Seafall Review – The Ship that Sailed and Sank
For the past two months, a group of four of us have been getting together every Tuesday to play Seafall, the legacy game designed by Rob Daviau of Pandemic Legacy and Betrayal at House on the Hill fame. We would each hoist our sails, don our best pirate accents, and sail out into uncharted waters in the hope of goods and glory. It started off as a good romp and one we all enjoyed.
Well known as the legacy game that kind of got away, Seafall has never sold very well compared to its Pandemic and Risk counterparts. As such, it can be picked up really quite cheaply, with our copy costing just over £20.
After seven games, and having unlocked five of the six unlockable boxes, we, on Tuesday, decided to put the game down for good. In this Seafall review, we are going to explore a few aspects to the game, look at what we liked and what we decided we could ultimately do without. Hopefully, after this you can decide whether you want to give it a go yourself.
I will try to keep this Seafall review spoiler free, but will be referring to a few core aspects of the game. If you don’t want to know anything, I suggest you stop reading here.
THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD
What is Seafall?
Seafall is a legacy game designed by Rob Daviau, in which you play as a sea faring nation looking for as much glory as possible. For those unfamiliar with the legacy style of game, what it means is that the board evolves as you play, creating a different experience as you play. You then unlock additional items as you play, more cards, and different mechanics. There are even spaces in the rule book for more rules to be stuck in.
Seafall is a competitive game for 3-5 players. Each game can take 90 minutes to three hours to play.
Seafall is a good looking game, with artwork by Rob Daviau, Jared Blando, EJ Dela Cruz, Brian Valeza and Jen Santos.
How do you play Seafall?
Okay, so here is where it gets a bit complicated from a spoiler perspective, so we’ll keep this simple. As a game, Seafall takes place over the course of several rounds, and those rounds are split into years. The game starts with a Winter phase, and then progresses, with a Winter phase happening at the end of every six rounds. The game is played until a set amount of glory is reached.
Each player has a province board, and also has two ships. The province is the home base, and generates money every winter. The ships go out and explore the seven seas.
Each round players have a series of actions they can take based on guilds. They must take two actions from any one guild, of which there are four guilds in the game – Explorers, Merchants, Soldiers, and Builders.
Each guild allows you to sail as an action, and then they have two specific actions of their own. For instance –
- Explorers let you explore a region and gain research.
- Merchants can buy and sell goods.
- Soldiers can tax and raid.
- Builders can upgrade ships or upgrade provinces.
Each round also starts with hiring an adviser or buying a treasure. Advisers can be activated for one round, giving short term benefits to the game.
Throughout the game you will discover islands and explore them. When exploring you will choose a location to explore within a Captain’s Booke, and read an entry. That will then trigger an event. Exploring gives glory.
Exploring also doesn’t always go well, and neither does raiding. You can kind of lose at both, and gain damage on your ships. Ships can be sunk.
Once explored an area can be raided for glory. Goods can be brought from it and sold. Treasures and buildings can then be built for glory using the money gained from trading.
There are universal goals and objectives put at the top of the board. These vary and are for the taking, also offering glory. The objectives can be based around any of the core sets of actions. Additional goodies can also be gained from exploring and completing objectives such as permanent province upgrades.
Each game the glory limit needed to win increased by +1 glory.
And, that is all I can really say without giving away spoilers. My apologies for the prosaic style of talking through what the game is like – I don’t want to give too much away for those who read this and want to give it a go.
What is Seafall like to play?
Let’s dive into the details of what Seafall is like to play.
The First Few Games
There was a saying we came across a few times, when watching or reading previous reviews about Seafall, that said Seafall has some of the best twists out of any legacy game. In fact, read any articles I have written thus far about the game and you’ll probably come across a similar concept in the comments section. What I will say though is that Seafall does have a few twists, and a couple early on. I have to admit that the first few games of Seafall are really exciting.
There is one aspect to Seafall that I want to hold up right now, right at the start of this review, as a pinnacle of excellence – that is the customisation options. The customisation aspect of Seafall is simply amazing, with advisors, ships, provinces, and things you discover that can be customised. As the game continues more and more customisation options unveil themselves, and that is really cool.
With that in mind, Seafall is a game designed to gain momentum, and his meant it was a little bit slow getting off the ground. That being said, that wasn’t a problem for us and we actually enjoyed the pace. The first three games of Seafall were a fantastic trading and raiding game set on the high sea. The mechanics around buying and selling worked really well, and, last Tuesday, we actually made the comment that Seafall could probably be sold with just the 3rd scenario in mind as a pretty good pirate based game.
That being said, Seafall doesn’t end at scenario three, and unfortunately, I think that is one of the big problems with the game.
Balance in Seafall
Ultimately, there were, as we continued playing, a few overwhelming feelings that began to emerge within our plays of the game – and ultimately, as we played deeper and deeper into the campaign, it became clear that Seafall is a fairly unbalanced experience.
Now, I’m not going to say anything original over the next couple of sentences – these are all criticisms seen, watched, or just observed in discussion elsewhere and that are, unfortunately, very true. Seafall is a game where the catch up mechanics don’t really work that well and a huge amount of the game hinges on luck. The worst thing by far though (and this is me adding opinion to a commonly recognised problem) is that the objectives/goals within the game are horrifically unbalanced.
Now, I warn you, I can’t say this next bit without minor spoilers.
One thing we found, as the game progressed, was that the focus of the game shifts substantially a few games in. This meant that, coming off the back of our seventh game, the majority of us around the table all agreed on one thing – exploration is the only way to really stand a chance of winning the game or gaining goodies once the boxes start getting unlocked. We ended with four out of five long term objectives being exploration focused, and once you get to a certain point, random exploration becomes the best way to come close to completing an objective, purely out of chance.
A friend of mine actually summarised the experience like this:
“It feels like the game has given us four different ways to play, but only one way to win.”
I have to agree with her. It became clear, around five games in that the merchant, builder, and soldier games no longer really existed. The one player who had focused on getting permanent exploration based bonuses, and who had managed to get an engine going with explorers in a relatively earlier game to give him a significant boost in later games, was walking all over us. The previous game he jumped from last place to first by getting 9 glory in a single turn through random exploration and completing an objective. It was insane.
In the last game we played, the exploration focused player got 1 glory for an exploration action, 4 points for completing an exploration goal, 4 points as a bonus from the exploration, and 50 gold. Just to put that into context, that’s 9 glory in a 16 glory limit game in one turn, plus the equivalent gold as 6 highly optimised trading turns.
Why this is especially interesting is because Seafall is described on BGG as “a 4X inspired game (without player elimination/extermination)”. The definition of a 4X game is that there are four key strategies to be considered a 4X game – explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Seafall starts off with those in game – explore, build, trade, and raid (not a direct translation of what the eliminate in 4X indicates, but an interesting alternative) – however, when it becomes a heavily exploration game it can no longer be considered a 4X game. It actually becomes somewhat linear.
Writing this review, and wanting to be as objective as possible, I worried this was just me, or just us as a group, who had noticed this- however, it appears to be a somewhat universal issue. The Opinionated Gamers have a fantastic review exploring Seafall in which they say:
“The expectation is that each strategy – explore, raid, merchant – is equally viable and there’s no information to guide you otherwise.”
“…as the campaign progressed, and the guys who’d invested in exploration drew further and further ahead each game (fuelled by more and more ongoing permanent advantages from milestones and winning games, creating a snowball effect), it became clear that in our campaign there was only one viable strategy.”
Likewise, the guys at Destructoid feel the same – they say –
“In theory, a winning strategy would be to dip into each of the four different guilds when the opportunities arise. And for the first few games, that idea works.”
“About one third of the way through the fifteen or so games that make up a campaign, that balance goes off the rails in a big way. Games end when one player reaches a target score, so it’s a race to get there. Eventually, the only viable way to keep up is through exploration, which results in huge swings of points, sometimes awarding as much as half the target score, and other times awarding nothing. “
As such, this is a big problem that has affected numerous people. Seafall isn’t about running a seafaring empire. It’s about exploring, exploring, exploring and not much else.
Storytelling and Exploration
As mentioned before, the exploration side of the game uses a book with various choose-your-own-adventure style options in it. This can be seen as one of the big strengths of the game. That being said, one issue with everything being a desert island is that the majority of the options are “you meet locals – are you nice or nasty to them?” or “the jungle is dark – do you go further or stay back?”.
This isn’t necessarily an issue with the game – and exploration like how Seafall implement it is often seen like a strength – however, in Seafall’s case it falls a little bit short when compared to other games that use a similar mechanic. Games like Tales of the Arabian Nights and This War of Mine have beautifully written stories and options where you feel like your choices really make a difference. That feeling doesn’t translate to Seafall as options can grow to feel repetitive, with the outcome to the actions feeling random.
A Few Minor Tweaks
What is sad is that with a few minor tweaks, Seafall can be a great game. It just needs more play testing and it needs more balancing. It needs to manage expectations better.
As someone who runs a board game blog and who writes reviews for games, I hate to leave a review on a down note. There is something in the shadows of Seafall that could make it amazing – but I don’t know what that thing is. It’s just hides on the outskirts like a whale beside a school of fish. It is present, and kind of hints at its existence, but it doesn’t get involved.
As such, the game really dried up for us.
What was really unfortunate though was that, at the end of Game 6 (or the 7th game we played, including the prologue) 3/4 players held their hands up and voted to stop playing citing similar gripes with the game. We just didn’t want to put 2.5 more hours into playing the next scenario when we could already see the way it would have to play out. It would just be playing through the motions.
So, ultimately, we’ve stopped playing Seafall.
The Good, The Bad, and the Uncharted Waters
Like all games we can break Seafall down into Good, Bad, and Neutral points.
- The first few games of Seafall are very strong. They are highly strategic and offer a host of different ways to play.
- Customisation is a strong point. Almost everything can be customised within the game, and this makes your copy of Seafall feels like it truly is yours.
- The production quality is really good, and for a game that now only costs around £20, your get a lot in the box.
- The exploration choices in the game are okay. If you ask me, they can feel repetitive at times. This may not bother all players, and it is a fair representation of exploration; however, the text can quite often feel dry.
- The goals in Seafall are incredibly unbalanced. They offer way too much glory, making any winning strategy just about going for completing those objectives.
- Objectives are not evenly spread throughout the game. They start off fairly well balanced, but definitely take a shift towards exploration.
- The exploration aspect of the game becomes dominant, casting all other Seafall strategies to the sidelines. Thus, although regularly classified as a 4X game, it is not.
- The game relies heavily on luck. It is possible for one player to spend an entire game working towards a goal, only for someone else to complete it entirely by random. There is a lot of randomness in Seafall.
- Ultimately, the game needs more playtesting.
Seafall Review Conclusion
So, ultimately with all reviews it comes down to whether we can recommend the game. Well, let’s end it with a short story.
At the end of our last session, one of the players I have been playing with suggested we started 7th Continent. He then posed two options to us –
The first as moving Seafall to a couple of weekends and having days where we play a few in a row, shifting our Tuesday gaming session to be a 7th Continent day.
The second option was we start playing 7th Continent on our Tuesday sessions, and simply stop playing Seafall.
It was firmly decided to stop playing Seafall. None of us wanted to put in a day of playing it in full when it felt like we could see how the next game had to be played. None of us really wanted to play the exploration only game, but since the majority of the goals were exploration based, it would be impossible to win without playing it that way.
So, in all fairness, it comes down to this – I am really glad I have played Seafall. The first few games were beautiful and played like a fantastic sea voyage; however, Seafall is more than those first few missions. It sails out of the dock like a majestic galleon, only to hit rapids, white water, waterfalls, rocks, and finally sinks. As more gets unlocked the game becomes more and more unbalanced, and as such I cannot, unfortunately, recommend Seafall as a game to play.
Wow, that was a long review. I have really struggled with this one because of how inconsistent I felt about Seafall throughout the course of the campaign. It has truly beautiful moments, but there are so many things wrong with it they need to be mentioned. I wanted to provide a balanced view, but am not sure how that came across due to how little I ended up enjoying the game.
So, what are your thoughts? Have you played Seafall? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments below.