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There She Blows... Nathaniel Levan Discusses New Bedford
Interview with Nathaniel Levan, about his game, New Bedford. A 2-4 player game..."Set in the mid-1800s, the golden age of whaling, New Bedford gives you the chance to build the Massachusetts town of the same name into a thriving whaling community. Gather resources to add buildings with new actions and launch ships to go whaling. Go out longest for the best choice, but wait too long and the whales become harder to catch. And don't forget to pay your crew when ships return! Carefully balance time management and timing to earn the most points in this medium-weight worker placement and resource management game."
Nathaniel, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?
Nat: It started almost by accident. Until three years ago, the only board game I played regularly was Cribbage. But then I heard about BoardGameGeek from a few different sources at the same time, so I started reading about the hobby. Soon, a friend and I were out shopping and picked up some games on a whim. I got a copy of Empire Builder and he got a copy of Settlers of Catan. That same friend next got a copy of Agricola, and I was hooked.
What are some of your favorite games to currently play?
Nat: Lately, I’ve been really enjoying Fleet, and Dominion is a perennial favorite for lunchtime gaming. We’ve also been enjoying VivaJava: The Coffee Game and VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game. To paraphrase, “I’m not just publishing with Dice Hate Me Games, I’m also a client.”
How do you pick what games to buy for your gaming collection, do you have a criteria you look for in a game?
Nat: I generally favor shorter games that can play well with 2 or 4 so I can play with my wife or my regular groups. But it still needs to be deep and challenging.
I try to limit the number I buy, both to save money and because I just don’t have time to play everything. I keep a list of games I’m interested in. If, after a few months, I keep hearing good things and I’m still interested, it moves up the list. I’ll buy something from the top tier when I don’t have any unplayed games. Kickstarter really throws a wrench into that, because I have to make more of a snap judgment, so it’s more of a feeling based on the art and theme and publishers I trust.
Christmas is in like 6 weeks. Are there any games on Nathaniel Levan's Christmas list this year?
Nat: Not really. But I won't have a shortage of games. I'm expecting about a dozen games from Kickstarter between now and Christmas (though, half of them are the Dice Hate Me Rabbits), plus I have a few prototypes I'm trying to get ready for UNPUB 5. What I really need to ask for is more time to play boardgames.
Currently on Kickstarter, you are hoping to fund your first published game, New Bedford. Could you tell us a little bit about what type of game it is and give us an overview on how it is played?
Nat: New Bedford is a game about building the historic town of New Bedford, Massachusetts and developing the whaling industry that made it thrive. It’s mainly worker placement, with elements of resource management and engine building. Players start with basic actions available, collecting resources, adding buildings and launching ships. The buildings make more complex and powerful actions available and earn you points. Ships let you collect whale tokens that get drawn from a bag every round. The whale tokens also get you points, but only if you can pay for them when the ships return. At the end, the winner is the player with the most points from buildings and whales.
What makes New Bedford different from other work placement/engine building games on the market?
Nat: What makes New Bedford stand out is the whaling theme, and how well that theme is woven throughout the gameplay. In New Bedford, you get to discover a unique aspect of the Age of Sail that isn't just pirates, warfare, or colonial trade. Whaling is an overlooked but incredibly important part of the world economy in the 19th century. And while it’s got some standard town elements, this isn’t any generic town; the whaling industry shapes every part of the game. New Bedford gives the players the power to control how the town and the industry develop. You decide what actions become available during the game as you build the town, and you set your own pace for earning points and money by deciding if and when to whale.
What is the story behind the creation of the game?
Nat: I usually say I was inspired by a PBS documentary. That’s the short version. But I had ideas in my head long before that, of things I wanted to do differently from other games I liked, like Agricola and Puerto Rico. Watching the documentary brought a lot of those ideas together, and I sat down and started filling them out.
Were there any other games beside Puerto Rico and Agricola that influenced you where you were designing the game?
Nat: I wasn’t very familiar with very many games when I started, but I fortunately had two great examples. Obviously, my knowledge of board games has grown dramatically over the past 2 years, but those two remain the primary influences. I drew on things I liked and disliked about those two games. Puerto Rico gave the framework of an economic game with the support of buildings, but was complicated to set up. Agricola gave the worker placement mechanic and suggested basic resources, but the blocking felt too negative. Both games involved building things that only you could use. I wanted something faster, more positive, and more interactive. There are a few Minor Improvements in Agricola that add action spaces, and I thought that was neat, so I decided to make that a primary mechanic.
It is worth pointing out again, that New Bedford is a real town, and was historically a whaling town. Have you ever been to New Bedford before?
Nat: That’s right, the choice was very deliberate to make sure that the game is rooted in history. I only recently got to visit New Bedford for the first time, after working on the game for 2 years. But it gave me a lot of great inspiration for even more details to add to the game.
When you visited New Bedford, were you able to go to the whaling museum there? Also, could you give us an example of a great detail you learned on your trip that will make into the game?
Nat: The Whaling Museum was a sort of solemn experience. Since I was focused so much on the town and the industry when designing New Bedford, I wasn’t thinking about the violent side of whaling. Going to the museum reminded me how horrific whaling is. It’s important to remember that portion of the history, but it has absolutely no place in the game.
There is a whole section of town that is part of the National Historic Park. All the buildings have distinct characters. It’s not just a dock, it’s City Pier. It’s not just a church, it’s the Seamen’s Bethel. These details give the town its unique identity, and that’s the level of detail I’m trying to put into the game, to help the town come alive for players.
The game isn’t just about going out and hunting whales, but about that time period and really building the actually town of New Bedford. How important is the building of the town to the game?
Nat: I introduce New Bedford as the game of Town Building and Whaling, and I always put town building first to highlight its importance. One of the main elements is that you actually grow the town by adding buildings throughout the game, making it larger and more productive. That development is an important theme in the game. You don’t have to build, but using your own or others’ buildings is key to doing well. And you’ll probably want at least one of the bonus point buildings.
After reading some of your designer notes on the game, it seems like this isn’t just a paste on theme euro. You really put time and effort into the theme, even going as far to find out what New Bedford buildings were around at the time that game is set in. How much research did you do and why was it so important to be as accurate as the gameplay would allow?
Nat: Moby Dick actually influenced me there. Even though it’s a fictional account, it contains so much factual detail that the ship, the town, and the ocean are all characters. It’s the same for New Bedford. I said before that it’s not just a generic setting, so to be faithful to the character of the town, I needed to be true to history. To do that, I read a book on the history of whaling, and a dry contemporaneous history of the town. Even so, I feel like I’m still in the shallow end of the pool.
When you were researching New Bedford and even the old time whaling industry, what was the most interesting fact you learned?
Nat: There are probably whales still alive today that were alive when Moby Dick was written. [citation: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/there-are-whales-al... ]
Another feature in the game is that you draw whales at random and you could get an “empty sea” token. As the game goes on there is a better chance of drawing “empty sea” tokens representing over whaling. Was this mechanic always in the game?
Nat: This was one of the earliest aspects that I developed. It was important to me to show both sides of the peak of the industry. It turned out to be one of the defining elements. The negative consequences of this behavior actually show up in the system, in a way that feels even more natural than I originally envisioned in the design.
There are three types of whales in the game – what are they and why did you pick them for the game?
Nat: The three whales are Right whales (probably so-called because they were the right whales to hunt, no joke!), Bowhead whales (with the awesome species name of Balaena mysticetus), and the Sperm whales. Those were the three most commonly hunted whales, with Right whales being easier to catch due to their migration range. Bowheads are similarly sized, but are harder to catch and have longer baleen which is more valuable. Sperm whales are less common and smaller, but are prized for their higher quality oil and spermaceti, as well as most dangerous. All of that is reflected in-game, where right whales are the most common and least valuable, bowheads are in the middle, and sperm whales are most valuable and most rare so that catching one is a significant event.
You put thought into many aspects – including the special buildings in the game. For example the tavern lets you discard an empty sea token. This is supposed to represent hearing stories in the tavern. Another example is the lighthouse, it lets a player place a ship a space further out than normal, to represent a lighthouse warning you not to get too close to the shore. Did you try to make all the special buildings have some thematic sense to them and do you have a favorite building in the game?
Nat: Yes, every building has a thematic reason for existing. A lot are obvious but some, like the Post Office, are more tenuous. (You’re sending the letters around town.) On the flip side, there are a lot of building names I had to leave out because I couldn’t find an action that felt appropriate. I didn’t want to sacrifice good theme for superficial flavor text. I don’t have a single favorite building, but I’m always drawn to the Tavern when I play.
Is there an area in the game that you think the theme does suffer?
Nat: Selling goods to earn money feels a little out of place. It’s an important path to earn money to pay for whales, but it doesn’t feel productive like the rest of the game. I justify it as another part of the town industry. Somebody’s got to bring all the lumber for ships, bricks for the buildings, and food to keep the town running.
The theme of “whaling” is one that could ruffle some feathers. Were you at all hesitant about designing a game with this theme?
Nat: In a broad sense, somebody is always going to be against your game for some reason. I always saw it in the historical context, and certainly Moby Dick has that same perspective. The game doesn’t go into the violent aspects of whaling or promote it as a modern industry, and it even shows the negative consequences to the whale population. But whaling is a sensitive issue for a lot of people. The publisher and I agreed that it subject needed to be treated respectfully.
How do players interact with each other in New Bedford?
Nat: New Bedford has several different forms of interaction. You’re racing to build the buildings that support your strategy, you’re trying to beat players to use the action spaces and buildings you need, and you’re competing for selection in whaling. But one of the most important features is that instead of using interaction to exclude others, interaction in New Bedford gives other players opportunities. Building a building makes it available to everyone, using a building makes it a source of income to the owner, and your position during whaling gradually deteriorates, giving others the chance to to collect better whales. Also important is that you can’t be blocked from the basic actions. So while your strategy won’t fall apart from one wrong turn, you still need to plan around the other players to make best use of the available actions.
How does the 2-player game differ in rules or overall feel compared to the 4-player game?
Nat: Since I usually play games with just my wife, having a game that was just as deep with two players was an important part of development from the start. You only use about half of the buildings, which keeps the number of resources tight, but you still have all of the options for strategy. It feels very similar to the three and four player games.
Dice Hate Me Games is publishing New Bedford, what has been your favorite part with working with Chris Kirkman and Dice Hate Me Games, so far?
Nat: Honestly, just talking with Chris about New Bedford has been fantastic. We share a vision for what the game can be, and he’s just as passionate about it as I am, which is refreshing, since everyone else I know is sick of hearing about it after 2 years. But in seriousness, it’s been like joining a family, everyone is very supportive and friendly.
What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?
Nat: In the very first first public test, I got some advice from the game design duo called Dr. Wictz that guided me to present the information on the boards more clearly, especially the whales on ships. That led to streamlining the entire whaling portion of the game, which made it much more playable.
What would you say is the biggest change from early prototypes, to what it has become now?
Nat: The biggest single difference was that early games had a second more powerful “wood” resource. Ironically it was very easy to take out because it became so obviously redundant.
What was your favorite part of designing the game?
Nat: Probably discovering some of the unintentional behavior in the game, like the way some buildings work together, or the long term strategy of whaling. A lot of the building interactions are intentional, but it’s exciting to discover things that you didn’t specifically plan for. I think a lot of the fun of game design is being able to say, “Look at how clever I was,” whether that's just to yourself, or to others.
What was the most challenging part of designing New Bedford?
Nat: The hardest part has been narrowing down all of the ideas I had into a set that really works. There's a temptation to include every fun idea I have, but in reality, a lot of them won't work. Plus, from a practical point of view, there just isn't time to test them all, so I needed to learn how to extract just the best parts. Because I'm usually quiet, learning to be more outgoing and proactive with sharing the game has also been tough.
What was, the most interesting design choice you had to make when you were designing New Bedford?
Nat: I don’t even know if this counts because it was so early in the process, but after the very first playthrough, my wife helped me decide (i.e. told me) that whales should cost money instead of earning it. That’s the point at which it went from being a game idea to being a game.Early prototype of New Bedford
What has been your biggest/most important lesson that you have learned from designing New Bedford?
Nat: As my first complete game, I’ve learned so much about game design, it’s hard to pick one lesson. But I’ll go with this: everyone has something to tell you. No matter how far along your design is, it can always benefit from feedback. Even if you don’t think the feedback is right, it has a grain of useful information about something your game can do differently, and sometimes better.
While every game is not for every gamers – many of us have different tastes – who do you think would really enjoy New Bedford?
Nat: New Bedford will definitely appeal to fans of mid-weight to heavier strategy games, (Agricola, Puerto Rico, Le Havre, Caylus), who want the same level of depth in a shorter time. But it’s also pretty accessible for more casual players. You don’t need to memorize probabilities or remember 200 different cards, and you don’t need to play 20 games before you understand it, but there is still room for strategy growth. Although I talk about how well the theme is integrated, it has the soul of a Euro game.
I know you are working on another game – a micro game (inspired by Coin Age) called Nantucket. What can you tell us about this game, its gameplay and when we can expect that one to be released?
Nat: It’s really a micro-adaptation of New Bedford. You gather coins as resources, use them to build buildings, send them out as ships, then flip them to collect more valuable coins as whales for points. It hits all the same notes in a 15 minute game that uses only 2 cards and a handful of change. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to make it a stretch goal in the Kickstarter campaign.
Are the components just a card (or two cards) and some coins like Coin Age?
Nat: A game of Nantucket uses 2 cards that show the buildings, and 32 coins in 2 sizes. The current version has 3 double-sided cards and one single-sided card so you can mix and match for variable setup. You can use US dimes and pennies, or even the coins from New Bedford.
As a designer, do you think you will try to make all your future games as theme heavy as New Bedford? How important is theme to you?
Nat: As a player, it’s usually the theme that attracts me to a game, and I prefer when the theme makes sense because it draws me in more. So as a designer, I want to create a similar experience for players. I think having that connection makes games easier and more interesting to play and design. But not every game needs that level of fidelity, and I won’t try to force it either way.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed New Bedford?
Nat: I’m proud of the fact that after 2 years, I still love to play it, still have trouble making decisions, and still lose at it. I should be a bored expert by now, but I’m not. It’s amazing to create something that can still surprise me.
Finish this sentence in 12 words or less. New Bedford is ________.
Nat: A deep, strategic, accessible game with a well-integrated unique historical theme.More modern protoytpe of New Bedford.
If there is someone reading this that really wants to have more theme in a game they are designing, what advice would you give them?
Nat: I think it’s difficult to add theme partway through the design. You can add art and change names, but it won’t have the full thematic depth. For that, you need to start with the theme in mind, and find mechanics that make sense within that theme and reinforce it. The way parts of the game interact--players, components, resources, actions, goals--will make a stronger impression than just making it look right. Of course good art helps, but that’s generally the part that is easy to add on top.
What else do you have on the horizon? Anything we should be looking out for in 2015?
Nat: I feel like I’m one of the few designers I know who doesn’t have 2 or 3 games in the works with publishers. What I do have is a closet full prototypes, and UNPUB 5 is coming up, so hopefully we’ll be doing this again in less than a year.
As we come to a close, is there anything else that you would like to add?
Nat: Dice Hate Me Games always come packed to the brim, and I’m really excited about all the things we want to add to the box. Plus there are even more ideas I’m working on for the future. If you want to read all about them or read more about the development of New Bedford, I wrote a whole series of posts about it on my blog.
The blog also has lots of general articles about game design and what I’m working on. People can also follow me on Twitter @OakleafGames or on Facebook as OakleafGames
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about New Bedford!
Thank you Nathaniel, for sharing about New Bedford with us!Interested in New Bedford? You can find the Kickstarter, by clicking on this link.
What's that you say? Inquiring meeples want to know more?You may want to check out these links:
• Dice Hate Me Games' Offical Webpage
• Nathaniel Levan's Blog
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