SeaFall Spoiler-Free Initial Impressions

SeaFall’s general release has been delayed to October due to customs issues, but about 150 copies were air shipped out early for sale at Gen Con with some of those copies set aside for reviewers.  Reviewers have started to trickle out initial impressions, and impressions have been rather mixed.  With such a small sample size of people out there that have actually played it, and being one of those lucky few to get a copy, I was motivated to write up my own spoiler-free initial impressions of the game.

Note: My group and I have not yet unlocked any of the six sealed boxes that come with the game, my impressions are all based on the game described in the base rulebook and shouldn’t spoil anything.  I will also refrain from talking about any story bits that have happened in our games.

SeaFall isn’t Pandemic Legacy

Zero Punctuation once said  “If you’re going to make something incredibly good that becomes frighteningly popular, make sure it’s the last thing you’ll ever make in your entire life, because otherwise you get to spend the rest of your creative career struggling under the weight of high expectation and bricks.”  Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 currently sits comfortably at #1 on BoardGameGeek’s all-time rankings, “high expectations” might be an understatement.

Let’s just get this out of the way: SeaFall isn’t Pandemic Legacy: Season 2.  If you loved Pandemic Legacy, you might end up hating SeaFall.  Pandemic Legacy is at its heart a family-weight coop, SeaFall is a 4X-Euro hybrid.  SeaFall is a longer game.  It’s a slower game.  It’s a more complicated game.  It’s a competitive game with direct player conflict.  This isn’t the type of game that you play multiple sessions of in a single night.  This is the kind of game you play once a week, or maybe once a month, and let it digest. 

Nothing I said above makes SeaFall a bad game, but SeaFall isn’t going to have the universal appeal that Pandemic Legacy does.  It’s much more of a niche title than Pandemic Legacy, and even Risk Legacy.  Unfortunately, groups may not realize that it’s not a game for them until they’ve sunk money into it, made irreversible changes to the components, and subsequently can’t trade it away.  

What I Like About SeaFall

With all of that out of the way, what did I think of the game so far?  I really like it, and so does my group!  It’s a return to what we loved about Risk Legacy, but with a more strategic and nuanced game at its center, as well as a more interesting theme.

First of all, SeaFall is a competitive game, which works better for my group than a fully co-op game like Pandemic Legacy.  We’re texting each other with smack talk about how our provinces will conquer the seas, crush our enemies, and hear the lamentation of their women.  We’re not just playing the game when we sit down at the table, we’re still experiencing it throughout the week waiting for our next game night.  I’d argue that reviewers that are rushing through games just to get the scoop aren’t having the same experience we are having with it, and I’d also argue we’re having the better experience with it.

The sealed packets in Risk Legacy have become one of the most popular elements of legacy games, and they’re of course in SeaFall (six sealed boxes total, each with a somewhat cryptic image on them).  Similar to how they work in Risk Legacy, these get unlocked when players achieve specific goals within the game that introduce new components/rules/etc.  The pacing at which these boxes get opened and the game evolves is largely in the hands of the players themselves.  I loved Pandemic Legacy, but one of my few complaints with that game is the general lack of player agency in how the content gets unlocked.  Despite having an advent calendar’s worth of stuff to unlock, it was all driven by a scripted legacy deck, that for the most part played out the same for every group.  Putting this control back in the hands of the player may not make progression as silky smooth as it was in Pandemic Legacy, but it also makes each individual group’s experience that much more unique.  Some groups will naturally just let them happen through the course of the game, other groups will collude to get them achieved as quickly as possible, and other groups may spend entire games just going into all out war and ignoring progressing the game.

SeaFall is also the first legacy game where you as a player are permanently tied to a character/faction.  You get to choose how to improve your ships, your leader, and your province from game to game, without having to second-guess how this may help other players in future games like in Risk Legacy, or get group buy-off on an upgrade like in Pandemic Legacy.  Heck, you even get your own personal treasure chest to store your stuff from game to game!  SeaFall brings a sense of ownership to players, even a sense of roleplay, that previous legacy games have not really had.

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In terms of actual gameplay, exploring is currently the most interesting bit in the early game.  When you successfully explore a site on an island, you pick a site from the explorer’s map that matches the symbol you just explored, and read the corresponding numbered entry in the captain’s book.  You’re given some sort of choice to make that will have a different outcome and story passage that your read (ex: do you trade with the natives, or do you attack them?)  The choice you make typically affects whatever bonus/penalty you get from exploring (ex: choosing to attack the natives gets you an extra resource, but you have to place an enmity token), whereas the story passage you chose from the explorer’s map typically dictates what you discovered at that site.  When you discover something (a spice field, a gold mine, etc), that is permanently stickered to that site for the remainder of the campaign.  As a result, each island gets quasi-procedurally populated with content as they get explored, resulting in your copy of the game being unique from other groups’ copies, which I find really neat.  Once again, you have that sense of uniqueness to your group’s experience and story.

On the subject of the story passages in the explorer’s book, we haven’t yet seen the vast majority of it, but we’ve arguably already read more flavor/story text than the entirety of Pandemic Legacy and Risk Legacy’s combined.  The writing is on par with similar story books and event cards that other games have had.  The story passages typically give players interesting choices to make, and since you never encounter the same event twice, you don’t know what the exact outcome will be of your choice in advance.  The exploration events make references to things that may be going on in the world, but it doesn’t really spell it out for you.  You may even miss certain clues depending on the choices you take.  The story in SeaFall plays out a bit like a mystery on a TV show like Lost, and we’ll have to see if it pays out in the end.    

Enmity in SeaFall is a new concept to the legacy system, and a rather interesting one.  When you successfully raid an island site or player’s province, you must place an enmity token of your province color on that space.  For every enmity you have on an island/province, you must roll one fewer die on future raid attempts, or spend one extra gold to buy goods and upgrades.  There are some opportunities to remove enmity tokens, but at the end of the game all remaining enmity tokens on islands/provinces become permanent enmity stickers and carry over to all future games.  This forces you to think about the short-term benefits of that game vs the long-term consequences of the campaign.  It not only is an interesting manifestation of the meta between players (“I’m going after you this game because you attacked me last game!”) but also an interesting way to model how you treat the native population of the islands.  Will raiding initial islands frequently in the early game ultimately hurt you in the long run?  

Things I’m Less Excited About

SeaFall starts as an incomplete game, with a lot of the content sealed in boxes and the vast majority of the board empty, so I can’t say it’s a perfect game right out of the box.  I mentioned before that Seafall is a 4X game, but initially it’s more of a 2.5X game.  You can certainly explore, you can certainly exploit, but you can’t expand (although it’s spelled out in the rulebook this aspect of the game comes later), and extermination is limited (once again, spelled out in the rulebook that this will come later on).  And until you explore a lot of the sites on islands, there really won’t be a lot of opportunities to trade goods, raid, etc.  I expect that as the boxes and board open up, options for the player will open up as well.

The pick-up and deliver aspects of the game are the least interesting bit of the game this early on, since at this point in time we can only deliver to our home provinces, and that mainly serves as a means to an end to get discounts on structures, treasures, and ship upgrades.  I expect that as more islands and sites get discovered, some interesting trade routes and scoring opportunities will emerge.  But for now, not so much.

About That Prologue

This has come up in a couple initial impressions, so let me chime in on it as well.  The game requires you to play through effectively a tutorial scenario that lasts ~3 rounds total.  The points don’t matter for the campaign, and the only permanent change that happens in this scenario is that you can explore sites on islands, so players are free to just try things out to get a feel for how the game plays.  After going through the rules with my group, we jumped into the prologue and I helped players through their turns, giving them advice on what actions to take.  By the end of it, players had a much firmer grasp of the rules, and we all agreed that this was helpful (if not necessary) to do before playing our first real game.  I think the only way one realistically could skip the Prologue is if everybody had read the rulebook in advance and understood it front to back, or if they had already played a Seafall campaign previously (and in those cases, the Prologue would probably take 15 minutes to get through).   We also had fun with it, getting to name islands and kind of build up personalities for our provinces and leaders in our heads along the way.

In Summary

SeaFall is an ambitious title to say the least, and there’s a lot of game in its box.  But it’s not necessarily a game for everybody.  I will repeat again that this is a legacy 4X game set in the age of sail, that alone should rightfully scare some people off.  People looking for a meatier experience than Risk Legacy or even Pandemic Legacy are going to love this.  People looking for Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 may have to wait another year.

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