When faced with the choice of spilling my pirate captain's blood over an altar in order to gain supernatural powers over the dead, or looting the shrine for mere gold, I'm taking the blood path every time. For the cost of a temporary wound, I'm rewarded with powerful relics that render me immune to the skeletal conquistadors rapidly spawning around the archipelago amidst the gold-burying, relic-hunting, port-raiding pirate adventure board game Sea of Legends.
Sea of Legends is a free-roaming, storytelling board game coming to Kickstarter on May 5th that mixes Merchants and Marauders with Pirates of the Caribbean. It's the debut tabletop game from Guildhall Studios, which is made up of former developers, writers and designers from Tsuro board game publisher Calliope Games and video game developer Harebrained Schemes. The team includes Jordan Weisman, designer of seminal sci-fi tabletop RPG Shadowrun and classic mech miniatures wargame BattleTech.
Guildhall Studios is ambitiously combining multiple genres and tabletop gaming elements for Sea of Legends, including dozens of miniatures, dice-based combat and a storytelling mobile companion app.
I pitched a Kickstarter game with tons of minis, and it's now about three times that size.
"We wanted to do something narrative-driven that made you feel like a pirate, roaming around the Caribbean and having swashbuckling adventures," says creative director Ryan Schapels.
"Originally Sea of Legends was a smaller game, but my dad [Jordan Weisman] likes to keep making things bigger," adds lead designer Zach Weisman. "I pitched a Kickstarter game with tons of minis, and it's now about three times that size."
Sea of Legends is designed for two to four pirate captains, each with a ship and crew, along with their own lover and rival. The lovers and rivals have their own special abilities (or penalties) that are unlocked (or removed) by visiting certain locations around the Caribbean and pursuing their multi-threaded quests.
The goal is to be the first pirate to amass 10 points of notoriety, which can be earned by burying gold at hideouts, hunting down relics from tavern rumours - as well as stealing them from your fellow pirates - upgrading your ship, raiding ports and completing any of the storylines tied to your three main characters.
Sea of Legends isn't the first board game to incorporate a storytelling element, but instead of a spiral storybook and a page number, it uses a companion app running on a phone or tablet. (We were playing an early build using the developer debug code.)
"I love narrative games like Above and Below, but where it fell short for me was that each story was independent," says Zach Weisman. "They don't build on each other. That's where the [Sea of Legends] app comes in. Each story arc has three events that build off each other."
When starting a new game, every player enters their captain, lover and rival into the app. The app uses that information to pull from several different pre-crafted storylines, with each story interweaving different characters in play, and offering different choices during each event.
It's possible to win without delving into a single storyline by prioritising tavern rumours, stealing relics and defeating the NPCs that roam the Caribbean.
In one game with the pre-production prototype, my rival Olivia the Royal Assassin was the cousin of my opponent's lover Clara the Smith. Clara's storyline centred on eliminating Olivia's bounty. Completing Clara's arc had the side effect of increasing my rival's level, unlocking more of Olivia's debilitating effects. That motivated me to tackle my rival objectives to remove them and earn some nice riches along the way.
The well-written story app is my favourite component in Sea of Legends, but it's not the only path to victory. It's possible to win without delving into a single storyline by prioritising tavern rumours, stealing relics and defeating the many non-player characters that roam the Caribbean. Multiple NPC factions will be available in the final game. The preview build features two of them: the undead conquistadors known as the Dread Tide and the monstrous merfolk of the Children of Tlaloc. A third neutral faction, represented by Spanish Galleons, is always available to harass pirates just trying to make a dishonest living.
Even in the non-final build, the minis, like the card artwork, are absolutely gorgeous, especially the towering bosses of each faction, like the Skeletal Colossus and Cthulhu-like Sipakna. It's easy to see that this is much of the same design team behind miniatures wargame Golem Arcana. The NPCs in Sea of Legends have their own movement rules and agendas, and it's entirely possible for any of them to win if left undisturbed, leading to interesting situations where rival pirates may need to work together to defeat these looming threats.
I found the NPCs to be a bit too intrusive during my preview play of Sea of Legends. Although rival pirate captains can spend an entire game avoiding each other and simply racing for notoriety, the NPCs represent a major take-that element in how the players interact, as they take turns moving them around the map and use them to block and harass their opponents, while still following each faction's scripted movement rules. Although most of the rules and gameplay in Sea of Legends were intuitive and easy to pick up, the NPCs were the part most desperately in need of more detailed rules, balancing and fine-tuning to make sure they add rather than detract from the overall experience.
With so many moving parts, Sea of Legends could sink under its own lofty ambitions, yet I came away impressed with its high-quality production and immersive gameplay. If Guildhall Studios can pull it off, Sea of Legends has all the piratical pieces to create a memorable and highly thematic swashbuckling adventure.
Sea of Legends will launch on Kickstarter on May 5th.