Notes from New Bedford – Part 9: The Theme

Index

It has been a long time since I posted some notes from New Bedford. Not because I’ve had nothing to say. It’s been a busy few months, getting New Bedford closer to publication. Today I wanted to talk about how I chose the overall theme of whaling in the 19th century.

I hated Herman Melville in high school, for no good reason, but it probably stems from 12th grade English class, where we had to read literary analysis comparing literally everything we read to Melville. I use “literally” in the actual sense here. It became a joke to see if the required reading would have Melville mentioned in the analysis, and it always did.

Then I read Moby Dick in my mid 20s, at the recommendation of my wife (who has a degree in English Literature), and it really opened my eyes. I finally understood why you couldn’t discuss American literature without mentioning Melville.

I realized that whaling provided a great framework for a game. It has aspects of luck, and strategy, and production. But I didn’t want the game to be just killing whales, and I like games to grow over time, so I decided it would be about building the whaling town, more than the act of hunting whales.

Nantucket is the obvious choice from reading Moby Dick, but the town did not develop as much as I needed for the game; in fact, the town was in decline by the 1850s, before what is referred to as the “Golden Age of Whaling”. I also wanted to avoid implicit ties to the book. (Plus naming it “Nantucket” would invite poetic mockery. Though since I’m naming the microgame Nantucket, I haven’t really avoided it, have I?) New Bedford, however, was a perfect fit: plenty of development, correct time frame, and possibly stronger associations with the whaling industry.

Originally, the 3 whale tokens were right whales, sperm whales, and ambergris. My thought was that right whales were common and not particularly valuable. Sperm whales were more rare, more difficult to catch, and more valuable due to the spermaceti. Ambergris was and is an amazingly rare substance produced by whales that was incredibly valuable.

Unfortunately ambergris doesn’t really fit as a “whale” token, since it’s technically not a whale. I can’t decide whether it is fun to say or awkward to say. I was considering bowhead whales as a possible expansion, and realized it was better if I rearranged the existing tokens. Bowhead whales are larger and provide more oil than right whales. Sperm whales provide about the same amount of oil, but are still harder to catch (being more violent) and the spermaceti makes them even more valuable, so sperm whales became the rare catch.

Whale tokens always cost $2 per point, which was originally chosen to work well with the rest of the game mechanics, but by happy accident, it worked out that the dollar amount of the whales on a ship originally scales fairly well to the amounts earned by real whaling ships, if each $1 actually represents $10,000. This became less thematic as the mechanic changed from earning money to paying money for whales. Fortunately, this was saved by introducing the concept of the lay, the portion paid to each sailor based on the ships total income. Thus, using money to pay for whales represents paying the sailors their due, while the points represent the actual earnings of the ship. Unfortunately, selling the whales for extra money has only a tenuous relationship to theme when considered in those terms. But I guess selling more oil from a whale to cover costs is still somewhat thematic.

The theme also suffers a bit from earning money in the town to pay for whales, instead of having the whales earn the money, but it fits with the overall metaphor of the game as building the town. As more whales return, the town continues to grow, so you prepare for returning the whales by producing the resources needed to grow the town. Many of the ship owners earned their money in other industries before trying their hands at whaling, so it makes sense to maintain that relationship between industry and whaling.

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