Leviathans – Wargame of the Show at Gencon
Leviathans. Boardgame Preview. Publisher: Ctalyst Game Labs. Developer: Randall N. Bills. $80 for base game of 8 ships; $40 expansions of 4 ships
GenCon 2011 rang with the sound of shot and shell as massive Leviathans clashed above the demo tables. Turrets ponderously traversed to line up shots, copper-clad steering gear strained, and aether engines roared to close the distance between French and British airships. But if you listened closely you could just make out the screams of rage from the employees at Catalyst Game Labs.
The sad fact is that Catalyst, after years developing the game and planning for this unveiling, arrived at GenCon without a single unit to sell. While they were tight lipped about what issues led them to show up empty handed, it was obvious that someone (or some manufacturing partner) had made a serious mistake.
The team at Catalyst should be commended however. Using every pre-production unit they could scrounge, and after contracting for custom dice to be delivered the night before the Con, they made an excellent showing. Every player who sat in on a demo left with a model or two, and with a story to tell about what was hands-down wargame of the show.
The British Fleet on the left, the French on the right. This is the set of minis you can expect in the base set. I’m told the British ships will be a smidge darker at retail.
Leviathans is a new universe for Catalyst, a company which BattleTech fans should no doubt be familiar with. Already displaying a penchant for alternate futures, this time they rolled the clock back to 1878 to start their tale. It was then that the Polish genius Rynchowski discovered a fluid that, when charged with electricity, allowed 12 ounces of volume to lift 1 ton of weight. In this alternate timeline the pendulum of scientific interest swung away from the airplane and towards the airship. The game itself opens in 1910, with colonial powers France and Britain throwing their considerable tonnage around the skies over the Middle East, and Catalyst clearly has a fertile field of lore to mine with this setting. Expect Russian, German, and American forces to be released in short order.
When the game releases in the next few weeks players will have the opportunity to purchase the starter set, which comes with all the rules, tokens, dice, and various ephemera required to play and become immersed in the world of Leviathans. But the real joy of this game is the miniatures, if you can even call them that. The largest pieces are nearly 6 inches long! Two cruisers, one destroyer, and one Leviathan-class battleship form each of the two fleets players get in the box.
Much conversation was had at the table among people in the know about the decision to package the starter set with pre-painted, pre-assembled miniatures instead of parts on plastic sprues. Apparently a compromise was made between the two camps in that the starter set will arrive with a relatively plain coat of paint that will serve three purposes.
The French Leviathan-class battleship has some fearsome looking bow guns.
First, for those (like this author) who want no part in painting up plastic bits the two fleets will be easily identifiable via differing shades of gray, copper, and wood. Also, the British ships will be more bulky and bulbous, while the French ships will have long, sleek lines and additional control surfaces that are telling of their more maneuverable airframes. Second, for those looking to give the minis a quick dose of class, the out-of-the-box paint will serve as a primer layer. In fact, one demonstrator could be seen picking out the details of his fleet with a thin coat of black wash between rounds. Finally, for those who want a fleet that truly symbolizes the glory of their nation, you can strip the paint entirely and start from scratch.
The decision on how to prepare the minis within future expansions is still up in the air, however, and for one key reason: kit-bashing. It sounds like Catalyst is looking forward to pushing the hobby aspect of this universe, and may want to allow their players the opportunity to not only paint their units to suit their taste, but to actually build them according to their play style.
I was able to sit in on both difficulty levels of the demonstrations being run at GenCon, but not in the correct order. So I can attest first hand to just how complex a naval simulation this game is.
The first Shakedown Cruise of the day on Friday at GenCon. That clutch of cruisers on the right there? Everyone was nervously eyeing them, hoping to walk home with one before they ran out.
The first session, dubbed the Shakedown Cruise, was designed to give players the most basic understanding of movement and combat. In fact, with a printer and a pair of scissors you can take the same Shakedown Cruise I did on the vendor floor. Catalyst has made the decision to license elements of their game system and art through Creative Commons, so head on over and start downloading while you finish reading this preview.
The second session was dubbed King of the Skies. This multi-player deathmatch began by bolstering the lessons learned in the first session, and then adding more like inertia (these things don’t turn on a dime) turrets (which give adjustable fields of fire aside from your basic bow or starboard broadside) and advanced firing techniques. In this session you could fire each of the ships guns on its own or in coordinated bracketing fire. Independently each gun had a better chance to penetrate and destroy key systems on the target, but working together they could assure themselves of hitting something “crunchy."
Finally, it was revealed that in addition to massive cannons the airships in Leviathans also have deadly torpedoes at their disposal. In my King of the Skies match a buddy and I were able to bully a larger ship by interlocking our torpedo volleys, forcing the slower ship to turn away or take damage before he even entered range with his guns.
Outside the Vendor Hall was a gorgeous diorama of fully painted and accessorized Leviathans in flight.
As it turns out, the game will ship with even more complex rules, taking into account altitude and allowing players to perform screening actions to protect allied ships. Rumor has it that later expansions may introduce carrier units, with armadas of smaller ships or planes to harass enemies from afar.
One quirky element of the game is the choice of dice. Instead of multiple polyhedrals (d4s, d6s, d10s, etc.) the game will ship with only d12s. The dice will have a limited number of numerical facings, yellows with only the numbers 1-4, blacks 1-6, and so on. So, expect to be calling your shots in new ways as you attack with “12 d-blues, 3 d-yellows, and a d-6 for hit location!” This saved money on production, as cutting multiple size dice is more expensive than customizing dice which are all happen to be the same size. I was told that an enterprising staff statistician crunched the numbers, found the probabilities within acceptable tolerances, and that finance took him out to a very nice lunch.
This diagram shows the basic parts of a Leviathans airship card. The “T” indicates turrets that can fire in a 270 degree arc eclipsed only by the command deck amidships. “Trim Tanks” and “Tesla Coils” add to maneuverability of the ship and the stability of the gun decks respectively. If either are damaged expect to have some trouble turning and hitting your adversary.
Since I was at the very last session of the Con I was gifted with a full pre-production set of miniatures to take home for this article. Unfortunately when I took the minis out of the plastic packaging they almost immediately began to fall apart. The starboard engine abandoned my English cruiser, while a turret and a canard from a French destroyer vanished into the depths of my carpet. While every one of my models has moveable turrets, I wonder what tradeoffs were made to allow for it. In the end I can only speculate as to what the build quality of the production run will be. I’m also told that the British ships will be painted somewhat darker than these pictures show.
If you are planning on purchasing a set or two, may I recommend picking up a clear hex-map with a 1.5” grid. This will just about match the minis, and allow you to place a poster or a print-out of your favorite settings underneath. You’ll need the variation, because instead of a points system for building fleets the game will ship with a limited number of pre-designed scenarios. No word if that will change with later iterations of the rule set.
These destroyers are formidable vessels. One good broadside can bring down even a massive Leviathan-class battleship, a fact I proved just as our King of the Skies match ended.
In the end if Catalyst had shown up with enough units they could have sold hundreds and no doubt boosted their numbers for the year in a matter of days. But the sad fact is that they didn’t, and we wargamers will have to wait just a few more days to make our purchases. Hopefully this isn’t the killing blow for this universe, as I for one am looking forward to building up multiple fleets and closing with enemy Leviathans as often as I can.
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois. This summer you can find him crouched over his newly built PC, or prowling the vendor floor at GenCon in Indianapolis digging up new and exciting games to play and stories to write.