Sunday, January 15, 2017

Seafall: Full Sail or Sea Fail?

Since having Risk Legacy recommended to me a couple of years ago, I have become a big fan of legacy gaming. Legacy games are built around the premise that, instead of starting afresh every game, some characteristics of previous games are carried over. (I suppose this sort of continuity is kind of like the difference between original Star Trek and Babylon 5, if you stop to think about it.)

In the case of Risk Legacy, every game sees some permanent change made to the board, in the form of a sticker denoting the presence of a bunker or ammo shortage which will forever affect that region, or the addition of cities and even the renaming of the continents themselves. After playing even a few times, your legacy board will be entirely unique.

Other forays into legacy gaming include Pandemic Legacy, but just last year a new entry arrived which is not built onto the chassis of an existing game, but designed as a persistent boardgaming campaign from the ground up: Rob Daviau's Seafall.

I read a review of Seafall on Ars Technica, and was intrigued by the premise, as well as the promised narrative. When I relayed it to my family, they were excited enough to agree to my proposal that we all pitch in and make it a family gift to ourselves. We've played three games thus far of the fifteen or so estimated to make the entirety of the campaign, and can finally write a little bit about the experience. Spoiler-free of course, which feels like a weird thing to type in a boardgame review...

Seafall is set on the western shore of a make believe continent with a roughly 17th century level of technology. Each player takes the role of a leader of one of the five provinces depicted there, each with its own sigil. Each province has a brief description of their past and culture, but neither the land nor the leader begin with a name; the player needs to supply both. You even select a portrait card depicting your leader, writing their name on it, and noting the space left for the addition of an eventual appellation like "The Wise" or "The Daring".

You don't get to choose your title though, as those are randomly handed out and help determine the turn order. They shift at the end of every game based on how well you did, too.

Each province begins the game with two ships, similarly unnamed, and their stats are shown on a provincial miniboard that also shows the lands you control. They also provide areas to put the advisors, treasures and gold you will accumulate over the course of the game.

Now, some Seafall players are going to want to get straight into the buying, selling, exploring and raiding that make up the game itself, but everyone is this household is quite fond of not just naming things, but for those names to have significance to them. So gameplay took a back seat while mobile devices came out and research into history and languages began.

Some players are going to being content to call their land "This Land", led by their leader Bob or some such, and that's fine, but be aware going in that some players are going to give the narrative just as much significance as the gameplay. In out case, there was no friction, but we all acknowledge that our games, particularly that first one, will take a little longer as a result.

For my part, having an icon that seems to depict a grey-coloured phoenix, and a history that included some sort of oppression at the hands of other provinces, I went with Pyravian as my province name, and named my ships the Blackbyrd and the Princess Lillandra in hopes of kicking off an X-Men theme. Istoria, Kennis and Roséus make up the other provinces.

The prologue game gives you a chance to learn the game mechanics without impacting the overall campaign too much, although you will end up naming the four nearby islands before you are done. The idea is that the provinces are only now returning to the sea and exploration after a long absence. Some of the islands have sites where goods may be bought (or plundered!), but most of them are unexplored.

Exploration is handled in an interesting fashion. Picking a site with a target number, you build a pool of custom dice, beginning with the number your flagship has as an Explore value, then adding more dice for any advisors you may have acquired (and who are also named by the players), a supporting ship, or any upgrades your ship may have. After rolling the dice, you count the number of successes you have, and if you meet the target number, you've succeeded. For any success you're short, your flagship takes some damage, and the third point of damage sinks it, sending it back to port to be relaunched later,

Successfully exploring a site leads to The Captain's Booke, a collection of numbered text entries. A map at the front helps you determine which entry to read, and then typically presents you with a choice in a 'choose your own adventure' format. For instance, perhaps the site produces wood, but the natives hold the grove as sacred. They implore you to leave it as is for now, but you can go against their wishes if you like. Your decision determines what entry you read next, and what the results are for you and your crew.

The game doesn't require it, but we have made wearing the captain's hat while reading The Captain's Booke mandatory.

One doesn't have to explore: you can sail about, buying goods and selling them, using the proceeds to buy treasures and gain Glory for yourself, which is how you win the game. However, since you also earn Glory every time you successfully explore an unknown site (or raid a known one to plunder its goods instead of buying them), the merchant path is not the fastest course to victory by any means.

There are also milestones provided, granted if you are the first player to raid a site with a defence value of 6, or be the first to have treasures worth 3+ Glory. These not only provide bonus Glory to help you win the game, but also give you the opportunity to gain other rewards like an appellation for your leader, which is why the leader of Pyravian is currently known as Prince Xavier deGries The Vengeful.

On rare occasions, milestones will also give a player the opportunity to open one of the 8 sealed treasure chests in the game, tiny boxes stuffed with cards, counters and rules which significantly expand the game!

In the prologue game, you are forbidden from attacking each other's provinces, and you won't be given the rules for attacking ships until a later games. You also cannot sail past the fourth island, but eventually a vast ocean will yours to explore, discovering new islands and unravelling a mysterious story only hinted at in the excerpts from The Captain's Booke.

At the end of the game, every player has the chance to upgrade one of their ships and select an advisor to being the game with next time around. The winner can select from a number of bonuses in addition to this.

Three games in, we've been having a great time, exploring, naming, and trading, so this felt like a good time to talk about the pros and cons of Seafall, starting with the cons.

The biggest shortcoming of the game is that when it is not your turn, there is nothing for you to do. Even if your province is attacked, your participation is minimal. It pays to watch the board so you can plan your voyages and have an idea what goods will be on a given island when it is your turn, but impatient types may find the delay between turns interminable.

Games like Risk 2210 have acclimatized many boardgamers to having surprises in store for would-be attackers, so strategists will lament the lack of options for defending against the depredations of other players. As a result, I recommend being the first player to do so if you can, although this is why Baroness Lillian of Roséus now feels tremendous animosity toward Xavier the Vengeful, although Glory herself assures me we are still cool.

Honestly, that's about it for shortcomings, for my part. In terms of elements I appreciate outside of the excellent legacy aspects, foremost would have to be the way they handle aggression by use of something called Enmity tokens.

If you attack a site on the board, you place one of your 8 Enmity tokens on that site, signifying that no other players can raid it until after the next winter, which comes every 6 rounds. After that, the token moves off that site, but remains on the island, and not only makes them more resistant to future raids, but increases the cost of any and all goods purchased from there.

Attacking other players means you have to give them an Enmity token as well, which not only limits the number of times you can attack anyone in a game, but they can also use Enmity tokens to gain a bonus when they attack you later on that game!

During the wrap up, you may have a chance to roll some dice for the opportunity to take back some Enmity, but if you don't, you will add a permanent Enmity sticker to that province or island for all future games!

All in all, Seafall feels a bit more random and bit less strategic than you would expect from a hex-based game with such efforts at balancing included in it, and the final assessment as to whether or not this game is for you rests on a number of non-qualitative factors.

Seafall is probably NOT for you if:
  • Winning matters more to you than playing
  • You are an analytical player who needs a rationale for every loss
  • You have too short an attention span (YMMV)
  • You dislike surprises or unexpected turns of events
  • You need to know all the rules before you start playing
  • It is difficult to get the entire group together regularly
Seafall may well be your cup of tea if:
  • You like naming ships, islands, advisors, et al
  • You appreciate a game with a built in narrative
  • Having your exploring decisions sometimes turn out counter-intuitively is not upsetting
  • Your co-players are all swell folks curious to see how things turn out
  • 2+ hrs of gameplay is not a daunting prospect
In the end, Seafall is unlike any other gaming experience I've ever had; a heady combination of strategy, trading, exploring, and even a bit of role-play. While the game's ruleset is by no means perfect, it is a fascinating and entertaining step along the way in the evolution of legacy gaming.

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