29th Nov2017

‘Seafall’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

seafall-box

Since it was released last year, Seafall has experienced something of a stormy reception from core gamers and popular critics. If you take an aggregate view of every review out there, you’d find faults ranging far and wide encompassing everything from pieces that won’t stand up straight to a dull theme, too much luck of the dice and much more besides. When I started playing Seafall though, I put all of that to the back of my mind, because the core concept – sailing the seas and discovering new lands in a persistent world – is one I just could not resist.

Now as I’ve just mentioned, Seafall is a legacy game, which means that it comes jam packed with secrets in the form of numbered treasure chests, entries in the Captains Booke and elsewhere besides, and it could spoil the game if I reveal too much of them. All of the pictures in this review were taking as I was setting up the prologue for my very first game, so there are no visual clues about what’s in store, but because Seafall has been out for a while, I will mention mild spoilers throughout. To give you an idea of the magnitude of spoiler I am talking about – I will discuss some of the early (and fairly obvious) discoveries, but I won’t provide any detail about the more game changing features that come later in the campaign.

Seafall’s main campaign is expected to weigh in at around fourteen games, at which point someone is likely to have completed the main end game milestones. Each game takes about two hours, possibly half an hour more or less depending on familiarity and number of players. On that note, three to five people can participate in a Seafall campaign, and the expectation is that each game will be played by the same group (or at least the same number of people) because it’s basically impossible to add a faction mid campaign, and any faction that misses a game will almost certainly drop materially behind. It’s worth bearing in mind that the game includes rules for both these scenarios, but it doesn’t feel as if they would work terribly well to me.

At its heart, Seafall can be classified as what most people call a 4X game. That means you’ll be exploring, expanding, exploiting and ultimately, exterminating in Seafall and more specifically, you’ll be doing so as one of five (mostly customisable) imperialistic provinces at the dawn of an alternative age of sail. In the opening prologue game (during which you can’t break too many components, thankfully) you won’t be able to attack other players, but you will have four previously undiscovered islands to explore in order to build out that map for your first proper game.

Even if Seafall fails to live up to its billing at any other time, it absolutely succeeds during the first two or three games. As players visit each island and explore the various coves, bays and inlets, something wonderful happens. Firstly, as you actually do the exploring, you’ll be using a combination of dice rolls, a treasure map filled with numbered locations and the fabulously written and entirely overproduced Captains Booke to determine how you interact with the places you’ve discovered.

Choices are fairly linear; for example will you allow a native tribe to retain their sacred grove in exchange for other tribute, or will you slash it down for a rich resource of lumber at the cost of some trouble with the natives? Either way, you’ll be directed to read about the consequences of your actions in a way that really helps to flesh out the world – even if I was a little sad to find that there are no truly “kind” choices in respect of how the locals are treated.

Once the initial discovery of a specific location is complete, you’ll permanently mark the board. Usually, this involves placing a sticker to indicate which resource is available there, but other stickers (such as permanent enmity, which makes the local populace more aggressive towards your faction.) I really, really enjoyed how these features came together in Seafall and even though there are only four islands to discover at the beginning of the game, you’ll soon be adding more, so it’s a feeling that never really goes away.

Another feature that I really like in Seafall is the fact that you can draft (and name, if you are the first to claim them) a panel of advisors, who provide specialised bonuses to various parts of the game, not least of which are endeavours. These dice rolls affect various activities in game (including exploring) with the strength of the roll resulting in the equivalent of anything from a failure to a major success. Choosing the advisor(s) to invest in (from a panel available to everyone) and potentially carry into the next game can be hugely important and impactful, in particular if you wish to focus on a particular means of gaining glory points, which are the ultimate way to win in Seafall.

There is also a literal ton of other stuff to do in Seafall and in terms of the introduction of new rules and features, it literally never stops. Upgrading ships during the game is a key feature, as is raiding provinces and later, founding colonies. Treasures can be bought and resources can be traded. After each game, the winning player will improve a province, whilst all players will improve a ship and train an advisor. Each player receives a box into which they can place the cards, ships and other components that pertain to their province and that can be carried into the next game. There is lots and lots to do here and most of, I thought, was very good fun.

Getting to the point where this kind of exciting stuff becomes fluid is where the first fault I found inSeafall did come to light. The instruction manual is probably about as simple as it can be considering how complex the game is, but that’s kind of an issue in itself. This is a tough game to learn, even with a prologue to bring you up to speed. There are many rules in both the manual and on the various cards that aren’t fully explained (a common complaint which I am just adding my voice to.) Some rules are as vague as to offer throwaway comments like “Enmity makes this action more expensive.” How much more expensive? Under what circumstances? You get the jist.

Now for me, this kind of thing isn’t really a major issue, because I’m fairly happy just to work things out through trial and error or by introducing a house rule that makes sense to me and my group. Many decisions in Seafall were made by a joint decision around the table, and as with many of the other legacy features, we simply made decisions and then abided by them whenever they came up in future, which was fairly rare to be honest. This made me wonder, why exactly are so many critics so down on Seafall?

I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to that question for sure, because I think most of their complaints are valid. It’s definitely possible for luck to play an unduly high role (or roll, ha) in the game, but you’d have to be mortally unlucky for it to cost you the entire campaign. Some say that anyone with a rock-solid strategy can’t be beaten once they begin to run away with the game, whilst I’ve also read that some advisor cards are drastically overpowered (which is sort of true, but in my view you could simply call them “clearly more powerful.)

This has led me to a simple conclusion. Seafall is the heaviest game that I think you would ever want to play in a light-hearted way. Looking at the hundreds of reviews across the internet, it seems to me as if the opinion of power gamers, broadly speaking, is that Seafall is broken and unbalanced, because it is actually quite open to exploitation. For me and my friends (who are closing in on the last third of the campaign) we’ve just discovered a component that has completely changed the way we look at the game (literally) and which does something I’ve never seen or even imagined in a board game before.

Just when I thought the wind might be dropping out of Seafall’s sails, it has found another way to entertain us and we are all still exploring strategies and enjoying what the game has to offer. Some games seem to focus on petty back and forth raiding, whilst in others we all seem happy to explore and trade. Neither of these is by any stretch of the imagination the perfect strategy for winning, which is exactly my point – don’t play Seafall with the intention of finding a watertight way to earn glory, play it to sail the high seas, explore hidden islands and stick tiny stickers onto your board. I promise, it’s really quite good fun!

***½  3.5/5
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You can buy Seafall online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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