The general release of Seafall: A Legacy Game is imminent. It’s is widely expected to take tabletop gaming to the next level. Launched in early August at GenCon – America’s largest board game convention – copies there sold out within an hour. It is rumoured to have set record breaking pre-orders for a board game. No doubt whatsoever, we are witnessing a new benchmark being set in resurgent tabletop gaming industry.
Rewind 18 years…
Rob Daviau has just joined gaming giant Hasbro’s design team as a writer on their text heavy games catalogue. He had previously worked as an advertising copyrighter, but now finds himself working on the Star Wars Episode 1 version of Trivial Pursuit as a writer. Two years later Avalon Hill, part of the Hasbro group, release Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit giving Daviau his first co-designer credit, working and learning alongside lead designer Craig VanNess. After co-designing Axis and Allies: Pacific the following year in 2001, Daviau set his sights on reinventing a Habro classic; Risk.
Working once again with VanNess, Risk 2210 AD dramatically changed the base rules of the classic game, turning it into a tense and strategic campaign, rather than the gun-ho world domination of the vanilla game. It would not be the last time he dramatically reinvent Albert Lamorisse’s 1957 classic.
Post Risk 2210 AD, Daviau worked on acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill (Origins Awards Gamers’ Choice Award Winner 2004), and supported VanNess in brining Heroscape and Star Wars: Epic Duels to life. During this period he worked on numerous thematic variations of Risk, as well as other Hasbro’s IP’s, including Trivial Pursuit and Clue.
It was his experience of working on Clue that sparked a bold and creative idea in Daviau’s head; the concept of “The Usual Suspects” where a Clue character could be a repeat offender, with a rap sheet of priors. It ultimately lead to one simple question:
What if board games didn’t reset after each play through?
This would become the basis for the exciting, engaging and unpredictable “legacy system”.
Unsuccessful in his pitch with his revolution of Clue, Daviau decided to apply the formula to Risk. Hasbro decision makers gave Daviau a green light, excited at the prospect of something genuinely different for one of their prominent IPs. Despite many obstacles along the way, Daviau’s 12 or 13 years experience within Hasbro allowed him to work the internal politics to ensure his idea saw the light of day.
This was his seventh time working on a variation of Risk. Unlike the previous six, this version was the one that would literally tear up the rule book on designing board games, opening up a Pandora’s Box in the world of game design. Using all his experience in board game development and taking inspiration from traditional role playing games, video games, episodic television, concerts, restaurants, and even the graffiti of Banksy; Risk Legacy was born.
The idea was pretty simple; actions, decisions and outcomes from one play through would have implications in later games. This was achieved – with what many in the gaming community claimed was sacrilege – by writing on your board, modifying your game with stickers and ripping up game cards. Events would drive the narrative when certain actions would result in sealed sections of the game box being opened and brought into play – changing the rules and the way the game is played.
He applied everything crazy and wacky he could think of to really put the game out there, to take it into uncharted territory for a board game. Nothing more so than the omni-present “Do Not Open Ever” envelope, with no explanation whatsoever to its meaning or possible contents, teasing and taunting the player – will you abide by the rules or will curiosity get the better of you?
Risk Legacy was essentially a classic game modified to organically evolve. Not in any pre-determined pattern, the evolution would be completely unique to the players, with no two games alike. Sure, all components were the same in all copies, but the where, when and how of these events were entirely down to the players – with them all blind to the consequences of opening up a new section and the repercussions that would follow. Above all, the game was a story, with each twist, turn and revelation taking the players on an immersive journey.
In naming cities and continents by physically writing on the board, players took ownership of the world they were creating as they battled over 15 games for global domination – and the ultimate prize of naming the world. This created advantages and disadvantages for players with the five base player races evolving, or “levelling-up”, both positively and negatively demanding on the action. At the end of the 15 games campaign, you had yourself a completely unique game of Risk – a world your group of players had created through your unique journey. Despite no further alterations, the game was still very much replayable once complete.
The full experience was mesmerizing. It changed the way I think about games – it changed the way the world thinks about games; and not just tabletop games, but video games. It was groundbreaking.
The gaming community reacted. The hard work to see it to fruitarian had been justified, with any doubt from inside Hasbro proving to be completely misplaced as Risk Legacy sold above all expectations, winning countless awards and rightful praise for the sheer ingenuity of it. There was an overwhelming demand for more – the legacy model applied to another game. Was Risk Legacy just a fluke?
Fast forward four years, and having decided to leave Hasbro to form his own company, IronWall Games, Daviau was now free to work without any restrictions or limitations. As he helped bring the incredibly fun party game Fuenmployed to the masses, he was secretly beginning work on his magnum opus – a legacy game built from the ground up.
Enter Pademic. The brainchild of Matt Leacock, it was released in 2008, three years before Risk Legacy. Having experienced the revolutionary possibilities of the legacy system, Leacock was very keen to apply it to his game, where up to four players work together to fend off four viruses sweeping the planet. On paper, it seemed a perfect match and Daviau was very keen to get involved, partly as he was at an impasse with Seafall at the time.
In October 2015, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 was released to global acclaim, making its way to the no.1 ranked game on Boardgamegeek, finally deposing Twilight Struggle which had held the top spot for almost a decade, and winning countless awards and recognition. Risk Legacy had not been a fluke – this system was the real deal.
Different from Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy was all about the players versus the system and created a completely different dynamic to the ever changing world a legacy game presents. With over 70 sections to open as the game progresses, the evolution in this legacy game was taken to a more advanced level.
Built around a solid story that was provided by a “legacy deck” that would direct players through their campaign comprising of 12 games representing the months of a year (with the ability to replay any month the team lost one more time). The legacy deck included abundant cards that would alter the game dramatically in numerous ways, with the unexpected to be very much expected. The game was also bundled with a secret dossier, containing numerous doors to open when prompted by the legacy deck, and a sticker sheet with over a 100 stickers that would be applied to the game during play though. Attention to detail and levels of customisation is so finite you could create relationships between the characters, awarding special bonuses.
At the end of each play through, the team are given two game end upgrades, allowing improvement to certain aspects of the game to give you an edge. As is the recurring theme of legacy games, the level of choice promotes ownership of the game, offering countless possibilities and variations. Pandemic Legacy simply provided a gaming experience unlike no other and once again managed to provide a completely unique experience to each individual across the world playing the game. It was also a very challenging game, like the original Pandemic, and players had to learn from mistakes and adapt as best as possibly to the rampant randomness of the AI viruses.
A year has now passed since Pandemic Legacy launched, and the level of anticipation in the gaming community is feverous as finally Daviau’s masterpiece is about to drop. Four years in the making (three to design) Seafall takes the legacy system into uncharted waters. While previous legacy games have been modifications of established games, Seafall started as a blank page – built from the ground up as a legacy title.
Set in colonial times, Seafall sees each player (up to five) take control of a group of explorers as they embark on a quest to discover and settle the new world in the age of sail. Daviau himself has described it as “Indianna Jones in the 17th century”. The board is a blank grid when beginning the journey, but will evolve and develop as the game progresses based on decisions each player makes. In this 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXtermintae) players will have to discover and settle the new world while dealing with the opposing players through trade and war. Players will have to manage their settlements as the many game characters come to life, being named and levelling up like a video game RPG based on actions, reactions and decisions of players.
External elements, such as the games AI engine will come into play; altering the best laid plans of each player and setting the direction of the narrative in this choose-your-own-adventure experience. The game comes with a “Captain’s Log Book” with 430 entries that are triggered during certain in-game events and will provide you with the background story to your choices, incorporating elements of the classic adventure novel to enrich the gaming experience.
However, above all, the games direction will be driven by choice – not by the rules of the game. Actually the rules of the game will evolve and write themselves during play depending on players’ actions; starting of with the basics and growing into a thoroughly rich, complex and deep game. Again, it will be a completely unique experience to each group of players, with the evolution of their world being shaped by them. A player’s decision has the potential to stick with them throughout the game, and what might seem an advantage in one game could become disadvantage in the next. It’s not about winning the battle, but winning the war.
Not only is this a blindingly exciting board game – a fully original legacy game by the man who invited the system – but the design and theme enriches it even further. Who doesn’t want to sail about like a pirate exploring the new world?
Daviau himself has referred to Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy as being like summer action-thrillers (the Dan Brown-esque adventure) while SeaFall in relation resembles the size and scale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Normally when you get so excited for something you run the risk of being let down by the eventual end product. I actually have zero fears of this being the case. Despite the hype, everything I have seen and read about Seafall (which is a hell of a lot, including a great deal of information of the Plaid Hat Website from Daviau himself) leads me to safely conclude that this game is going to blow me away. However, if for some bizarre reason I don’t enjoy the actual game play, I’m already more than impressed with the sheer scale and depth of design alone to regard this as a classic and a title worth celebrating . Sure, it won’t be for everyone, it will be a very heavy game not for the faint hearted, but the complexity of Daviau’s system being applied to an original title and the years of development deserves automatic admiration. Simply, I have genuinely never been as excited to play any game in all my life!
Daviau’s influence on the gaming world is already being seen firsthand. Today, he is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers of the resurgent board game industry, acquiring a merited stature in the community for his developments. We have a few games by other designers offering a legacy system and a few others that, while not legacy games per say, have been heavily influenced by them.
While some designers seeking advice and pointers from Daviau happens from time to time, a call from Ted Alspach to Daviau looking to pick his brains has now evolved into a full collaboration with Alspach’s Ultimate Werewolf now getting the legacy treatment. Provisionally scheduled to arrive sometime in 2017, this will see the legacy system applied to a party game for the first time – with Ultimate Werewolf capable of accommodating between 5 and 68 players!
Also in the works is Chronicles 1: Origins (also due for a 2017 release) from Daviau’s and Dirk Knemeyer. This game will look to recreate a new version of the world through the various games in the series – with Origins starting with the Stone Age (I’m thinking a board game Sid Meier’s Civilization). The completed elements from this game will be used as the basis for Chronicles 2 and any future title in the series.
Out with Daviau’s involvement, Issac Childres will shortly release Gloomhaven following a successful Kickstarter, a custom built fantasy eurogame with a legacy element. And the following year we will see Charterstone from Jamey Stegmaier, applying the legacy model to an original worker placement game.
All sound very exciting. And of course, on top of this, Pandemic Legacy Season 2 is currently in development which will be the first example of a sequel to a legacy game – intriguing to see how it’s implemented.
The legacy system has redefined the possibilities of board games. No longer do they need to be restrained by restrictive rules; no longer do they have to be reset after each play through; the safety net of bad choices in one game being able to hamper later games is no longer assured; and the endless possibilities to direct a rich, engrossing narrative and create an experience completely unique is wide open. Never before has the term ‘owning’ been so literal.
Modestly, while acknowledging that these games are definitely very current, Rob Daviau is not sure whether this is indeed a new style of gameplay or just a passing fad – he is just glad to be part of the current wave of games rich in story and theme. Either way, for the next few years at least he will be improving the legacy system, looking at even more inventive way to create a campaign game.
The customisation offered in countless videogame RPG’s has now been adapted to the tabletop world where the level of interaction, ownership and experience are enriched for a group of friends to share. While I love playing an RPG on my PC or Xbox, they are adventures undertaken alone, not shared with a group of friends. I don’t view Risk Legacy & Pandemic Legacy simply as board games; they are so much more – a totally immersive adventure you share with others.
Board game fan or not, I urge every keen gamer out there to give these a go! Risk Legacy is a great entry point for the video gamers looking to dip their toe into the tabletop genre. For me, it is an experience all should embrace. Not only are both of the current legacy games two of the best board games I have ever played – they are two of the best games I have ever played, full stop!
And yet I have every confidence that a month or so from now they will have been eclipsed by a game born from them…the evolutionary, revolutionary Seafall: A Legacy Game!
NEXT WEEK : I take a look at the classic arcade game Rampage and how it has been resurrected for the tabletop world.