As much as I might lament spending the bulk of my adolescence in Connecticut and loathing “New England style” (i.e. put buoys and nets all over everything), I have to grudgingly admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for the history – specifically as it pertains to sailing ships. I blame all those visits to Mystic Seaport when I was little.
Due to young Rob’s exposure – saturation is more like it, really – to New England history, I found myself instantly drawn to the Kickstarter campaign for New Bedford – from designer Nat Levan and publisher Dice Hate Me Games, along with a boatload of fantastic art from Nolan Nasser. It’s a town building with worker placement elements, which certainly isn’t a new concept, but it specifically deals with the history of tall ships and the whaling industry. Plus it’s got a solo mode. The game ticks all of my boxes, is what I’m getting at.
New Bedford is freaking great, I’m just gonna get that out of the way right now. If you like worker placement, town building, New England-y themes, and/or solitaire games, I’d recommend it immediately.
Diana: Whoa, slow down there, slugger.
Rob: Oh like you didn’t also really enjoy it.
Diana: But that’s not… okay, yeah.
There’s this trifecta of fun gameplay elements that I think are to blame for my current obsession: the worker placement, the town building, and the whaling. Sure, two of them are fairly common mechanics, but they’re handled and balanced in interesting ways here. The way everything sort of plays off of everything else is also incredibly cool, whether you’re playing in a group or alone against one (or several) of the “AI” captains.
Worker placement is typical worker placement type stuff on its facet: you put a worker down and use a building. What works so well in New Bedford is the combination of a two worker limit, allowing multiple workers to be placed in the same building (the basic ones in the town square, anyway), giving bonuses to the player who drops a worker in a given location first, and being able to use other players’ buildings (for a price). It creates this dynamic where every move counts while also keeping things from dragging on for too long while everyone decides what to do, and there’s practically no way for one player to end up getting blocked from doing what they wanted to do – they just might not get as many resources or be able to use a discount.
Diana: I loved how I always had options, even if you took a spot I wanted to use. You jerk.
Rob: Don’t hate the player, hate-
Diana: Please don’t finish that sentence.
Diana: I also really liked how I was able to get my engine up and running before the last round. Most games we’ve played like this always seem to finish too early, but this seemed to go on just long enough.
Rob: Agreed, although I wouldn’t have minded if it went on for just a bit longer still.
The town building is also a pleasantly streamlined affair. All of the buildings that can be constructed are set off to the side face-down, but everyone can clearly see what each one’s function is and how many resources need to be spent to build them. Once a building is put together, it’s a simple matter of flipping the tile face-up (the side that’s a bit more colorful and doesn’t display resource costs) and placing it in the appropriate spot next to the town center.
Rob: I thought that was a cool idea, too: setting up the board so that there are four key spots (one for each player) to “slot in” building tiles. it’s such a simple but incredibly clever way to see who owns what building.
Diana: It’s also pretty cool to see the board, and by extension the town, expand slowly over the course of the game. Kinda makes it feel like we’re actually developing something.
Finally, there’s the whaling. Again, it’s a deceptively simple but very clever system – one that also finds ways to convey the appropriate themes without getting graphic or guilt-trippy about it. Workers need to be placed and supplies need to be spent in order to both prepare and launch a ship, but once a ship has set sail (well, one or several) it triggers an entirely new phase for each round.
The whaling phase is pretty straightforward. Tokens are drawn from a bag (ratios are determined during setup and are based on the number of players), then everyone with a ship at sea takes turns selecting whales to add to their ship’s hold. If there aren’t enough whales for everybody to get one, too bad. Of course what I really find interesting is that both whales that haven’t been taken (for whatever reason) and “empty sea” tokens get tossed back into the bag for the next whaling phase. Couple this with how all whales brought ashore, whether players can afford to pay for them (this is called “the lay” or profit shares for the crew), are never going back into the bag/ocean.
It’s a very simple, almost understated method of steadily reducing the number of whales that players will be able to find as the game goes on. It’s also a clever way to mechanically depict the very sad reality of how humans hunted so many species to near extinction. I’m not trying to get preachy about it, but that’s what happened and the way New Bedford handles that aspect of our history and manages to thematically fit it into a major gameplay mechanic is kind of amazing.
Rob: And that’s just the base game. We haven’t talked about the Rising Tide or White Whale expansions yet. Neither expansion is included with the base game by default, but us Kickstarter backers got both of them so nya-ha!
White Whale is really more of a mini add-on than full blown expansion. It adds four new tiles that go into the ocean bag, each with an interesting effect. Ambergris isn’t worth points but is worth a lot of money, the blue whale is worth a ton of points but also costs a lot to bring into the harbor, the castaway functions as a third worker for a single turn, and the white whale itself will net you points without the need to pay but will “destroy” your ship and any whales it may already have onboard. They’re tiny changes, but they’re easy to integrate into the game and make for some interesting and unexpected twists.
Rising Tide, on the other hand, is actually three expansions in one. It includes a whole lot more town tiles you can mix in with those from the base game, the necessary components (plus a few extra buildings and an all new game board) for a fifth player, and The Ship’s Log that includes a few buildings and two small decks worth of event cards. That’s a lot, I know, but it’s all pretty straightforward.
Diana: I was definitely happy to see that Rising Tide did more than just add another player and some buildings.
Rob: Yeah, a lot of the new buildings add some interesting strategies to the worker placement and town building. And I like how the Ship’s Log add on comes with its own buildings, although I feel like it was kind of unfair how I was able to game the cards once I built a Library and could simply take a card each turn without needing to use a ship.
Diana: That was a bit much, yes.
Rob: I really liked some of the new buildings, though. They adde some neat effects. The White Whale tokens, too.
Diana: Definitely! It just sucked that the really useful White Whale stuff came up at the worst times.
So the expansions are pretty darn cool for the most part, but there are a couple of problems. For one thing, the Ship’s Log (interesting though it may seem) has the potential to be kind of “meh” depending on how the randomly shuffled cards fall. In our last game with them, they didn’t see a whole lot of action during the whaling phase (which is when they’re normally used). Especially the Omen cards, which tend to mess up everyone’s turn in some way – although they’d probably see much more use in games with a higher player count.
By far the biggest problem with all of these expansions, and the base game to be honest, is the lack of any way to easily distinguish which buildings belong to which game type and player count. There are designations in the instruction books, which is fine, but if you threw all of the building tiles into a pile and told someone to pick out what they needed to run a basic two-player game, well, good luck with that. Something – anything to make sorting these tiles at the end of a game is sorely needed. I can’t help but feel like I shouldn’t have to consult the rulebook every time I want to play with one or more of the expansions. Or just play the game in general, seeing as the basic game tiles don’t have any handy player count indicators, either.
Rob: We’ve covered so much, but I still feel like I’m forgetting something.
Diana: Solo mode?
Rob: Solo mode!
The solitaire variant is another example of New Bedford being clever. The reverse side of each of the four player boards from the base game (not the extra one from Rising Tide, sadly) represents a captain: Ahab, Flask, Starbuck, and Stubb. They all follow a fairly similar AI flowchart you’re meant to use to determine their actions each round, and each of them has a slightly different set of rules and behaviors.
Again, it’s not a new thing to board games, but it’s handled very well here. Each captain feels a bit different to play against, the basic flow of the game doesn’t change at all, and they make for a good challenge. It’s easy to get into a rhythm once you get used to playing for the captain (or captains, you can include more than one if you want), so it doesn’t slow the game down at all or add any unnecessary fiddly bits.
Really the only gripe I have with the solitaire mode – other than the missing Turner’s Mill building tile that has already been discovered and is being taken care of – is some of the iconography and one or two rule clarifications. I mean, it makes sense once you’re able to figure out what it means, but the figuring it out part can be a little tricky for a few of them. Especially when you’re new to the game.
Honestly though, playing solo is just as entertaining as playing with other people. Minus the social interaction, of course. It moves along at a steady pace, doesn’t bog you down with ridiculous amounts of AI management, and the point spreads have surprisingly been pretty much the same as a regular game with people.
Rob: So what do we think? As if I didn’t already know. Or already say.
Diana: I really liked it! It’s not fiddly at all, but it’s complex enough to feel like I’m accomplishing something once I start raking in the resources. Of course I know how you-
Rob: I loved it!
Diana: -feel about it.
Rob: I know, I know, but I was so thrilled to play this. To be honest I was kind of expecting it to come up a little short, just because I was so hyped, but it’s pretty much exactly what I wanted and was hoping for.
Diana: So you have no complaints?
Rob: Not really, no. There are a couple of tiny nitpicks, like the need for more detailed descriptions of the solo mode captain actions or the ridiculous pain in the butt that is trying to sort building tiles by game type and player count, but who cares? It’s a bunch of (mostly) inconsequential stuff and none of it gets in the way of the fun. Not while the game is being played, anyway.
Diana: I suppose this means we recommend it then.
Rob: Do we ever!