Gameapalooza Australia interviews game designer Rob Daviau

Rob Daviau has published games since 1998. In that time he’s worked on hundreds of designs, amazingly bringing over 80 titles to completion. Among the many games designed are stand out fan favourites “Heroscape”, “Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit”, and “Betrayal at House on the Hill”. Yet perhaps Rob’s greatest contribution to the hobby has been championing the value and importance of story and player interaction in board games. This passion found fruition in his creation of the Legacy system which first greeted audiences with “Risk Legacy”, and then later in the hugely successful “Pandemic Legacy: Season One”. Now Rob is eager to introduce us to his first Legacy game built from the ground up, “SeaFall”.

“SeaFall” is set in an “age of sail” reminiscent of the European expansion of our own modern period. Like the great European powers you will play as a mainland province who must consult with advisors to explore your surroundings, expand your territory, exploit resources, and exterminate those who would dare stand in your way.

Whereas previous Legacy games were adopting existing intellectual properties, the mechanics and story of “SeaFall” has been crafted together. The reigns have been taken off and we will get a chance to see just what the Legacy system has to offer players. This is truly exciting and at Gameapalooza we can barely wait to experience “SeaFall” at full mast. We reached out to Rob and he very graciously offered us some of his time to share a little about himself and the release of “SeaFall”.

First thigs first, tell us a little about the man behind the designs. You are a food buff and cooking is your hobby. Can you share with us some of your passion, a favourite recipe or place to eat?
I’m not really a recipe guy. About 15 years ago I started studying the techniques behind cooking which led to a better understanding of how recipes were put together. So, these days, I tend to cook with what is available rather than finding a recipe. I’m also a perpetual student so I rarely make the same thing twice. With that said, here are a few tips I give newer cooks:
– Make sure your pan is really the right temperature. Home cooks don’t get pans hot enough.

– Balance dishes with acid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) at the end

– Buy the best ingredients. It all builds from good ingredients

– Learn how to make a pan sauce. NEVER throw/wash away the yummy crust (fond) left in a pan after you sear meat. You did have the pan hot enough to sear, right?

You are also a sports fan. Sports are big in Australia and I am sure people would love to hear about what sports you love and who you follow.
I didn’t get into sports in earnest until my 20s, although my dad was (and is) a big hockey fan, so I grew up with him watching hockey games. In the US, we have four major sports – baseball, (American) football, basketball, and hockey. There is a soccer league but it hasn’t caught on with the general public. Myself, I enjoy baseball and football. I grew up near Boston so the Boston teams are the teams I root for.

When watching sports do you find yourself deconstructing each game like a game designer evaluating audience engagement, rules and player interaction, or are you able to just kick back and relax?
Baseball and football remind me of board games in that there is a start and end to each turn and time to process what happened so it hits the same part of my brain that board games do. I understand why people can find baseball very dull, but it’s fascinating if you get into it. But, overall, I watch them to relax. I watch them very casually, especially football, where I don’t know the deeper strategies and what each of the 11 people on the field are trying to do. I know enough but it’s nice to watch on a more casual level.

Thinking about board games. Can you identify some key games, or moments in gaming, that have shaped the way you think as a designer?
There are no clear moments but there is one game that, in retrospect, shaped everything that came after and that was 1st edition AD&D, which I played feverishly for a few years when I was 11-14 years old. That taught me and inspired me in ways that weren’t really evident until 20-30 years later when I could look back. It showed me about player experiences, about making up rules on the fly, story, narrative, the pace of games, making sure everyone was engaged, tension, drama, etc.

Can you share your breakthrough moment with developing the legacy system and bringing together story and board games in this way?
It’s too long to type but it came from a comment I made while at a “Cluedo” brainstorm, saying how it was strange to bring all these murderers back to dinner time and time again. That was an ah-ha moment that games reset every time even though the people playing are always moving forward in time. Took a few years to go from that moment to “Risk Legacy” coming out.

You love games with story, and the legacy is a great match for that. Legacy adds the dynamic of story impacting rules and mechanism, and in turn game mechanics and rules impacting story. What challenges did you have to overcome, or surprises did you find, when blending game mechanics with a permanently changing story?
I had an enormous amount of challenges (and still do) when working on these big legacy games. How much is too much? When do rules get added? Actually, with “Risk Legacy”, the idea of the sealed packets and the adding of rules came about halfway through the design process. For the first half, I was working only with the idea of permanent change. But, even there, what changes? When does it change? How do you still keep the idea of a single game with a beginning, middle, and end and how do you make sure that winning a game is still important? How much of a story can I tell? How much is in the players’ hands? Each of my first three legacy games (“Risk”, “Pandemic”, “SeaFall”) tackles these questions in slightly different ways.

You worked on BGG’s number one game, “Pandemic Legacy”. What is the story behind you and Matt Leacock coming together to conceive and create Season 1?
Matt and Z-Man were looking forward to new Pandemic ideas and a legacy game was one of them. They reached out to me to gauge interest (which they found to be VERY HIGH) and we set out to see if we could take the ideas from “Risk Legacy” and map them to a radically different gaming system.

Pandemic Legacy by Rob Daviau Number One game on BGGPandemic Legacy – Number one game for a reason. We love it too!

Did you anticipate that Pandemic Legacy would be successful enough to reach number one? Other than its obvious success what are you most proud of with Pandemic Legacy.
We had no idea it would be this well received. It came together rather smoothly (not easily or without a lot of hours), but each step seemed to make sense. We only had a few false paths that we went down. So it felt like a good game but, really, no idea.
The thing I’m most proud of is that some people have gotten really emotional about it from the immersion of being in this world. To get a game to provoke an emotional reaction is a fantastic compliment.

How has collaborating with other designers informed you when creating your games?
In every way you can name. I learn so much from brainstorming, talking, iterating, spitballing, whatever you want to call it. I get more out of 30 minutes with another designer or playtesters than I do from 8 hours alone at my desk. I think, when there are other people interacting with one of my prototypes, I have this sense of pride that wants them to like it. This causes my brain to come up with better solutions than when I’m by myself.

Before moving onto Pandemic Legacy and SeaFall you were working at Hasbro. You speak quite positively about working there, can you briefly discuss your decision to leave and how your time there helped you grow as a designer.
Hasbro was a great way to learn a lot about making games, almost like how people would apprentice and then become journeymen and then masters. I worked on hundreds of games, with over 80 making it to market. I worked with great people and on some amazing game brands. My decision to leave was driven by the company relocating away from my family; I just couldn’t follow it. But, in retrospect, it was time to go anyway. I had an interest to do games that were very different from what Hasbro was then doing and it was becoming more and more of a mismatch of interests.

SeaFall is coming out soon. Can you share what you are most excited about the game and looking forward to people experiencing?
Oh boy, that is a short question that could lead to a long answer. I’m most excited for people to just try the game, to see if all these ideas I had actually work. Of course, that also makes me nervous, but mostly excited. I want to see if the world is compelling, if the story hangs together, how people’s worlds unfold. There’s one part in particular I like, but I can’t get into it….

You have described the game as Indiana Jones in the age of sail. This brings to mind action adventure genre of stories with treasure maps, hunting fortunes, narrow escapes, solving puzzles, and fighting dangerous enemies. Can you share a little about the adventure players will be taking in this game, who they will be playing, and their overall goal verses their game by game goal.
Well, the game is some of that. Action adventure, maps, treasure, escapes,…actually most of that is in there. It’s globe spanning adventure. For an in depth look at the game and all its parts, I recommend going to plaidhatgames.com and reading all the designer articles I’m writing over there.

You have called this a medium heavy game for a more experienced audience. Was this a natural result of the sort of game you were trying to build, or was this part of a personal challenge to design a heavier game?
I think a little of both. I decided to just make the game I wanted to make and see where that landed. It landed very heavy so I pulled it back to medium. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do something a bit more involved. Hopefully this doesn’t deter people away from playing.

People who loved “Pandemic Legacy” or “Risk Legacy” will be interested in “SeaFall”. How do these games compare to each other? Will someone who played Pandemic make a natural transition to “SeaFall”?
“Risk” is aggressive sandbox play with no real cohesive narrative. It’s based on a familiar game, which is not all that complex at the start.
“Pandemic” is more narrative driven, cooperative, and based on an elegant existing game.
“SeaFall” is somewhere between all of those. Competitive but not in the same relentless attacking way of “Risk”. Narrative but not as narratively driven as “Pandemic”. The big difference in “SeaFall” is that each game is about two hours long rather than one hour.

In a game that plays 2-2.5 hours per game over 15 or more sessions, how do you balance the game to ensure one player does not get behind in game 2 and has no hope by game 14?
That took a long time to get right. There are rules in there that help players who are behind but they are not evident when the campaign first starts.

One of the key ideas that brought about “SeaFall” was, “Is there a way to duplicate how much England and France hated each other for a hundred years” but can you take us through the next few steps. What did you did from there to explore this question through “SeaFall”?
It wasn’t a key idea but an idea I found intriguing. What it turned into was the enmity system, which I will be getting into in depth in the designer notes. Basically it is this: each player has eight enmity tokens which are given out when you wrong someone, whether it is another player or the game. When people have your enmity tokens it is harder to continue to wrong them as they are on alert. It is even possible that they will use your enmity to get revenge on you. This made it possible to raid each other without one person mercilessly attacking anyone and everyone all game long.

Seafall by Rob Daviau Legacy Game design Gameapalooza Australia interviewSeafall, we are super excited for this and can’t wait to play it!

“SeaFall” has some clever mechanisms for meeting different player styles. Some have compared it to a Euro, others to American thematic games. How do you view the game and what informed your choices when deciding what mechanism to include?
I included whatever mechanisms sounded fun and fit the story. The end result is a pastiche of Euro and American design. I hate to call it one or the other and it does evolve over time. I hope the results are fun, intuitive, and keep wanting you to play.

If you could add one thing to convince people to check out “SeaFall” what would you like to say?
You won’t find another game like it.

Is there anything you or your publishing company IronWall Games are working on that audiences should look out for?
I’m moving mostly to pure design and less publishing so IronWall Games is unlikely to have any new games coming out soon. I’ve found that I enjoy making games a lot more than the back end of publishing. So, more Rob Daviau and less IronWall Games at this point.

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For years designers were trapped in a myopic trend in board game design. Stories were painted on to hold together mechanics and systems. Slowly this is changing and designers today are stretching our understanding of why and how people game. As a lover of story I have really appreciated designers like Rob who have flipped our world view and shaken up the design process. Through the Legacy system Rob questioned the nature of games as vehicles for story. This provided gamers with a deeper and richer experience of the hobby. Yet I cannot help think that Rob is only beginning his journey. “Seafall” will surely be an important step, but I do not believe that the Legacy system is in final form. I believe we have only started scratching the surface of ways board games, story and players interact. I look with optimism as more people like Rob will continue to question and challenging the way we game.

Thanks to Rob Daviau for being generous with his time and sharing with us. You can now pre order SeaFall at Plaid Hat Games, we doubt you will want to miss this opportunity.