After a number of years working on the hugely influential Pandemic series, a number of former Z-Man Games developers have left the publisher to create their own co-op board game. Ahead of Leviathan Wilds’ crowdfunding campaign later this year, we were joined by lead designer and writer Justin Kemppainen for a digital hands-on with Moon Crab Games’ debut release.
Leviathan Wilds takes place in a fantasy world inhabited by enormous creatures known as leviathans, which have been in a destructive state of frenzy for generations. The players around the table control adventurous human climbers who must scale the beasts’ mountain-like frames in order to subdue them.
The immediate comparison many players will have is Shadow of the Colossus, the acclaimed PlayStation 2 video game that sees a lone hero clambering up creatures in order to defeat them, and which served as a key inspiration during Leviathan Wilds’ creation.
“Mechanically, it's taking the design prompt of Shadow of the Colossus - you're climbing around on this big thing that's trying to kill you - [but] just seeing like, okay, how does that then translate to a tabletop gaming experience?” Kemppainen acknowledges.
“Because, obviously, Shadow of the Colossus is awesome, but it's a single-player video game. And it is also very different in a lot of regards. So originally it was like, ‘Somebody needs to do a Shadow of the Colossus board game.’ And I recognise there was Skulk Hollow, the two-player asymmetric one, which is awesome - it's a super cool thing. But for me, a cooperative game where everybody's working together against it, that sounds really, really appealing to me.”
Aside from its rendering of colossal creatures in paper rather than pixels, setting Leviathan Wilds apart from Shadow the Colossus is its more collaborative, hopeful atmosphere. The players must make their way around a gridded board that overlays each leviathan’s body, looking to reach binding crystals - represented by dice - that must be struck to heal, rather than kill, the ailing behemoths.
“We went for something a little different tonally,” Kemppainen says. “This gets back into spending time at Z-Man working on Pandemic - we found that cooperative games really work well when you have a tone of group triumph and hope and optimism, to a certain extent. And I'll say, especially in recent years, it's been nice to have media that is just a little bit more cheerful or you're doing something good.
It's taking the design prompt of Shadow of the Colossus, but seeing how that then translates to a tabletop gaming experience.
“Shadow of the Colossus has this really melancholy tone, and all the things that you're doing are kind of sad. For sad reasons, you're killing these giant creatures. [...] And over the course of the game, your character looks more and more gnarly. It's like, this is not a good thing that you're doing. So that's why it was really important early on to establish this idea that you're not actually killing these things. You're saving them, you're trying to restore the world to a sense of peace and balance.”
Kemppainen says that Leviathan Wilds’ creation started with its movement system, partially inspired by the engaging challenge of climbing in another open-world video game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
“The game is about climbing. Ostensibly, it's a very, very tiny bit of a combat game. But really it's more of a movement puzzle than it is necessarily a tactical combat game. That was kind of the breakthrough. And that came from playing Breath of the Wild; I love climbing in that game. You can jump around to go a little faster and cross things, and then gliding is probably the best thing in that game entirely.”
As in Breath of the Wild, players must carefully manage their stamina - represented in Leviathan Wilds as a small deck of ‘grip’ cards. At the start of each turn, players spend a card to gain a given number of action points, with the option to discard those left in their hand for additional effects during their turn. Some cards also offer the chance to ignore specific negative effects for that round, opening up further tactical opportunities.
Players can move between adjacent squares by spending single action points, or leap greater distances by performing jumps and cone-shaped downward glides that also bypass dangers on squares, such as damage or loss of grip. Some dangers are unavoidable; 'blighted' crystals will reduce a player's total hit points whenever they are struck, requiring a more managed approach to destroy without leaving a character vulnerable.
Really it's more of a movement puzzle than it is necessarily a tactical combat game.
On top of the universal actions, each character’s action deck features a unique set of abilities that provide further manoeuvrability, from L-shaped moves (like a knight in chess) to vaults that propel characters farther in a straight line but limit direction. At any time, players can choose to voluntarily let go without spending an action, using the game’s clever simulation of gravity to drop down to lower vantage points on the board.
At the end of their turn, players draw back up to three cards - but if their deck ever empties, they fall down the board until they hit a rest point square. (Rest points can also be visited mid-climb to manually refresh your deck.) Cards can be played as the character falls between each square to try and grab a higher handhold by reaching a rest point, providing a last-ditch attempt to break your fall. In motion, it’s a simple but brilliantly effective way to ratchet up the risk-reward of pushing to move as far as possible without restricting players’ options.
With a handful of points and a flexible set of moves, movement during our demo felt fast and satisfying, with turns lasting only a couple of minutes but rarely resulting in a round where the players couldn’t reach the next crystal. Only a few turns in, we were stringing together action points, basic moves and card effects, confidently weaving between dangers (or calculating the risk of moving more directly) and settling into the rhythm of resting at rest points every few turns to avoid losing grip.
The turn-to-turn variety in available action points and cards, fuelled by characters’ differing decks - some are able to move further, but are more fragile, while others are slower but able to brush off dangers - allows for enough variation between players to encourage effective collaboration without presenting a single-solution outcome for one player to command the rest of the table toward. Kemppainen reveals that the final game will include some “lightweight” customisation of decks, allowing players to swap action cards to suit each scenario while ensuring the game can be unpacked and ready to play in under 10 minutes.
The team’s previous work on Pandemic and at Star Wars: Imperial Assault studio Fantasy Flight Games is apparent in the simplicity of the turn structure, which is broken into four short steps - revealing an event card, followed by the player’s actions, before resolving the event and drawing additional cards - but offer no shortage of moment-to-moment decisions to make under pressure.
“Pandemic is such a great game, especially how it handles the cooperative mode and the idea of an AI as the antagonist,” Kemppainen says. “So a lot of those lessons, the way that the turn steps work, some of that has drawn influence from Pandemic, but also other places - there's a little bit of FFG LCG [living card game] DNA, like Marvel Champions and Arkham Horror: The Card Game, in here, with some of the cardplay and the way that the action structure works.”
Complicating the players’ movement is the leviathan, which has its own dedicated deck of event cards. One is drawn at the beginning of the turn, targeting one or more players directly or within a given template of squares with an effect - from the risk of losing hit points or grip, to being pushed between squares. As the leviathan deck cycles around, the creature steadily grows in rage, making its attacks more dangerous and difficult to deal with. Our demo saw us face the game’s ‘tutorial’ boss, a glowing rock turtle known as The Sage, which tried to throw us off with swipes and blasts; Kemppainen notes that later scenarios will introduce more complicated and challenging attacks to avoid.
Leviathan Wilds is expected to feature 20 different leviathans for players to encounter, each splashed across the spread of a spiral-bound book that serves as the game’s board. While the scenario we tackled played out horizontally, some will orient the book vertically for a taller ascent.
Some of the influence is from Pandemic, but also other places - there's a little bit of living card game DNA, like Marvel Champions and Arkham Horror, in here.
While the game is still in development - our hands-on was with an unfinished alpha version now available for anyone to play via Tabletop Simulator - Kemppainen hopes to allow players the ability to tackle its campaign in any order, discovering leviathans unique to different regions of the game’s world. In a progression element the designer compares to retro video game Mega Man, successfully saving a leviathan may unlock its unique memento - a shared ability for the players to use in later scenarios, helping them to overcome greater challenges.
Kemppainen expresses a hope that the game’s basic gameplay could eventually inspire players to create their own custom scenarios, overlaying its grid-based puzzles on their own creations.
“Part of me hopes that there's a community that gets so excited, once just this preview is released, that they're like, ‘Well, I want more, and I guess I have to be the one to make them then’ and just make some spin-off mods for people to play,” the designer says. “In the long term, it would be super cool if we could also make a tool for people to use to make their own scenarios and export them more directly. That is way beyond the scope of what we've got time for at the moment, because our biggest focus is we have to finish making this game - we have to get it up to crowdfunding so we can see if people are gonna be interested in this.”
Leviathan Wilds will launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year, ahead of an expected release in 2023. If successful, the crowdfunded edition of the game - which may include additional miniatures and scenarios, among other content unlocked via stretch goals - could be followed by a wider retail release.
Kemppainen is pragmatic about the future of Moon Crab Games beyond its debut project, but reveals the hope that - if the team’s vision is shared by players - Leviathan Wilds will pave the way for the studio’s own ascent.
“There's a ton of really cool underserved genres that I would love to just play around with and see if this system could work there too,” Kemppainen says. “And, you know, change a whole bunch of things, because of course, it would need to in order to feel right.
“We also have other completely different ideas, too, for games that we could make that could answer some of what we perceive to be gaps in the gaming space, both in theme and mechanics.
“Our focus [right now] is making this thing as cool and special as we possibly can, as best we can do. Because if we don't then, I mean, the company doesn't deserve to exist or isn't worth continuing onward with.”