Rebuilding Boardgames: Rob Daviau on SeaFall and the Legacy GamesLead image courtesy of www.robdaviau.com Games Features Rob Daviau
Boardgames have always worked in the exact same way every time you play them. In Carcassone you’ll build a massive, sprawling renaissance city-state, in Twilight Imperium you and a small group of friends will simulate the dawn and dusk of an intergalactic power-grab, in Lords of Vegas you’ll develop fledgling casinos and oust the lesser tycoons around you—but that’s it. When it’s over the game goes back into the box. The score sheet is wiped clean, and the victories and failures are forgotten. The next game starts fresh, with the same opportunities available for all players. That might be for the best, because it’d be weird if every time you jumped back into Monopoly your Dad retained his vice grip on Boardwalk, but it’s still a shame when you consider how alive it could feel otherwise. It’s easier to personally identify with a venerable World of Warcraft avatar than a faceless, nameless yellow pawn. But what if there was a boardgame that saved your progress? What if you could use a hand of cards to tell a real, finite story? For designer Rob Daviau, that’s the dream he’s been working towards for the past four years.
“I became a professional game designer in 1998 when I got a job at Hasbro which owns Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, and I spent 14 years there working on all the traditional brands like Monopoly, Clue and Trivial Pursuit,” says Daviau. “When we were working on a Clue game someone made a comment about how people keep inviting these mass murderers to dinner. Games always reset themselves even though the people change. … I have a background in role-playing games and at the time the TV show Lost was on, so I was taken with the idea of ‘episodic based board-gaming.’”
The first game Daviau applied that concept to was Risk: Legacy. He essentially took the classic, slightly boring family wargame and gave it a continual, fictional hook. You play Risk: Legacy 15 times. Over the course of the campaign you might find yourself ripping up cards or taking a permanent marker to the board—all dependent on the actions the players take. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure narrative joined with a boardgame. When you’re done with Risk: Legacy, your copy will look different from anyone else’s. It’s strange to buy a boardgame you can only play a certain number of times, but it’s also kind of compelling.
“It gave me a chance to use a boardgame to do more storytelling than most of them are capable of,” says Daviau. “The president of Hasbro at the time said ‘I’m not totally sure I get all of this, but go for it’ and he kinda put a shield over me and let me do it without any bureaucracy. It took about a year and a half and it died numerous times, but I willed it into existence.”
In 2012 Daviau left Hasbro and started making his own designs that followed a similar philosophy. The first project he released after going independent was Pandemic: Legacy, which takes those same persistent philosophies established in Risk: Legacy to Matt Leacock’s much-loved cooperative game about preventing a viral apocalypse. Pandemic: Legacy is currently the number one rated game on the adjudicating database BoardGameGeek. Needless to say, that counts for a lot.
“[Leacock] reached out to me and asked if he wanted to work on it together, and I was just starting my own company so I was like ‘oh yes please,’” says Daviau. “It was a perfect combination of storytelling and game design. Because it’s cooperative and a shared experience it leads to this thing where you either lose together or win together, but you still want to see what comes next.”
Pandemic: Legacy was about as close to a blockbuster as a new boardgame can get. This is a niche hobby, but you could still read about the game in publications like the Wall Street Journal. A lot of videogames are designed to put you in the passenger’s seat of an adventure—the five hour Call of Duty campaigns have this down to an art—but when you step into Pandemic: Legacy you’re dealing with real drama and real stakes. There’s a chance you might die! In a world without a 10 second respawn timer! Daviau’s games cut to humanity in a way that’s hard to find anywhere else in the industry, which is why there’s a ton of hype about his next project—SeaFall.
“I wanted to do something big and epic and sweeping, and I liked the idea of ships sailing on the open sea and looking for islands,” says Daviau. “It took four years from me thinking of that and it coming out. It got too big, and too long, and there were certain iterations that were good until they fell apart around play five. But as I was designing it I was working on Pandemic: Legacy and that taught me a lot.”
SeaFall, like Risk: Legacy, will consist of a campaign with 15 total plays, all adding up to a broader meta-narrative. At the beginning of the first game each player will start out with a 16th century European country on the edge of a massive, undiscovered ocean. Slowly but surely you’ll be discovering continents, colonizing islands, and building your very own maritime empire.
“I didn’t want there to be only one way to win, so some people could become merchants, some people can become colonialists, or explorers, or in military, and all of those have to be a viable path to victory,” says Daviau. “I also wanted to tell a story, so there’s something called a Captain’s Book which is like a choose-your-own-adventure book, so as you’re exploring you are going to face various choices that will affect your legacy in the world—that has over 400 entries. Each game you play has a beginning, middle and end, and all of those tie together in the end.”
Daviau is clear that this isn’t radically different from the ideas he fostered in his previous Legacy titles, but it’s also officially his baby. He’s not piggybacking on another design like Pandemic, or a well-worn heritage like Risk. After 15 years at Hasbro, one of the world’s best game designers is finally ready for his close-up. SeaFall was just released at GenCon, and is currently available at boardgame stores around the world. It may be finite, but it also promises to leave behind far more than four houses and a hotel.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.