Three years ago tabletop game designer Rob Daviau left his job at Hasbro, one of the world's largest board game publishers, and struck out on his own. Since then he's worked on several successful titles, but none have received more critical acclaim than the games in his Legacy series. His most recent title, Pandemic Legacy, was released in October and quickly rose up the ranks at the community site Board Game Geek to become the top-rated board game of all time.
Now Daviau is ready to reveal details of his next project, called SeaFall: A Legacy Game, which he says will be bigger and more ambitious than anything he's done before.
"It took me less time to get my bachelor’s degree than it did to make this game," Daviau told Polygon, "and I took summers off for that. It’s a big game, and it got away from me for a while.
"When I left Hasbro I said to myself, 'I’m going to make the biggest game I can.' And then all of a sudden it was a mess. So it was 95 percent done for two years, and I could not figure out how to wrestle it down. So I just stuck to it. Good old-fashioned New England stubbornness, I guess."
Legacy games evolve over multiple play sessions. The game board itself changes, reflecting the history of the world players create together at the table. Characters and factions gain new abilities, and new rules are added while a narrative unfolds.
"The first Legacy game, Risk: Legacy, is actually a mashup of episodic television, role-playing and video games," Daviau said. By borrowing from these other genres, he was able to subvert his biggest pet peeve about board games — their complicated rulesets.
"I always hate in board games that in order to start game one you have to digest an entire rulebook. You can’t sip it ... It’s this great struggle that we always have as game designers, which is I want to give you this rich system, but I don’t want you to sit there and get 15 minutes into the rules and say ‘I’m out! I can’t even understand this! I just want to get started!’ So, the whole idea of locking away content and then spoon-feeding it one rule at a time was entirely based on how video games introduced just-in-time concepts for either story, or rules, or both."
But where Risk: Legacy and Pandemic Legacy were written to resemble summer action-thrillers in their pacing, Daviau said SeaFall more closely resembles the size and scale of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It begins in a world which, while not our own, most closely resembles the swashbuckling period of the 16th century. Players take on the role of one of several provinces, journeying out into the oceans aboard heavily armed capital ships for the first time after a long dark age — not unlike after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Players will start at various points on a long coastline at the Eastern edge of the gameboard, which will be fashioned to look like an old nautical map. As they explore to the West with their flagships (each province will have two), players will reveal new islands — and other surprises — which they'll place on the board in the form of small stickers to mark their location. At the top and bottom of the board players will place larger stickers representing big inset maps for each place that they discover.
The meat of the game will be in exploring these places, "like Indiana Jones but in the 16th century," Daviau said.
Bundled with each copy of the game will be the Captains' Booke, a kind of choose your own adventure journal. Whenever players trigger certain in-game events — called Milestones — they'll read large sections of this book that will move the game's narrative forward. But the book will also be used for exploring individual locations on the map.
"It has 430 entries," Daviau said. "I had to write it in sort of 16th century English — not with the language itself, but with the turns of phrase.
"When I left Hasbro I said to myself, 'I’m going to make the biggest game I can.'"
"Let me make one up: You go to explore an island. At the front of the book is a generic map of an island, and it's got all these different places on it with numbers. So you go to an island, and you choose a location to explore. And you cross it out, and it says 'turn to Entry 41.'"
"M'lord," Daviau said, affecting his best period accent. "We pulled up upon the shore and spied in the hills what we thought to be gold. However, it turned out to be an ambush from some of the natives who knew that we were searching for gold in the area. We lost many of our crew, and my only question now is whether I go out to seek revenge or wait for another day since I’m down by many of my crew."
If you retreat from the island, perhaps the natives take pity on you and help patch up your crew. That interaction could open up opportunities for trade later on. But if you elect to seek your revenge, there will be consequences. You'll recover treasure, but your ship will be damaged on its way into the shallows or more of your crew will be killed. You'll also have to place a number of Enmity tokens on the board, which will have negative consequences the next time you visit.
Each player has eight Enmity tokens, and whenever they attack another province or another non-player faction they must spend Enmity to do it. Enmity has multiple effects in SeaFall, but its defining characteristic is how it forces players to to be careful about who they attack and when.
"You can’t just declare war infinitely," Daviau said, "because when your eight tokens run out, you’re done. It’s basically saying no, you’ve reached your jerk limit. If Enmity isn't removed at the end of a round, it becomes permanent. So I could look at a map of SeaFall when you're done playing and I will see certain islands and certain events and certain things in certain places. I can look at the Enmity on the board and I could probably recount your world’s history pretty well from just looking at that map. You’re going to be building a map that is also an historical artifact."
While it's hard to really put into words given the secrecy surrounding the contents of the game, Daviau says that SeaFall will have about twice as much "stuff" in it as Pandemic Legacy. That will add up to around 14 or 15 games-worth of content "if you savor it." Each session should be around two hours of playtime.
Each of those 15 games should include classic Legacy-style events, fundamentally changing how the game is played. But players aren't forced to move the story forward if they don't want to.
"I put my heart and soul into it."
"It’s possible that during one game all the players decide they're just going to attack each other," Daviau said. "It’s just war on the open seas. No one reaches any Milestones, no one moves the plot ahead. The game will just politely wait, you have your war and when you want to get back to the Legacy system we’ll continue with the plot."
SeaFall will be published in English by Plaid Hat Games, and a price has not yet been set. The game is expected to be available this August at the Gen Con convention in Indianapolis, Indiana and, after working on it so long, Daviau can't wait to get it into player's hands.
"I put my heart and soul into it," Daviau said. "I spent three-and-a-half years on this. But what if this is the one I didn’t get right? I’m not worried. I’m just — I don’t want to say I’m an artist, because I don’t like the sound of that. It's just that as a designer you kind of put something out there and you hope that everyone likes this like you think they will.
"I feel very confident that they will like it, but it doesn’t mean that emotionally I’m not thinking, 'Hm… did I miss something?'"
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