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Game Preview at BGG.CON 2014: SeaFall, or Riding the Tides and Raiding the Towns

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: SeaFall
Shortly before BGG.CON 2014 was due to take place, designer Rob Daviau of IronWall Games posted the following on Twitter:

Um, yes? I contacted Rob, arranged for two friends to join us, then picked up a fourth player on the way to our Friday afternoon playtest session. Three hours later, we all surfaced from an incredibly immersive game experience, eager for more yet unsure of when it might come.

SeaFall, for those who don't know, was the first project undertaken by Daviau after he left his position as a game designer at Hasbro in 2012 to start IronWall Games. Here's an overview of that title:

SeaFall is a 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) set in an "age of sail" world reminiscent of our world.

In SeaFall, the world is starting to claw its way out of a dark age and has begun to rediscover seafaring technology. Players take on the role of a mainland empire that consults with a consortium of advisors to discover new islands, explore those islands, develop trade, send out raiding parties, take part in ship-to-ship combat, and more. As in Risk Legacy, co-designed by Daviau, SeaFall evolves as player plays the game, setting their grudges into the history of the game and building a different narrative at every table as players open up the world.
And for those who don't know Risk Legacy, let's take one further step back to explain that this release in 2011 took the decades-old, world domination game of Risk and set the game world on fire by requiring you to write on the map, add stickers with new rules to the rulebook, or, yes, set parts of the game on fire based on who won and what happened during that particular playing session.

Board Game: Risk Legacy
Image: D Conklin

Risk Legacy mashed the idea of a role-playing campaign into ye olde board game, with the environment changing around you from game to game while still adhering to the "one winner" approach of boardgaming, with the winner writing himself into history so that everyone can be reminded of that victory in the future.

Board Game Publisher: IronWall Games
After Daviau left Hasbro to start IronWall Games, he decided to take this Legacy idea one step further and create an entire world that players could explore from scratch, a world not bound by the strictures of Risk, a world that could be as large and detailed as he liked.

While that sounded like a good plan, it turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than he first realized. After all, as he noted before the interview recorded below, when he started working on Risk Legacy, 70% of the work was already done because he was building on an engine that was familiar to nearly all gamers. He was tweaking the known, drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa as it were, instead of starting with a blank canvas — and once he took up that canvas, he didn't just paint the surface, but transformed it into a diorama, a mobile, a music box of moving parts that grew out of control. The design was a monster of a game that few would play because it started big, then blew up still further to engulf every moment of your playing time.

While some would obviously relish this level of immersion, Daviau was practical enough to realize that he had to rein in the design, both to bring the playing time down in the early games and to allow for him to better monitor how the SeaFall campaign played out over multiple games. He mentioned, for example, finding that things would go out of control in, say, game nine, which would require him to tweak things in game one so that the campaign wouldn't Hulk out later and kill everyone — but then he'd need to find players to run through the campaign again in order to make sure that game nine now played nicely. All of those changes and tests and re-tests take time.

Board Game: SeaFall
Daviau, at upper right, welcomes us to his world

So what's the state of the game right now? Since SeaFall design is still underway, I'll avoid details and go for an overview, ideally providing enough for you to get a sense of the gameplay without contradicting what the game will actually be when released.

In general, each game of SeaFall lasts a number of years, with each year lasting a number of turns — how's that for avoiding details? — then concluding with a scoring phase based on how well each player is ranked in the four guilds of the game, with the guilds caring about how you well do things like explore and trade. Scoring is relative, so it doesn't matter how far you are ahead of everyone else — only that you are ahead of them — and doing well in one year gives you a boost in subsequent years.

Winning the game nets you a permanent advantage of some kind, while losing gives you a temporary hand-up for the next go-round; win or lose, though, everyone finds the world a bit different in the next game, both due to personal improvements and due to the world itself being both better known and more open to exploration.

In the first game, each player represents the leader of a seacoast town in the year 1501, and you're eager to explore the islands visible in nearby waters, buy and sell goods to fuel economic growth and construction in your town, raid other towns to take control of their stuff, and find the right people who can make all of this happen better for you than for other town leaders. As Daviau mentions in the video below, SeaFall is something of a gamer's soup, with everyone throwing their personal tastes into the pot. If everyone wants to attack one another, so be it; if some want to explore endlessly, they can make it happen (unless someone else gets there first; if you want to take a chance on stealing goods instead of paying for them, well, it's on your head if things go sour.

You have ships to sail and a bit of funds to fuel your actions; these actions are connected to the guilds, and some of them just advance your holdings or improve your ships or defenses while other actions give you standing with the associated guild, but you can't just take those actions, of course, because you need to put yourself in a position to take them and that takes time — just as Daviau's development efforts are all taking time. They're not scoring him anything in the gamer guild right now, but ideally he'll eventually be in the right position to land this vessel and let everyone else start exploring.

For now, though, you'll have to be content with this video shot at BGG.CON 2014 in which Daviau discusses SeaFall and other projects in the works from IronWall Games:

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