SO19 talks with the creators of MOBY DICK, OR, THE CARD GAME

If you browsed the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in spring 2013, you might have come across a group of guys translating Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick into a card-based strategy game. The project, which ultimately received more than four times the amount of funding requested, is the creation of five friends, ranging in age from 27 to 39, working under the group name King Post: Tavit Geudelekian, group founder and president; Andy Kopas, the co-founder and lead game designer; Joel Clark, the creative director; John Kauderer, the art director; and Mark Perloff, the producer. So19 caught up with Tavit and Joel this fall as they saw Moby Dick, or, The Card Game through the final stages of production. Naturally, So19 couldn’t resist the temptation to find out more about such a weird and wonderful re-visioning. Here’s our conversation with Tavit and Joel about the intricate process of turning a dense and iconic 19th-century text into a 21st-century strategy game; you can see a slideshow of some of the colorful cards from the game on the So19 Gallery here. Updates on the game can be found on its page on Facebook, and games can be pre-ordered online for introductory pricing through January 1st on the Moby Dick, or, The Card Game website.  <

SO19: Let’s start with the obvious: what was the moment at which you decided to take on this fiendishly complex challenge, and just how many lashings of rum were involved?

TG: Many measures of grog have passed our lips in the creation of the game. King Post have been creative collaborators for many years, sharing a love of literature and gaming. Originally, we had discussed lofty ideas of adapting Moby-Dick into a video game, but for budgetary and scope concerns, that version didn’t seem feasible. Instead, we decided to pursue an original game that we could create and produce independently. We noticed that tabletop card and board games were having a popular renaissance on the Kickstarter, and we also saw that the format of a card and dice-based game matched the tone and tenor of the source material. Thus Moby Dick, or, The Card Game was born. Design meetings for the card game began in the summer of 2012, and we've been iterating and tuning the game all the way through to August of 2013.

SO19: Moby-Dick isn’t an easy read. Did one of you, some of you, or all of you read it? How did it speak to you, and what about it suggested a strategy game?

TG: By the time we were fully engaged in designing the game, all of the team members had read the book multiple times except for Mark Perloff, our producer, who was playing a bit of catch-up. It was good for the design process to have various levels of familiarity with the text within our group. In terms of translating the novel into a game, Moby-Dick is so dense, and packed with so many layers of meaning, it would be impossible for any one adaptation to bring out all of the voices and ideas in the book. But at its narrative core, it’s a book about sailors hunting whales. Melville's elevation of this invisible section of the global economy to almost mythological status was a perfect setting for a game of luck and strategy. Drafting sailors to your personal crew, assembling a hunting party to lower after the whales, and finally being slaughtered by Moby Dick all present themselves as meaningful player actions during any single playthrough of our game.

SO19: Did you read any secondary sources about the novel, the author, the world of seafaring during his time?

TG: Absolutely! Our creative director, Joel Clark, had the monumental task of making sure that we were adhering not only to Melville's narrative vision but also to the dense conversations and writings around the text. I'll let Joel speak to the other sources.

JC: The holy grail of Moby-Dick criticism, for me, is definitely Charles Olson's 1947 Call Me Ishmael. Much of our sense of the connection between Shakespeare (notably King Lear) and Moby-Dick come from this work, as well as biographical context for Melville himself, Melville's obsession with the egalitarian democracy of whaling and other industrial pursuits, and the man's personal struggle with Christianity. Other than that, the gracious council of professors Geoff Sanborn and John L. Bryant, the writing of book jacket designer Peter Mendelsund, and long discussions with my father, Tim Clark, all informed the work. I picked up a lot more information through various sources online during the search for period images and specific information on both the business and the culture of 19th-century whaling. We've also learned a lot from other literature of the sea: Melville's early works and Bill Budd, Poe's Gordon Pym, short stories by Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway. Melville's letters to and from Nathaniel Hawthorne have also greatly influenced my personal picture of the man, his hopes, his dreams, his desires, and his failings. 
SO19: Unlike writing a novel, game construction is very much a team effort. Can you talk a bit about the role the team members played and how the process unfolded?

TG: Game design is absolutely a collaborative and iterative process. We've gone through three major revisions of the ruleset. Each dramatically altered or reconfigured the weighting of certain systems within the game, as did countless smaller revisions along the way. Four of us—Andy Kopas, Joel Clark, Mark Perloff and myself—were the principal team drafting the original ruleset. John Kauderer became very closely involved with the process when we were making the second major revision.

As lead game designer, Andy furnished us with the major concepts and conventions that the game would employ, taking the group notes we produced to his secret genius factory and returning with a proposal for how, say, the Sailor Deck might operate or how the Whale Deck might better murder Sailors during a hunt. Joel's task was to keep the subject matter firmly in the front and center of our process, providing us with a mountain of passages, quotes and personal interpretations of the book's many conventions and characters, along with an exhaustive database of found imagery that would be woven throughout the various cards in the game. Mark was our diligent producer, pushing our grog-driven musings towards measurable results and challenging us constantly to refine and improve the game. John almost single-handedly defined the look and visual language of our game. It's hard to overstate the importance of visual design in a medium such as a card game, and John translated our love of the source material and the choices we made as game designers into a beautiful and commercially viable product.

Despite all of these specialized roles, every team member had meaningful input on every part of the process, from designing the rules to identifying the visual aspects of the game. So the final product is truly a collaborative work.

SO19: How did you approach the process of parsing story elements into measurable actions, draw-able cards, and so on?

TG: We actually started by creating stacks of prototype cards with our favorite ideas and characters from the book. We didn't even have a real ruleset at that point; we just knew that we wanted certain elements from the book to carry directly over into cards. From that initial deck of hundreds of ideas, we were able to start seeing which ones were most appealing, which ones seemed superfluous, and, even more importantly, which cards seemed most suited for interaction within the context of a game.

From there we set out to create the basic framework of the game. What would be its object? Would there be a winner? How many people could play? What role would a player take? These elemental questions were debated, destroyed, reinstated and replaced through several drafts. Many times, we would meet up just to throw ideas at the wall; then we would break off into smaller groups and work on sections of the design, and finally we would come back together to play-test those ideas and decide which direction was best. It was a slow and wonderfully tumultuous process, punctuated by bursts of inspiration from every team member.

SO19: How the heck do you play the novel—I mean, the game?

TG: Each copy of Moby Dick, or, The Card Game comes with 106 cards divided into three decks: The Sea, The Sailor and The Whale. Additionally, each game includes two custom dice and 40 wooden oil tokens.

On each turn a player takes the top card from The Sea Deck to see what that turn has in store for the Pequod. The Sea Deck contains not only the whales that the players can hunt but also cards representing various critical chapters from the book, which serve to push the players towards their eventual demise by Moby Dick. The Sailor Deck contains the sailors that crewed the Pequod (along with a few surprise references from Melville's larger world); players draft sailors from the Sailor Deck to assemble a hunting party and successfully kill whales. Each Sailor Card has its own numerical strength and special ability, which will help players during a hunt. Finally, The Whale Deck represents a whale's actions or defenses during a whale hunt. Before a player can attempt to strike a whale during a hunt, they must first draw a card from the Whale Deck. Most of those cards impede the progress of the sailors that a player has decided to bring on the hunt.

SO19: Oil is the “currency” of the game, but I gather that victory isn’t as simple as just accumulating barrels of oil.

TG: Oil is earned by successfully killing a whale. Players use that currency to hire or bribe sailors from the Sailor Deck or other players. However, as each game draws to its inevitable final battle with Moby Dick, oil becomes increasingly irrelevant when compared to the lives of each of the sailors in a player’s personal crew.

We tried whenever we could to avoid the terms victory or winner in the context of the game. The closest thing that we have to a winner in the endgame is the sole survivor of the final hunt of Moby Dick. That player survives to tell the tale and thus has earned the right to declare, "Call ME Ishmael.” This shift over the course of each game mirrors the Pequod's doomed voyage, beginning as a function of the 19th-century whaling economy and ending with one man's deadly obsession.

SO19: As both writer and reader, I appreciate how much of Melville’s text you’ve used. The quotations on the cards really capture the richness of his language and imagery.

TG: Staying true to Melville's language was one part of our mission from the start. We found that the beauty and power of Melville's voice not only helps contextualize each card, but also creates a meaningful callback to the book itself. We hope that fans of the book enjoy the depth of the passages that we included on each card, but we also hope that gamers who may have discovered our project might be so inspired by Melville's language that they might pursue reading the book. Joel was mainly responsible for the quotations, but again, all of the team members collaborated on sourcing the passages.

SO19: The cards are very rich visually. Could you talk about creating the game’s distinctive look?

TG: Joel and I compiled a huge database of found imagery from the 19th century by searching collections including those at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Library of Congress. John then created a visual language that would both complement the source imagery and serve the oft-esoteric nature of our game's rules.

We had a lot of gameplay information that we needed to communicate to players; we had a lot of textual source material that we desperately wanted to share with our audience; and the whole affair had to be as beautiful and legible as possible. John created a number of samples and presented those to the larger group. Eventually we were able to reach a common ground that respected both the various sources and text, and our game rules.

John created a forced bitmap effect that we used as our primary filter for the found imagery. The technique allowed us to create a consistent look throughout the game despite the different sources and creators of the original images.

SO19: What surprised you about the game creation process?

TG: Just as different readers all have their own interpretations of the book, the process of adapting Moby-Dick into a game was dense with meaning and interpretations. Add grog to the mix, and we definitely had our fair share of "impassioned" design meetings. New ideas were raised and old ones razed. We began our creative collaborations as good friends and luckily, we remain good friends today.

Consensus is always the most difficult goal for any creative collaboration, but perhaps the biggest surprise for us all was the astounding success of our Kickstarter funding campaign. Truly, for the first time in the process the response on Kickstarter reassured us that someone out there would share our passion for the adaptation of the book into a game. Seeing the overwhelming support that the campaign gained us was the most wonderful surprise of all.

SO19: If you get a really annoying crew, are you allowed to, say, eat them?

TG: Moby Dick, or, The Card Game is truly a harrowing game of death, even without cannibalism! It would take a very skilled and lucky player to actually keep possession of the three sailors with whom they began the game. Sailors are constantly killed while hunting whales and rescued again from the depths by other players; in fact, movement of the Sailor Cards was one of our chief concerns in designing the game. We want players to love certain sailors and be annoyed by others while the game's systems dramatically alter the compositions of the players' crews.

SO19: What’s happening with the sale and distribution of the game now?

TG: Kickstarter funders received their games this past week, and we’re taking pre-orders at a special introductory price on our website.
After the astounding success of our Kickstarter campaign, we also pledged to give 100 copies of the game to schools and libraries around the country—first-come-first-served. This small gesture is an indicator of the direction we want to move as a team. Education is ever-changing, and we think that games will play an important role in its next evolutionary step. What began as a passion-driven project between five friends might have broader applications outside of the contexts of just gaming or literature. Just as we have hopefully satisfied Ezra Pound's old adage to "make it new," we hope that other walks of industry and academia will consider our humble entry as a dynamic and engaging resource to potentially bring a broader audience into Melville's incredible world. <