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?
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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. <