Last night, playing the new indie game Nantucket, I kept yelling, "No one kills Jerry!"
I was attached to my long-suffering crewmember, but more attached to the massive damage he dealt to whales. Granted, I had shouted the same thing about his predecessor Harold, who fell when I refused to retreat from a massive blue whale when the battle turned against us. And when Jerry met his inevitable fate at the hands of pirates who boarded us on the way from Cape Town to Peterhead, I replaced him with Thomas. After enough time in Nantucket, even the most valued crewmember becomes just another stepping stone on the way to Moby Dick.
Inspired by the 1851 novel, Nantucket is a strategy game from Italian team Picaresque Studios that was released yesterday for PC. You play as the sole survivor of the Pequod, chasing the white whale shortly after the events of Herman Melville's book. The game's world is stylised like a paper map on a wooden table, with combat taking place through simulated cards and dice rolls. Accompanied by an excellent sea shanty soundtrack, you sail around the world hunting whales, buying bigger boats, and losing a whole lot of crew.
Tracking down Moby Dick might drive the plot, but most of Nantucket feels more like running a whaling business than an epic hunt for a monster. Different ports have different quests or crew members you can hire. Crew are hired with "prestige points", which you earn through quests. You can lose prestige points, too - I lost a huge portion of mine when I hit someone over the head and robbed them during a story event.
Nantucket's main map screen, showing areas where you can find whales. The brown areas are places I hadn't discovered yet. The arrows indicate the direction of the current, which will speed up or slow down your boat.
Crew have different classes and abilities. Scientists can heal, sailors can protect members of their whaleboats, and hunters deal the damage you need to take down the surprisingly hearty whales, sharks and pirates you encounter. The actual travel is broken up by random events, and, though I saw a bit of repetition, these situations changed my journey in interesting ways. My captain learned to play the violin, gambled, and had sex with a surprisingly high number of crew members. These events were never enough to turn my crew into full-fledged characters in my mind, but they gave some colour to my journey.
Some ports let you research upgrades you'll need to buy a better ship, which will give you the boost you need for the final fight against Moby Dick. I found the upgrade menu confusing at times. Nantucket's tooltips and icons are sometimes a bit underexplained, and I wasted time and money researching the wrong thing more than once.
The boat upgrade screen
To upgrade your ship, as well as buy supplies, you need money, which is most easily earned by hunting whales. Whaling in Nantucket is pleasantly complex. Whales have areas, migration patterns and seasons. You have to plan a journey carefully to mete out your food, water and grog, as well as to arrive at the right time to find the whale. Whales range from youth with no abilities and little health to pods of beefy monsters who can tip your crew overboard and break your lines. Some do more damage when they're in mating areas or protecting their young. Some areas that should be full of whales are actually full of sharks, who'll bleed your crew to death if you can't stop them.
At the start of a combat turn, a random condition is applied to the board. Sometimes it means certain crew classes' dice won't work - healers can't heal, or hunters can't hunt. Sometimes a random crew member gets stunned and has to sit the turn out; other times good weather buffs your crew's damage. Each boat of three whalers can perform one action per turn based on what ability they roll, so you have to carefully choose who does what and think about the best combination. Attacks are executed by dragging a wonderfully tactile harpoon around. The randomness can be extreme: I had turns where none of my crew rolled a skill, and others where everyone rolled enough damage to finish off a fight without taking a hit.
The combat screen.
In the early hours of Nantucket I found the randomness frustrating, but everything changed for me in the 52-round blue whale fight in which I lost Harold.
I knew we were on the losing end early on, but I clung on spitefully. The emotion I invested in the battle turned the randomness of the dice epic. I cursed our bad luck, cheered our good fortune, raged and swore vengeance. It became easy to imagine the back and forth of a sea battle. As I hired more crew with more skills - and thus more chances to roll an action instead of a blank - I started attaching little stories to our luck: Jerry threw that spear for 32 damage in revenge for his fallen comrade; my sailor Gabriel chose to protect our healer Lee over our hunter Rufus because he'd seen enough bloodshed for one day. Nantucket's combat grew on me over the course of my 15 hours, to the point that I forwent the game's ending battle for a while, just to hunt a few more whales.
Nantucket has an excellent physical feel to it, with its straining harpoon ropes, clattering dice and creaking wood sounds. I got off to a rocky start in it but soon found myself completely engrossed. Certain conditions the game warned against were never a problem for me - I never learned the effects of low morale, for instance, or running out of supplies - but that could have just been the luck of the draw. Having beaten the game, I'm excited to roll a new captain and make different choices, just to see where else the sea can take me.