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SeaFall, the spiritual successor to Pandemic Legacy, is a handful

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Can the year’s most anticipated board game overcome its own flaws?

I took two days out of my life — about 12 waking hours, give or take — to play SeaFall, the latest game in the Legacy series from designer Rob Daviau. By the end of the second day, at the conclusion of our fourth game, I looked each of the four other people sitting at the table with me in the eye and asked them point blank, "Would you buy this game?"

Every single one of them said no.

They’re wrong. And I can’t tell you why.

You’re just going to have to trust me.

What is Legacy?

The Legacy series began in 2011 with the release of Risk: Legacy, a variant of the classic area-control board game first published in 1959. It’s no exaggeration to call Risk: Legacy a paradigm shift for the hobby games industry.

Taking inspiration from video games, among other sources, it was the first board game to evolve over time. Every playthrough asked players to permanently scar the land, to tear up and destroy cards and to open up a series of secret compartments to reveal new rules and other surprises that fundamentally changed the nature of the game.

For the first time, a board game became a kind of role-playing game with a narrative arc that could be enjoyed a finite number of times by a small group of players. Each box of Risk: Legacy contained a beginning, a middle and an end. It created a truly unique experience for players, something that no board game before it had ever attempted to do.

Pandemic Legacy continued with that theme, morphing the popular Pandemic board game into a kind of blockbuster movie played over the course of 12 in-game months. While Risk: Legacy had its weaknesses, with Pandemic Legacy Daviau and co-designer Matt Leacock succeeded in perfecting the concept of the living board game.

When I wrote about it last year I called it the best board game of 2015. Fans at Board Game Geek went a step further, and have since voted it the number one board game of all time.

So, to say that SeaFall, the third entry in Daviau’s Legacy series, was a hotly anticipated title is an understatement. There were fewer than 150 copies available at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis. They sold out before the convention even opened, the stockpile ravaged by people in the games industry and VIPs who had access to the vendor floor before the general population.

When I showed up a few days later to pick up the copy that had been put aside for Polygon, one of the employees from publisher Plaid Hat Games handed it over with a single word: "Run!"

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Spoilers, ahoy!

Before we go any further, I’ve got a warning for you as well:

What follows may spoil the opening rounds of this game for you. If you've played other games in the Legacy series and have been looking forward to this title, stop reading and wait for your copy to show up in the mail.

But if you’re curious about the game, on the fence about buying it or new to the series entirely, feel free to read on. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

SeaFall takes place in a sort of fantasy Renaissance world filled with pirates and gunpowder. Five noble families are vying for control of the empire. Each player at the table takes on the role of one of those five families, and over the course of each game the winner is the first to reach a set amount of victory points, called glory.

In order to earn glory each turn, players must choose which guild to partner with for that round. The Merchants Guild allows players to buy or sell goods, while the Builders Guild lets them improve their province and its sailing ships. The Explorers Guild allows them to uncover new parts of the map, and the Soldiers Guild lets them to attack each other or one of the non-player factions in the game world.

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Exploring mysterious sites is one of SeaFall's real joys. So is naming your favorite advisors.

Just about everything you do can and will lead to glory. The trick is in optimizing your family’s province with advisors, specialists you hire on that provide bonuses to certain actions. Each player’s province will get better and better at one or more of the basic tasks as the game goes on, as will their favored advisors. The tension comes in how these multiple specializations interact with one another.

Eventually the traders will come into conflict with raiders, and the explorers will come into conflict with builders and hoarders. As SeaFall’s campaign progresses, that conflict is expressed through something called "enmity". It might as well just be called hate.

Put simply, SeaFall has a memory.

Put simply, SeaFall has a memory. Using a set number of enmity tokens, agressions against other players or non-player factions linger from game to game. For instance, if one faction stole from my merchant ships often enough my enmity against them would give me more powerful dice rolls in my own defense. Stickers applied to the game board permanently change how each faction feels toward one another, and that makes conflict between certain players more likely as the game goes on.

But the way that enmity is explained isn’t very clear.

When I came home from Gen Con I knew I needed four other players that would be committed to churning through a good chunk of the SeaFall’s roughly 15-game campaign. I came across a crack team, all with hobby board game experience and specifically with hands-on time with previous Legacy games.

Together we opened up the SeaFall box, cracked open the manual for the first time and ... proceeded to have a pretty miserable experience.

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SeaFall's maps are illustrated by Jared Blando, one of the best cartographers in the business and known for his work on Dungeons & Dragons. To explore a site, just mark off a number matching the symbol on the game board and read the entry in the Captain's Booke.

The pen is mightier

Here’s the thing: Risk and Pandemic already existed before Rob Daviau got ahold of them and applied his Legacy system on top of them. That means many of the players that encountered the two previous Legacy games — myself included — had some experience with their rules and with their systems ahead of time. SeaFall is something completely new, and it stumbles in making itself clear right out of the box.

For this reason, for my group at least, learning to play SeaFall was a challenge. It feels like the manual could have used another round of edits. Maybe even two more rounds of edits.

The four players I invited to play the game along with me were less charitable.

After the first two games a few of them would have rather seen the manual burned than be forced to flip through it again searching for answers about the enmity system.

Part of that could be the fact that SeaFall is entirely new, not a classic game that’s been played as much as Risk and Pandemic have. Of course, before the game is widely available there will be a video that shows how the the game is supposed to be played. There’s even a big stop sign on the front of the manual with a web link that offers to show you that video before you read a single word. But it wasn’t available when we started playing and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be necessary.

The documentation in the box simply doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining itself.

Making matters worse, SeaFall tries to teach the basic game loop over the course of an arduous and particularly boring prologue game. None of the fun, surprising, evolutionary Legacy systems come into the game until the second or third playthrough. By then — something like two to five hours in — some of my players had already mentally checked out.

SeaFall's prologue game doesn't do it any favors.

Where SeaFall excels is with its discovery mechanic. In the third and fourth games, players are finally let loose on the high seas and allowed to venture far from their home provinces. What’s out there, no one knows, and you’re just as likely to sink your precious ships as to discover a new and mysterious island. And there are plenty of other hazards to be found at sea.

Unfortunately, to say much more than that would be to truly and deeply spoil the game.

Part of the joy of the Legacy system is in trusting the game’s ability to surprise and delight you with each new session. And as we opened up new packages, we were positively delighted. But SeaFall has a bit too long of a runway to really get to the fun stuff.

So that’s why, after 12 hours of play, I did the unthinkable.

After our fourth game, after all my players left ... I opened everything up.

What’s in the box?

Every box. Every card. Every ... thing inside SeaFall. I looked at all of it. I had to find out if this $80 game that none of my players were willing to buy with their own money was really worth the time and the treasure needed to experience it all, start to finish, across 15 or more games.

After uncovering all its secrets, you’re just going to have to believe me that they’re worth the struggle to discover them.

Inside SeaFall’s hidden compartments are new rules, new characters and new gimmicks that simply haven’t been attempted in another Legacy game — or any board game — that I’ve ever played before. The world of potential that SeaFall shows to players in the first few games is such a miniscule part of what is actually inside the box that it’s comical.

But I just can’t tell you what’s in there. You’re just going to have to take my word for it.

SeaFall as a consumer product is flawed. The manual is a mess, and I have some issues with the graphic design as well. The colors in particular are muted and hard to tell apart. Some of the fonts are difficult to read. The captain’s log — the book of secrets that is used to progress the campaign’s overarching story — doesn’t really feel unique. As a physical object, it presents itself as just another plain old rulebook rather than the book of secrets that it truly is.

Frankly, instead of a $40 set of add-on metal coins I’d have rather spent that extra money on an upgraded, leather-bound journal.

You’re just going to have to take my word for it.

But my biggest warning to those thinking of purchasing SeaFall is that it is a decidedly hardcore board game. You might have been able to bring new players into the hobby with Pandemic Legacy, but SeaFall is just a little more crunchy and just a little bit more pretentious. Because of that it will be a much, much harder sell to the uninitiated.

Daviau’s Legacy system has always felt like it’s had a kind of safety net, training wheels and carefully placed guard rails to keep you on the right path. The road rose to meet your feet as you played Risk: Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, even if you were falling towards it face first. SeaFall takes away some of those protections, both on purpose and by accident. It’s a little rough around the edges in those first few games. It requires a bit more study even before that prologue game, and it’s safe to say you’ll be learning new things about it and its systems well into your fourth or fifth game.

Stay the course.

I know where it’s going. I cheated. I looked ahead. You just have to trust me when I say that SeaFall is absolutely worth the trouble of those first few rocky games. It’s an epic story meant to be savored, and it is absolutely worth your time.