Designer’s Diary: Leviathan I

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My asymmetrical tabletop card-combat microgame was recently picked up by Past Go Games, and we’re planning for a Kickstarter launch on Oct. 9! Get the print and play here. Here are some of my thoughts on making this game:

I made this game, in short, because I love Moby-Dick. It’s my favorite book, for too many reasons to list here. I first read Moby-Dick while living, studying, and working at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. The museum houses the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world. I studied, sang chanteys, and even spent a night board the Morgan, and that made reading Moby-Dick feel even more real to me.

But the book is daunting — with chapters that read like Shakespearean drama, science textbooks, introspective contemporary fiction, and swashbuckling sea stories, it’s a stylistic jumble that does not open itself to the reader at first glance. I wanted to give readers an easy way to appreciate Moby-Dick, and Leviathan is hopefully that. A whale-themed game was rolling around in my head, but I actually started work in earnest to create an entry for a micro-game contest. Pretty quickly, I realized that I wanted to make a micro-game that used the table space differently. My hope was to use the “the table is the board” aspect of wargames in a non-war-themed game. Leviathan didn’t quite meet that criteria (Ahab and Moby are undoubtedly at war with each other), but it tweaked the theme enough that I felt comfortable developing it further, knowing that it would stand out. My favorite thing about Leviathan is the suspense. I love hidden movement games, but the need for a paper and pencil in many of them strikes me as inelegant. When I’m playing Leviathan as Ahab, seeing the six shadowy whales surging across the table towards my flimsy boats is terrifying!

Leviathan’s asymmetry is also something I’m very happy with. By making each side play differently, Leviathan invites you to see things from the other side, sometimes immediately; many players, whether having won or lost as the Whales, immediately want to switch sides and play as Ahab.

The game’s working title came from one of the many names that Melville gives to whales as a whole. Leviathan is also referenced in the Bible, as a mysterious sea-monster, and as the title of Thomas Hobbes’s famous political treatise. I love the contrast of a big-sounding title for a micro-sized game, so (with the good advice of my publisher) the title stuck. As Melville writes “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea” and (meaning no offense to Circus Flohcati) I think the same notion applies to thematic games.

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