Notes from New Bedford: Part 13 – Logging the Ship’s Log

Index

While working on New Bedford, there were a lot more aspects to the history that I wanted to include through expansions. One particular question I was asked several times during development was “Where is the White Whale?” Moby Dick is so closely associated with whaling in popular culture that it becomes somewhat conspicuous in its absence. I wrote in the last part that I wanted to keep the separation between the book and the game, but of course I couldn’t completely ignore it, either. So a “White Whale” expansion was one of the first expansions I tried to develop.

One of the central ideas  in developing that expansion was that the white whale be worth extra points with no cost. This mirrors Moby Dick’s literary role as being worth a great deal personally, but having no true monetary value. The price instead is the destruction of the ship that catches it. The challenge was timing. If the white whale it comes out too early, you lose the tension it should add. But you also want to make sure you see it during a game. I tried using empty sea tokens to partially control the timing, but you could always plan for it. Drawing more literary inspiration, I also tried adding a coffin that would save your ship, but the balance between cost and value always leaned towards sending out a sacrificial ship. This was a sign of a bigger problem: that you could always work the system to your advantage. There could not, obviously, be more than one White Whale, for thematic reasons, so I was forced to set the concept aside. Finding a way to balance that with the mechanics in the game was my personal white whale.

The next thematic element I wanted to add as an expansion was scrimshaw, the art of bone carving. I saw it as a thematic balancing mechanism, where you could collect scrimshaw when you weren’t able to catch a whale, reflecting the practice as a way to pass the time at sea. It definitely felt tacked on, like a bonus for doing badly, and proved to be unbalanced in the 2-player game. And I don’t want to include it if I couldn’t add it to all games.

I drew from history for a third expansion idea. In 1871, the already declining whaling fleet suffered a great setback when a large percentage of the ships were trapped in Ice in the Bering Sea. I thought this was a great opportunity to add more interactivity between players, by including ice effects that players could use on each other. Though I normally stay away from negative interaction, I thought it was a nice thematic fit with the brutal harsh winter. But it remained an undeveloped idea.

Many playtesters suggested adding weather and other events at sea, like winds that push you out, storms that pull you in. My fourth expansion idea included those and various other ideas adapted from the pages of Moby Dick. I wanted it to be tightly integrated with the game mechanics, and I started out by replacing the empty sea tiles with event tiles, and you would have to actually pick the event tiles like whales. Now players have to balance choosing an event token instead of a whale. This also has better balance, because players decide the value of the events, and it gives more opportunities to players choosing tokens later in round.

This fourth concept also gave a place to fit in the other mini-expansions. By making the White Whale just one of many things that might or might not happen on a voyage, I no longer had to worry about balancing its timing or ensuring that it turned up. All the ideas that didn’t warrant their own identity suddenly had a place. I could include all the references I wanted without needing to develop a completely new mechanic.

It turned out that having all the extra tokens was really a pain, because they relied on confusing iconography. Events were also too random. While I didn’t simply want to turn this into an “Event Deck”, like so many other games seem to do, it made thematic sense as pages from the Ship’s Log. The next challenge was figuring out how to reveal the events. One event a round was too random and slow. I tried the conveyor belt, with one old one and one new one, so you had some time to choose. But finally I settled on revealing two at the beginning of the round. That gave players an opportunity to go out to sea and jockey for position based on the events.

I quickly discovered that even though the Ship’s Log cards included both positive and negative events, they biased the game in favor of whaling. So I broke the events into two groups. Providence, the good events, and Ill Winds, the bad ones. Each round, one beneficial card would be available to choose, while a negative event affected everyone, usually whaling related to balance out the positives. While fairly well balanced, it turns out to be less interesting when the negative events occur without any decisions. So now I’m back closer to where I started, with all almost all of the cards having immediate effects. Ill Winds have also changed to Omens, which is more fitting since you get a hint of something bad which may or may not happen.

A few new buildings come into play with the Ships Log. First, the most obvious is the Newspaper, a bonus building which that gives points from Ship’s Log cards of any type. I needed a building to let players who focus on building take advantage (or disadvantage) of the Ship’s Log, and chose the Library, as a nod to both the Historical Society Library and a reference to Moby Dick as a novel. Finally, an Insurance Co. is available so players can steer the deck a bit in their favor.

The Ship’s Log lets players tweak the game to their interest a little. It gives players more to do with the whaling track. It adds a little conflict for players who love to mess with each others’ plans. And it adds a few more decisions to the whale selection. With the whales, taking the most valuable whale is almost automatic. And while some of the cards are generally useful, others are fairly situational, requiring players to weigh that value during the selection process.

Next Part

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