Patrick Brennan: Now I’m Done With Seafall …

Now I’m Done With Seafall …

… I guess I can let loose on what I think about the game. Our party of 4 has finished the campaign, taking (the roughly expected) 14 games to do so. For fear of accidentally coming across spoilers or reading something that might have given me an advantage over the other players, I haven’t been reading reviews or visiting any Seafall fora other than FAQ (and now we’re done, I have no need) so I have little idea what the reception for the game has been in general. But this is our take.

Warning: This article will reference unlocks that are obvious from looking at the initial board and rules, but not those that aren’t obvious, and I will talk about how the strategic approaches evolved throughout the campaign. If you want to play (or continue to play) an uninfluenced campaign, read no further. If you want more information before committing, this will give you a sense of where the campaign will take you and the potentially winning strategies, but without revealing any big surprises.

Ours has been a like/hate relationship, laced by perpetual hope. Or as one of our group delicately put it, it started as a hesitant and hopeful tolerance and by the end sat at a despaired (but still hopeful) loathing. By way of background, my group are fans of the legacy concept and we like campaigns. We really enjoyed Pandemic Season 1 (no doubt helped by the fact we enjoy and play a lot of co-op games) and loved how the game evolved throughout. I’ll admit I bowed out of Risk Legacy after a few games. I’m not a Risk fan and the unlocks couldn’t put enough lipstick on the pig to make it palatable – nor the others it seemed, as the campaign stalled soon thereafter. I’m looking forward to Gloomhaven however.

THE BOARD

In Seafall, you move/sail your ships out to islands and do actions. The board starts out with 4 islands, but as you build your exploration capability, you’ll explore the open sea and discover more islands. Islands typically have 6 sites on them. To begin with you don’t know what the sites provide, they’re a blank slate, but after you explore one (ie roll dice equal to your explore capability, get requisite number of successes), you’ll pick one of the paragraph numbers matching that site’s picture and it’ll tell you what the site will produce for the rest of the campaign – a sticker gets placed to mark it permanently. Most sites produce a good (they come in 4 colours), but there are some others that allow you to do stuff you can only normally do in your own harbour, like buy an upgrade for your ship.

It’s not as random as it may seem though. As an example, there might be 4 paragraphs for anchors, and 4 sites with an anchor picture, and the paragraphs will end up generating 1 goods site in each of the 4 colours. So 4 goods sites will be generated, but it means that island A on our board might have spice and wood, and on yours it might produce iron and linen. Once all those anchor sites are explored, all the goods sites (say) that the game wants/needs on the board will be there. The upside is that it’s thematically nice to know that our board is unique and this is what we’ve found in our exploration, but in another sense it’s meaningless because we don’t get to enjoy the variety of game that we might enjoy by playing someone else’s board, or if the board used chits rather than stickers so that we could play using a different board setup. For better or worse, what you generate is what you’re stuck with throughout the campaign, so any chance for intra-campaign inter-game variety is lost. It’s certainly a down-point. Many games ended up playing the same way as a result … sail to island C, get these goods here, go to island E, build an upgrade there, and so on. It was a chance for inter-game variety lost.

The artwork and components are excellent by the way, plenty of Clancy as we like to call it (as in Clancy of the Overchrome  aka Overflow, a classically Aussie poem taught in school – or used to be taught anyway; who knows nowadays).

THE GAMEPLAY

So what do you do on a turn? Most turns you tend to sail and also do one of the following:

  • Explore a site, and earn VPs.
  • Buy some goods from an island, but get no VPs.
  • Buy an upgrade (ie power) for your ship and earn VP’s – upgrades are in the colours of the goods, and as they’re expensive compared to how much money you start with, and a good in that colour knocks the price down by 80%, the usual is to go out and get a good first and use it as a discount so that you get more bang for your buck.
  • Buy a building to get a global power and earn VPs – also using goods as a discount.
  • Sell some goods for more money but get no VPs – rarely used in our game as a good was worth more when used as a discount to earn VPs, and the games just didn’t go long enough to parley additional money into VPs fast enough.
  • Get a pittance of money if you’re desperate.
  • Raid a site, earn VPs – you get the site’s good or ability for free, but at a cost of some enmity, which is a token placed at the island making it harder to succeed next time.

There are a few other things but that’s the guts of it. In the early campaign there were races for goods that produced tension, but this dissipated as the board grew and became flooded with goods. There was some competition for the more useful upgrades and buildings.

The down-point of all this is that there’s nothing clever to do. You simply accumulate powers in order to roll successfully (more on this below).  This could be said of many Ameritrash games, but in those you get many rolls to even things out and power accumulation inevitably pays off. In Seafall you only get to do a few rolls each game, and if any of them fail, you won’t win. One of our biggest frustrations was that you can play a low-risk game and accumulate powers to minimise your risk, and still fail, while another player risks it, rolls well and wins. Why not roll a dice to determine the winner on the first turn and be done with it!? It certainly created some bitterness towards the game along the way,

Our first two down-points then: lack of clever things to do, and an unfair risk/reward payoff.

THE ADVISORS

Upgrades and buildings help towards rolling well, but in the end, if you want to earn big point-jumps, it’s all about the advisors.

To succeed in an explore or a raid, you roll dice. Your explore and raid capability (ie the number of dice you roll) gradually increases during the campaign, and you can also buy ship upgrades to boost the number of dice. But the biggest boost, often doubling your capability, is by use of an advisor.

The deck of advisors is full of different abilities and different strength boosts, and you have the option of buying one from a draft of 5 cards at the start of each turn. Because they provide such big boosts, there comes a point where you basically can’t achieve quality scoring without one. This unfortunately makes it difficult to develop much pre-game strategy – what you do tends to be dictated by what affordable advisor is available on your turn, and then setup to do whatever the advisor helps with. There’ll come a point where the 5 advisors in the draft are all fairly ordinary, which for us meant the Guild Hall building (trash the draft and draw 5 more advisors) was built most games, so important were the advisors to getting the big VPs. After each game, you got to keep an advisor and improve it – so an advisor good at exploring would get even better at exploring – until you ended up with a lopsided deck that contained cards with super powers that you’d buy at a moment’s notice and a bunch of cards at the same cost that were average by comparison. It often made the game one of who got lucky by drawing into the super-advisors, or who got a Guild Hall and trawled for them. When you’re playing a 2-3 hour game, having your fate rest on card flops is a significant down-point.

However we loved the ability after each game to name our advisors, creating our own world. Advisors have an appellation like “The Treasure Hunter” with space for a name before. It was a fun post-game activity, looking at their pictures and abilities, agreeing on names and using a Dymo (for a sense of professionalism) to affix. Our rule was no external cultural references, it all had to be “this-world”, and they eventually became friends to us, known at first glance – Harmez the Navigator, Jade the Treasure Hunter, Wally the Convict, Prospero, Neyen, Spirques, McLeuod, and so on. Such a simple touch, and combined with the fact that we chose after each game how these advisors improved, it allowed us to immerse in the game as we felt they were ours. They helped shape our conversation around the game. Similarly, the ability to name the islands also helped create an “our-world” effect – I tended to go French sounding (like Voisonne, Niegemont), another player went more Japanese-ish, another Greek-ish. A melting pot world.

THE POINT-JUMPS

Within this world, in order to win any individual game, you had to target point-jumps – those that award bonus points over and above the base points for a successful explore/raid or an upgrade/build. Basically, the first player to achieve a couple of point-jumps in a game won it. The obvious means at the start of the campaign are completing milestone cards (first to do this, first to do that), but there soon come a few more – exploring the open sea to open a new island for example, site explorations increased in worth, plus a few others from unlocks.

The problem is that the ability to acquire the point-jumps on offer in any one game were often luck-based. It may be whoever first lucked into an advisor whose power was needed, or the player who acquired some advantage in a previous game that gave the required additional capability to do it first (whereas the others might have to spend some turns improving to get to that same capability). In one series of games mid-campaign, an unlock provided a new set of milestones that none us of could do because we needed to improve our ships first. But one player lucked into an advisor that overcame it – he then cleaned up milestone after milestone, game after game. Each milestone gave him an advantage that helped even further, and basically he rode those advantages all the way home to win the campaign. All because he lucked into that initial powerful advisor at the right time. The rest of us just couldn’t compete because it’d take us turns to get to the point where we’d match the same capability, but of course he’d be spending those turns getting even further ahead.

The other consideration with point-jumps is that they can be risky. You’re rolling dice, and a bad roll will sink your ship. This is bad. Really bad. Games only went 7-9 turns, so having to re-start your best ship meant you’re gone from competing for the win. After we saw that a couple of times, and we saw those players come last by a long way and falling behind on the campaign (and missing out on long term advantages, which exacerbated the problem ongoing), it quickly became a more risk-averse game – barring the last turn or two each game because by then it didn’t matter as much.  But so much importance on each single die-roll! This, my friends, ain’t no Euro.

WHAT CATCH-UP?

There is a starting-money catchup mechanism, but it didn’t overcome the nature of the beast. It made it a bit easier to get some early buildings and upgrades, but it generally wasn’t enough to overcome the permanent advantages acquired by the snowballing leaders.

There’s also a hit-the-leader catchup facility provided by raiding them (rather than an island site). The problem is that if you raid the leader, you fuel him with tokens that make it easier for him to raid you back. Meaning you’re both back at square one while the other players carry on merrily towards their point-jumps. It’s a net loss for both players. In early games, the leaders got into the habit of acquiring an advisor with raid capability as a deterrent – you raid me, I’m going to hit you back so hard your head will spin. So they never happened. Raids eventually died out in our campaign altogether. The ongoing penalties of successful raids were crippling (it made goods more expensive, made further raids harder, etc), and the rewards were minor compared to those available through point-jumps which were nearly all non-raid based. A condemning double-whammy.

HOW MANY TURNS DID YOU SAY?

Another reason why you couldn’t concentrate on anything but achieving the next point-jump was the fact that the game goes so few turns. The rules had you expecting that there’d probably be multiple years each game (6 turns to a year, and you get to use each advisor once each year), but it never happened for us. Early on the games were going for 8 or 9 turns, but during the last half of the campaign each game was 7 turns without fail. Mind you, the number of points to win increased each game, and we’d think surely the next game will last longer. But then there’d be a new way to earn big points, and sure enough, 7 turns and done. This meant that any strategy that didn’t have a chance of winning within 7 turns was doomed.

Games still managed to go two and a half hours though – each turn was important and weighed, and paragraph reading and choices and stickers and such all add up. It’s a long time in which to have the sum total of 7 turns.

THE STRATEGY

At the end of each game, you’re invited to improve your capabilities. You choose which improvement based on the strategy you’d like to explore. The expectation is that each strategy – explore, raid, merchant – is equally viable and there’s no information to guide you otherwise.

Now each strategy had its moment in the milestone-sun, but as the campaign progressed, and the guys who’d invested in exploration drew further and further ahead each game (fuelled by more and more ongoing permanent advantages from milestones and winning games, creating a snowball effect), it became clear that in our campaign there was only one viable strategy. Raids just couldn’t get you the point-jumps that big exploration did, especially when starting money increased and it became easier to simply buy the things you wanted. There’s a potential strategy around buying and selling of goods to raise money and spend it on VPs – with a ton of advisors and buildings aimed at helping –which became completely redundant. Anyone who tried it would end up on half the points that the winner did. That’s a whole chunk of the game that ended up dead to us. We might as well have left it all in the box.

So all the players were driven to focus on that one exploration strategy –convergence – and each game from then on played out much the same. Go out and explore, and hope to get lucky with the paragraphs chosen and the dice rolls.

This resulted in a large disparity in scores from mid-campaign on, with the players who’d invested in trading and raiding far behind the others. They carried on like troopers to allow us to finish, but having players out of contention for so long without alternative goals to shoot for was not a good hook on which to run a campaign.

To succeed, a legacy game needs to provide hope that different strategies will wax and wane successfully. More than anything, the fact that the unlocks drove all other strategies to the cemetery, leaving us with only one viable strategy, was the most dispiriting part of the campaign. The killing of hope of evolution was a legacy promise undelivered.

THE PARAGRAPH BOOK

The paragraph book was obviously a huge undertaking and nicely done. Every exploration has a flavour narrative – the natives were peaceful / wary / aggressive etc, and outlined what you’d discovered. Occasionally there was reference to a bigger picture, but unfortunately it doesn’t get fleshed out; it’s just a framework in which the world exists.

Oftentimes a paragraph gave a choice to be made – for example a greedy choice where you’ll take damage but get more stuff, or a non-greedy one where you take no damage but get less stuff. As the game progressed it became less obvious what the choices involved, often giving no indication of the likely rewards and damages, and you’d simply end up choosing based on the narrative flavour and your natural inclination. This became more and more frustrating though. You’d typically invested turns to hopefully gain a point-jump and you’re faced with a 50/50 – it may be that for this choice, the “push on” option ends up giving huge VPs, and the “leave it” option gives damage, whereas in a previous turn the “push on” option gave damage and the “leave it” option earned reward. These choices often made the difference between winning and losing a game. Remember how few turns there are in a game? If you choose incorrectly and miss out, your best advisor is used up and there’s not enough time for making the missed points up. There were a few games that resulted in pissed-off players as a result. Did I mention there was a “hate” component in our relationship with the game?

And those point-jumps could be BIG. There was one game where I wanted to build something that I’d be able to keep into future games and give advantage, but it would take quite a few turns to acquire the necessary resources. I was one turn away from building it and getting the point-jump when another player jumped from 10 to 17 points in one turn through a lucky find and some other stuff, ending the game. There I was stuck on 4 points, missed out on my ongoing advantage, and basically a game behind for the rest of the campaign. Seafall at this point was at serious risk of not hitting the table again. From then on, we instituted a friendly policy of giving a turn’s warning when someone might end the game so as to minimise the number of upsets, and this carried over into some semi-collaboration even, as in why don’t you go for this, and I’ll go for that, and can I use your building to do this? In this way, we managed to keep the campaign going and ease the bitterness, always in hope that things were going to get better. But that swingy-ness was a big downpoint for us.

THE RULES

On first reading, the rules looked good, bases covered. As the campaign progressed, new rules were unlocked. And then, we started coming across holes. “Does this mean this or that, this situation isn’t covered, is this global or only when you’re at that location, when do during-winter effects happen when there are 8 steps in winter, there’s been no instructions on how to do that!”, and so on.

The issue is that you really don’t want to visit a rules forum for a legacy game in case you come across spoilers. Of all the games on the planet, legacy games by definition are the ones that need to have perfect rules. And we just kept coming up with issue after issue that we’d have to come to a consensus agreement on. There was one egregious loophole where we couldn’t agree so I emailed the publisher and the designer – the publisher gave one answer, the designer another. Really? The game had so many playtesters, you wonder how could they not have raised these questions. And if they did, how could the publisher not get the answers into the rules. I’m sure they put tremendous effort into the paragraph book and the rules – and the game in general, for which they should be applauded – but the final rules quality left a lot to be desired. I guess there was a warning shot right at the start when we found a typo on the game box, but still.

One last thing for future legacy games to note: NEVER EVER INTRODUCE RULES VIA THE PARAGRAPH BOOK that require us to remember them ongoing. The unlocks managed to give us wrapped event cards that were unwrapped when told by the paragraph book, and that worked nicely, so why not do the same for new rules!

THE UNLOCKS

The unlocks started off as you’d expect most legacy games to do – new milestones, advisors, buildings, upgrades, etc. Standard stuff. There were some neat unlocks later on which certainly got you to look at existing components in a new light, but they never turned the game’s overarching strategies around, nor did they modify or evolve the game play to a new level of excitement. If you’re looking for a neat evolution in play like Pandemic Season 1 managed, this ain’t that game.

The lure of a legacy campaign is that the unlocks will provide interesting changes and improvements to the gameplay that generate a desire for more play. In this regard Seafall fell short of expectations. Games at the beginning felt much like games at the end; just with more powerful abilities available.

SUMMARY

We’ll look back on Seafall with some fondness given the amount of time we invested in it, but the overriding view is one of opportunity lost. It was mainly the participation in the construction of a shared world together that held our interest, together with the continual hope that the game would evolve positively with the next unlock.

I guess we got 14 games out of it so I don’t regret the money spent. I doubt there’s any point playing it further. There are after-it’s-done rules for continued play, but the most fun element (exploring) is no longer available as the map is explored – the strategies are known, the mechanics don’t allow for cleverness, it’s overly luck reliant, the board is abundant with ways to get things so there’s little race-tension, yada, yada, yada.  

In the end, after weighing up all those down-points, it felt like we’d invested in a 14 part television blockbuster mini-series that promised all these twists and turns, but where each episode played out the same as the previous. And upon getting to the end, we’ve turned to each other and said “Really?!”

After being disappointed by this one, we can only hope that future legacy games analyse, learn and improve; because the allure of the concept working is undeniable. But … once bitten, twice shy.

 

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

 

Michael W.: We got 7 or 8 games into our campaign before one player cried “Uncle!”. By that time we also had a clear leader who looked likely to turn into a runaway one. I agree with Patrick’s great analysis, mirroring their slow erosion of hopefulness that the game would improve. I don’t mind so much now that our campaign won’t see the end. Apart from a better implementation of viable strategies and less reliance on luck, the other thing I wanted out of SeaFall was a clearer story arc. There were hints of interesting developments, and maybe unlocks we didn’t get to would have fleshed that out. But overall the story element seemed pretty bland and certainly nowhere as twisty and interesting and cohesive as Pandemic:Legacy. In the end, I’m glad to have tried it and not very disappointed we didn’t finish..

 

Lorna: We managed 4 or 5 games. I agree with the others. Initially, I had a character that gave some benefit in building. This did not pan out in any way as buildings reset and took so long to gather resources for them and so basically I did nothing the first game that would be at all helpful later. I was disappointed from the first game as clearly the only way to score was exploration. I wanted an exploration game but I also wanted more. I guess I’m just greedy that way. It seems unlikely we will finish at this point as no one has mentioned it in the past 2-3 months since our last game.

 

Mary P: I think we are about 9 games in right now and it’s getting worse, not better. The scores were close about 2 games ago but now there is a 20 point gap between 1st and 4th. The person currently in 1st is able to do most of the exploring; now that he is set up, he is able to move quickly to the unexplored areas and be successful while the rest of us struggle along. Also, the points are very random; for example, one person does an explore and gets only one point, while another gets 6 – too many for one action, considering it ranges from more than a third to a quarter of the total points needed to end a game. Not being able to keep resources/upgrades/buildings from one game to the next is a real pain (as is having to go across the board to repair a ship or even sell goods… movement is painful unless you are the leader who is lucky enough to get upgrades through exploration and game wins). Several times the game ended suddenly with one person getting 6 to 8 points in their last turn while the other players just have a bunch of money, upgrades, buildings, and/or goods that then become useless since the game resets at the end. There should have been some way to convert these to points, or maybe keep some proportion,… something. The catch up mechanism becomes less and less useful as games go on – this should have scaled at the very least. On top of that there are a number of rules issues; we can’t seem to go one game without hitting the FAQs (plus a lot of arguing). The games are too long (and they feel even longer) because you don’t seem to accomplish much, mainly as a result of having to start over each game. Giving two improvements rather than one at the end of each game might have helped speed things along (maybe even allowing a building or upgrade to be permanently kept as one possibility by using both improvements). I really wanted to like this game – the exploration possibilities and story (paragraph) book seemed quite exciting, unfortunately it has been mostly very disappointing. (On a side note, I loved Pandemic Legacy; I’m very much looking forward to Season 2.)

 

Chris Wray:  I played two games.  I was excited for the first one, but I quickly realized that this was a longer game than I expected, and the “exploration theme” was a bit too slow moving for my tastes.  After those two games, one other member of the group joined me in my desire to not play again.  The third member was neutral.  The fourth person was a bit more enthusiastic, but he relented when the copy we played on was recently destroyed in a basement flood. I was sad for my friend when his basement flooded.  But I’ll admit to being relieved when I learned my obligation to my Seafall group was no more.  I’m a huge fan of the Legacy concept, and Rob Daviau is clearly a genius, but this simply did not align with my gaming tastes.  

 

Mark Jackson: My experience with SeaFall is admittedly colored by my role as an early playtester and proofreader of the base rules for the designer. I have a nearly four year history with SeaFall… and I’m well aware that my admiration and enjoyment of the game is tied up in that involvement.

 

That said, I wonder if some of the negative reactions to SeaFall raised in Patrick’s article and the other OG commenters might be mitigated by:

1) playing with less than the full complement of five players – Both my playtesting and my play with the published copy of the game has been 3 player games (with my two sons), so we have not experience the downtime issues referenced by others. While I can see how much more involved the game would be with five players, I do think that 4 is probably the better player count.

 

2) experiencing the game as weekly episodes rather than “binge-watching” – Admittedly, the set-up time makes this more difficult, but I think that SeaFall benefits from playing it over time rather than trying to rush through the campaign. I felt the same way about both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy… the structure of the base games are enhanced by the legacy elements but can wear down players when played back-to-back.

 

3) adjusting expectations from “thematic-heavy Euro” to “RPG-like experience game” – SeaFall is, flat out, an experience game in the vein of Tales of the Arabian Nights. While winning a particular game or the campaign is desirable, the strength of the design is the way in which it involves players in telling an interactive story. (Patrick’s comments about naming advisors and them becoming old friends is spot on.)

I know that my suggestions do not deal with all of the concerns voiced by Patrick and others… but while I can see the validity of those concerns, they have not overwhelmed our positive experience in the world of SeaFall.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Mark J
  • I like it. Michael W (at first)
  • Neutral. Michael W (by the end), Chris Wray
  • Not for me…Lorna, Mary P.
  • All of the above at some point or other: Patrick Brennan

 

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2 Responses to Patrick Brennan: Now I’m Done With Seafall …

  1. Dan Blum says:

    I agree with Mark that at base it’s an experience game. The problem is that the game doesn’t make that clear up front! There are tons of rules around non-paragraph-book activities like raiding and trading, and milestones appear relatively early that emphasize those activities. But after those milestones are achieved nothing except exploration is incentivized. If the rulebook had said “exploration is key, everything else is secondary” then players could have gone in with the proper expectations (or not played at all if that didn’t appeal).

  2. norkle says:

    Fantastic review Patrick. It’s very hard to bring bad news in a review, and certainly easy to just not provide a review for a disappointing game. But for such a celebrated title, providing your experience, with clear justifications, and not giving spoilers, really is a great effort. Thank you.

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