Moby Dick or, The Card Game

Moby Dick, or, The Card GameBack in 2005 Reiner Knizia and Kosmos published Beowulf: The Legend, which was a turning point for me in my appreciation of what games can aspire to do. The game represented a legitimate artistic interpretation of the source material (as did Knizia’s previous Lord of the Rings, although in a slightly less striking manner). For the most part, game adaptations of books or other media tend to be what I think of as “touchstone” games, games which serve up visual, textual, or other tidbits from the source but don’t have much of their own creative impetus behind them – Arkham Horror and The Virgin Queen are classic examples. Nothing wrong with this approach in theory, and those games can be enjoyable, but to me they’re limited and uninteresting. Beowulf managed to have it all: a terrific and engaging game which also channels the idea of one-upmanship and show-offy competition that is ever-present in the story (among other things). Likewise, in Lord of the Rings, Knizia manages to get at the themes of persistence and sacrifice. These games are unusual not only because they succeeded so well, but also just because they made a serious attempt. Moby Dick or, The Card Game intrigued me because it also seemed to be trying to make a serious, artistic attempt to adapt a classic (and out-of-copyright) work to the game format.

The first thing to understand about Moby Dick or, The Card Game is that its foundations are much more towards the “popular game” end of the game spectrum (where mechanical familiarity is key – think Munchkin or Ticket to Ride), not the classical hobby games we all love (where the game’s form is essential – in the extreme, think almost anything by Stefan Feld). So it resembles a melding, rummy-type game: you are trying to assemble a tableau of whaling crew that is capable of hanging on and dying last when confronted by the great whale.* For this we need a good mix of crew skills – harpooner, shipkeepers, forecastlepersons, and so on – most of whom have abilities that involve negating the various hazards of hunting whales (except for the few who are cursed, who add a nice little bit of drama to drawing from the deck). To build your crew, you just draw blind from the crew deck or pick up from the discard pile. From time to time you can bribe a crew away from an opponent’s tableau. The currency for doing all these things is whale oil, which you can get from successful hunts and which you never have enough of. After having tried to optimize your crew, you then draw a card from The Sea deck and deal with whatever it throws at you. If that’s a whale, you move to The Hunt deck, with a similar process – draw a card, see if it kills you or if your crew can negate it, then throw dice to try to kill the whale.

The Sea deck, with events drawn from the book, is nicely-drawn. Chapter cards are drawn directly from chapters in the novel, and have some representational and lasting effect (in chapter 113, The Forge, Ahab gets +2 strength and gains the Harpooner ability, but whales also get +1 strength). Others are one-off events, some good and many bad, all with nice drawings and text from the book. Other than sightings of the White Whale, which serve as a countdown clock to the final confrontation, there is no sequencing or flow – cards are just drawn randomly off the deck. Often this approach doesn’t work for me (see Arkham Horror, Betrayal at the House on Hill, Battlestar Galactica) because it just ends up feeling incoherent. With Moby Dick or, the Card Game I think it works though. The cards are focussed, grounded in the original story, and are strongly positive or negative in effect. Because the game doesn’t have that many levers to pull (mainly adding or killing crew, or giving or taking away whale oil) you don’t get crazy effects that just feel random, weird, and possibly irrelevant. Because the events are so focussed primarily on crew survival, for me each pull from the event deck manages to generate that anticipation and fear that you like to have to make the game work. Card pulls that don’t move the game forward in some way seem to be rare, although it is somewhat vulnerable to odd distributions like long uninterrupted runs of chapter cards.

The Whale deck, which covers the hunt and is almost a mini-game unto itself, is similarly nicely-drawn. Players lower their crew into the boats to try to hunt the whale once sighted, harpooning him and then getting close enough to kill him before he kills you with his tail, bite, charge, ancient wisdom, and so on. Crew skill allows you avoid hazards, but getting close to the whale (i.e., successfully harpooning him) makes you more vulnerable just before the kill. There is a small but clever push-your-luck element as several hazards will give you the choice between disengaging or pressing on but losing crew. Being the player who strikes the killing blow has significant bonuses, especially if you are the last one standing when the deed is done. Being on a successful hunt gives you whale oil and a significant advantage in getting more crew – and again, you win the game by being the last one to have surviving crew.

Given that Moby Dick or, the Card Game is at its core a “draw a card, read the text” game, King Post and Andy Kopas have done as much with the form as you could want or expect. The physical design of the game, from the cards to the dice and chips, is tremendous. Illustrations are authentic period and evocative, flavor text is on-point and drawn from the books, and the game effects of events are fairly reliably interesting. While some percentage of the game is to experience the setting, you do regularly make choices which do matter.

Still, if you’re a gaming hobbyist Moby Dick or, The Card Game is not going to do it for you by dint of its compelling gameplay alone. Unlike Beowulf: The Legend or Lord of the Rings, a mechanics-first approach to appreciating the game is not going to be the easy way. For example, if you look at it in isolation the game appears to be primarily about building up a competent set of crew that can handle the vagaries of the sea and killing whales. So why have players primarily draw crew blind from the deck? Why not have a drafting or bidding mechanic that might give them more of a sense of engagement? The answer, of course, is that the book isn’t about the best strategies for recruiting whaling crew. I’m far from a Moby Dick expert, but I can say with some confidence that interviewing techniques are not a theme.  What are the themes of Moby Dick, then? Given my non-expert status I asked the internet, and it turns out it’s a bit complicated. It is, after all, a rather long and ambitious book, and a game could no more capture the entirety of it than you could cram all of Les Misérables into a stage musical. But two clear themes the game focuses on are ideas of man vs. nature and fate vs. free will, which I think are good choices. Fate vs. free will is virtually built in to this particular game format, and nicely calibrating the choices the game gives you gives it life. The idea of man vs. nature is well-developed by defining the crew in terms of what characteristics of the whales they fight they can counter. The whales themselves are given a nice mix of both wild (charge, battering ram, bite) and personified (Ancient Wisdom and Unflagging Spirit) abilities. The deathmatch whale hunts can be bloody affairs. Crew members are simultaneously valuable and expendable, with crew death at the hands of the whales and the sea being frequent and often capricious. **

I quite enjoyed Moby Dick or, The Card Game. Unlike Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, or Pax Porfiriana the core game is not so compelling on its own that it can potentially succeed even if you have no interest in what the game is trying to say or what the meaning of Moby Dick is. When you look at the total package, though – as a game inspired by and trying to bring to life a classic American novel – there is quite a lot to like, and its grounding in a more traditional game format makes it accessible to non-hobbyists. While I know a fair amount about Moby Dick, I have never actually read Moby Dick in its entirety (I suspect I am in good company there). Despite the novel’s legendary pacing issues ***, the game has inspired me to try to read it. Can’t ask for more than that.

* – Wow, replace “whaling crew” with “investigators” and “great whale” with “great Cthulhu” and it sounds positively Lovecraftian.

** – Going back to the above thought, it did strike me that if you just gave Moby Dick or, the Card Game a new coat of paint (changing the theme “man vs. nature” to “humans vs. the meaninglessness of existence”, and keeping “fate vs. free will”) it would make a far better Cthulhu game than any other Lovecraftian boardgame that comes to mind. Designers, make a note of it.

*** – It can’t be worse than A Game of Thrones. Can it?

Origins: How We Became Human

I first played Origins: How We Became Human not long after it came out, back in 2008 (if you’re unfamiliar with the game, you might want to take a moment to skim that older writeup). Although I found the ideas and science behind it fascinating, I ultimately had to admit the game basically didn’t work. While the core systems were streamlined and playable, the list of grievances was long and serious: climate change die rolls that wipe you out in an instant of bad luck; development bottlenecks around increasing your energy capacity that had you rolling dice forever trying to get a 6 or endlessly digging through the card deck for the one or two cards that would unblock you; and the less said about the horror that was Acculturation, the better.

Still, recent Sierra Madre games have usually required a little tweaking, either in the form of “living rules” style updates from the publisher or home-grown house rules. Even High Frontier – a terrific game – needs to be played with slightly more sensible auction rules and tweaks for Deimos and one of the thrusters (the Salt Water Zubrin in the basic game). With Origins, there was and is clearly an interesting game in there. It just wasn’t clear what the rules tweaks needed to be to get at that game. Everyone I played Origins with disliked it enough (and the game takes long enough to play) that I never was able to get a handle on what the fixes needed to be.

Until now! Phil Eklund has done most of the heavy lifting through the optional rules now in the Origins rulebook. The absolutely critical ones are: Livestock Raids, Counterespionage, No Final Chaos, and Domestication in Uninhabitable Hexes. Without these rules the game basically doesn’t work: mainly, you can get futilely stuck in Age 1 forever spinning your wheels if you blow your domestication die rolls, or climate change can deny you the resources you need to make progress in the game. All the optional rules are definitely recommended and help the game, but these ones are critical. The original rules are clearly more faithful to the thematic ideas behind the game, but compromises have to made to the form to make it enjoyable to play.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough. The Acculturation action is still terrible and can completely ruin the fun. If your empire has an advantage in Culture advances, you’re allowed to Acculturate your neighbors: you steal one of their elders and add it to your pool. Since elders are otherwise expensive to acquire and critical to doing interesting things in the game, being acculturated to death by your neighbor is completely paralyzing and makes your game experience an exercise in frustration and futility. Fortunately, Morgan Dontanville suggested this fix: just have the Acculturation action steal a cube of the target players’ choice instead of an elder. This seems to be the answer. From the session reports I’ve read of players who made it into Era IV, the very late game – when players’ civilizations are well-established – might play better with the original rule, but in the early game when empires are small and there are few Culture cards available, being Acculturated to death without recourse is a horrible, game-ruining experience.

The last thing to worry about is how to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, given that it’s fairly chaotic. Individual player turns are usually quick, but there is a lot of stuff to get through and until players achieve some mastery it can take 4-5 hours with 5 players, which I think is 1-2 hours longer than it wants to be. I think the answer is just to play with fewer players. Most Sierra Madre Games suffer from a downtime problem with more players – I recommend sticking to 3, maybe 4 players for High Frontier, High Frontier Colonization really wants just 3, and Pax Porfiriana is better with 4 than with 5, and better with 5 than 6. At least in High Frontier, there is plenty of planning you can do when it’s not your turn, but Origins is constantly in a state of flux and it’s hard to think that far ahead. I don’t have enough plays to know for sure, but my guess is the sweet spot is probably 3, maybe 4 players. Leave out the Cro-Magnons; they have a small but not zero chance of being totally screwed by climate change die rolls (the Hobbits can be in trouble too, but the Water Buffalo makes their situation less dire).

The final touch I’d add is to not have animals go extinct on domestication die rolls of 2 or 3 – at least not until players are familiar with the game. A bad combination of extinctions and climate change can leave a player well and truly stuck. It’s not as terrible as the other issues, and experienced players will know the risks, but it’s probably best avoided until you have better coping skills.

So in summary:

  • Use all the optional rules in the Living Rules.
  • Acculturation steals a cube of the victim’s choice, not necessarily an elder (it still goes back to the population track when lost).
  • Don’t play with 5 players; stick to 3 or 4.
  • Unless you know what you’re doing, animals never go extinct even with smaller numbers of players.
  • And, I should mention, don’t mess with Age IV.

There is also an updated poster map on Zazzle. While it’s not an essential addition to the game, there are a number of small tweaks that are helpful.

Finally, get Rick Heli’s summary of the deck compositions. Knowing how many of what types of cards are where is important to sensible play.

This still leaves plenty to not like about the game, if you are so inclined. Climate change can be frustrating. The game is unforgiving if you get your innovation track clogged. Like all Sierra Madre Games, you have to understand it has a distinctive aesthetic and you have to appreciate it by starting with figuring out what the game is trying to say (I talked about this in my Pax Porfiriana review). You don’t have to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel  or Julien Jaynes  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to appreciate Origins: How We Became Human, but hey, those are important books, you should probably read them (well, definitely the Diamond anyway), and it helps. But you should certainly read the Designer’s Notes. Just don’t be put off by Eklund’s Objectivism. Yes, there is some Ayn Rand-style crazy in the Age IV deck; Phil doesn’t think much of public education apparently. But otherwise, he talks a better Libertarian talk than he actually walks. I have absolutely zero time for true Libertarians, and I found nothing philosophically objectionable in Origins. At least, not until the Age IV deck.

Last time I wrote about the game, I offered some play tips. Here are some of my updated thoughts:

Climate Change is the number one thing I hear people complain about, and it can feel capricious. I think you just need to go into the game knowing that the board is never going to look better than it does at start. There are three climate change cards in the Era 1 deck, and you need to realize that the most likely outcome is that one or both of the Jungle and Desert spots are going to become uninhabitable. So you need to play defensively, trying to make sure you don’t get hemmed in and have access to animals and metropolises until you have enough tech to cope with difficult terrain. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially for the Hobbits and Cro-Magnon. The worst-case scenario (Jungles and Deserts, plus the icecaps melt) is quite unlikely, but not impossible. There are two more climate changes in Age II and one in Age III, which are not to be ignored, but by that time you should have the technology and mobility to avoid disaster. Anyway, climate change is one of the key elements in the game so you need to be aware of the risks which can be large, especially early. Hopefully awareness will help you cope with them.

Population Actions are hard to know what to do with for a lot of the game. For the most part, a strategy of staying small with few pieces on the board and only adding metropolises and migratory tokens as you need to expand your elder pool is a smart strategy. However, an absolutely crucial technique for coping with a low innovation number is to park one of your units outside neighbors’ cities and using the Sabine Raid action to ransack her discard pile. Just co-existing is enough to qualify as a “siege” even if you never have any intent to attack the city. In general, larger-scale military operations are rarely worth the trouble, although occasionally knocking over an opponents city (to gain a guest worker) can be worth it. Just keep your eyes on the important things: high innovation and big elder pools. Enslaving your neighbors may be gratifying in the short term, but it rarely actually helps you that much and may actually be of some benefit to your victim. Population actions can be a stopgap substitute for Innovation actions, but it’s at best a risky and short-term fix, so use them to focus on getting cards that decrease your fecundity and increase your elder pool so you can go back to relying on Innovation actions and elder expenditures.

Getting enslaved is a bummer, and never something you would voluntarily make part of your game strategy outside of some very extreme situations. You should definitely do what you can to avoid it. It’s a chaotic game though, and if it should happen to you (which is more likely with a full compliment of players) don’t fail your personal morale check. One of the things that makes Origins work for me is that it’s a very dynamic game, with lots of ups and downs, unlike other modern civ-builders which only go relentlessly forward and where getting behind early means you’re dead. The inability to build metropolises while enslaved and therefore have more than one elder is clearly quite bad, but not worse than things were just before you were enslaved. There are some upsides; you get free infrastructure advances from time to time and a bunch of free units when your masters go into chaos. Bide your time, do what you can, build your innovation up, and get back in it later.

I mentioned this is my previous pieces, but try to acquire any Public Cards that you can, and don’t worry about scoring until you’re in your final Golden Age. The strategic advantages of all the public cards are so strong that you should always bid them up and try to get them. Administration lets you expand the size of your civilization which increases survivability, gives you more population actions, and allows you to increase your number of metropolises and therefore the size of your elder pool. Information effectively allows you to multiply your available elders by making the Economic Stimulation action much more efficient and gives you a lot more control by increasing your hand size. Culture gives you a much easier way to expand your elder pool through Acculturation and guest workers. And if that wasn’t enough, many cards give you early access to important actions, particularly Trade and Urbanization. Finally, there is the Revolution action which allows you to swap your victory card with another player or the cards in the box. While this is much more limited than it might first appear, you can be vulnerable until you are in the last Golden Age of the game. At that point you can lock in your victory conditions (including possibly using the Revolution action yourself to look for a better fit if you get there first) and factor that into your bidding. The Revolution action and its ability to move the goalposts bugs a lot of players when they first read it, but it’s actually not as chaotic as it seems and is an important part of the game. Through the early ages the key is to stay flexible and acquire what you can, so don’t get attached to your scoring card. It’s only the final age (or possibly ages if you’re playing with Age IV) where you’re going to focus on scoring, and Revolution gives the game some flexibility.

Origins: How We Became Human has always been in an odd spot for me. It clearly shares a lot of DNA with the modern (i.e., post-Origins), very successful Sierra Madre Games, but it never seemed to delver on its potential. So I was quite happy to find a configuration that allowed me to finally really enjoy the game and recommend it alongside High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana.