such as a ship’s exploration or raid attribute) bolstered or reduced by a number of outside factors, such as an island’s garrison strength or fortune tokens spent to change blank results to successes. This is checked against – in the case of exploration or a raid – a site’s defence. Failing potentially inflicts your ships with crippling damage cards – a sunken ship must be rebuilt before venturing forth again. Succeeding can earn valuable goods – wood, linen, spice or iron – as well as gold, which can be used to hire advisors, build structures on your province board and upgrade ships – crewmates can also be attracted by leveraging your leader’s reputation tokens.

As in Pandemic Legacy, SeaFall imbues permanent progression to the cast and setting as the result of player actions, with the chance to gain ship, personnel and province upgrades, permanent advisors and other benefits at the end of each game. Another lasting effect is that of enmity, which reflects the aggravated hostility between islands and provinces as the result of aggressive actions, and can impact factors such as the price of goods and the difficulty of raiding subsequent sites in the same region.

Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the other core aspect of the legacy genre, which is the evolving nature of the game’s rules and objectives. The rulebook is covered in slots to place new rules stickers in, and there are also plenty of additional card packs and locked ‘chests’ (cardboard boxes) to open throughout the span of the campaign, changing the aim of each match and the very way the game is played. We’re not going to spoil anything here – all we’ll say is that this factor of SeaFall doesn’t disappoint. Yes, you do still get to tear up cards and, yes, doing so is still as brutal and shocking as ever.

You might notice we’ve come this far but haven’t actually mentioned how you win a game of SeaFall. Achieving each of the milestone cards – which offer broad aims such as exploring specific sites, raiding heavily fortified areas or acquiring enough treasure – often grants glory, which can also be accrued by discovering new regions, raiding, upgrading your ship and so on. Glory is the key MacGuffin in SeaFall, as each match ends when a set amount has been reached and the total rises by one in each subsequent game, from 11 to a maximum of 24. Building up the total is a slow task until you hit one of the milestones, which propels you along the track and results in a new entry from the Captain’s Booke being revealed, along with any changes to the world and rules it brings. Achieving milestones is critical to advancing SeaFall’s story and learning more about the world, which encourages more adventurous play and avoids the tedious point-by-point acquisition of glory through the base tasks of the main mechanics.  

Even if you’re cannonballing straight for the milestones, don’t expect to wrap up a game of SeaFall in half an hour. The entire campaign is estimated to take around 15 games, plus the introductory prologue, and each game is predicted to last for two hours maximum. However, you could end up playing up to 20 games and we found each match lasted for closer to four hours with just three of us, meaning you’ll need to find a group willing to spend from 45 up to a potential 80 hours (or even more) sailing the seas together.

Although the languorous nature of SeaFall is unlikely to be everyone’s salty cup of tea, it accentuates the game’s very best part: the enthralling and evolving world created by a group of friends over tens of hours. Take your time, forget the conventional game logic of aiming to win and simply let the game and its incomparable atmosphere wash over you like waves on a beach. It’s an experience quite unlike anything else.

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MATT JARVIS

 

CONCLUSION

SeaFall requires a serious time investment to see all the way through and may be just too slow for many players, but its scale, ambition and ability to create a one-off living, breathing world populated by your stories and creations makes it a board game of almost incomparable achievement.

Buy your copy here.

Publisher: Plaid Hat Games

Price: £73.99

Genre: Legacy

Players: 3-5

Time: 90-120 minutes

Age: 14+

Website: plaidhatgames.com

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