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Subject: Seafall - Till the bitter end - SPOILERS rss

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Mike B
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A warning to passing travellers for your safety contained below within the secret passages is a deeper look into our SeaFall experience. Be warned these rarely trodden paths are treacherous and filled with the most heinous spoilers...OK look if you don't want your SeaFall campaign to be ruined don't click the bloody things, just so we're clear.


We mean it.



SeaFall was absolutely and unequivocally my most anticipated game since first teased by Rob Daviau some four years ago. I'd recently rekindled my board game love affair having just completed Risk Legacy and the prospect of another Legacy game especially one built from the ground up had me slathering in anticipation. The glace cherry on the top of this Hype Cake was Pandemic Legacy that had transformed a dry clinical experience into a gripping breakneck thriller that left us clamouring for more.

Skip forward to this past Friday and our campaign came to a abrupt close on its fourteenth game. Subsequently I've been doing much soul searching following the emotional roller-coaster that is playing Seafall, so this review comes at you as part therapy session where I will try to reconcile my differences and work out where this zigged when it should have zagged.

For those of you unaware of SeaFall then let me sum that up as briskly as I can. Set during the age of sail it follows you as you nurture your province of bumbling merchants as they venture out into uncharted waters, happening upon mysterious islands and high adventure slowly uncovering the mystery of the lost civilisations that came before you. Paired with the legacy system that actively encourages stickering boards, ripping up cards and writing on things it's a heady mix and an idea ripe with exciting possibilities.

And upon first encountering the contents of this voluminous box you'd be pretty optimistic that the journey you are about to take would be exactly that. Which makes the fact that while SeaFall does indeed contain all of these things it's a crushing disappointment to discover that it never manages to truly capitalise on any of them.

The one area that the game does deliver is the abundance of the Legacy experience. As with Risk and Pandemic, SeaFall has those marvellous boxes each a tantalising prospect of new and exciting developments however its in how it chooses to utilise them that differs from its illustrious predecessors. Whereas in Pandemic each box felt like a thunderclap of new content SeaFall's legacy moments permeate into the status quo loading each turn and decision with the possibility of changing the game state in some way. This method of delivery is both a blessing and a boon for as the campaign progresses and each new box smears its goodness over the existing game like so much crunchy peanut butter the contents of the subsequent boxes starts to resemble Schrodinger's moggy. That initial elation of unlocking all this new stuff is tainted by the faint whiff of recently expired feline. There's unarguably a huge amount of content here to be discovered but so little of it amazes.

SeaFall teases us constantly but it so often feels like you're stealing glances at some sprawling epic adventure from the window of a passing train. You're convinced it's preparing the foundations with which to deliver a grand operatic tale of redemption and jaw-dropping reveals replete with heart-stopping cliffhangers up until the point it doesn't.

Imagine for a moment Peter Jackson hot from directing the first two Lord of the Rings instalments decided instead of wrapping up proceedings in a final flurry of Oscar nominations instead went and put the kettle on. And worse still if production was then handed over to the Syfy channel to finish things off with a TV budget and a staff writer who'd been on a toilet break during the previous two flicks if this was a film production the director undoubtedly would have been Alan Smithee.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
So the story, above everything else the story was what I believed would deliver SeaFall's redemption. Throughout the campaign, we are teased with the Pirate King and his mischief and the dark and mysterious forces that used to control these lands. With the reveals of first Patmos, the Pirate Kings crib and then Arados which introduces the Society what feels like should be these cool momentous events just sort of happen and then evaporate never truly going anywhere. The Society subplot is an aggravating example. After the bravura reveal of the black light it becomes nothing more than a cunning misdirection to stop you noticing that actually it's not really doing anything.

That whole moment was ripe with the opportunity for a stunning M Night Shamalamadingdong twist with the introduction of a hidden society that's been secretly working against you from the start. But it just drops the ball and becomes yet another dead end. For the record, that very same effect is pulled off to barnstorming effect in the far superior Pandemic Legacy.



The choice of the Captains Booke to deliver the story inherently created many of the issues I've highlighted, with no way to unravel the tight plot that Pandemic so successfully utilised story threads and plots are peppered throughout like a schizophrenic producing a cover version of David Lynch's greatest hits. The choose your own adventure as the delivery method works in games like Arabian Nights but that's a game that thrives on the chaos of random crazy when you try and inject a narrative suddenly all that choice feels like your on rails. Many of the entries quickly became repetitive with any real surprises so few and far between that ultimately nothing really seems to matter.

In interviews and discussions, Rob has said that originally he'd thrown everything into the design but that it run away from him, and a year into the process the only sensible option was to stop and rebuild stripping away the extravagant and narrowing the scope in the hope of it ever being finished.

It's during this process I believe that the heart of SeaFall was cut out and the resultant finished design presents us through necessity a compromised version of Rob's original bigger idea. There's still fossils from this larger beast to be excavated from what finally was SeaFall but so much of it feels incomplete or abbreviated. It's not helped that two-thirds of the way into the campaign a frustrating amount of rules ambiguities seep into proceedings which threaten to derail the experience.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Rules! around two-thirds of the game, we managed to keep a pretty firm grip, luckily we play a lot of games and there are some decent player aides on BGG. It's the moment that the black light is introduced that it really becomes a challenge instead of illuminating much there's this murky confusion settles over everything, so much is left either unexplained or deliberately vague. At one point I'd completed the find the chart milestone yet it took a further two turns before we grokked what I'd done. I understand there was a necessity to keep the air of mystery due to the mechanics in play at the time but it brought so many ambiguities into play that essentially your either consulting BGG on a turn by turn basis or rolling your own.


The game's final unwelcome capstone is in its choice of how to end. On the board teasing you throughout proceedings is an undiscovered location that requires a significant effort to uncover and will open the last legacy box. Upon first seeing it and after a game or two you wonder how this herculean feat will be achieved and what trials and tribulations you'll undergo to complete it.
It's by design there teasing and building anticipation every single time you play, and when finally you're given the green light to go for it, well my group were slavering.
We'd been pre-programmed to want to open that box to discover its secrets, finding the last continent was supposed to be the end of the game, but then why the box? What was going to happen?

Well the game would end is what, and while within is a hastily bolted on epilogue as if Michael Bay had suddenly been prodded and told to sort this mess out mostly it was the stale air of dissatisfaction.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
God damn that whole final box! Why put it there? We raced to complete that final milestone abandoning the quests for the statues and other assorted junk which conceivable would have helped us (technically yes but in truth an infuriating trudge see below in the Tombs). As with most of the game this feels like a compromised version of something originally far grander. As its stands its this sudden rug pull of hey! Here's hell island!

The idea of introducing a cataclysmic moment replete with the whole four horseman and escalating events I like but its delivery is fumbled. Had that box been triggered before the game end and somehow upped the stakes over a series of games that would have been so much more satisfying and potentially might have salvaged the experience. All the finale really does is direct a desk fan at the house of cards that is SeaFall and watch it scatter.


For me, this started so well, I was willing to look beyond some of its shortcomings. Many bemoaned the actual game wasn't all that great, and now, here at the end of this world looking back on all we have accomplished I find it hard to be the apologist. That's not to say that we didn't enjoy the journey even accepting the ho-hum pickup and delivery mechanisms and the frustratingly random turn sabotaging events. We even mostly forgave the infuriating sudden end game developments of the milestones that could see an entire games preparation dashed by another player suddenly ending the game.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
The ships and their advancement again feels underdeveloped, was there really much point in supplying two of them? For a majority of the game I never split them up, its only real worth is in the early game to gather supplies quicker and pretty much every player concentrated on upgrading just the one flagship. with the decision to only allow the support ship to add one dice why bother making any of its stats more powerful. We constantly expected either new ships or a reason for that second ship to appear. Surely a fleet would have been a more satisfying way to go where you would have started as the one lowly ship and built up to an armada of vessels to strike out into the seas.
With the ships and the stats being so important to the whole game its hair pulling that only once at the end of a game you can improve them. excepting the four charts that reward the upgrade stickers, there's no other way to advance these stats.


It's just now, with the knowledge that so much of what you invested time in completing really wasn't worth the effort, so often you could have just as easily taken a shortcut to accomplish the same result. It's a growing sense of disappointment that all the really cool stuff that could have happened all the things you were breathlessly anticipating were never there, to begin with.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
The tombs seemed like a chance to right these wrongs, and they certainly deliver some of the stronger moments in the game. But again the rewards so often fall short of the efforts involved and discovering one punishes that player as it leaves a clear path for another to dive in and snatch the glory and close the tomb. And then there's the whole search for the mysteries of the Statues and the hidden symbols on the tablets. The revelation of this at first is really cool before the hangover sets in of actually accomplishing that task, with only three of the combinations actually leading to a legitimate secret the monumental effort required to actually get all of them is maddening, especially if like in our game everyone has some tablets. And again that unbalance rears its ugly head with the other secret passages literally reward one sodding glory for what could be hours and hours of effort, you can buy a treasure for that same result!!


Sigh.. I'm exhausted.

To dive back into the film analogy SeaFall is Rob's Heavens Gate. I appreciate that hype is punishing to anything be it games, movies or date night and after the whirlwind caused by Pandemic Legacy this could have cured cancer and there would have still been a dissenting voice.

But it's not that, yep this at the end of the day is just a game and for what it's worth for a majority of it I did enjoy myself. But all of that goodwill, all of those hours poured into this sours when you finally have to shrug and acknowledge it's really not all that good of one.

Originally Published @ www.whodaresrolls.com
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Scott Douglass
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I agree with a lot of your sentiments on Seafall. If anything, my assessment is less generous than yours.
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Ryan Feathers
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Fantastic.

This pretty much is exactly my thoughts about the game too. In fact I shall probably just point people to this review in the future if they're looking for a detailed look into SeaFall.



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Mike B
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It pained me to to admit this, for a long time I was in denial. We recorded a podcast last night that dissected the entire game and gave suggestions of where it could have been improved. It was quite cathartic When it goes up I'll share it here.


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Nate Reynolds
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Having finished last night you summed up my feelings of this game very well.
It really bothers me that the metchant route becomes basically useless at a certain point. And that ending ugh.
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Charles Waterman
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Methinks this review might have been a bit more balanced if you'd waited a week or two longer to let the experience simmer before providing this review. It reads like you're still not finished reacting to the end.

We're about to start game 8. I can't speak for the other players, but so far we've been finding the challenges of each game to be enjoyable, and the group interaction has been great. We are all still very locked into the game and enjoying thinking out strategies about how to maximize points the following game.

It may be helping us that three of us have a lot of experience playing pen and paper RPGs and we enjoy getting into the character of a campaign game like this. We're also sending each other several "in character" messages between the games.

 
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Mike B
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Well its a few months later. And I stand completely by my opinions in the review. I was playing concurrent campaigns with two groups each with different play styles and all of us were pretty much of the same opinion at the end. As I stated in the review we were enjoying the experience, I hope you have a better time with the end game then we did.
 
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