Almost every game we play of Seafall we play ends with at least one person at our table leaving the table in a real foul mood. Either their elaborate plans got tanked, someone else scored big and ended a game early, or a fistful of dice just gave them a very terrible time at an important moment. It happens in rotation to everybody and when it happens it sucks. The winner always ends up heaving a sigh and apologizing to the disheartened person at our table, telling them hopefully there will be less bullshit next time.
The problem with Seafall is that it draws you in with heavy euro style rules and deep strategy – there’s a ton of layers to it including several different strategies you can take to get points. But the randomness in this game layered on top of it via the dice and the captain’s book has made me want to set my copy of the game on fire once we’re done playing it. I might actually literally go through with that plan.
I love both strategy/Euro style games and heavy thematic/narrative/more American board games. I approach each them totally differently: in a strategy game, I want to learn how to get a good score and come up with clever plans that work. When I lose, I’m impressed and congratulate my opponent, and talk to them about their thinking so I can improve. In a more narrative game with lots of randomness, I just want to enjoy the ride, and don’t care who wins.
Most games are pretty up front about what they’re trying to be, so I don’t have this problem. I still keep an enormous copy of Fortune and Glory on my shelf – when we pull it out, we all well know what we’re in for. Same goes when Agricola, Trajan, or Terra Mystica hit the table – when we play them, we’re there to think.
Seafall tricks you into playing a strategy game and then shovels a heaping pile of random bullshit all over you for good measure. You approach each game with a plan, because you have to. You set the pieces in place and spend actions, more actions, turns, more turns on readying a scheme. Then at some point, without warning, the bullshit starts to hit you. I offer the following case study.
Seafall features Milestones. Milestones are basically achievements – first player to get one receives it and a handful of victory points (usually ranging anywhere from a quarter to a third of the points they need to win any one game).
I used to really dislike the milestones, because of how rewarding they are and how much they can waste your time (if, say, you’re racing for one with someone else and lose out on it). But, compared to other things in this game, they actually don’t bother me so much now. The milestones are very public information, so it’s usually somewhat clear which ones other players are going for, and you can factor that into your decision-making.
In one game, one player spent the whole game with a new explore strategy – they were going to go discover something very exciting, and that required a successful explore roll with a moderate degree of difficulty. In order to prepare, she spent almost the entire game preparing the vessels, accumulating valuable research to lend a hand, and expended all resources on this big shot. After almost two hours of buildup and preparation, she arrived, and threw all the helpful cards down and rolled a large enough handful of dice that ensured the risk of failure was incredibly low.
But, she failed. Nothing fancy – just really horrible luck, almost every die came up blank. The ship sank, she lost valuable resources and upgrades, and all the special charts she’d burned on the expedition. She had started the game in last place well behind the rest of us, and ended up that session even worse off, feeling absolutely miserable and dejected by the experience.
Dice are very tricky sons of bitches. On one hand, it is a damn easy way to add excitement to a game. With the risk of failure that catastrophic right in front of you, no matter how slim that risk is, it makes rolls that do go your way all the sweeter. But on the other hand, it allows for absolutely terrible things to happen to players, and they can completely ruin an otherwise fun time.
Maybe that feeling is the point. But that isn’t fun, and we don’t like playing games that do that. Her experience felt so unfair, that it felt like it must be broken.
In an exploratory adventure-style adventure game, the Captain’s book isn’t out of place at all – you explore some item, or location, or event, or person, or anything else, and the book tells you what happens. Sometimes, you get destroyed, and lose everything. Some other times, you suddenly get awarded four or five victory points. Often this is combined with a decent enough success (trying to keep it vague enough here), so it can couple with you being awarded a milestone too – doubling that point value. Plus you always get one point for succeeding at a roll, plus you can get further points from adviser’s help or other in-game buffs. This has lead to single turns awarding 60-75% of the victory points that person needs to win the game.
I think this is meant to be a climactic moment of triumph – in almost every case it’s completely filled with surprise on their part (and also sympathy for the others), and despair on everyone else’s as they had no warning and missed out on chances to execute on their plans, as they often don’t even get one more turn. Spending a whole game amassing resources and the groundwork for some fun grand scheme and then have some other player pull the plug and cut short all that progress, leaving you with almost none of it at the start of the next game, is profoundly frustrating.
I’m leveling harsh language at the game as though it’s a strategy game. If I have ‘two modes’ as I put it, why can’t I just enjoy it as a narrative game with tons of randomness? I love games like that.
The reason I can’t is because Seafall is too heavy of a strategy game. Even when we consciously go in completely indifferent about getting a good score or winning, the game tricks you and draws you in. You notice good opportunities start to open up. You take them, maybe some rolls go your way, and a shot at some big score reveals itself. You realign your resources and set up for a big play. Without realizing it, you’re back in.
I’ve rewritten this article actually dozens of times – I flip-flop on the game so much that it’s honestly hard for me to figure out whether I think it’s good or not. I don’t think I can recommend it at all – it’s a huge commitment and honestly you’ll do just as well playing Pandemic Season 1 (and likely, the upcoming Season 2), and in return you’ll get to play one of the best board game experiences there is.
I just wanted to hammer out some of my thoughts on the thing – I just think the application of dice is, as always, a very touchy subject, nothing new there. I just think this game is a good case study in how not to do it.