There’s a certain school of design that’s all about more; more sub-systems, more mechanisms, more chrome. The only thing these games tend to feature less of is development time. Forgotten Waters is the rarest of albatross. It is crammed full of doodads for players to fiddle with and experience - nearly too many to list - yet it hangs together remarkably well. Against all odds, this game delivers an extraordinary experience that stands out among a deluge of releases.
Each player takes on the role of a pirate. Not a dark and gritty scallywag but a bright and cheerful ruffian with a wink of humour - it’s more Muppet Treasure Island than Black Sails. You’re given a unique character sheet which is folded into a booklet of sorts, not unlike those wonderful props in the spectacular roleplaying game Apocalypse World. These set that cheeky tone early and reinforce it throughout. You will laugh when you come across the Skeleton Pirate, a sailor struggling with their existence who may be destined for stand-up comedy as opposed to a deckhand. Or perhaps you’d prefer The Seeker, in which my last adventure featured the swallowing of a live miniature giraffe.
However, your adventure begins in silence, with players scribbling notes as you detail your name as well as several narrative prompts. Just like the classic activity Mad Libs, you will be asked to fill in several blank words; things like ‘a funny name’ or ‘an ugly color’. These will be used later in paragraphs detailing your personal story arc, but for now you just crack a smile and proceed.
The humour is more Muppet Treasure Island than Black Sails.
Immediately Forgotten Waters has embedded its (pirate) hook. You’re already invested as you put pencil to paper and give your character life. There’s even a personal constellation emblazoned on the front of your booklet, gloriously displayed like a sacred tattoo upon leathered skin.
In a moment of communal synergy - or perhaps childish humour - you give your creaking wooden ship a name. Now you belong to something greater.
You have duties on that ship. You are given a role; this mostly involves resource monitoring and moving tokens along a track. The Quartermaster keeps an eye on character infamy, which is a piratey word for initiative and action order. The First Mate measures the crew size and discontent, the latter of which represents the simmering anger of the gang and can result in outright mutiny if it ever escalates above the size of the crew. There is such a role for each player and this provides an opportunity for varying responsibilities across multiple plays. Mechanically this is all simple stuff and logical.
Your ship sails across an ocean segmented into hexes and interacts with weather, islands and other craft. There is a genuine sense of mystery as each space you traverse involves drawing a random token from a pile. While the game is scenario-based with pre-scripted story beats, this randomisation ensures replaying a particular adventure results in a mix of new encounters. That doesn’t mean a particular scenario won’t grow rote after two or three plays, because it absolutely does, but it enhances the sense of discovery and breathes some fresh life into repetition.
So your lot moves into a new space on the board and it’s a little island with a number. Everything in this game has a number. You take that digit and punch it into the Forgotten Waters companion app. Yes, Luddites must walk the plank and ignore this game entirely if that’s a dealbreaker as this electronic aspect is required.
The randomisation enhances the sense of discovery and breathes some fresh life into repetition.
Thankfully the web portion of play is unobtrusive. It reads you story bits phrased with excellent voice acting. The world comes alive with each chapter and, again, that Muppet Treasure Island style of humour abounds.
We’ve landed upon a mysterious archipelago. We’re given a generous introduction of a mysterious village as eyes peer out from the depths of the surrounding jungle. Now we take to the storybook.
This spiral-bound tome boasts numerous pages, each depicting a location at sea or land. The left page will be a very attractive piece of artwork to set the tone and the right will be the nuts and bolts of the thing. This is always a number of action spaces that your crew can individually go to and activate.
Let’s look at this mystery village we’re visiting. One space represents investigating the watchful eyes in the treeline. You place your attractive pirate standee on this space while another crew member wants to investigate the sunken hut, another option. After everyone is set you work your way down the action list and resolve each entry. Luckily for you, the creepy eyeballs in the shadows end up being peaceful fauna, bright little lizards, and you manage to catch one adding to the group’s resources. Hopefully the things are tasty.
Sometimes you will acquire new skills, checking off another box on your character sheet and growing in strength. These are used in the game’s dice-based test system, where you roll a 12-sider and add your stat. Or maybe the resolution of the action space triggers a narrative event in the app which progresses the scenario.
It’s a worker-placement system at its core, but this is well obfuscated by the game’s knack for immersive storytelling.
And that’s really what Forgotten Waters is: immersive storytelling. There are so many disparate parts that seemingly are in conflict. You move from board to storybook to your character sheet. You level up skills and shade stars in your personal constellation, and then plug those Mad Libs into your ongoing tale. By sheer explanation it sounds disjointed - as if none of it should work. But it does. Oh, it does.
This game is magical.
This game is magical. It’s layered in a way that feels seamless. While the application-enhanced portion of play is clearly influenced by Fantasy Flight’s second edition of Mansions of Madness, this is far more hands-off. It allows you to focus on the table and those you share it with. The story, not the vehicle, takes centre stage.
What’s further interesting is that while there is a scripted tale based on individual scenarios, there is also a great deal of emergent narrative. This is possible because most of the content you experience is randomised as opposed to orchestrated. One play may be riddled with surprisingly exciting ship combat, while another may feature vile sea creatures or even mostly peaceful waters. All of this draws you in with minimal complexity as every sub-system fits just so into the greater whole.
This is one of those pieces of art that could not exist without others paving the way. Each little piece draws from a predecessor, including the Crossroad events from Dead of Winter and storybook exploration from Stuffed Fables, to form this very refined and stylish vision.
But like most boundary-pushing expression, it’s imperfect. The heavy reliance on content means your time with Forgotten Waters is limited. The five scenarios in the box each take roughly two sessions spanning from 90 minutes to two hours, and they will likely stand up to a couple of plays a piece. After that you’re simply left with this wonderful epitaph to time spent with loved ones.
There is hope. The game’s first DLC expansion was released just days ago. In addition to an all-new scenario it includes over 100 story scripts spread across the five existing scenarios. This means they will be freshened up a bit and offer new surprises. This is great news.
There is very little else to criticise about this game beyond content limitations. There are of course inherent problems some may have with the format - requiring an electronic device and quite a bit of component management. The design is also very procedural, following prescribed steps for each phase of the game. That’s something that usually hampers my enjoyment but the problem is completely sidestepped here due to the wonderful writing punctuated throughout. This isn’t a design that puts a lot of legwork upfront, requiring you struggle through the doldrums to pick out the sweetest moments. No, this thing keeps poking the creative parts of your brain and never lets go.
Forgotten Waters is not only a great board game, it’s possibly the best tabletop release of 2020. It hasn’t quite flown under the radar, but in this day and age even the brightest stars sometimes get overlooked due to the sheer volume of new releases. Despite the gnashing of teeth and natural cries to keep tech out of cardboard, this work highlights the pinnacle of such synthesis.