We Talk SeaFall With Creator Rob Daviau

One of the newest (and in some ways most divisive) developments in board games has got to be Legacy games.  Risk Legacy, first published in 2011, brought previously-unseen excitement to the classic area-control game, and last year’s Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 has been so crushingly popular that it has snagged a nomination for the 2016 Spiel des Jahres.

For the uninitiated, ‘legacy’ denotes a very unique kind of game, one which is designed to change *permanently* each time it is played.  Often, this involves stickers being applied to boards, cards being torn up, sealed boxes of components being opened, and other clever mechanisms which make not only each gameplay session, but each copy of the game unique.  Of course, this uniqueness comes at a certain cost – detractors of the legacy format argue that it makes each game ‘disposable’, in that it can only be played a limited number of times.  We politely disagree.

andrewasmAndrew:  Personally, I think that’s Luddite talk – our campaign of Pandemic Legacy was a sublime experience, and the fact that we ‘only’ played it 14 times doesn’t detract from that at all.

Blurring the lines between board game, roleplaying games, and episodic storytelling – and despite their (occasionally extremely loud) detractors, the massive popularity of Risk: Legacy and Pandemic: Legacy has proven that the format is here to stay.  And we couldn’t be happier about it!

jessasmJess:  I absolutely love the legacy format, so I was incredibly excited Rob Davaiu, one of the designers behind the Legacy series, announced his next Legacy game, called SeaFall – a 4X game of conquest on the high seas.  It sounds awesome!

And then I got to chat with Rob, and he was awesome!  Here’s the highlights of our interview!


Image Credit: Plaid Hat Games

(The contents of this interview have been edited to fit our posting format.  Rob was super cool and gave us a lot of his time, but we just couldn’t fit it all!)

jessasmJess: Hi Rob! It’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk with you. Could you tell me a little bit about Seafall?

daviauDaviau: SeaFall is a big game. It took me about 3 & ½ years. It’s a legacy game that I designed from scratch, so I had to design a game and I had to design a legacy game. It was the first thing I did when I left Hasbro.

It takes place in sort of a world that is close to our world in the age of exploration, in the age of sail. Each player plays the leader of a province in the fragments of a long forgotten empire. The goal is to amass the most glory game after game, to reunite the provinces, and become the emperor or empress of all the lands. It will take about 15 games to play the full campaign. Like the other legacy games I’ve done, new rules will be introduced, your ships will get better, you’ll get powers, you’ll discover new things, and there is sort of an emergent history to the world that will come out that will come out in little bits and pieces.

seafall twiter

Image Credit: Rob Daviau/Twitter

jessasmJess: Who is this for? What kind of gamer are you aiming this at? Is this something new gamers can get into or is this a bit more advance hobby gamer?

daviauDaviau: This is a little more advanced hobby gamer. I’d say its somewhere between medium and heavy.  I would say it is no more complicated than Euphoria. That’s much more of a euro and Seafall is a mix between a euro and an ameritrash game. We split it right down the middle.

Anything that would give players an unknown combat or exploration is just one dice roll that resolves it all. You gather up dice to make a dice pool. More dice is better. Sometimes you can play a card or have a power that will help you and then you roll it and you just count the number of successes that you rolled.

seafall board

Image Credit: Plaid Hat Games

What’s different about it is that success in Seafall is to make one of those rolls and not sink. It doesn’t mean not taking damage. So if you never really want to take any damage, you’re probably going to wait too long to get the perfect number of dice and then you’ll fall behind. If you’re too aggressive and say ‘I don’t mind taking a little bit of damage’, then you’ll probably take a lot of damage and sink. You’ve gotta find that middle spot of what your acceptable level of risk is.

jessasmJess: This has got an $80 price tag or thereabouts, so it’s a pretty big investment. So what is really going to draw people and get them excited and really be worth their investment?

daviauDaviau: It will give you roughly fifteen 2-2 ½ hour games [and] an ongoing story line. There is a chapter book called the Captains Book in there which has 430 entries. You won’t see them all by definition because whenever you explore something or have a choice of what to do, it’ll give you a little moment – such as there’s a resource in the game called spice. So, you might have a captain think, like, ‘hey we found fields of spice ready for harvesting, unfortunately the crew kinda had some of it and now they can’t work anymore’. My decision is ‘Well they’ve been working hard, do I just let it slide? Or do I lash them because they should have been working?’ You would go to two different decisions based on that and you would never see what the other one about.  So its got a lot of narrative there.

Like I said, its got a history of the world that comes out, its got 6 different boxes that get opened up and introduced. New rules, new components, surprises, twists, and turns.

seafall milestone

Image Credit: Plaid Hat Games

jessasmJess: Will the game be playable in its final state when you are done?

daviauDaviau: Yeah, when the game is done, I have to be vague here, there are a couple things that point out if you want to keep going you can do this or this. It can’t play in exactly the same way it has been playing, but when you get to the end, it gives you 2 different options of how you can continue if you want to pick it up once a year or something.

jessasmJess: Pandemic legacy has been one of the most deeply satisfying and revelatory experiences we’ve had. You’ve set the bar really high for yourself. Do you see SeaFall as a taste of things to come? Is this the direction you think games are going in the future?

daviauDaviau: I don’t think all games will go this way. What I hope is that its just like another genre that some people can think about. Its another way you can make a game. You can make a card game, you can make a collectible card game, and now its like oh do you want to make a legacy game? Do you want to make a game that’s more of an intense experience but is designed by nature to have a beginning, middle, and end? Or do you want a standard game like X-Com that is re-playable and each game is its own experience?

So Risk was really light, sandbox. Pandemic was more of a tightly scripted, collaborative game, and SeaFall is a heavier, meatier, more world-building exercise. So I’m trying to figure out, ‘can I do this? Does this work?’ Unfortunately it takes, like, one to three years to make one, so at some point, and I hope its not SeaFall, I’ll go ‘can I do this?’ And everyone will be like ‘no that’s not fun’. But I’m just trying to figure out how to marry roleplaying games and story and board games and episodic TV together.

jessasmJess: That really appeals to us! I know Andrew and I both started out in video games and then we went to roleplaying games, and then more recently we’ve gotten into the board games. So its really married well with our interests.

daviauDaviau: Oh well thank you. Yes, board games are so flexible. you can have some completely abstract games. You can have lightly themed games like a lot of euros. Long games, short games, and card games, and I love that it’s a medium that you can keep poking around in and stretching. So I’m just trying to find a new corner and see if I can marry a couple genres together.

jessasmJess:  We know Pandemic Season 2 is in the works. No real question, we’re just really excited about it!

daviauDaviau:  Yeah, Matt [Leacock] and I are working on it. We started working on it before the first one came out so we had a good foundation for it. And when the first one came out, we could see ‘what did people like, what did we do wrong, what can we do differently’. There’s no official date of when we’ll be done with it and when it will come out. We’re working on it!

jessasmJess: Yeah it sounds like these games take a long time, so we want you to take your time and make it right.

daviauDaviau: Yeah well people are very kind to me about Seafall, because I had never made a game this deep. I had never had to be my own boss, my own editor. I said ‘I did this legacy thing with Risk and I kinda figured it out so this one will be easy’. And all of these assumptions proved to be wrong. I learned a lot and so it took a long time and everyone was very patient like ‘hey get it right’ and part of me could have spent another two years working on it, but I’m not sure it would have been much better.

A legacy game takes about at least a year, maybe two, depending on how many people are working and if you are starting from an established game. Mostly, its just because of the playtesting. If you get people to play [a non-legacy game] 10 times, that’s a lot of data, and here its ‘you’ve plays two thirds of one version of one campaign’.

jessasmJess: What is your favorite aspect of the legacy design?

daviauDaviau: I really like that when I sit down to work on one, whether its by myself or someone else, we keep flip-flopping [about] the mechanics, you can stop and say ‘well what’s the story? What are we setting up in act one? What are the characters? What are their goals and motivations?’

And to be able to live in a world where you can talk about story arc and progression, up beats and down beats and betrayal and all of these things and then go back and do game design is just this wonderful thing, to be able to do a little of both worlds. It’s also good when you get stuck; you can just go to the other one. Like, ah well this part really isn’t working ok, lets go back to the story.
jessasmJess: It sounds a lot like designing a game for an RPG.

daviauDaviau: Yeah it really is. It’s a campaign for an rpg or, I imagine, I’ve never worked in video games, but I imagine its like a big triple A title with a narrative. You’ve got the writers who are going to write what’s going on in the world and the characters and you let the game designers figure out what the end of the line mechanics are and here I’m doing both.

I was going to be a television writer. That was my goal in college. Television comedy writer/sitcom writer and then I went away from it for a lot of reasons, so being able to go back and revisit a passion, a very strong passion that I had when I was in college, and that led into what I have now, that’s been very satisfying.

jessasmJess: What do you think about the legacy controversy? We’ve got the people who are like ‘this is amazing! Its great!” and then there are some people the detractors.

daviauDaviau: I knew it would be controversial when I put out Risk. I expected it to be 90% controversy and then there would be that small group of people that liked it. So I’m very grateful and surprised that there’s a large portion who have gone along with what is quite a radical change in expectations of what a board game is.

I completely understand what the detractors are saying. That there this ‘I don’t like games that do this’. So my general statement, which I don’t mean in a flip way is ‘that’s OK. Just don’t buy it. There are thousands of games that come out every year and you are not obligated to buy it or play it.

And when people say to me ‘but you can only play it 15 times’, I like to turn that on its head and say ‘I’ve given you a reason to play it 15 times.’ Some people buy a game and even games they like, they play it 2-3 times or if they play it 10 times it’s a really satisfying experience. But what I’ve done is I’ve made that decision for them. Which is uncomfortable. I’ve said ‘no I’m saying you can play it 15 times’ and so it takes that decision out of their hands and that’s kind of uncomfortable in a way.

There’s analogies in other media. You go to a restaurant. You eat the food. Its done. You might rent an online video and you have access to it for 3 days and then you’re done. You can’t stream it anymore. So it’s there. It just hasn’t been in the board game world. So its very different, I don’t deny that.

I have Time Stories back there [gesturing to his collection] and I played it and I loved it and I don’t care that I only played…for a few hours. We had a great time. I don’t need to go do that again. I have the next one ready to go as soon as I get a free moment to play with the family.

When people say to me ‘But you can only play it 15 times’, I like to turn that on its head and say ‘I’ve given you a reason to play it 15 times.’

What bothers me about it are people who feel the need to go and rate it a 1 on board game geek as a play tester. Now, you’re not just not buying it, and you’re not playing it, and you’re upset with it all these things I assume, but now you’re trying to actually prevent me from making a living. If people pull down the ratings enough where other people just look at the number and don’t understand it, they’ll think ‘oh I guess that’s just not a good game. I’m not buying it.’ And that can be a little tough. It’s not like it keeps me up at night.

The only other thing that gets me is when people say that it’s a ‘marketing gimmick’. I’m like nope this is a 100% a chance for as a designer to say ‘Can I take the idea of a roleplaying campaign or a series of television and put it into a board game?’

You’re going to put a sticker, and it’s lasting. It was so powerful…its like either get the tattoo or don’t get the tattoo. I didn’t want to make a temporary tattoo.

And once I admitted to it, it was great but it was all in the name of design and that when people complain about it I say back “no, no this was not marketing. I never expected people to buy a second one. I expected them to buy it, play 15-18 times and say ‘wow. That was a lot of game’ and move on.

“It’s like, either get the tattoo or don’t get the tattoo.”

jessasmJess: Yeah, with Pandemic Legacy we were very tempted to buy multiple copies of the game so we couple play with multiple groups so we could see the different ways that it would turn out.

daviauDaviau: Yeah. I have to say I don’t mind if people want to buy two, but I was very happy that people would like the idea the first time. But that some people would like to want to explore another one, [and] I’m very humbled and touched and amazed by people who want another. I’m like ‘oh thank you. I guess I did something that you really liked.’

I really appreciate it, but it was not like ‘Haha! How can I make disposable games?’  Play it once and buy another game. Theres a lot of them out there.

jessasmJess: It’s similar to the idea of Betrayal at House on the Hill. Once you’ve played through every scenario in the book, You know what you’ve got. We were actually excited to see that you contributed to the expansion too.

daviauDaviau: Yeah I did one of the haunts in there, but I also did a lot of the stuff under the hood for new cards. Like Mike and his team had outlined ‘we want this many new events and this many new items and they had titles for things sometimes and it was just a blank Google sheet. I went on a binge over a week and just filled in a whole bunch of ideas. Some were edited and some were discarded, but it was nice when I saw them playing at Pax East and some card came up I’m all “OOH! I created that one!” It wasn’t my project at all. It was their project. I just got to jump in on the spreadsheets, but it was very satisfying.

jessasmJess: So as a personal thing, what sort of games are you looking forward to? What do you like to play?

daviauDaviau: I’m looking forward to playing the next version of Time Stories. There are a number of Legacy-esque games that were on Kickstarter like Gloomhaven and the 7th Continent and some things that are these big, robust adventure games I’m looking forward to.

Mostly I look forward to whatever hits the table. But usually my preference is something that is an hour to two hours, that has a strong theme that tells an interesting story. It does not need to be an American style game. It does not necessarily need dice and adventure…You put a little bit of a story in there and I get all excited.

jessasmJess: Yeah that’s me too. I love anything that tells a story or lets me build something. That’s why I’m really looking forward to SeaFall. The idea of being able to build your little empire sounds exciting!

seafall cards2

Image Credit: Plaid Hat Games

daviauDaviau: So lets talk about that a little more. The rules are up, so people can dig in more to them. Basically you are the leader of a province…where you can build buildings.  You’ll have a card that represents you as the leader and as the game goes on you might get an appellation.  So you might be ‘the Just’ or ‘the Mighty’ or something like that. It could give you a special power. So it’ll give your leader a little personality.

[In] your province, you’ll have fields that you can expand and you’ll have buildings that you can build. They change from game to game and you’ll have ships…and those will get more robust as you go out. There are advisers in the game and you get to name them. At the end of the game you get to keep one so you start with the next one so as you pick up, you pick up a little bit where you left off.

In my mind its like ‘ok a year passed. You have 1 adviser left, now your buildings are gone.’ I originally had buildings stick around from game to game, because building usually stick around, but it really didn’t work. It broke the game. So it was a little narrative dissidence there. But what I really like is when you go out and find the new islands and you start exploring and then you get a little bit of story and then you get a little bit of what’s going on. If the games does what I hope it does and I think it does, the players who decide that they will have very little player vs player combat and the game will work. It just becomes more of a race to see who can get the victory points first. The only negative consequence would be if you’re not doing this right its hard to catch up.

Or you can have a lot of PVP combat which means as soon as you get a head everyone will raid your stuff or raid your ship and drag you back down, which is fine. There’s sort of a cap on it with this use of Enmity. So you can do it, you have to pick your target so that a few little strikes or one big strike in a game and then your kinda capped from doing it because they hate you too much. So if you’ve got [a five-person game] with a lot of players who like to fight each other, you’re going to have a very cut throat, very American style war game. If you have…no pvp, you’d have a much more economic, engine building game and in theory they both work. So that’s one thing I tried to get to work.

jessasmJess: That will be cool, because we have both styles of gamers in our group and so it will be interesting to see them go head to head.

daviauDaviau: The game probably took an extra year because I really wanted to make it so if one person in the group wanted to be a military raider…they couldn’t by default force everyone else to to have to build up their guns or lose. In earlier versions everyone had to go military. It was very unsatisfying because I’d be like ‘I kinda want to be a merchant explorer. I want to go around and get goods and go back and buy treasure and that way but I can’t because you keep attacking me.’

jessasmJess: I do like that. Its sort of like 7 Wonders, how you can got the different routes to victory.

daviauDaviau: Yeah, I would go back and say ‘how does 7 Wonders do it without military taking over?’ And they way they do it is the person who wins the battle keeps getting more and more victory points but the person who loses only gets -1. So its not a zero sum game. So I couldn’t do that but it was in interesting insight.  I might set your game back [by attacking you], but I’d rather not ruin it.

seafall cards

Image Credit: Plaid Hat Games

Being a legacy game, what could happen is I could ruin one of your games and since your about to win I could steal a very important treasure from your treasure room, deny you the victory, get the victory myself, and you’re very mad about it. I put so much Enmity in your province, that it would be almost impossible for me to attack you at that level for at least a couple games. For every one of my Enmity you have, I have to lose a die from my attack pool. And a big attack pool at the end of the game when everything is, like, 12 or 14 dice, and if you have 1 defensive building and five of my Enmity because I attacked you, I’m losing six dice. So in the midgame when I can get like 8 dice, I’ll be down to 2 and that won’t really do anything so I have to wait over the course of many games to sort of apologize and let things cool down again.

jessasmJess: We’re really looking forward to reviewing the game. We just want to encourage you to make more of these games because we’re really enjoying them.

daviauDaviau: Thank you! I’ve got a few more coming and things are going along for Season 2. I underestimated how long they take to make so I had to put on the brakes on taking new jobs. I’m just ready to go as soon as things calm down. I’m very excited about SeaFall. It is a, and I don’t mean this in a ..like if…did you finish Pandemic Legacy?

jessasmJess: Yeah! We got our butts kicked.

daviauDaviau: Ok. Matt and I often used Captain America: The Winter Soldier as our comparison [to Pandemic Legacy].  You just hit the ground running and Cap’s always going and things are happening and and as soon as he catches his breath there’s another problem he has to deal with. The dust never settles.

So if I had to do a comparison for SeaFall, this is a little bit more of…The Lord of the Rings movies. There’s a little bit of a slow build up, there’s an ongoing threat, things come in bits and pieces, and then it builds and builds and builds as you go. So I’ll be curious and a little nervous about if when people play their first game or two and be like ‘oh its still ramping up.’ They go in and by game 3 I’ve got all the pieces in place.  I also didn’t want to do anything in the first couple games that was permanent, with a game people don’t know. It’s not like Risk.

There is a prologue to SeaFall that says ‘hey, play this. There’s nothing permanent. You can get your head around the rules.’ But even then, once you start game 1, there will be some people who get them a little faster than other people, so I wanted to make sure that can’t get set to lead. Cause then everyone is like ‘well I’m not playing anymore cause I cant win’. So hopefully its this big building story and fingers crossed people get into it.

jessasmJess: We’re betting they will. Thanks Rob for this look at SeaFall! We can’t wait to check out the game when it is available. You can pre-order Seafall here for $79.95. Also check out the Welcome Sheet and Game Rules to learn more.

Do you have any thoughts on SeaFall or Rob’s other games you’d like to share?  We’re interested in hearing your take in the comments below!

Featured Image Credit: Rob Daviau

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