Seas of Havoc is a project that started in 2013 as a challenge for students of a game design course. It was through this course and subsequent development of the game that I discovered the welcoming community of tabletop gamers, designers, and playtesters to whom I owe a great deal.
What seemed impossible in 2013 — getting a game signed and shared with the world — became a possibility through their mentorship, selfless generosity, and support.
This is the journey from school project to published product and the people whose love for games and community brought it to life.
Seas of Havoc was originally a school project called "Sloops!" and was built out of LEGO, craft foam, and rocks from a campus planter. Peter Gorniak was the course professor, and I was a part of the group that had submitted the game.
The assignment was simple: Create a game that combined both deck-building and worker-placement mechanisms. There were to be multiple rounds of deliverables highlighting research, development, testing, and documentation. In this introductory course, the focus was on the game design process rather than the game itself.
My groupmates and I had completely missed the mark in our first submission, straying so far from worker placement as to become action selection and having implemented an out-of-scope naval combat element.
In the game shown below, the horizontal knight pieces were ships, the white poker chips depicted currents you'd slide along, and the upright chess pieces were rocks. Along the edges, each player would allocate pawns (their sailors) to different roles on their ship: navigation, rigging, and cannons. The board was drawn straight onto the table and erased/edited as needed — it was quick and messy, but allowed for rapid iteration.Early ideation in 2013
Peter's feedback was hard to receive: rework (i.e., actually include) worker placement, and scrap the tactical naval skirmish. Stubbornly, we held onto the skirmish element as we felt it gave context to the worker placement and deck-building. The three mechanisms felt right together; a captain would call out commands (the cards in the deck-builder), which were in turn carried out using the resources that skiffs (the workers in worker placement) would bring in from neighboring islands.Early maneuver card designs were inspired by naval battle diagrams
The second and third iterations of the project ended up playing much better, so much better in fact that at the end of the semester, Peter asked if anyone from our group would be interested in taking "Sloops!" further together, perhaps seeing whether it could make rounds at the local convention. I said yes. He may have mentioned something about seeking a publisher, but I think we were both more driven by the idea of developing the game.The final assignment as it was submitted in 2013
Playtesting, Development, and Goal Setting
Over the years, we'd meet up every now and again to make small improvements based on feedback from students, friends, and playtesters at local conventions and prototype meet-ups.Playtesting at the Terminal City Tabletop Convention in 2014, again with refinements at Unpub Mini 2014 in Vancouver and yet again at TCTC 2015
Eventually, Peter set us a goal of submitting the game to the Canadian Game Design and Cardboard Edison awards. This gave us a timeline and a reasonable end goal.
We knew the strengths of the game: the worker placement was tight, and the naval skirmish created memorable moments for testers — but the deck-building needed a purpose beyond purchasing cards just for a given turn. That's when we implemented a combo-ing system inspired by Star Realms in which each card had secondary powers that could be unlocked by playing multiple cards of the same color, thereby rewarding players for long-term strategic card purchases.
With this and other developments, "Sloops!" went on to place as a finalist in 2016's Cardboard Edison Award and won 2016's Canadian Game Design Award.A still from our 2016 demo video for Cardboard Edison
Despite generous feedback from the judges of these contests, development had stalled after those milestones. I'd moved away for work, and Peter had two young kids — meeting up in person has been rare ever since.
The Benefits of Distancing Yourself from Your Design
Years had gone by, and I'd mostly forgotten about the game until I eventually heard from Peter, who was thinking of using "Sloops!" as the base for an AI project. (He'd already created a program that played the game against itself through a Monte Carlo Tree Search to run some balancing checks.)A test among friends at Strathcona Park Lodge. We lived and worked in an area without cell reception and limited internet access, so I had no trouble roping them in as testers.
In 2019, development started up again. With time away from the project, it became easier to cut and change elements that were getting in the way of our design goals. I was able to look at old feedback from playtesters and the contest judges with an open mind and less attachment to the game. This helped us make decisions such as removing an entire card market for "basic" cards (as pictured above).
Riding the thrill of development, I sought out a local game design group in Victoria, BC and got a new prototype together. By happy accident, Max Xuereb, the organizer of the group I'd joined, turned out to be one of the judges in the 2016 Canadian Game Design contest we had entered! The group was incredibly helpful, offered candid insight, and has been ever supportive of the game. Hearing that some of their designs had been published was a huge confidence builder that it could be done.
Learning How to Pitch a Game
In preparing for an online publisher "speed dating" event, I relied heavily on this group to play through ideas. They'd find exploits and pain points, and offered candid feedback that was invaluable in honing the edges of the design.Stickers, sleeves, and sharpies to ease rapid iteration in early 2020, leading up to our pitch
Through having to explain the rules of the game over and over, I quickly learned what was difficult to relay and how we'd have to further streamline the game.
I'd also taken to listening to a few podcasts on game design, notably Ludology — ironically, this was recommended listening from Peter's class, which I had ignored back then — and was getting re-familiarized with a number of best practices in game design.A small selection from the development of a card; each redesign solved problems from the last iteration
Things moved quickly. We simplified the maneuver set and gave it more branching options. Cards gained point values to offer an alternate path to victory. Scrapping, a concept Peter and I had explored earlier, got an additional use as a resource earner and incentivized optimal play. Flags, now one of my favorite elements in the game, replaced the color combo system and was revised a few times. Lots of rapid development occurred, and I was finally committed to getting the game out in the world.
Finding a Publisher
We met Mike Gnade of Rock Manor Games during Nonepub 2020. He'd been looking for a pirate game and had previously developed deck-builders and thematic games. We were offered a publishing deal, along with some thoughts he had for the game. We took the offer and got to work on those thoughts.A couple of slides from our pitch to Rock Manor Games
Among them was a need for a new name. We'd been holding on to "Sloops!" as a development name for so long but were ready for a change. Seas of Havoc came up and stuck.Early art from Nabetse Zitro bringing the game to life
At Mike's suggestion, we brought in captains and ships to bring in a touch of world-building and to give players ownership over their in-game entity. Captains brought passive and active abilities; ships, the maneuvers and upgrades. These concepts were included in the game before as randomly assigned upgrades, but the captain/ship solution felt much more intentional and thematic.Evolution of the "boarding party" ability: originally a purchasable card, then a permanent upgrade, and now a unique card the corsair brings to their starting deck
With the help of numerous testers, including invaluable online tests with the generous Vancouver Playtest Group, which had gone online during the pandemic, we finally got the game to a state we were ready to share.Digital prototyping has allowed us to test out some finishing touches! Thank you, Mark Ellis and Noe Escobar of the Vancouver Playtest Group for hosting!A digital render of the near final version of Seas of Havoc
A Big Thank You!
As a first-time designer, creating this game has involved a journey into the world of tabletop game design, the nerve-wracking realm of playtesting, and the collaborative process of publication.
I've got heaps of appreciation for all those I've met on this journey, and this truly is a supportive and collaborative community. Seas of Havoc exists because so many others believed it could, from Peter to local designers, to the friends who got roped into playtesting and those I've made returning the favor. You've all inspired me to continue in game design — thank you!
Seas of Havoc is a co-design between Sébastien Bernier-Wong and Peter Gorniak, with development help from Mike Gnade and a wealth of invaluable playtesters. The game is brought to life by art from Nabetse Zitro and graphic design by T.L. Simons. Thank you all!
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