The nineteenth century was a period of European industrialisation, the beginning of the United States’ rise to world domination, and a great time to be a whaler. The period is the Golden Age of American Whaling, and is the subject of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The novel deals with ideas like the perception of reality, the power dynamics of seafaring life, and giving the middle finger to Romanticism… perfect themes for a video game! From this rip-roaring classic of a tale comes Picaresque Studio’s strategy game Nantucket. Named after the real-world American whaling town of the same name, Nantucket promises adventure and more sea dogs than a canine swimming competition. But does Nantucket strike through the mask, or will it share Ahab’s fate?
Nantucket is set directly after the events of Moby Dick, at the beginning of the 1800s. You play as Ishmael, but he’s renamable. I wanted to name my captain ‘Fartydick’, but I decided to be professional (for once). At its core, Nantucket is essentially X-COM with a board game twist. You’re given a map, a set of missions, and complete freedom over what to do. Want to go hunt whales for three months to make enough money for a bigger ship? Complete a main mission? Take your shipmate to see his dying mother? It’s all up to you, the rusty sailor man who is drunk on revenge. You seek the White Whale, its pale skin haunting your dreams.
Sailing for adventure on the big, blue, wet thing
“Aye, Ernest, it be yer mum we harpoonin’ this morrow”
The first thing you’ll notice is just how much Nantucket resembles a board game. The game is separated into three main ‘modes’: Navigation, Docking, and Combat. The Navigation map screen has your ship slowly moving across it, toward objectives marked with a simple picture and pin. Objectives and ship management aren’t present on this map, only becoming available when you access them. These mini-screens are visually and mechanically like a side board (a ‘chit’ if you want to get technical), and are simple in execution. Moving a cabin boy from the hold to the crow’s nest during a voyage, for example, is as simple as clicking and dragging. This aesthetic brings a lot of charm to Nantucket, backed up by its gorgeous heavily-inked artwork.
Docking is where the logistics of Nantucket truly come into play. At various points on the map lie harbours where you buy supplies, upgrade your ship, accept missions and hire crew. These are separated into their own chits as well. This part of the game is also where the detail comes out to play. Missions are accepted through a local newspaper peddled by a local paperboy, with real historical headlines of the time – down to the very day. Completing these missions will yield a money reward, but other resources like experience and Prestige are rewards for the more challenging ones. These newspaper missions unfortunately have little variety, but it’s to be expected from such a limited narrative scope. Docks are well-spaced out for the most part, but one (Honolulu) felt like a trek to get to. I found myself ignoring missions from that island until later in the game when voyages had become efficient business trips.
The crew you hire in the Docking phase is limited by how much Prestige you have; the more prestige you have, the better and more numbersome your crew will be. Crew can also earn experience and upgrade themselves over time, but that’s not the only way crew can differ. Each crew member will start with certain Traits, and will accumulate more over the course of your game (more on that later). The higher the level, the more Traits they’ll have. Traits can carry both positive and negative effects, but most come down to increasing or decreasing some of their numbers. Most of the time these traits can be easily ignored, especially if your resource management is good. Resources (Water, Food, Wood, and Grog) are purchased in this docking phase and consumed on voyages. The more crew you have, the faster they’ll go away. Your hold space is limited depending on the size of your ship, so you’ll often make sacrifices for the greater good.
“‘Roll the bones’ means dice, not me actual bones! Keep the boat straight”
The game’s combat provided many moments of insane tension
Crew members also come in different varieties (Scientists, Navigators, Craftsmen, etc), with different strengths for each. A Craftsman is better at cooking and manning the hold, a Navigator is at home in the crow’s nest, a Scientist will be more than comfy in a sick bay, you get the idea. These types also come into play during combat as well. Having this variety not only adds even more board game elements to Nantucket, but also encourages the personalisation of your crew. I was genuinely disheartened to lose my first Harpooner – going so far as to name my next ship after him. Having a variety of these on your ship is vital to success and gives you more options when dealing with random events like a Combat scenario. Nantucket also offers random choices during voyages. Every so often, a dialogue box will appear and offer you a choice. Then decision itself can vary: Helping a shipmate connect to his dying mother, following a map that you won in a game on land to treasure, or even just watering down the rum so it’ll last longer. The consequences can vary, and will have long-term effects. Remember those Traits I mentioned? Well, some decisions will yield Traits for you or your shipmates. As a result, Nantucket’s characters become more than tools on a ship. A decision I remember clearly was cutting off my own foot, so that my harpooner could have a replacement. I spent the rest of the game praying to God with a 10% chance if my foot magically growing back. You can’t write this stuff, but Picaresque can. The writing for Nantucket in general is superb, and excels at immersion.
Nantucket, however, may just have too much unit variety. The Cabin Boy is a blank level 1 slate that costs 1 prestige. I have no idea why these are in the game, besides the theming. You can level them into a specialisation, but you gain Prestige at such a reliable rate that I never ended up taking them and hired already-specialised men instead. Fielding them as temporary replacements until you get to the next town isn’t a good strategy either, as slots on the ship aren’t made more efficient by having a Cabin Boy in them (at least, I don’t think so), and firing a crew member will cost you one Prestige each. Making Prestige scarcer or having a ramping cost of firing crew would make this system much more challenging, but that’s not to say that it’s altogether an unengaging system.
Combat is where Nantucket most resembles its physical cousins on the tabletop. Your crew pile into whaleboats (three for each boat) and do battle with sea creatures…and the occasional natives. Your crew’s attacks are mapped to the sides of a six-sided die, and these are rolled to determine if your character can make a move and what ability they can use. Nantucket hosts a good variety of crew types, but its enemy variety is no slouch either. Narwhals will impale your men on their horns, humpbacks will overturn your whaleboats, and human enemies will dodge attacks and focus their fire. The AI is above average and will often make sensible moves, but it’s nothing to write home about. Combat is also host to a couple of bugs (the awesome-sounding Grenade attack not targeting at all is particularly egregious), but fortunately Nantucket is bug-free for the most part. The game’s combat provided many moments of insane tension, especially when it came to the legendary sea monsters.
The writing for Nantucket in general is superb, and excels at immersion
If you want up-to-the-minute updates on the news of 200 years ago, Nantucket’s got ya covered
Nantucket feels awfully short if you’re at all proficient with strategy games. My first playthrough clocked in at about eight hours, my second not much shorter. That’s not to say that Nantucket is an easy game, and I had quite a few close calls (and more than one Game Over) in the early game. Indeed, the game suffers from the issue that every long-form strategy game does: the middle game becomes an unenjoyable grind before everything picks up for the final act. Nantucket has plenty of charm, but not enough to make up for its lack of innovation in this regard. I suppose it’s a good thing that the game is a short foray, then. Nantucket is slow, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. And I like slow games! Thankfully, the story kept to Melville’s style to a tee making it unique enough to carry the endgame.
Lastly, Nantucket’s sound design is good. Not great, but good. The OST is limited to three original tracks, but the sea shanties are goddamn amazing. The SFX are superb, but they’re mostly stock sounds. The voice acting for the cutscenes was odd in inflection, but that’s appropriate for Melville’s style (sort of). The VO work provided insight into their audio engineering, which was subpar. I’m not going to say that the game is worse off for this – it is an indie title after all – but recording their own voice clips for combat and such would have added much more identity. In fact, the passable quality of the equipment would have made Nantucket feel even more like you’re playing a board game at home!
Nantucket is a small but charming strategy title that nails almost everything it sets out to do. Its charm is so joyful that you’re willing to forgive the occasional misstep. Anybody with a passing interest in strategy titles should check this out. Picaresque is a studio I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye on.
You can check out Nantucket’s devblog here
Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher