Interview with Nat Levan
Interview by: Nat Levan and Grant Rodiek
I'm fascinated by weird and unique themes and historical takes on games. I'm also interested in how we can use uncomfortable topics as a teaching opportunity. Even better, an entertaining one. I asked Nat Levan at BGG if he'd be interested in an interview. Avast! He was!
My questions will be prefaced by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Nat's responses as Nat Levan (NL).
Hyperbole Games: Hi Nat! Introduce yourself. Who are you and what should we know about you? What's a good northeastern greeting for us west coast types to latch onto?
Nat Levan: I'm Nat Levan. I've been into board games for about 4 years. I started designing about 2 and a half years ago. I work as a structural engineer by day, so I fit one of those game designer stereotypes. I live in the Philadelphia Suburbs. Is that Northeastern to the rest of the country?
HG: East of the Mississippi, so...yes! You're here, obviously, to discuss New Bedford. This is your midweight euro published by Dice Hate Me Games. Give us the high level rundown.
NL: New Bedford is my first complete game design. It's set in the mid-19th century at the height, and center of the historic whaling industry. The base mechanic is worker placement, but the initial pool of actions in the town is small. Players develop the town by adding buildings with more powerful actions, so the town actually grows as time passes. The new actions become available to everyone, at a slight cost.
You can also launch ships to go whaling, sending them out into the ocean to slowly collect whales each round via a draft. But as the game progresses the whale population declines, and you'll encounter more and more empty sea. Eventually the ships return, and you need to make enough money before then to pay the sailors a share of the profits. You need to balance building, earning money, and whaling to win.
HG: What is the coolest part of New Bedford?
NL: Well, first, the whaling is the part I'm most proud of. It's actually been almost untouched since the very beginning. I love the subtlety of deciding when to whale. If you go too early, other players can launch later and have better choice in the draft. To late and you won't have time to collect enough whales. Drawing whale tokens naturally reflects the effects of over-harvesting, and becomes a big element in later rounds.
For me, the coolest part is seeing how the buildings all work together to support the town. You're building up the entire industrial base. Developing all these buildings that work together, and making sure they are not only tempting to build and appropriately expensive for their value, but also thematically appropriate has been a long but fun journey.
HG: What are some of your favorite euros or like games? What inspired New Bedford? What were your goals?
NL: I'm so glad you asked the question like that. I found Agricola and Puerto Rico pretty early in my gaming history. I still really admire them, but don't get much opportunity to play. I took what I really liked about them as inspiration for New Bedford, with the goal of making something I would play all the time. Both games have lots of replayability, but can take a while to set up and play, so I made New Bedford easier to pull out of the box. It also plays a bit faster.
I liked the more direct interaction from Agricola, but I didn't like how limiting it felt for someone to block the space you need, so in New Bedford, you always have access to the basic actions. I liked how combinations of unique buildings help guide your strategy in both games but didn't like how exclusive building felt, so buildings become available to everyone while rewarding the builder.
HG: Let's move past New Bedford for a second: do you have a favorite theme? Or mechanic? What's your ideal game to play?
NL: I don't have a specific theme, but I seem to find myself drawn to themes of industrialization and growth. Especially the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. I love being able to grow something small into something productive, so it should be no surprise that engine-building is my favorite mechanic. I like worker placement because it gives you that freedom of choice while tying your personal actions directly to actions within the theme.
HG: What drew you to the story of New Bedford (the town)? I'm intrigued by the premise of a town that used to be enormous and booming and is now a quaint portion of what it used to be. I imagine people never thought it would dwindle in the past.
NL: Well, Moby Dick is one piece of it. It's a fascinating, incredibly important but largely ignored piece of American and world history. New Bedford's story fits in perfectly with the industrialization I was just talking about. As late as the 1830s, New Bedford was still this fairly small and unimportant town, but in less than 20 years, it became, without exaggeration, one of the most important cities in the world. Then, in the same period of time, the industry fell apart due to over-harvesting of whales, the discovery of oil and invention of Kerosene, and unfortunate luck. People sort of forget that it was ever so important. The story would feel at home in ancient legend or fantasy, but it's well documented history.
HG: I think games should teach and being up topics of history. I love Combat Commander, and I'm so excited to see the discussions Freedom have brought forth. I especially love the game documentary Dune. What is New Bedford teaching us? It's about whales, so why does that matter?
NL: Some of the response to New Bedford has been negative due to the inclusion of whaling, which we expected. But the act of whaling isn't depicted in the game at all. It deals with the industry on a higher level, and the historical impact. It's interesting to see how the town grew to support the whaling industry. But what I really wanted to show, from the very inception, was how the industry grew too big without considering the effects of whaling, many of the whale species on which the industry depended almost disappeared. What makes whaling so insidious is that it the participants didn't want the whales to disappear, but they couldn't figure out any other options. The history and environmental lessons are one and the same.
HG: What else do you have in the works?
NL: Right now, I'm working a handful of small designs, because it's a lot easier to playtest them. I don't have anything in the pipe officially, but I'll have a pile of games to take to UNPUB 5 in February in Baltimore. The most complete are a trick taking game about tailoring suits, and a 15 minute wonder building game that fits in a small bag. I've also got a couple of micro-games based on New Bedford and Brew Crafters (also from Dice Hate Me Games) that I'd like to show off for fun.
HG: Anything else you want to add?
NL: The last thing I want to say is that I feel really lucky with New Bedford. The response has just been overwhelming. I'm excited about the extras we have planned for the game, so I really hope we get the opportunity to put them in.
And a big thank you to my wife for putting up with all my traveling and talking about the game for the past few months. She loves games, despite the fact that I've been a pain to deal with. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about New Bedford!