Moby Dick or, The Card Game, is a hand-management, tableau-building game where 2-4 players will follow the voyage of the doomed Pequod as it sets out to whale on the high seas, culminating with its inevitable encounter with the titular leviathan. Published by King Post Studios, a publisher I had never heard of before, the small, stark game box immediately attracted my attention when I saw it in Josh’s collection.
When I pointed it out, he was uncharacteristically unenthusiastic about it. I opened the box, looked at the art on the cards, the well-made wooden tokens, the custom dice, and asked him why he seemed so disinterested. He shrugged and said something to the effect of ‘it isn’t much of a game’.
Now Josh, our resident europhile and lover of all things cube, also happens to be an accomplished and fairly brilliant author – one of my favorites, actually (and don’t any of you dare tell him I said any of that), so I was disappointed in his assessment – I had hoped, oddly, that the simple black and white cover of the game would hide some sort of brilliance, fueled by literary significance. Still, I asked to borrow it from him, which he readily allowed, and that evening Jess and I sat down to play.
Andrew: Now, fair disclosure; I know Jess to be put off by games that are themed around hunting and killing animals. So despite the clear connection to that seminal piece of literature, I knew the game would have an uphill struggle on her account (and indeed, after playing it, it wasn’t to her taste at all).
Still, there was something compelling about it, something that drove me toward it, curious. I contacted King Post regarding a review copy, which they readily sent my way, and I set about exploring it some more.
Moby Dick is a well-made game – its components are attractive, the art is fantastic, and even the yellowed dice (normally a thing I despise) fit the maritime feel of it all. The tuck-boxes for the three decks also serve as useful rules reminders, and once you have a feel for the game, despite its many little rules, gameplay becomes simple enough.
The flow of Moby Dick occurs as players take 2, occasionally 3, phases during their turns.
Each turn players have the opportunity to hire (or bribe away from other players) crew into their service. Each crewman has a strength rating, which is added when hunting whales, and many have either passive or active abilities. Every single sailor is a reference to the novel, with familiar names granting thematic abilities.
Once the round of hiring is done, a Sea card is flipped. These cards are either creatures or events. If a whale is drawn, it sparks the third part of the round, the hunt; otherwise, events trigger whatever effect their text suggests and play proceeds to the next player.
Should a whale be drawn, all players now participate in the hunt. Each player deploys available sailors, trying to create the best-suited hunting party possible. The whales fight back, of course, drawing cards from the Whale deck to determine their (often lethal) actions. Players will use dice and sailor powers to first become fast to the whales (land harpoons on them, so as to stay close) and then slay the beasts for harvest. Successful hunts bring riches in the form of oil, which is used to hire on new sailors and strengthen your crew.
The Sea deck has shuffled into it a series of Chapter cards. These cards, when drawn, indicate the progress of the game through the narrative of the novel (though if you want, you can simply shuffle them randomly into the deck – they needn’t appear in order).
Also in the deck are stark white cards, each one a sighting of Moby Dick – when these are drawn, they accelerate the game, forcing players to draw the next chapter card immediately and hastening the inevitable.
And by inevitable, of course, I mean the ultimate confrontation with that Leviathan of literary legend. Once the last chapter card is drawn, the Pequod will face Ahab’s whale. Moby Dick represents the brutal final encounter of the game, triggered immediately. Unlike previous battles, the white whale cannot be defeated – instead, it is the player who survives the longest (as in, loses their last crewman last) who is the ‘winner’.
The strategic elements are entirely based in building a crew – spending precious oil from your supply to bring on capable harpooners, men with handy abilities, or simply bodies to throw in the way of assaulting sea creatures is where the game’s tactical decisions lie.
Once you are hunting a whale, your choices will only take you so far – the fickle nature of dice and the Whale deck will play at least as great a factor in your victory (or, more often, brutal losses) than any planning you may have made previously. And in that regard, Moby Dick can be a deeply unsatisfying experience; it’s no fun to watch as crewman after crewman is dragged under, all the while your dice subvert your efforts to bring down the damn beasts. And failure to hunt means less oil to spend on crew, sometimes creating a cycle of loss from which it can feel impossible to break free.
And of course, there is the final struggle against Moby Dick itself – the white whale can never be bested, and to measure the success and failure of your journey by simply seeing who can hold on, white-knuckled and terrified, the longest, can seem equally dismal. Moby Dick isn’t a fun game, in this regard.
The quality that Moby Dick possesses, the one which spurs me toward praising it even as I admit that the gameplay itself is somewhat middling, is the deep, abiding love its designers had for its admittedly challenging source material. Moby Dick or, The Card Game is first a tribute to Moby Dick, and only second a game. It is an experience, a curiosity, a beautifully intended (if somewhat oddly designed) manifestation of a literary work in game form.
The things that make me appreciate Moby Dick are things I would despise in other games. Its mechanics are inspired by theme but ultimately very random and chaotic, and the overall tone, that of inescapable loss, is a heavy, grinding one. The Pequod will go down, your men will die, and all efforts to the contrary are doomed to fail. But, in a game based on one of the most infamous literary example of a man’s obsessive, self-destructive, deeply misguided struggle against the inevitable, is any of that the least bit inappropriate?
So here we come to it – do I recommend Moby Dick? Well, yes, and no. Strictly taken as a game on its own merit, Moby Dick or, The Card Game is acceptable, even enjoyable, but also occasionally unlikable and flawed (the nearly 3-dozen items on the King Post FAQ page stand as a testament to that). However, as an artifact, as a unique collector’s curio, particularly for anyone who truly enjoys the theme and the novel? I say simply that I am deeply glad that I have it in my collection, though I have no idea how often it will see play.
(Gameosity was provided a review copy of this game. We were not otherwise compensated.)