Rob Daviau and myself are finishing up a truly spectacular meal at All Spice in San Mateo, California, and the discussion turns towards a controversial title in a stellar board game career. SeaFall was a difficult time, a pivot point, but like a lot of relationships…it was “complicated.”
DTD: SeaFall had that enormous hype and crash. I was in the scene and saw everything happening in real time.
RD: I saw it happening too. I saw it happening, the hype on SeaFall, and I was like “Can we just dial this back, can we dial this…please do not put this at these expectations where it is.”
DTD: I was at that GenCon. It was incredible expectations.
RD: I could not live up to it. People were like, “It’s going to make me taller, and get rid of my bald spot.” And I am like, “It’s going to do none of these things. It’s a weighty, meaty game that’s got some great ideas in it.” I just got the rights back to that this week.
DTD: Oh cool. I liked it a lot.
RD: I think I want to look at it later this year. And maybe reboot it, streamlined and better.
DTD: You know this much better than me, but I kind of see the legacy games as either having a linear story, where you let them try 2 or 3 times, and then you move them on to the next part of the story, or its got the web story, where nothing depends on the previous story happening. And that just seems like a much harder game to sell. Because the progression isn’t in your face.
RD: Well, when I started SeaFall I had just done Risk Legacy. So that was my only model. Now, I ended up working on Pandemic Legacy in parallel.
DTD: And see, I see the timing as Risk, Pandemic, then SeaFall.
RD: And it actually came out before SeaFall. Pandemic [Legacy] came out in 2015, SeaFall came in 2016. But I started it earlier. And I had one game to base it on, which was Risk [Legacy], and it was competitive. Honestly, I sat down at the beginning of SeaFall and I thought, “What did I do right? Why did this work? Why did Risk Legacy work?” I had no idea what I did. Because I just did everything. And I had to learn, analyze my own work, to see what I did. I was like, “I want to do something longer, and I want to do something meatier.” Those things don’t work for legacy games, I know now, because we are asking people to play 15 times. They don’t want a 2-hour game.
DTD: And there have been a couple more of those, like [Rise of] Queensdale was a little long each game, and a little meaty each game, and people were giving up.
RD: Yeah, you give up. I was like, “I want to make The Lord of the Rings.” Instead I made the Hobbit; I mean the movie versions.
DTD: [laughs] OK. That’s an interesting analogy.
RD: That was a real kick in the teeth when that came out. It was good in retrospect. It’s really good to have a big public failure.
DTD: I don’t think it was a big public failure.
RD: It felt like it from where I was sitting.
DTD: I think it was a low point in a whole bunch of very, very high points.
RD: It’s very good to have all of this hype and not live up to it.
DTD: A humbling event.
RD: A humbling event. Because you could really step back, and it taught me how to work better.
DTD: I talked to Friedemann a while about 504.
504 was a groundbreaking game released in 2015 by Friedemann Friese. The game had generated an incredible amount of hype, but then failed to do well commercially. In 504, players could mix and match a tremendous number of board game elements and essentially create 504 different games from the “kit.”
RD: I remember him working on it.
DTD: It was his humbling event.
RD: He was working on it and I ran into him at the Gathering [of Friends], and he was working and working. And I was kind of working on SeaFall at the same time, and we were both feverish to prove ourselves in some way. And I remember looking at what he was doing and going, “OK, that’s crazier than what I am doing, so I feel better.”
The Gathering of Friends is an invitation-only board gaming convention run by Alan Moon, the designer of Ticket to Ride. I’ve never been. Just waiting for my invite…must have gotten lost in the mail…
DTD: Oh, it was a proof of concept, it wasn’t a game. It was, “Someone dare me that I cannot make this.”
RD: But I saw him sitting at a table at the Gathering for hours by himself, just trying to change things to make them better so he could playtest it once. And then sitting for hours. Its not like he phoned it in. It was mountainous to work on.
DTD: He is an incredibly smart dude. Yeah, there’s a lot of math and a lot of statistics in there.
RD: It’s a very interesting concept, almost like a very good toolbox for an early designer, to see how different systems will go together. But it is soulless.
DTD: It is. I see it like a Fellini film. It’s the movie you study in film school that nobody likes.
RD: Yeah, and I guess I want to caveat that, especially since I’m putting this down for posterity.
DTD: I can cut out whatever you don’t like.
RD: He put a lot of soul into it, but ultimately the idea of combining just different mechanisms has to be slightly reserved. A game is not just a series of mechanisms—it’s the little things that blend them together that gives them soul. My son is a musician, amateur because he is 16, and he said “All good music is just, ‘ where did they make interesting mistakes?’” Because you could have a computer do it.
DTD: I brought exactly that up during the interview, because I said there was a computer algorithm that analyzed all popular music and made the model for the perfect popular song. And its boring, it is dumb. It’s terrible. And 504 makes very playable games, but by necessity if you mix everything together you get a homogenized game. Its very flat.
RD: Yes, what he did is he built a very good prototype for someone to take and make a very good game out of it.
DTD: And break one little piece, to make it…
RD: And break one little piece, like, “Why do we need this? This would be interesting if we took that out and moved it over here.”
DTD: See he should get together with Carl Chutyk, and then make one really broken piece, to just make it fly out the window.
RD: Well, showtime!
Rob’s comment heralded in the arrival of more small courses, each more appetizing than the last.
Waiter: Charred broccolini with Asian pear. Mushroom ouzu XO sauce. Enoki mushroom, mushroom cauliflower mash, pickled chanterelle, hot sauce puree, and then you have got the garnish with hazelnuts, apple and radish.
DTD: That’s incredible. I really dig mushroom stuff. I am going to get another Rob Daviau picture here. Wow. Mushrooms everywhere, this is awesome. So I mean, honestly, if SeaFall was as low as it went, that is not a bad bar.
RD: Interestingly enough, I made good money off of it.
DTD: People are still talking about it. I still bump into people who are in the middle of it and love it.
RD: I think the thing is, it was the right game for the audience I was designing for. And that audience was relatively small. But on the heels of [the] success of Pandemic Legacy, a lot of people I didn’t think should play it, played it, and were very vocal about how much they didn’t like it.
DTD: That was an impossible bar.
RD: Yeah, and you forget the hundred handshakes. You remember the one slap.
DTD: I think that’s the nature of our modern internet feedback system also. Its all about negative criticism.
RD: There were a lot of things that went wrong in that. I can look back now, and I want to talk to Colby [Dauch]. After I get the rights back, I want to talk to him about why things didn’t connect. What did I do wrong, what did he do wrong? What was outside our control, what was in our control, what do we think we did right? And then I’ll sit with him. It has a gimmick in it that is my favorite thing I’ve put in a game, which I still won’t spoil.
DTD: I haven’t played all the way through.
Interestingly, as I edit this, we are in the middle of COVID-19 social isolation, and I have been invited to play in no less than 2 SeaFall games online. I am having a great time ineffectually raiding and plundering from the comfort of my desk.
RD: I buried it too late. Don’t put your best bit in the third act.
[I’ve seen it. He’s right. It’s a very good gimmick. -Ed.]
DTD: Start strong.
RD: Start strong. I did this whole thing; Lord of the Rings was my model. And so, the first couple games were leaving the Shire. And Sophie, the woman who bought Plaid Hat, now runs Plan B, saw that it didn’t have a good pilot.
DTD: Sophie Gravel.
Short summary: Sophie Gravel was the owner of Filosophia Editions. Filosophia bought Z-Man Games, Pretzel Games, and Plaid Hat Games, creating F2Z Entertainment. F2Z was later acquired by Asmodee Games, but Sophie made an exit plan with a few properties and created Plan B Games. A lot of events in the board game microverse have orbited around Sophie.
RD: She and I do not get along in many ways. I had a very bad meeting where she critiqued SeaFall coming out. I think she had good points, but delivered them…one, I wasn’t expecting it to be a critique of the game, so I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t teach it in a certain way, and she didn’t deliver the feedback in a certain way, so it was very confrontational.
DTD: Sure, difference in communication.
RD: Yeah, difference in communication, and also English is her third language. And we just see the world differently. Looking back, I can see some points where I’m like, “Oh if that’s the point she was trying to make, there was a good point there.” But it was missed in the kerfuffle of the discussion. And one of which was: the first game doesn’t hook you, it was too quiet.
DTD: And there were criticisms of the “tutorial game,” and things like that.
RD: It was trying to do too much, I needed to edit. I came out of Hasbro doing Cars Trouble 3, Cars 3 Trouble. And I needed to prove I could make a real game. I think a legacy game is a real game; I didn’t need to make the world’s most complex, dudes-on-a-map game. With a legacy game, with a story, with a gimmick. I tried to just make up for 14 years of making kids games in one game.
DTD: I have always been fascinated with an artist’s first real piece. In novels, like—I am a big sci-fi buff, it tends to go with everything else. And the first novel that a sci-fi author writes is often insane. It doesn’t follow any of the rules, and it goes crazy, and the plots are out of control. They are really crazy. And the first game that a designer makes often is just nuts and unbridled and does stuff you just would never do.
RD: Which is fine if you do one of those. And I will say that to designers now. “What things can you put in a game that are comforting? What systems or mechanisms or rules?” Like, this is how the card market works, and you are like, “Oh, I understand that. That’s like other games.” This is how your turn works, this is how this works—“Whoa! That’s different!” But if everything is different, you are not making a brand-new fresh take on games, you are making a confusing mess where no one feels grounded. I don’t think SeaFall was that, but I think it was a little plodding. It needed…what it needed Plaid Hat to do, and I understand why they didn’t do it—there are a lot of reasons, some in Colby’s control, some outside Colby’s control. He was trying to do me a favor in many ways. Money was tight, he knew I wanted the royalties, so he probably pushed it through a little faster. I think he was getting pressure from Sophie.
RD: Because she bought the company, and she wasn’t a big fan of the game, so she was like, “OK, it’s an obligation. Let’s turn the page.” So, a number of ways it got pushed through without someone going, “Hey, this needs an editing pass.” Either kick it back to me or someone at Plaid Hat, saying, “We are going to take it for six months and cut like 1/3 of it out.”
DTD: And there’s been a bunch of designers who have told me that early on you add a bunch of stuff to your games, and later on you take away a bunch of stuff from your games. And early designers just make them bigger and more complicated and more glitzy, while late designers have like two rules and a square board.
RD: One of my favorite things to do is to cut the hell out of a game at the end. We are giddy with joy. And one of us will say, “We can do this, and we can do this…or we can cut it.” “Yes! Let’s do that!”
DTD: Let’s see what happens.
RD: And I just did that on Return to Dark Tower on the past 5 months.
DTD: Well when I played the prototype, it was a 3-hour game.
RD: It was like an 8-hour game.
DTD: My group was the first group who went to the end and won.
RD: And if you did that in 3 hours at the time, that’s impressive, because I was saying as late as like September, “Guys we have a very good 8 hour game. We are not selling an 8 hour game.”
DTD: It might have been 4 hours. It’s funny, I have seen the whole industry go through these things as well. If I look at the games that I admired in the ’70s and the ’80s, these Avalon Hill games, they were ridiculously long and complicated.
RD: You want any of this [pointing to food]?
DTD: I might steal a broccolini.
Broccolini, the high fashion model of broccoli. I believe I am more of a broccoloni.
RD: The vinegar on that is incredibly sharp in a pleasant way. Make sure you get some of that mushroom vinegar goodness in there.
DTD: Absolutely, wow, thank you. Broccoli is one of my favorite things. That’s really good. It’s not like an intense red vinegar; its really nice.
RD: It’s acidic but its not just vinegar. Its an XO sauce. Its got layers to it. It’s got a chile pepper heat to it maybe.
DTD: I get a little of that, but this [my food] was crazy hot, which was nice. So I have still got that lingering. This place is very good.
RD: It’s very good, yeah, but I’m just a little full, so I say again…
DTD: Don’t worry about it, no judgement on this end.
RD: Yeah, I’m curious whether I want to go back into SeaFall, pull it apart and do it. I kind of…grew up Catholic, so I kind of want to do it as a penance.
DTD: [laughing] I was raised Jewish, so I feel bad for you.
RD: Both my wives have been Jewish. My kids are Jewish. First wife Jewish, second wife Jewish. Apparently I have a type.
DTD: Yeah, it’s supposed to go down that line. I married a shiksa.
RD: I am a shiksa, so…there you go. Is that just for women?
DTD: It’s only women.
RD: Yeah, then I am a goyim.
DTD: Yeah. A shiksa I think is a slightly worse goyim. It’s a very bad connotation. It’s the horrible, evil woman who stole away the nice Jewish boy. Absolutely.
RD: That was Yiddish, right? It’s not Hebrew?
DTD: Yiddish. Yiddish is a pidgin of Russian and Hebrew and German.
Shikse is in fact yiddish, a feminization of the word sheygets, meaning a non-Jewish boy. The word is a derivation of the Hebrew sheqeṣ meaning blemish.
RD: Russian or German? Polish, Russian, Prussian.
DTD: Both. All of that. Its really fascinating, its got its own script, its got its own letters.
RD: It’s got a very particular sound. Like, if I hear a word I know that’s Yiddish. It doesn’t sound like Russian, German or Hebrew. It sounds like Yiddish.
DTD: Oh, you have been on the East Coast too long.
DTD: If you can recognize the sounds and the words, its an East Coast thing. Its very different on the West Coast.
RD: I have lived on the East Coast, I have lived between Maine and Philadelphia my whole life, mostly Massachusetts, mostly New England.
DTD: I am a coast hopper. I have been all over. And there is so little Jewish culture, Yiddish, or anything like that out here [California]. So, it can be comic at times.
RD: With both of my wives, their grandparents were either New York, like Yonkers, or Philadelphia Jews. And it’s that northern European Jew, the ones that would speak Yiddish. They grew up hearing Yiddish, and they still would pepper it. It has kind of weeded out through the generations.
DTD: Oh yeah, it was all over when I was growing up.
RD: So, but 2 generations I would hear, like, “Oh, I am schwitzy.”
DTD: Yeah, “A Glick ahf dir”.
Kind of “Good for you” in a sarcastic sense.
RD: I can’t pull them off the top of my head, but I will drop them every once in a while, from hearing them from people who have since passed on and stuff.
DTD: That’s very cool. My mother is very, very New York / New Jersey Jewish. And my Dad is as goyim as they get. And she was actually disowned from the family when she married him. Completely cut off.
RD: Never got back in, or just after a while…?
DTD: Well, when he kind of got famous, then all of a sudden they were…
RD: Funny how that works.
DTD: It really, it worked out pretty well. There was one old relative, my great-grandmother, who was 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. She accepted him from day 1, and didn’t care what the rest of the family thought, so she was always right there. For the most part, they were just coming back in when I was a kid, so I had all of this weird influence going on. It had gone a while.
RD: And I very much had been an outsider who had a front row seat through marriage to a couple…culturally Jewish, but not active in the faith?
DTD: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of that.
RD: And there’s a lot of that, so I get to see…
The parade of courses continues, with food, glorious food.
DTD: That’s beautiful.
RD: That’s a perfect amount of serving for me. Thank you.
Waiter: Roasted delicata squash with beech mushrooms, marscapone, daikon pasta sheet rolled up, and pumpkin mole. Over here is a sous vide lamb loin. Underneath that sautéed shallot and spinach, with a lamb jus, kohlrabe puree, black garlic.
RD: I love black garlic.
DTD: I do too. I just found recipes of how to make your own black garlic.
RD: It’s almost like keep it in a toaster over for like a month. Like there’s weird…you ferment it at this low…
DTD: Its usually like a crock pot, or toaster over, or even sous vide. You can sous vide it for a month. But who would do that?
RD: Put it in a grave with a body that’s giving out gasses. So, it’s a perfect temperature.
DTD: [laughs] No, I have definitely talked to people who I think are burying their food out in the right graveyard. So, are you still the legacy dude? Like, phone calls on the answering machine all the time, “I have this idea, can you legacy it?”.
RD: I got one yesterday, an email. I oddly enough don’t have an answering machine.
DTD: I’m old, I don’t say “voice mail.”
RD: Is this red sorrel?
DTD: Yeah, I think so.
Who am I fooling? I don’t really know what red sorrel is. It’s some kind of vegetable.
Research Dept: Red Sorrel, or Rumex acetosella, sour weed, is a perennial herb in the buckwheat family.
RD: A little bit, it’s slowing down.
DTD: Because everybody was suspecting that legacy was going to be the next huge thing, the next deck-building. Every game was going to be legacy. It was slow to come out, and I was attributing it to they’re being ridiculously difficult to develop.
RD: They’re difficult to make, they are difficult to develop. I think a lot of them were started and few were finished. I can tell you that I have seen a diminishing return on each one. The market is…and something needs to change. They need to be shorter.
DTD: Disney sequels.
RD: People don’t want to commit to 15 games at an hour and a half. They want to commit to something less. And I can tell you that for season 3 of Pandemic—the only thing I will spoil is Matt and I recognize that. So, you are more likely to play 12 or 14 games than 16 or 17. We were like, “OK, we need to shorten it.”
DTD: That makes sense. Well I like that, I have seen a lot of the legacy games seem to take the elegance approach, which I’ve seen in all…like in general, in the board game market, is elegance itself. And people are recognizing elegance. Close to home, Machi Koro Legacy has a simple elegance to it, and it’s nice.
RD: It does…didn’t sell as much as I thought.
DTD: And Clank! Legacy is getting rave reviews, and has a nice elegance to it.
RD: Yup. Didn’t sell poorly. But I think it has less than 1000 reviews on BGG. You have to think, Pandemic Legacy Season One, when it came out, came out at Essen. 6 weeks later it had enough ratings and high enough ratings to be #1 on BGG. 6 weeks.
DTD: It really hit like a storm.
RD: It hit like a storm. So, by that definition, everything else is by default going to be less. Betrayal [Legacy] sold well enough; it’s just not tracked on BGG. Its actually sold quite well. And I am ferociously proud of that one.
DTD: I have to tell you, I was leery about Betrayal Legacy, because I played the original Betrayal [at House on the Hill], where you know there was a 3rd floor lake.
One of the upstairs floor tiles in the original Betrayal at House on the Hill was a lake. It’s a bit of a legend in nerd circles.
[Specifically, an underground lake. Upstairs. -Ed.]
RD: You played a first printing. And that was a printing error.
DTD: I know, I know. I just gotta give you crap about it.
RD: Well, I had nothing to do with that.
DTD: I’m going to blame you anyway.
RD: That’s fine. I wrote, in Betrayal Legacy, there’s a card you can get that explains it.
DTD: That’s awesome!
RD: I explained a printing error.
DTD: I love that you brought it up. That’s awesome.
RD: There are so many Easter Eggs in that game.
DTD: So, in Pandemic Legacy, is there an explanation of the missing travel line? From first edition Pandemic?
Early printings of Pandemic were missing a travel line from Lagos to São Paulo.
RD: No. Matt [Leacock] wouldn’t want to address that.
RD: Also, Pandemic has a simple elegance. Betrayal is lacking that. More is more.
DTD: What I was actually going to say is, in Betrayal, the original game was all over. It was fun, but it wasn’t really a game. You didn’t play to win. You didn’t play to progress.
RD: It was a role-playing game.
DTD: It was a role-playing game! And often as not, it was unwinnable. A lot of those stories were just crazy. And you would talk about it, and go, “Well that was kind of nuts, wasn’t it?” But it wasn’t a game anymore.
RD: Well, what I would tell people. And I still tell them when they sit down is, “We are going to play something that looks like a game, but it is a short story generator.”
DTD: That was it.
RD: “And about 50% of the time we are going to get a game that is pretty good, and a story that is pretty good. And about 25% of the time we are going to get a story that is just a complete mess, and heck, we tried. But 25% of the time we are going to get something amazing that we will remember for creating this great story that was just this one in 10,000 chance.” And I said, “I am willing to deal with the crap ones to get the great ones, because most of the time it is fun to at least try and it is over within an hour.”
DTD: And I have played all of the stories in the original Betrayal. Over years.
RD: For someone who sort of poo-poo’ed it, you have played more than I have.
DTD: No, it was a loving poo-poo. It’s my daughter’s favorite game, the original Betrayal. And Widow’s Walk. But I was really leery about how that would translate into a legacy ongoing adventure. It didn’t seem like a natural fit. But now I’m ready—everybody I’ve talked to, everybody I know who’s played it, all the reviews, they are all just raving about it.
RD: I think it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I remember finishing the last edit on the last cell on a spreadsheet after a year and a half of working on it, staying up late, and the meetings, and the cross-country trips out to Seattle. And I finished editing that last cell, and my immediate reaction was, “I am so sad that I cannot keep working on this.”
DTD: That’s great.
RD: Which I’ve never had with any other game. And I don’t know why Betrayal gets under my skin. I’m guessing, because you looked at my ludology, that I worked quite a bit on the original. And that’s the only game that I’ve worked on that I will play.
Next time Rob and I discuss a really good pumpkin mole, and the trials and tribulations of Return to Dark Tower.
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