Why can’t everything be anticipation? The delicious uncertainty that is anticipation. Anticipation is the glisten in the eye, the tickle in the stomach, the tremble in the voice. It’s anticipation that drives us through life. That holiday in the summer or that date next week or that movie you just have to see. Anticipation is what hauls us through the workday and delivers us, panting, to a midnight screening, a field at dawn or another’s embrace. The key to a happy life is to forge a chain of anticipation. It’s one good reason to look forward to the future after another, until the day you can’t anticipate any more because your limbs are stiffening and you look like the singer from Mayhem.
Anticipation can have its drawbacks, though. One day you’ll be confronted with what you’ve waited for and it’ll be held up to the scrutiny of your anticipation. Can anything survive under the heat of such scrutiny? Sometimes. Sometimes in rare cases the actual thing can outstrip your expectations. Sometimes you can be surprised at the limits of your imagination. That you never imagined that something could be so good. Usually, though the opposite ends up being true. That movie can never live up to your conception of it. That person that you were dying to meet is just a person, that forest just a collection of trees and sometimes the target of your anticipation can be an unremitting, brow furrowing, genital shrinking, soul-desiccating disappointment.
This is a review of Seafall by Rob Daviau.
I anticipated Seafall. I anticipated it hard. This was to be the Legacy game for gamers. Not a great idea diluted by a huge corporation and an outdated game system. Seafall would take the single most revolutionary game innovation of the last twenty years and marry it to something vital, modern, relevant and worthy. Seafall was to be singularly significant. That is… until it wasn’t.
Seafall took too long to come out. By the time it was available Pandemic Legacy was already number one on BGG and the bloom had faded on the Legacy rose. All forms of art are prone to fads and board games are no exception. Like micro games before it, Legacy had basked for a short time and was now just another hill in the gaming landscape. Also, Seafall was expensive. It seemed that the greatest innovation that F2Z and then subsequently Asmodee had brought to its acquisitions was to hike up the prices (as the increase from €50 to €70 for Pandemic Legacy from one Spiel to the next testified to). Then the rumblings started to trickle out. That maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the game everyone had hoped it would be…
I didn’t listen to those rumblings. I bought Seafall and I played it (this is where the review starts by the way).
Seafall is a legacy game set on the high seas during the Age of Sail. Players start with an empty map and through the unlocking of “chests” will find islands, lost treasures and discover the secrets of the ancients. Players can take different paths to victory. They can buy and trade. They can become pirates and raid other players’ ships and harbours, or they can take to the high seas and become explorers, discovering the bounty and horror of the new world.
Through the hiring of crew and the leveraging of guilds (which are actions you can take) players increase the renown of their provinces and receive the glory, that will win them the game.
Seafall combines resource gathering and manipulation with good, old-fashioned Ameritrash dice rolling and combat; and in both aspects it fails. Miserably.
While it is true that there are different paths to victory, each path is a long dreary trudge through a drab, mud-brown landscape and the destination is as dull as the journey.
There is the path of the merchant. Travelling down this path involves making tedious goods conversions until you’ve got enough money to buy things that reward victory points until you mercifully pass the VP threshold to claim victory. This is Splendour on Mogadons. The constraint on which actions can be taken each turn make acquiring and divesting yourself of resources take forever. As if the solution to a runaway leader problem was to encase their wellies in concrete. This strategy can certainly win you the game but at the expense of your mental well-being. I would describe it as Sisyphean, but I imagine Sisyphus had more fun chasing the boulder down the hill and swapping dirty jokes with that bird that pecked the liver out.
There is also the piratical path. The combat in this game, like all of the skill checks, is resolved by the rolling of dice. Buffs and constructions add extra dice to your pool and then you toss them leaving all of your planning to the caprices of chance. This is by-the-book output randomness, that can leave you hugely frustrated or simply underwhelmed. Couple this with the fact, that the resources you’re stealing have taken about a month to acquire, being a pirate in this game will result in the rest of the table wanting to hang you by your unmentionables. On top of this, the time it takes to become a viable pirate will have you looking longingly at that patch of drying paint in the toilet as an enticing form of alternative entertainment.
Exploration is the engine of the game. It is through exploration that the chests are unlocked and the story progresses. In these chests you will find various accoutrement that introduce new rules and others that have seemingly no function until you’ve spent half an hour trawling the forums on BGG.
Exploration tests are resolved by dice, then story sections are read and the player receives a cube. Essentially exploration involves the endless reading of almost identical texts and the receiving of cubes. The writing isn’t bad but after two plays they assume the character of a Philip Glass composition. They become wordless, dada tracts that dispense cubes. The words lose all meaning as you’ve read this all before and you start skipping to the bits that tell you how many cubes you’ve earned. If he were still alive Andy Kaufman could make a fortune reading from this book on college campuses.
The biggest problem with Seafall is that there is no game there. It is a jumble of ill-conceived and thoroughly dull ideas cobbled together to deliver a story. When the story is delivered, it drips the same uniform dull, brown lacquer that the rest of the game is drenched in. There are some interesting components and some interesting ideas, but by the time they’re revealed the will to engage with the game has drained away. Pandemic Legacy worked so well because the story emerged from a great game. Narrative in board games has to be rooted in the game and not the other way round, because without a decent game the narrative flounders and in Seafall it is sunk after the first play.
I would like to say that Seafall has chastened me. That I don’t let anticipation colour my view of things when they eventually arrive but that would be a lie. To misquote triteness: anticipation is the spice of life and to rob yourself of childlike excitement at the future is to confine yourself to the grey pragmatism of adulthood and to do that is to die before you’ve died. Let anticipation take you and sweep you away and even if you end up disappointed, it won’t be two minutes before you’re swept away again and so on into the never ending carnival of expectation.