Overview: Leviathans is a game of steampunk airship battles, featuring massive (and beautiful) airship models and a whole lot of world-building thematic elements. I’ve only gotten a little farther than the Quick Start rules but wanted to give you an idea of how the game works. The Core Box Set features ships from the British and French fleets, but later expansions will include other factions as well.
Players: 2 or more (you’ll play on teams)
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 90-120 minutes
Rating: Very impressive, but a little hard to process all at once.
Who Will Like It? This is a tricky one: fans of traditional war games may feel this is a step down from what they’re used to, but boardgamers (like myself) may be overwhelmed by the manual. If you like steampunk and battle games, give it a shot. Mechanically it reminds me a little of Battleship Galaxies, but with more built-in rules and without all the ability cards.
The world of Leviathans is built on the premise that a substance called “electroid” was discovered in 1878 by a Polish scientist. Electroid can be activated by electricity, generating lifting power — leading nations to abandon their sea-bound battleships and replacing them with armored airships. If you like theme in your games, then Leviathans is dripping with it. Apart from the things you’ll need to actually play the game, there’s a 96-page World Primer, two novellas, a poster, and “Recognition Cards” for the ships, which are basically like little postcards with each ship’s stats and history.
Here’s a list of the components. For more details, check out the unboxing video.
- 8 airship miniatures (2 large, 2 medium, 4 small)
- 12 ship cards (for use in play)
- 12 recognition cards (thematic elements)
- 2 18″x22″ boards (double-sided; they match up to form one large map)
- 10 custom 12-sided dice
- 2 standard 6-sided dice
- 2 player reference cards
- 1 Leviathans Gazetteer World Primer book
- Quick-start rulebook
- Standard rulebook
- Booklet with 2 novellas
- Punch-out tokens for screening and torpedoes
I usually don’t list things like rulebooks in the components lists, because every game comes with rules. But in this case it’s worth mentioning because these are pretty hefty booklets: the quick-start rules are 20 pages long, and the standard rules are 68 pages. There are a lot of diagrams and gameplay examples in there, but it’s a lot of reading if you want to get the full experience.
I hadn’t noticed when I did the unboxing video, but the 12-sided dice are actually customized, with different numbers on them. When you’re attacking, you use different colors depending on which guns you fire and how close you are to the target ship. Black dice, which go up to 12, are the most potentially powerful, while the green dice (maxing out at 4) are the weakest option.
The game boards are each a six-fold board, and you use both of them lined up to form one large map. My copy didn’t sit entirely flat when I opened it up — you can see the raised edge in the center of the photo at the top of this post — but for the most part it works fine. Another complaint comes from using the reverse side of the boards: the half-hexes down the center, where the two boards meet, are actually more than half hexes. So what you get is one row of extra-wide hexes in the center. It’s not a huge deal, but as your ships do cover several hexes at once, things won’t line up exactly when you’re crossing the middle of the board.
The ships themselves are fantastic. They come fully assembled and painted — all you have to do is put on the decals. For some people this may be a downside, I guess: one of my war-gaming friends says that part of the fun of war games is assembling and painting the miniatures. Well, after my experience with Super Dungeon Explore, I have to say that I’m okay skipping that part of the “fun.” I want to open up a box, take out the pieces, and start playing. I don’t have time to wait for paint to dry, let alone painting all the fine details. The smallest ships are 2.5″ long, and the big battleships are 5″ long, so getting these out and setting it up on the table looks really impressive.
As I mentioned in the video, you get a whole bunch of plastic bases and little plastic posts for holding up the models. There are some posts for the small ships and different ones for the medium and large ships. And if you’re playing with the elevation rules, then you’ll need the other set of posts, which let you raise the ships up higher. It’s cool to have all those options, but it does mean that it takes a while to sort out all the posts. Also, my inexperience with these bases means that I cracked one of the bases a little right at the peg when I was trying to remove the post — my war-gamer friend informed me that you need to wiggle it a bit to prevent that, but I didn’t know that beforehand.
If you want a closer look at the rules, you can download the introductory PDF as well as the Lieutenant’s Manual (quick-start rules) from the Monsters in the Sky website. Since it’s a pretty involved game, I’ll give you an overview of the gameplay and try not to get too bogged down in the little details. For the sake of this post I’ll assume a two-player game; if you play with more players you will most likely use two teams.
Each player sets up their ships in near one edge of the hex map, opposite the other player. For the quick-start rules, you only use one Type 1 (small) ship and one Type 2 (medium) ship per player. The full rules offer a variety of scenarios but most still involve setting up on the sides of the board, with some having ships in the center of the board.
Players roll for initiative, and the losing player must move first. Each player moves their largest Type ship, and then each player moves their second-largest Type, etc. Each ship has its own number of movement points (MP), which can be reduced if the engines are damaged. It costs 1MP to move forward one hex, and 1MP to rotate the ship one hex-face. In addition, there are minimum requirements for how many hexes forward you must travel before you are allowed to rotate. The full rules also include instructions for sideslipping, rotating more than one hex-face, or using offensive or defensive screening.
After movement comes the combat phase. Each ship gets to fire, because it’s assumed that firing happens simultaneously — so even if a ship gets destroyed, it still has a chance to fire during that round. You figure out which guns can be fired based on relative locations of the ships, and then check to see which part of a ship you will be firing at. Range is determined by counting hexes, and there are some diagrams that show the firing arcs of each location on your ship. Based on that, you’ll roll some number of dice: one for the gun, one for additional crew manning the gun (if any), and at least one based on the target. (It’s easier to hit a stationary target, and easier to shoot the side rather than the front or back, so each ship shows what dice should be rolled when it gets shot at.) You’ll also roll the six-sided slot die.
The slot die determines which of the six slots you’ll hit in the location (Bow, Stern, Port, Starboard) that you’re targeting. On smaller ships, there are some “Miss” slots which means that you missed it, but otherwise each slot holds some equipment: engines, guns, armor, Tesla coil trim tanks, and so on. You add up all of the attack dice rolled, and compare it to the armor rating of the slot rolled: if the attack equals or exceeds the armor rating, then it’s a hit. When a slot is damaged, you circle it on the ship card; the ship can use it for the remainder of that combat phase, but then at the end of the turn it is marked out and can no longer be used.
Damaged ships start losing abilities: crew slots give you extra dice to roll when firing weapons; engines give you movement points; armor boosts the armor rating for a location; Tesla coil trim tanks power the weapons (so you lose attack points when they’re damaged). Losing guns, of course, means that you can’t fire as many times.
Hitting a location that is already damaged may let you do extra damage, including a “breaking the keel” roll which might take down the ship entirely. The more damage a ship has already sustained, the easier it is to blow them out of the sky, because you add your die roll to the number of already damaged slots, and then compare it to the ship’s “Structural Integrity” number.
The basic game ends when one player eliminates the other (or when one surrenders). The scenarios may have other victory conditions, such as inflicting a certain amount of damage within 10 turns.
The standard rules also include some other mechanics:
Torpedoes are fired before movement, and resolved before the combat phase. You mark the starting location and ending location of each torpedo with the tokens. After everyone moves, the torpedoes travel in a straight line and hit the first ship they encounter, friend or foe. Slots damaged by torpedoes are immediately destroyed and cannot be used in this combat phase, nor can they be repaired on this turn. Screening is also introduced: you can move to defend a ship (defensive screening) or to use another ship as a shield (offensive screening). You can ram into ships, though you have to roll some dice to see if the captain Also, you can use bracketing fire and saturation fire if your weapons allow it. Saturation fire gives you an extra slot die, meaning that you could do damage to more than one location with one attack. Bracketing fire lets you train several guns onto one location, giving you a higher chance of doing damage, but reducing the number of attacks you get. Finally, the standard rules allow you to attempt some repairs at the end of your turn if you have crew in the damaged location (though if you roll all 1s then the repair backfired and you may suffer some catastrophic consequences).
When I unboxed the Leviathans Core Box Set, I was a little reluctant to actually try it out — the amount of text seemed overwhelming — but Randall Bills from Catalyst Games said that I could actually get started with the quick-start rules and that it wasn’t as complicated as it looked. Well, my verdict on that is: yes and no.
Movement is very simple, and figuring out which dice to roll when you attack is also pretty easy to figure out once you’ve figured out how to read the ship cards. The weird part (in my opinion) is the way you figure out whether you can shoot somebody, and what part of the ship you’ll damage. You use your own ship’s weapon arcs to see if your weapons are facing the right direction, and then you use the target ship’s weapon arcs to see what part of their ship you actually hit. In the cases where they’re right at your gun’s range limits, things can get a little weird. This is the part of the game that my war-gaming friend said seemed a little too “fiddly.” I haven’t actually played games that require a tape measure, which always struck me as a bit much, but he explained that in the case of a tape measure, it’s really easy to see if something’s in range. Because on this board you’re counting hexes, and it matters which hex you start from and end on, things get a little hairier calculating damage.
I haven’t actually attempted the game yet using the full ruleset, though I have used some of the standard movement rules, saturation and bracketing fire, and ship repairs. I am curious to throw in the torpedoes, screening, and ramming in the future.
One thing I do like about the game is that the fleets aren’t symmetrical: the French ships are built for speed, and the British ships are built for firepower. This makes for some interesting dynamics, as the lighter French ships can zip around but if they get too close they’ll be completely blown apart; the British ships tend to position themselves to get a lot of firepower pointed in the right direction.
The custom dice for attacking are also a nice touch. (Again, probably something that won’t be new to experienced war-gamers, but is new to me.) Most guns have two dice colors, one for close-up shots and one when the target is farther away. Also, I like that the damage also depends on the ship being targeted and whether they moved or not. If you don’t move (possibly because your engines are all destroyed) then the other player can inflict massive amounts of damage on you.
I do think the game assumes some knowledge of war game mechanics and conventions that typical board gamers might not have. For instance, it wasn’t until halfway through the rulebook that I understood you were supposed to write directly on the ship cards (with a dry erase marker, for instance). There is no marker provided, and until I got to that section, I wasn’t sure how damage was going to be tracked. Since I didn’t have a dry erase marker handy, I ended up using small wooden cubes, since I have a lot of those. They work, but then you have to be very careful moving the cards around.
The quick-start rules are certainly manageable to the average board game player. The standard rules may be a little more to overcome, particularly trying to interpret the diagrams for screening and torpedoes, though a second read-through (while I’m not trying to play the game at the same time) does make it seem a bit more manageable. Overall I think it’s a small step up in complexity from Battleship Galaxies, which is the other closest thing to a miniatures war game that I’ve played myself. (And, admittedly, that’s a far cry from Warhammer 40K.)
I do like when the theme and mechanics work well together, but as somebody who hasn’t really played a lot of RPGs, I don’t really need this much theme. However, for folks who really like to get into the game, the World Primer and novellas are definitely a bonus. I wonder if they could have sold those separately, and if it would have made much of a price difference to have those as an add-on rather than included in the base set.
That leads me to the biggest potential barrier: the price. At a hundred bucks retail, this is a game that you’re not going to pick up just if you’re sort of curious about it — you want to be sure you’ll like it. I’ve mentioned before that as a game reviewer, I tend to have a breadth of play rather than depth of play: I’ll play dozens of different games one or two times each, rather than one or two games dozens of times. That makes it much harder for me to spend $100 on a single game. However, I can also see the appeal of this one, and the scenarios (and upcoming expansions) give it substantial replayability. The models are really cool, and maybe the price tag is comparable to other miniature gaming, particularly if you consider that these are pre-assembled and pre-painted. That may be $100 worth of time and effort right there.
The game is a work of art. The question is: will Catalyst Games find the right audience for it? It seems the target demographic will be people who don’t want to play full-on miniatures war games (where you need to paint your miniatures, build your scenery, and get out a tape measure) but also folks who don’t mind settling down for an evening to pore over a rulebook and immerse themselves in a world in order to play a game. Leviathans is definitely what I call an “event game” — it’s not one you just pull out because you’ve got a couple people over to play games; you invite a couple people over specifically to play this and plan your afternoon or evening around it.
If you like steampunk and airships, head over to Monsters in the Sky for more information, or be sure to check the game out in person if you’re attending Gen Con next month.
WIRED Amazing airship models, tremendous world-building aspect, massive battles.
TIRED Lots to read before you can play; may be a bit too much for most board gamers to digest.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.