Call me Matt. Some time ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me in the game store, I thought I would sail about a little and see the Kickstarter-y part of the world. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards Kickstarter with me.
(with apologies to Herman Melville)
This review is of a Kickstarter prototype and is at an early with regards to artwork. The (amazing) cover above is the style we can hope for on final release.
Leviathan takes us on board the Pequod and has us join her captain’s mad quest for revenge against Moby Dick, the great terror of the deep: the white whale. It throws us right into climactic battle with our foe and his pod of fellow whales, which might not be strictly what happens in the book, but my goodness does it ever capture the sense of anxious trepidation, even fear, that you should have been feeling upon the deck of that doomed ship.
Thar she blows!
Your ship is alone. Facing you is a line of whales covering the entire tabletop, hiding your ultimate prey. They move faster than you. Your ship can barely scratch them. But there is no running away from this. Ahab’s quest for revenge will not be denied! As the Pequod player you will be thoroughly intimidated, especially as they, as one table-spanning body, advance towards you.
Leviathan is, despite being made out of only 18 cards, a tabletop skirmish game. Yes, like those miniatures heavy dice chucking classics, but using only cards. No dice. No rulers. This is already a really interesting proposition and, to my knowledge, unique! It implements a pretty clever movement system too. Each player gets a movement card with a thematically appropriate pointy object depicted. This gets placed with the bottom edge touching the little curved ring segment on any ship/whale. Like so:
Then you twist the ship/whale card to line it up with the movement card, giving you a smooth turning system (often the fiddliest part of skirmish games with large square based units) so long as you’re careful. Then you slide your ship/whale forward until the bottom edge is between the max/min lines of your movement card.
Again, the key word here is carefully. While things were undoubtedly made worse by playing with a paper prototype in slippery card sleeves, it took a little bit of practice to get this movement system working smoothly. Trying to manoeuvre a card underneath another card without misalignment is not easy. But whereas many skirmish games frustratingly come down to fractions of an inch, where these accumulated errors really have an impact, Leviathan seems a bit more forgiving. In part this is down to its very streamlined combat system. There are thematically no guns so the only combat is in your face melee: an attack is triggered by moving a card on to an enemy card. This gives quite a bit of leeway for making a successful assault. It’s not perfect, but I have had far less trouble than I enjoyed in my Warhammer days.
To resolve an attack is even simpler. Each card has an attack and a defense value, and you need only compare the attacker’s attack with the defender’s defence! If higher, that ship/whale is going down. This simple system allowed the designer’s to create a tiered system: Moby Dick is the ultimate glass cannon, with a stunning attack but a non-existent defence. He is the only unaided whale that can take down the exceptionally tough Pequod, and in turn the one whale that Pequod is able to kill is Moby himself, setting up an almost inevitable showdown. But what then of the other whales? Well, the Pequod may start alone, but will soon drop off some of its smaller, and far better armed, whaling boats to try and even out the battle. These may be easier to smash, but they are also armed to the gunnels and more than capable of dealing with Moby should they get chance. The rest of the pod, then, are in place to sow confusion and clear a path for Moby to take down the relentless Pequod.
It’s all very coordinated for whales.
From hell’s heart I stab at thee
The real, near overwhelming, difficulty for the harpoon loving Pequod player is figuring out which whale is your true target. In fact, figuring out which is a whale at all! All the whale cards start face down, with only a mysterious shape on the back. Only when you engage them, in combat, do you flip the card over and discover which whale you face. This may mean you waste an attack as your strike glances off a tougher hide than you expected, quite possibly leaving you exposed to a blubbery counter attack. But worse yet that shadow in the water may turn out to be nothing more than a trick of the light. Two of these damnable whale cards will be mirages that disappear the moment they are revealed.
The Pequod therefore faces a brutal challenge. To identify, target and destroy Moby Dick amongst that mass of monstrous meat without being destroyed itself. You are outnumbered. They move faster than you. And you barely have time on a two and a half foot table to get two extra boats out before they are upon you. The game definitely seems tilted towards the whale player but I can’t truly begrudge it that when I feel so close to attaining my goal. I just need to get in the head of that beast (by which I mean my opponent) and figure out his game. It gives me the driving obsession for victory of that fictional captain, in many ways because it is so quick and so easy to replay.
But that doesn’t make it a boring game for the whale player either. You are the master of these oceans and that gives you a tremendous sense of power. But your best weapons are also your Achilles heel. You must protect them, but you need to use them. This puts a tremendous pressure on you as you set up and bluff and manoeuvre building to a wonderful tension as your beasts clash with the enemy and you discover if you’ve arranged things just right, judged those attack ranges just right (for there’s no knowing for certain in skirmish games).
Each player also gets some one shot special power cards, like the Pequod’s spotter who flips a single whale card, a key story beat in the game’s early turns. Or the whales’ nasty barrel roll that sees them dodging an attack, which, frankly, may be too effective for its own good. A couple of boosted attack cards let your weaker units take out their bigger targets, but only once per game, and some fast moves let you strike out when opportunity presents itself. The one that will always see play is “Thar she blows”, often on the first or second turn of the game as the Pequod player desperately tries to get some information. Typically everything moves and then a single manoeuvre (an extra move for a single card, or something special like the Pequod lowering a boat or two whales swapping positions underwater) is performed and so which cards your cetacean opponent chooses to swap or push forward is the only hint to what lies beneath and this is where the bluffing comes in. The difference between flipping a trick of the light card and Moby Dick himself is dramatic, and while luck plays a big part in this, so too does that bluffing. Else I wouldn’t have flipped tricks of the light in both of my last two games! Curse you, Moby!
It’s not down on any map; true places never are
By now I feel we’ve hunted down this review and it’s time to launch the harpoons. It is so widely considered common knowledge that a game should be perfectly balanced that it is almost taken as gospel truth. I don’t feel like Leviathan in its current form is balanced, the whales seem to have a much easier time of the hunt. That might be enough for you to condemn this one to the deep but, if I may, I’d like to offer a different perspective.
Not every game is intended as a pure competitive test of skill for which strong balance is required. A 20 minute, 18 card micro game rarely falls into such a category. Leviathan is a game you play for the experience and nothing sets up the feeling of fear, tension and excitement of facing near impossible odds and occasionally triumphing. Nor, as the whale player, the worry of never putting a foot wrong. Being defeated but coming so close, and it always feels close, leaves me breathless for more. Another attempt. One more chance to tear the heart from that white whale. There is no more perfect a setting for this feeling than here!
Perhaps once victory as Ahab and his crew is achieved I will feel satisfied and not bring this game out again. Perhaps it is impossible to win as the Pequod and wouldn’t that be a hilariously brilliant commentary on obsessiveness! If so, it is set up perfectly to leave victory tantalisingly within reach.
If you like a challenge, like to explore your opportunities within a game and have a friend just as likely to become obsessed with the pursuit of victory as you are then Leviathan is absolutely something you should pick up. I have thoroughly enjoyed it! The bluffs, the tension and the frustration all play wonderfully into a super quick reset and replay time. Do check this out!
Rating: Hunt it down
Leviathan is on Kickstarter until November 5th 2017. This review was provided on the request of the publisher Past Go Gaming, but I had to put together the print and play myself!