28 June 2022
Monster mountaineering has never felt so appealing
Words by Christopher John Eggett
There’s only few things to do with big monsters. Slay them, befriend them, or if they’re really big, live on them. Giants are, culturally, a sign of either something old or something new – even Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear war, a giant beast is an interruption of ‘normal life’. And that’s our backstory here, a great interruption arrives in the form of war and ancient beasts – corrupted – wander the lands. Humanity, or what’s left of it, seeks to cure these beasts in a hope that humans can thrive once again.
Which is a great place to start for small new company, Moon Crab who have come into being after the various changes at Z-Man games. Justin Kemppainen (lead designer), Sam Shimota (creative direction) and Todd Michlitsch (developer) have all worked on various projects at Z-Man games, including Pandemic Legacy titles, Descent: Legends of the Dark and Star Wars Rebellion. Last year Z-Man games went from over a dozen people to less than half that. In the settling dust, Moon Crab was formed.
“What ended up happening was I started working on a prototype, something that had been knocking around for years. I started chatting with Todd and Sam once they were free and the process kept going, it was very promising,” explains Justin Kemppainen over a zoom call. The company has already released a public demo of the big beastie scaling game, Leviathan Wilds, which Kemppainen suggests he is happy to demo to “anyone, any time”.
“We just want to show what we’ve learned in a decade in the industry.”
This game, very much standing in the shadow of Shadow of the Colossus – a seminal Playstation 2 game imbued with the deep sadness of killing something beautiful and large – eschews some of the deeper, darker themes of that game while keeping the struggle of climbing a giant very real.
Kemppainen introduces the game to us, “you play as a crew of expert climbers who are tasked with exploring the wilds and healing the ancient, frenzied leviathans that tore the world apart. Sometime in the distant past, the leviathans went crazy and they just ripped everything apart. Humanity itself, its grand civilization was effectively destroyed and the survivors were sent into hiding for years and years until they discovered methods by which they could actually break the ‘bind crystals’ that caused the leviathan’s madness.”
From here pockets of humanity are beginning to be peek out into the world again – they’ve reached the edges of what they can safely civilise and they’re now at the edges of the wilds. Old ruins and overgrown areas which contain the secrets of the “old kingdom” and the world before – but also filled with these Leviathan.
This is all delivered to us in the form of a spread in a spiral bound book, “both halves of the book are fully an illustration of the leviathan with a tactical grid laid over top,” explains Kemppainen, “so you’re scaling upward on the leviathan. The ground level is the bottom row of the map. And players are climbing upwards on this square grid and throughout are these crystals, which are represented by dice. These are the counters for the amount of crystal that you have to break there.”
“And so, by climbing through the tactical grid to these different locations of the map, you can break the crystals. And if you manage to do that all throughout the map, you have successfully saved the leviathan and have won that scenario,” says Kemppainen.
So, how big are these leviathan?
“I’ve pretty deliberately avoided doing the math so far, so I think the old sci-fi writer phrase, ‘ships travel at the speed of plot’ has some applicability here – i.e. they’re as big as the gameplay, theming and story needs them to be. Slightly more seriously, the horizontal map leviathans are probably 60-80 feet tall, and the vertical maps are more like 90-110.”
The game uses a dynamic multi-use card system. You can play or discard them for the action points – allowing you to make basic moves, or you can use them for the skill effect.
“You can use the skill effect along the bottom at any time during your own turn or during other players turns to scurry around the map to dodge attacks to get extra damage or things like that,” continues Kemppainen, “a lot of your action points are going to be spent to movement. You can climb, you can jump to cross gaps, you can glide to move downward.”
“You also can recover cards that you’ve spent. And one of the actions is to strike,” says Kemppainen. The latter here is what you’ll need to spend some time doing, while not getting crushed to tiny climber dust, to destroy the crystals that are sending the leviathan’s into madness.
DON’T GET SMUSHED
Survival is a matter of moving fast and breaking stuff, well, not getting broken at least. Kemppainen explains one of the skill effects, Rush, to illustrate how they’ll save your skin while dodging hits on an ancient beast.
“Rush is one of the skill effects on one of the character’s cards. And some of the skill effects will show diagrams which indicate the meeple icon is where your character currently is, and the grid that it’s showing is where your character can move to,” he explains, “so Rush gives you additional options if you’re targeted. And that’s the other wrinkle of the game – the Leviathan has a set of behaviours.”
“It’s going reveal its intent at the very beginning of each turn. And then you have an opportunity to react to that with your own activation before it resolves,” says the designer, “so if hazard is targeted by that effect, then you get a little extra movement out of it. So it lets you ride the line, lets you be in riskier positions.”
All of this takes place in the context of the ‘map’ of the body of the leviathans – which aren’t just all large humanoid creatures. Others are giant turtles, dragon-like beasts or many armed pseudo-spiders. These all make up the varied terrains that players are navigating, they offer a space that’s something like dungeon map – but one where you can jump between paths.
“I think what really helps is always having that illustration underneath, having that be the first thing you see. It sets the context of the situation in your mind. And then as you play, you can rise above and think tactically, which of course that’s what people are, are broadly going to be there for – that’s our target audience,” says Kemppainen, “we want people who are going to really engage with the tactical puzzle and also enjoy, the little bits and pieces of theme that will evoke through leviathan behaviours and your own and character’s abilities and the illustrations that you’ll see on those cards. I’m surprised at how much emergent storytelling is able to come through in the game itself.”
While the game is a homage to Shadow of the Colossus, its appearance is brighter, and its movement faster. The scale is apparent not by the struggle of the climb, but by the difference in speed between you and the creature you’re scurrying about on.
“This game plays very, very fast, not just turn by turn, but because you have this hand of cards that is filled with anytime effects, you’re able to string together some really impressive combos. And you’re able to move very quickly going from bottom to top in quite an efficient fashion, or to get yourself to a crystal and just hammer it down really fast or just, or use a movement diagram to just barely squeak out of an area of effect so that you’re able to avoid the damage from it,” enthuses the designer.
The leviathans telegraph their attacks, a little like a giant boss in Dark Souls. Those effects come with diagrammed gridded areas associated with them – anyone caught in that area will is going to take the brunt of it when it resolves.
“However, you don’t move the origin point of the attack after you’ve played the card, and we place the ring token around the current climber to mark the origin point,” says Kemppainen, “this gives you context for the area of effect when you activate it.”
This little token – a ring shape with a kind of force-splash effect that the meeple climber can sit within once targeted – is one of the more alluring elements in what is fairly sparse design. Like the rest however, it’s getting out of the way of the game, out of the way of the tactical puzzle the board presents at any given time.
It’s always good to see a designer or developer ‘solve’ a problem. Here it might be the stacking of targets and meeples – replacing them with the targeting ‘smash’ circle. Or it could be building on the ring bound map elements so many enjoyed most notably in Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and Stuffed Fables.
“It makes set up really fast, especially in comparison to building a map out of tiles,” says Kemppainen, “it cuts down on costs too because a box full of tiles is much more expensive than the spiral bound book. And it also gives the opportunity to do all of these really cool illustrations. We have the opportunity to make these unique shapes for leviathans – the ones that have been released in the public preview so far all look wildly different. There’s a giant turtle – that’s a horizontal map. There’s this lanky tall dude who’s melting into the ground, and a lightning snake as the third one, all completely different.”
On the way these production options have been used in the past, Kemppainen is looking to improve upon the formula, “a lot of people have used the book as both their rule book for the scenario and the map. I think that there’s room for people to use it for just the map and still have some additional rules as necessary, maybe set up instructions or maybe some other things so that you’re not bogged down by additional set up information once you’re playing. You don’t need that information anymore.”
From what we’ve seen, there’s something similar to Corey Konieczka’s new studio, Unexpected Games going on here, not least because it’s a smaller studio of ex-top-line people. Fantasy Flight and Z-Man games both put a huge amount of polish on the games that come out of their studios – and Moon Crab feels the same. Leviathan Wilds looks to have had the same level of attention thrust upon it in terms of design, development, and artwork – and while the Konieczka studio is still owned by Asmodee, there’s a marked difference in the games produced. And that’s got to be good.
When asked for a manifesto, Kemppainen offers this, “our goal is to create fun, approachable, fully-cohesive, and unforgettable tabletop gaming experiences. When we combine our years of experience with selfless iteration – i.e. the killing of many darlings – and a meticulous level of polish, we believe that the result can be something truly special.”
And before we leave the trio to clambering back up the giants they’ve created, we needed to ask, what’s with the name?
“It certainly wasn’t the first one we came up with, or in the first 100 or so we tossed around,” he laughs, “we were looking for a nice cross-section of whimsical, short, memorable, and able to be visually evocative for a logo. And the most important of all – not already taken. If you’ve ever looked into it, the trademark and search engine space is absolutely brutal. I cannot count the number of epiphany-level names I thought of that were already taken.”
Right now you can get your hands on the Tabletop Simulator version of the game, and dive into the rulebook too, if you wish to get to grips with it. All of this is in aid of getting the game ready for the Kickstarter. The crowdfunding campaign is intended to begin at the end of June or early July. Until then, we’ll have to get our climbing gear out of the loft.
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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