Review: Moby Dick, or The Card Game

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

I first learned about this game when the Kickstarter launched, the day after I showed my first New Bedford prototype at Unpub: South Jersey. I thought to myself, “What are the odds that two 1850s whaling games would make a public debut at the same time?” So I backed the project, and anxiously awaited delivery of this other whaling game. I backed primarily because of the theme, and the final product definitely delivers in that category. However, in the game category, I was disappointed. Here’s why.

What You Get

  • 107 cards in 3 decks: Sailors, Sea, and Whale, including a few utility cards, like the hunt status card, and Measure to track first player.
  • 40 Whale tokens
  • 2 custom dice
  • A rulebook
  • A sturdy game boximage

The components are amazing. The cards are premium linen paper with a beautiful finish. The game box itself is nice thick cardboard with a terrific texture. The custom dice are clever and nice in “ivory”, although slightly difficult to use. The art is incredible, from the minimalist design of the cover art and card backs, to the whale drawings, and all of the historical character and event sketches. Each sailor card is a unique character. Each card also has a quote from the novel. Overall, the thematic design of the game just works to bring you into the game, best represented by the nearly pure white cards that represent Moby Dick. Clearly a tremendous amount of effort was put into making the game look nice. In the demo videos, the designers (who are also the publishers) make a point of saying that the cards they are using do not represent the final product, and I can see why. The final version should be a new standard by which other games measure components.

What You Do

Start by shuffling the decks separately. One player starts with Ishmael, and players draw until they have sailors. At the start of a turn, the active player can add sailors. If he has one or two sailors, he can draw one for free from the sailor deck, if he has none, he may draw two. Then the player can hire more from the sailor deck by paying oil, either from the deck or rescuing discarded sailors. Discarding to 7 if you have more. Next the player reveals an event card from the Sea deck, which could be negative or positive events, ports, Chapter cards, or whales.

Normal events are resolved usually by losing a sailor or rolling to see of a sailor is lost. Ports typically add a sailor or two. Chapter cards have varying effects that last until the next chapter is pulled and extra goals that earn oil if you can meet the conditions during the chapter. Whales show a strength, a reward, and a sailor limit, when one is pulled, the whale hunt starts. Moby Dick cards (the enigmatic pure white cards) move the game along to the next chapter immediately, unless an agreed upon number of chapters has been completed, in which case the final hunt starts.

“Be careful in the hunt, ye mates.”

For a whale hunt, the active player takes Ahab. The players then alternate drawing whale cards and trying to strike the whale. The whale cards are varying degrees of bad events, ranging from losing a turn, to losing all sailors on your boat. After resolving an the whale card, add up the strength of sailors on your boat, and add the result of rolling the 2 dice. If you meet or exceed the strength of the whale, you strike. As a bonus, double 1s always strikes, and Harpooneers strike on any double. Strike once to become “fast” to the whale, gaining a strength bonus of 1, and making the whalie cards riskier. Strike while fast to kill the whale, getting an oil bonus and earning all players a share. Lose all sailors, or choose to “retreat” and you are out of the hunt (but still collect oil on a successful kill).

The final hunt for Moby Dick works almost the same way, except instead of trying to kill the whale, players are simply trying to be the last player surviving and claim victory.

What I Liked

The design of the game is fantastic. The game truly reflects the amount of work put in to make almost every element thematically relevant. I’ll reiterate that the components should be the new standard. The artwork is great, and the cards are all interesting. It does a great job of translating the book into a different medium, and if you put a premium on theme, you will enjoy taking your time and reading all of the novel quotes added to the cards. The game does a good job of capturing some of the themes from the book, and I would say it rises to the level of a piece of art.

What I Disliked

But art is not necessarily fun, and the game aspect has some problems. The rule book is a fun read, but does not do a sufficient job of explaining how things work. It is an introduction to the game without the complete story. And some rules are confusingly worded because the rule book sacrifices clarity for theme. Like Elijah the prophet, the lack of rule explanation should be an omen of what is to come in the game.

The designers came up with several clever mechanics, and if you watch the rules explanation videos, each part of the game works well. But less thought seems to have been given to actually forming them into a real game. The game has two stable modes. One mode is a cycle of killing whales to get oil, paying oil to hire more sailors, and using the sailors to continue killing whales. The other, more stable, mode is not having oil, not being able to hire sailors, losing sailors due to whale attacks, and not being able to kill whales to get more oil. This is a vicious circle that often leaves the player following the card instructions without making choices.

The problem is that the player starts in the second mode, and is completely dependent on luck to reach the more interesting mode. And luck can immediately take you out of the first mode and into the choiceless second mode, in addition to the game actively trying to return you to the second mode. A lot of the “choices” you do get to make feel less meaningful than they should. Drawing sailors from the deck is random. Because of the cost structure and whaling mechanics, randomly drawing multiple sailors is more useful than “saving” a discarded sailor. Due to the variety of whale cards, you can’t plan for abilities, so selection, use, and loss of sailors is almost entirely luck. Whale strength and sailor limits make killing a whale luck based.

“Those things had gone far to shake the fortitude of many brave hunters, to whom the story of the White Whale had eventually come.”

The interaction is also problematic. As in most “semi-cooperative” games, conflict is a much more powerful tool than cooperation. The conflict added by bribing is purely negative and strongly favors those doing well already, in a “rich get richer” scheme. I do not see much use for trading sailors, but because whaling is so luck-based, I don’t see it playing a substantial role in the game.

The conflict brings up another point, that for a book so much about being part of a unified, well-oiled, whole (pun intended), the negative conflict feels tacked on and unthematic. It is very limited, and players can effectively play ignoring the other player. The only reason the game cannot be played solo is that the victory condition is being the last one in the game. This victory condition might be thematic, representing the lone surviving Ishmael at the end of the book, but makes it effectively independent of the rest of the game.

Conclusions

I felt that this game really captured the feel of the book. In the thematic sense, but also in the interactive sense, giving you no choice but to keep playing, seeing what unknown events will occur until the final inevitable conclusion, rather than being a game where your choices influence the outcomes. Many of the apparent “choices” are just that: apparent. Players start the game with no ability to make choices, and only through luck do they gain that ability. Randomly choose a crew, then randomly select a winner. In so much of the game, I found myself following instructions, and never making a choice.

“Bad work, bad work! Mr. Starbuck,” said Stubb, regarding the wreck, “but the sea will have its way.”

Moby Dick is definitely an American style game that is steeped in theme.There are several interesting mechanics at work to represent different aspects of whaling, but they do not work well with each other. Perhaps that is why the official description calls it a simulation more than a game. It simulates the difficulty of whaling life. Thematically, I wish more had been done with the overarching themes and metaphors of the novel of America as a ship, the meaning of religion, and the character studies.

I think there are some simple changes that could be made to turn this into a more strategic experience by adding more decision points. As others have recommended, starting with oil provides some choice early on. Decreasing the cost of drawing a random sailor gives a player more options and selection. Giving players 10 barrels even when the whale isn’t killed, works towards adding a real economy into the game.

For whaling, I’d like to have the option of becoming fast or not. Giving players the option to work together for lower payout adds another option while decreasing the randomness, and contributing to the theme. The whale oil could also work like hit points, where one is removed for each hit, lowering the strength and the payout. This adds a balance of waiting versus going for the kill. To decrease randomness in the Sea deck, opt for a Pandemic-like setup, shuffling the desired number into portions of the deck to spread them out.

“These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Moby Dick, or The Card Game seems made to sit around and play while drinking. (Alcohol is listed as an “optional” component in the rule book.) You can geek out with your literary friends about all the references backed into the cards. And it accomplishes that, beautifully. I love good literature, especially Moby Dick, but I would not get this out and play it as a game. The designers have called it intentionally bleak and brutal, which is great for the theme, but not good for gameplay. While I’m happy that I bought it, I don’t expect to play this again. It will look great sitting on my shelf.

“Good-bye and good luck to ye all.”

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