May 6, 2013

Moby-Dick, the card game


Moby-Dick, the BBC historical drama; Moby-Dick, the interactive sing-along theatrical production; Moby-Dick, the beer; Moby-Dick, the felted version? Chalk up one more adaption for Herman Melville’s novel: Moby-Dick, the card game. Or rather, Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game.

Game developers King Post Productions set up a Kickstarter last week to raise $25,000 for their project, a funding goal that has already been reached and doubled, suggesting that the demand is high for what the developers themselves describe as a “very, very difficult” game.

Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game is a strategy game for two to four players, using three custom decks, the Sea, Sailor, and Whale Decks. The aim is to hunt whales for oil, signified by oil markers. To embark on it, players put together crews, made up of characters drawn strictly from the book, and then head out to encounter the trials and tribulations of the sea, culminating in a whale hunt, during which the whale (whose actions are spelled out in the Whale Deck) launches a number of counterattacks that the sailors must survive.

The intricate structure of the game is designed to produce different game-play narratives each time, and the focus is on surviving rather than winning. No one, it seems, comes away toting holds full of oil markers— you barely get out alive.

Unlike, say, the video game of The Great Gatsby, in which a pixelated Nick Carraway jumps for gold coins and knocks out butlers, the creators of Moby-Dick, or, The Card Game have made fidelity to the original a priority. Indeed, they had debates about it. From an interview in The Awl:

You spent a lot of time trying to be faithful to the text and spirit of the book. Are you worried that will keep people who haven’t read it away?

Joel Clark: Absolutely. Everything gets checked against the book at every step. We would have rule conversations and there would be an impasse where I would say, “it cannot be this way [because it wouldn’t make sense in the Moby-Dick universe].” Some rules make the game so esoteric, and people who haven’t read the book will ask why.

Tavit Geudelekian: We worry that it won’t be applicable to people who haven’t read the book, but I’m learning that the fundamentals of the game create a space for exploring the concepts in the book. Reading it is always going to be the best way to take it in, but the game can help. This is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, but when Guitar Hero came out as a video game, people connected with the songs that were in the video games in a very different way because it was interactive. I was listening to music out of the game that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t jammed on it in the game. In that same way, we’re hoping that with this project, those weird esoteric rules become questions in peoples’ minds and pull them closer to the text.

Another aspect of the game’s faithfulness is in the card art: many of the images come from the New Bedford Whaling Museum—old daguerrotypes, prints, whaling apparatus—and there are also original drawings from artist Havarah Zawoluk. Images are crosshatched so that they look like woodcuts, and each card contains a quote from the book.

In short, all those prone to staggering around the home, or the office, yelling “The whale, the whale! Up helm, up helm!” will soon have a socially appropriate competitive environment to do so. And a beautiful one to boot.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.