[The first part of this article is spoiler-free, but the second half revolves exclusively around spoilers for the end of the prologue. This transition from no spoilers to spoilers will be clearly marked. If you ever plan to play Seafall in the future, do yourself a favour and do not spoil yourself. Even if you’re not the kind of person who generally cares about spoilers, trust me: this experience is better unspoiled.]
Last night, after several months of planning, we finally got our crew together to play Seafall. This is a legacy board game, a new subgenre which involves making permanent changes to game components—even destroying some pieces entirely—so that every set becomes unique and no two groups will play exactly the same game.
Seafall is an “age of sail” game, in which up to five players take on the roles of land-bound provinces taking their first tentative steps into a largely unexplored sea. They will, over the course of around twenty games, push back this uncharted frontier, discovering and naming islands and settling colonies. The territory is far from uncontested, though, and they will make war with each other and with the people who lived there before them.
The legacy aspect is what makes Seafall special. Before beginning the game, players will select a non-binding flavour for their would-be ruler of the waves that motivates their journey (exploration, conquest, and wealth, among others) and a portrait from the ten available.
(A brief aside: The diversity of gender and race in the portraits is admirable. Fewer than half are white men, and the rest are men and women of at least two different racial backgrounds. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of a truly dark-skinned woman, but it’s still a welcome change of pace from the norm.)
I was tempted to choose a young Asian woman as my leader, but a dignified older African-looking man drew my eye. (Sorry for the terrible photo – it was the best one I could find.) He paired well with the “respect for the past and lessons from history” flavoured nation, so they became my starting points. I decided to research Swahili names, words, and phrases to come up with names for places, ships, and people.
My larger and smaller ships became Tembo and Duma (“elephant” and “cheetah” respectively), while my province was named Watani, meaning “birthplace”. That distinguished looking dark-skinned man with the white beard became Khalfani Wote Wa Bahari, my clumsy non-Swahili speaker’s way of rendering “he who is destined to rule the entire ocean”.
Across the table I had a Greek-flavoured province created by a native Greek-speaking player who rendered all of his names in Greek lettering. (His province is named a variation of “hydra”, which is a tad worrying.) We also had a player with a hybrid of Russian and English who was having fun fusing Eastern and Western names, and another with a French theme, and one with an Arabic theme.
Everybody was having fun using Google Translate and other online tools and resources to come up with colourful but consistent naming schemes that suited the themes of their provinces. Once we set out across the ocean, the systems continued: I was the first to earn the right to name an island. As it was one I had just successfully raided, I named the island Kafara (victim).
Everything was going wonderfully until we finished that learning-to-play prologue game, but then…
Spoilers begin here.
Stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.
I mean it, this is a big one.
[SPOILERS BEGIN NOW]
…then we lost them all. It was devastating.
Upon finishing the prologue, we were instructed to read a certain passage in the book of secret stories that details all of the things we will discover out in the sea. That passage told us to skip all of the usual game end steps, but instead to destroy our leader cards.
That’s right, destroy them. We had to rip them up and throw them in the bin, and for the official first game after the prologue we would jump ahead in time and play the descendants of our original leaders, chosen from the remainder in the box nobody had wanted originally.
We had already been introduced to card destruction earlier in the game. Each of the four charted but unnamed islands had a milestone card associated with them. As each one was named, the milestone card would be destroyed. It is a very weird feeling to rip up glossy, well-made board game components, but we did it four times.
Even so, nothing prepared us for this. I even jumped onto Google and searched to make sure we were interpreting the text correctly. This can’t be right, we were all thinking. We just made these characters, and now we’re supposed to rip them up?
But there was no mistake. This was a deliberate choice by the game’s creators, and it was a slap in the face. We had each poured love and care and time into these little two-dimensional paintings, and being told to destroy them was horrible. It was the worst a board game has ever made me feel. It had urged me to create something I loved, and then it demanded I kill it.
The shock at this step is universal. A quick Google around the internet revealed outrage and even defiance; more than one forum thread was populated with angry players saying they refused to comply with the rules and stating they would keep playing with their original characters. A few even said that their gaming group quit the game in a rage at that point.
As much as it hurt, our group did it. It felt so momentous that we even recorded a video of ourselves doing it.
We then had a look at the five leftover character portraits, none of which any of us had wanted the first time around, and tried to decide which one might be the child or grandchild of the one lost at sea. None of them were a perfect match (for one thing, there was only one black person in the set of ten, and his portrait had recently been reduced to confetti). We all had to make the best of a bad bunch, and we finished the game resentful and let down.
It took me about 12 hours to realise what a work of genius the whole thing had been. Everything about the design of that moment was perfect, and the longer I thought about it, the better it got.
Take the selection of exactly ten portraits for a five player game. The designers could easily have included twelve, or sixteen, or twenty. They could have included multiple cards with strong family resemblances and plenty of spares, but no: they gave us only the cards required, five ancestors and five descendants.
They let us choose the one we liked best, build an entire nation around them, use them to inspire language and behaviour and imagined history,not knowing they would soon be taken from us and replaced with a pale imitation, an unsatisfying ring-in who would never be what we really wanted.
The genius of this is the creation of an air of ancestor-worship, the knowledge that our revered forebears were the truly great ones, and the leaders we have now will never measure up to them. Mbiri Wote Bahari (heir to the ocean) is a shockingly young-looking Asian man with tan skin that hints at a darker complexion in his family tree. I felt sure when I first grudgingly accepted him as my new leader that he would never be as dear to be as Khalfani managed to be in just a few hours, but I suspect he will grow on me, of course.
It also means that we have a grudge. Each player is now angry at this game for robbing them of a beloved creation, and will come back to it next session feeling like they have something to prove.
In short, we care. With a single, simple instruction on a page, Seafall made me feel more intense emotions than any of the hundreds of other board games I have played. It shocked me, confronted me, and made me feel both anger and grief. No matter how much I may hate the designers for putting me through that, I know that I will never forget it. A decade from now when someone asks me about memorable gaming experiences, Seafall is guaranteed to be the first title that comes to mind.
I am deeply impressed by the sheer audacity of the designers. They must have known that this would make a lot of players very angry, people who had paid rather a lot of money to buy a very expensive board game. I imagine there were frantic conversations, asking if they were actually going to go ahead with such an outrageous piece of game design. You know how angry they are going to be, they must have said. Are we really going to do this?
Well, I’m glad they did. Now that the initial shock and sadness and, yes, fury have subsided, I am bursting with enthusiasm to play the game again. Part of me knows that if they dared to pull a stunt like that during what was essentially the tutorial, they must have some even bigger surprises waiting for us across the sea.
In a way, I feel like a true explorer now. I have suffered a devastating setback, but the spirit of discovery will not be cowed. It’s time to get back out there.