“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” – Moby Dick
August 29, 1886. We’d set sail with a hold full of goods bound for far-off Honolulu, and the ocean swell greeted us like the embrace of a familiar lover. It’d been an easy few weeks in the streets and pubs of Nantucket. But too much good food and far too much good beer has made us soft in the gut, and slow in the mind. A few weeks of clear skies followed our departure. Then, as if to mock us for our leisure, or smite us for our sins, the skies began to grow black, and the winds howled something devilish. I don’t fully remember what transpired after that, but I heard the shouts from the crow’s nest, and the screams from below deck. When I awoke, we were six men down, and what little food hadn’t been swallowed by the ocean was scant enough to complete the journey. What happened next, with no land in sight and death all but certain, will stay with me forever. These men, with empty bellies and battered souls, started to sing.
The first time my Nantucket crew burst into song caught me completely off guard. It’s not just that I wasn’t expecting it, but that it seemed to sum up everything about the game. I found myself stopping what I was doing just to listen. To hear the creaking sails and the roaring ocean drowned out by the fierce, harmonious defiance of The Roaring Trowmen.
The shanties are just a small part of the game, but they perfectly represent the attention to detail on the part of developer Picaresque Studio, and the effort to fully invest the player in Nantucket’s fiction.
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
These words, spoken by Moby Dick’s narrator, could be a mantra for Nantucket. Any list that attempts to analyse its features, to scrawl them down and connect them like a drunk cartographer, would be reductive. There’s no one system here that stands out as being especially excellent, but to isolate and scrutinise them individually is to miss the ocean for the waves.
Judged as a strategy game, Nantucket isn’t complex. You’ll glean the most effective approaches in the first few hours of play. You’ll soon work out how to avoid the death sentence of having no supplies to fuel a hunt, and thus no way of selling your catch for supplies. It’s easy to see the value of pointing your strategic spyglass a few months into the future – and planning your hunts, voyages, and stock stops accordingly. Nantucket’s strategy layer won’t make you feel like a tactical genius. But if you allow yourself to get swept up by it you’ll feel like a sea captain.
Leaving port, even with a full hold, carries a sense of foreboding, of uncertainty. The heady mix of salty air and grog. Dreams of glittering riches and nightmares of watery graves. Godless heathen assailants and ferocious leviathans. Shining coins and jagged rocks. The shouted refrain of familiar shanties, and the alien roar of unexplored oceans. These things are the soul of Nantucket. The constant feeling that, aye, it’s smooth sailing right now, but the tides could turn at any moment.
It’s this duality that makes Nantucket so compulsive. The primary gameplay beats remain similar throughout, becoming perfunctory even, after extended sessions. But I came to love them for what they represented. Safety and normalcy. Bandages for wounds, a hot meal and a bed before once again throwing yourself at the mercy of the endless blue.
The repetitive actions become a wider structure that contain Nantucket’s essence. Like the covers of a sailor’s journal, it’s what happens in between that makes for good reading. Your captain’s chosen expertise, your crew, and the environment all play into the random events that occur as you travel the ocean. You will eventually end up seeing the same events repeat – and this is absolutely a flaw in a game where so much hinges on the intrigue of the story layer – but the variety of factors at play keep Nantucket tense.
The simulation aspects, too, when taken in isolation, are fairly limited. Hiring crew, upgrading ships, and buying supplies are a few simple menu clicks away. The navigation map uses a weather system, and wind direction affects the speed of your ship, but aside from a few cases, I found I could ignore it without much effect. You might arrive at your destination a few days late if the wind is against you, but providing you’ve got the supplies, it’s never much of an issue.
Environmental hazards and pirates are a more successful addition. Encountering either can be extremely deadly, and they add yet more depth to your personal Nantucket story. They’re usually easily avoided by setting your courses carefully, but their presence prevents you ever getting too complacent.
Again, it’s the way these elements combine that make Nantucket special. There’s always progress to make or a new destination to reach. By creating a repetitive gameplay loop where progress is always apparent, but by filling this loop with emergent narrative moments, Nantucket ensures that your hand stays on the ship’s wheel.
To the hunt itself, then. I can easily imagine combat being Nantucket’s most divisive aspect. Tt all depends on your patience for turn-based and RNG. Cards represent your crew and your enemies, and success or failure hinges on literal dice rolls. As characters grow in ability, and more classes are introduced, more options become available. But for a good few hours, Nantucket’s combat is very, very simple. Decisions boil down to paying attention to what the enemy is doing, and deciding whether to focus on offensive or defensive maneuvers for that round.
Because of the dice, the exact same choices might bring victory or absolutely brutal failure in the exact same battle. Crew members are expendable and easily replaced, providing you have enough prestige, but if your captain goes, that’s it. On paper, there really isn’t much to seperate Nantucket’s combat from a simple tabletop drinking game.
But it just works. The random twists and turns that occur elsewhere means that after a few years in, you’re so attached to your crew members that every dice roll represents a dramatic beat in the story. The way the upper hand eddies between yourself and your prey is a sailor’s story in microcosm. A mechanical distillation of a fatal tug of war with gigantic, untameable beasts. Relief washes over you like a tidal wave when the results you need appear. When they don’t, having to decide who gets the one defensive action when a blue whale is bearing down on a whole boat of wounded men is more tense than any single left click has the right to be. Once you upgrade your ship and access more whaling boats and crew abilities, combat becomes genuinely excellent. For the most part, it’s basic in scope, but gripping in context.
Should you buy it?
Much like the Great White Whale itself, Nantucket is an elusive creature to pin down. Aside from the excellent sound design, there is no one element that stands out as especially masterful or unique. Yet, I enjoyed every moment of my time at sea.