Leviathan: Preview

“Call me, Fairway.” That’s a paraphrase of the famous first line from Moby Dick. It’s apropos since, in today’s preview, Fairway plays as Captain Ahab (Ishmael) against his white whales in a hunt to the death in Leviathan, a two-player, microgame currently on Kickstarter

Leviathan is a two-player, hidden movement, asymmetric, micro game [ed: woo, that’s a lot of descriptors] by Greg Loring-Albright and published by Past Go Games. In game, one player controls the crews of Ahab’s whaling ships and the other player controls Moby Dick and Moby’s whale comrades. The game is played in “real space” and play time will vary depending on how much space that is.  We previewed a print and play version of the game and it’s clear the art and components will be much different in the production version.

Initial Impressions

  1. We like the translation of the classic book into game form.
  2. The game is terrific example of an asymmetric game. The skill necessary to play Ahab’s whalers is decidedly different than Moby Dick’s whales. Each player faces unique concerns and the struggle between the two makes for some interesting game play.
  3. Setup is a cinch. Teaching the game was pretty simple with only some confusion about movements. And play time is nicely variable, mostly depending on table size.
  4. The art on the Kickstarter edition has a classic, epic-tale feel to it.

Game play

In Leviathon, two players are dueling in a battle to knock out the other player’s main character.  On the one side, a player takes control of the Pequod (Ahab’s ship) and trying to uncover Moby Dick. On the other side, a player takes control of Moby Dick and a pod of whales trying to take out the Pequod.  At the start of the game, each player is given their role’s cards. For the Ahab player, they receive the Pequod ship card, an assortment of other whaling ships, and three tactical cards.  For the Moby Dick player, they receive the Moby Dick card, three non-Moby Dick whales, two “trick of light” whale cards, and three tactical cards.  All of the whales (and trick of light) cards have a back that is a “submerged whale” view.

The tactical cards provide players with one-time use (mostly) abilities unique to the whales and whalers. These cards can be played at any time during a turn as provided in the rules. Once used during the tactical phase, they’re not usable again except that the Pequod player can recover used cards if they rescue crew from a sunken whaling ship.

At the start of the game, the players place their starting cards on the edge of the table.  For Ahab, that’s just the Pequod card.  For the Moby Dick player, that’s all of the “whale” cards (including the trick of light) face down with the “submerged whale” side up.

Now, starting with the Moby Dick character, players take turns doing two mandatory things and, optionally, one other action. First, the player must move all of their cards in play. To move, the player uses the little movement arc on each card (ship or whale) plus a movement indicator the back of their player reference. After aligning the two arcs, the player can move their card so that the rear of the card is somewhere between the minimum and maximum move. Outside this, there’s little restriction on movement. One exception is that while whales can cross over each other, but ships collide.

After moving all their cards (whether ships or whales), players can either move a card one additional time or make a maneuver. The whaler-player maneuver lets the player “lower a boat” next to the Pequod on either it’s port or starboard side (so long as it doesn’t overlap another ship).  The whale-player has three potential maneuvers: re-orient a whale 180 degrees, swap the position of two hidden whales, or announce an attack.

On a player’s turn, they also have the opportunity to “attack” their opponent when whale and ship cards overlap.  For the whales, this is in lieu of other maneuvers.  For the whalers, this is an optional third action. During an attack, all overlapping or chained cards in a group are resolved for a single attack (e.g., multiple whales and ships forming a discrete group).  First, all the hidden whales are revealed. Any “trick of light” cards (i.e., decoys) are immediately discarded. Then the “attacking” player sums up their attack value and compares it to the “defending” player’s defense value.  The side with the “higher” value wins.  If the whales lose, all losing whales are discarded. If the ships lose, all the ships are wrecked–the cards are flipped over–and the crew can be rescued later by the Ahab player by overlapping the card and rescuing the crew.

Players continue taking turns until someone wins.

On the green

36″x36″ Battlemat concept from the Kickstarter Page

Real-space, asymmetric, hidden movement, micro game about Moby DickMan, that’s a mouthful, but the game does an excellent job integrating all of these things into an enjoyable game. The real-space feature adds to the feeling that you’re out on the wide open ocean. The idea that you’re seeing just a silhouette of a whale for most of the game fits perfectly with the theme. The loneliness of that starting position of the Ahab player contributes to the darkness of the story itself.

The fact that it’s only 18 cards means that it’s portable too.

Educational opportunity.  When I was first learning the game, I chatted with my son about the story of Moby Dick. This game would make an excellent teaching aid for a teacher doing a Moby Dick lesson (is that still a thing?). There’s a lot of in-game references to the book.

Asymmetry.  This game does a nice job handling the asymmetry of the players. The Ahab player is definitely at a huge disadvantage during the early portions of the games. But this changes over the course the game. Pretty thematic in a sense. We liked the struggle between the two players to maintain the apparent control.

Play time, learning time, setup and tear down.  This game is a cinch to setup and tear down. We also didn’t have a lot of issues learning the game.  Both of those were excellent.  The other upside is that the game’s play time varied with the size of the available playing surface. If you need a quick game, just shrink the play area. Want a longer, more epic feel?  Just use a gigantic space, like… the floor.

Where it comes up short

If we took issue with one aspect of this game is the play time seems to favor one player or the other.  When we learned the game, we played on a small space. In this case, the whale player has an advantage: rush the Pequod and crush it.  There wasn’t enough separation and too many unknowns for Ahab to reliably “win.”  However, when the game was longer with a more wide open space, the Ahab player had time to drop ships and get some separation and room the maneuver. We kept thinking that there must be an optimal dimension for balanced play.  The rules didn’t provide it, but that would be nice if it did.

A note about the theme

Leviathan is mostly a game-style re-telling of Moby Dick, a classic piece of literature. However, the whale-hunting theme is not going to be for everyone. That was even clear when play testing that the idea of hunting whales and capsizing whalers didn’t go over real great. If this isn’t an issue, all the better since the game’s implementation of the story is quite enthralling. I’ll note that other whaling games, like New Bedford, faced criticisms for glorifying whaling. I don’t take this as a fair criticism since many games tackle topics that are otherwise morally repugnant of offensive (war, for instance).

In the hole

Leviathan is a unique creature of a game: real-space, asymmetric, hidden movement, micro game. Throw in the fact that it’s based on Moby Dick and this is the white whale of any gamer’s game library. With each play, each player was trying to think of what they could do better the next time: just what you want in a game of this sort. If you like tactical games and looking to try something different, Leviathan will definitely deliver.

Leviathan is currently on Kickstarter.

Leviathan is in the hole for a Par.

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