Sea of Thieves

Game Overview | Sea of Thieves Designer Diaries #2 with Sherwin Matthews

Welcome Back Shipmates

Last time we sat down at the campfire with a bottle of grog, and I discussed how we go about the building blocks for games, with a little bit of an insight to what this process meant for Sea of Thieves. Today I’d like to continue that, and talk about our early ideas for the game, and how we iterated on that until we had the direction Sea of Thieves™: Voyage of Legends.

So… open world games, eh? (perhaps in this case it should be open seas?)

These are always an interesting and challenging prospect, and I love them for it. To date, I’ve designed three of them, and each has needed to be carefully balanced to ensure that it retains a sense of matching the world it’s set in, and also doesn’t fall down in a heap mechanically for some reason. 

For Sea of Thieves™: Voyage of Legends, I wanted to explore a more conventional approach than some of our previous entries.

Remember I mentioned 4X games last time out? Well, in tabletop land the most conventional way of doing this is a 4X game. It’s a genre board games borrowed from video games, and stands for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.

Now, that all sounds very draconian, so let’s make that slightly more friendly, with a little nautical context. 

Exploration is your ship heading out onto the high seas. Expand is improving that ship—with special ammunition, special crew, or even upgrading to a bigger ship. Exploit is discovering treasure and resources, either floating on the tide or on islands—and then trading that for gold or reputation. And finally, exterminate… that’s you, fighting your rivals, skeletons, and sea monsters.

Sound similar to anything?

Now, before I go any further, I should probably address the second part of my previous definition—4XLite—because that part is very important. Just like their video game 4X counterparts, tabletop 4X games are big, with a ton of setup and complexity. 

This wasn’t a direction that we felt was the right one for Sea of Thieves™: Voyage of Legends

For starters, as I’ve mentioned before, for a lot of people, this would be their first time looking at a contemporary board game and an introduction to a world far larger than the games they play with the family at Christmas. And 4X games are complex beasts, with a lot of rules and moving parts—definitely not what I’d recommend for newcomers to our hobby.

Next up, they take a long while to play. For the reasons outlined above that’s not ideal; plus, by nature 4X games tend to be laborious experiences, building large empires or engines, and slowly building towards a climatic end-state. Mat (Hart, Steamforged Games' creative director) and I both agreed that we’d much rather players were in the thick of it immediately, and would be throughout the game. 

We wanted a fast paced, punchy experience, that was evocative of the excitement and experience of playing the video game. Besides, Sea of Thieves™ fans already have an amazing game they can sink hours into with their friends. 

So, with that in mind, we set out to create a game that borrowed the best parts of the 4X genre to create an open world feel, but also streamline the experience to feel more characterful of the world we were setting sail for.

Gameplay and Goals

I’ve already hinted at one of the biggest traps that most games in this genre fall into—players not interacting, and turtling up in their corner. Even ignoring the pacing implications for a moment, this felt immediately wrong in a game that wanted to encourage going out to explore the world.

Plus, it really doesn’t fit with the video game, where nowhere is safe.

So, we started everyone out in the same place, and turned their ships into their bases. There are no base camps or methods for marking territory, and the game encourages you to go out and discover what’s awaiting you. 

Gameplay takes place on a set of tiles, which surround a central outpost island. Most of the tiles are water, of course, but also on the horizon lie islands, which include treasure and loot tokens (as well as dangerous undead guardians…). Plundering these precious resources will provide valuable commodities to take back to the outpost where you can trade them for gold, or with one of the trading companies to complete commissions.  

Earning gold allows you to upgrade to larger ships with more crew, that are better able to take on the dangers out there. It also allows you to hire special crew that will significantly improve the ship’s performance on the seas. And, of course, you can spend gold to purchase voyage cards that allow you to become emissaries for one of the trading companies and complete even more commissions.

The goal of the game is to earn enough reputation to become a pirate legend. As you might have guessed, you’ll earn that via a wide variety of tasks and objectives, some which are listed above, others which I’m yet to mention. 

There’s no one course to plot to win the game, so you’ll need to carefully watch your rivals at all times while you build towards your own inevitable victory.

Of course, you won’t be safe while this happens. At any time  on your travels, you could be beset by a skeleton ship or a sea monster, or even one of your rivals that has sneakily been watching your ship take on cargo.

The risk of being attacked is very real, and if you are, you’ll face a choice. Will you want to fight your way clear, the crew manning the cannons and preparing for boarding actions?  Perhaps you’ll choose to flee instead, the crew climbing the mast to set sail. Either way, your scurvy band of pirates will have bailing out in their future.

And if the worst happens, and your ship is sunk? Well, that’s not the end of the world. The wrecked craft will eventually wash up on an island where you can repair it and set sail once more. If you’re lucky, you might even find your cargo still floating on the tide…

Keep Your Eye Out For The Next Update

That brief overview is all for now, shipmates, but don’t worry. I’ll be back to go into further detail for all of what I’ve just mentioned in the coming weeks.

Come and chat with Sherwin and the rest of the SFG team in the comments below, and on the SFG Discord servers here.