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Shadow of the Colossus-inspired board game Leviathan Wilds is one of the most compelling co-op experiences I’ve had in years

On the shoulders of giants.

Image credit: Dicebreaker

As someone with a leg-jellifying fear of heights, extreme allergies to hair and fur that turn my nose into a snotty battleship cannon, and the upper body strength of a cheap fridge magnet trying to hold up a shopping bag full of tins, you wouldn’t expect me to be the natural choice for scaling animals the size of skyscrapers. Yet turning me into the equivalent of a veterinary Alex Honnold is just one of the miraculous achievements of Leviathan Wilds, a new creature-climbing board game that’s fast becoming one of the best cooperative experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Leviathan Wilds takes many of its cues clearly from PlayStation 2 classic Shadow of the Colossus, as well as the climbing in more recent video games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and even this year’s Dragon’s Dogma 2. It’s a game about clambering your way up fantastical beings - leviathans - as comparatively miniscule and unnervingly gravity-prone humans, like fleas with grappling hooks and carabiners.

We play Leviathan Wilds on Tabletop Simulator!Watch on YouTube

That sense of sheer scale comes through Leviathan Wilds’ use of a ringbound book as its board, with each spread forming the body of 17 different creatures - some splayed horizontally, others towering up a vertical layout. Your climbers are meeples dotted around a minimalist grid that represents different handholds and ledges at your disposal. It’s a modest setup that means you can get into the action within a couple of minutes from opening the box (pick a creature, shuffle up some cards and go), but still manages to feel capital-B Big in its engrossing Davids vs Goliath setup.

The swift setup sets the pace for the rest of the game. Players each hold three cards from their unique deck, spending one for a variable amount of action points to spend on generic actions - moving around, recovering discarded cards to their deck, strike and sco on - and choosing whether to use the others for their differing abilities. Combined together, every turn feels hugely rewarding as players create the most effective way to leap between points, grab useful items (randomised mushroom tokens) and shatter the crystals needing to be cleared from the creature for victory.

One card from your hand is used to determine your action points on your turn, while the others can be played for their unique effects - on your turn or others'! | Image credit: Dicebreaker

As in Shadow of the Colossus and Breath of the Wild, rushing ahead is a recipe for disaster. Each character’s small-ish deck of cards doubles as a representation of their ‘grip’, with spent cards steadily draining their remaining energy. Move too fast and you’ll lose your grip, falling down the board in a somewhat terrifying simulation of gravity until you hit a ledge. That means that taking periodic rests is essential, introducing natural moments where you have to plonk down on a safe space for a second to recover your cards - just like letting your stamina bar refill in those video games. Crucially, though, this never means having to sit out for a turn - instead, resting becomes part of Leviathan Wilds’ steady flow of action, with the most satisfying turns seeing you pull off incredible acrobatics before finishing in a spot where you can catch a breath before your next stunt.

The swift setup sets the pace for the rest of the game.

Gravity isn’t just a potential foe, mind. It can also become your ally when used cleverly, with the option to let go at any time to deliberately start dropping down the creature. As each space grants the chance to use an ability card, this means you can chain together a carefully-timed drop - saving any points spent on unnecessary movement - with the right card to catch a hold on the way down, forming the kind of combos that feel like nailing a tricky jump in a platformer or even landing a series of tight moves in a fighting game.

Each character comes with their own set of cards and individual power, which combines with a set of cards representing one of the different classes. It takes seconds to shuffle together a new loadout. | Image credit: Dicebreaker

What all of this even better is that these incredible moments aren’t just limited to your own turn. While those generic actions can only be used during your turn, players can perform a number of free actions - including letting go and playing cards for their abilities - at any time, including on others’ turns. This is important to avoid incoming attacks from the creature, which will attempt to damage and slow characters with its own deck of targeted and area-of-effect actions on each player’s turn, but also allows players to help each other out and cooperate on every turn, keeping everyone involved in the action whether it’s their turn or not. It’s an excellent bit of gameplay design that not only makes for an immensely engaging co-op experience, but also avoids that momentum - so key to the sense of hopping around a huge creature - from coming to a standstill.

There’s plenty more to keep players on their toes, too. Your character is created from the combination of a named character and a class, each specialised with a distinct set of cards that are combined to form a single deck. Character creation takes seconds - pick the two parts and shuffle together - but throws open room to experiment with various powers and mix-and-matching different decks’ specialisations in manoeuvrability, power and support. (The single-player mode gives you control of two characters by simply adding another character’s cards into the same deck, an intuitive way to preserve the dynamic interaction between players without becoming convoluted.)

The leviathans feel distinct thanks to their own decks of threat cards, along with additional victory conditions for tougher challenges. | Image credit: Dicebreaker

In the same way, the leviathans are made distinct in both their depiction - differing map layouts on top of illustrator Samuel R. Shimota’s gorgeous artwork - and their mechanism. Some later creatures expand beyond the earlier scenarios’ simple attacks with more complex threats - The Hive introducing swarms that pursue the players, for example - and additional victory conditions, such as the crab-like Collector requiring players to collect relics scattered around its carapace, which also grant extra powers at the cost of corrupting blight. Veteran players can up the difficulty further with additional levels of challenge, beginning the game with more leviathan threat cards enraged - which amps up the strength of their attacks.

Leviathan Wilds looks fantastic and has a terrific theme, but it’s how good it feels to play that really sets it apart as one of the standout co-op board games I’ve played in the last few years.

Leviathan Wilds is the debut release from Moon Crab Games, a fledgling studio formed by veteran designers and artists with credits on games including seminal co-op hit Pandemic. That legacy can be seen in Leviathan Wilds’ immaculately clean and approachable gameplay design, which presents a manageable pool of actions to the player with the possibility for things to spiderweb into tricky dilemmas. (The superb graphic design and sharp ruleset means you won’t need to check the rulebook at all after a game or two, keeping the focus on what you want to do, rather than how to do it.)

The game looks and feels fantastic thanks to its combination of gorgeous artwork and smooth, evocative gameplay design. | Image credit: Dicebreaker

The flexibility and fluidity of the climbing system - which allows characters to climb, jump, glide and drop to effectively cover distances in a single turn - really lets you move, creating an incredibly evocative and compelling feeling on top of the already engrossing theme, delivered through the stunning artwork and dashes of world-building narrative in the setup and conclusion for each leviathan encounter. Unlike the sombre tone of Shadow of the Colossus, Leviathan Wilds feels upbeat - the players are working to heal the creatures of their corrupting crystals, rather than slay them. It’s a joyous, triumphant atmosphere that soaks through to playing the game itself, with every turn offering the chance to feel like a superhuman action hero, supportive companion and strategic genius all at once.

Leviathan Wilds looks fantastic (including top-notch production of its physical pieces) and has a terrific theme that’s vastly underutilised on the tabletop, but it’s how good it feels to play - anchored by that thrilling climbing - that really sets it apart as one of the standout co-op board games I’ve played in the last few years. Every turn - both yours and others’ - is rewarding and collaborative, making you feel the challenge and satisfaction of your characters’ incredible efforts to surmount these incredible creatures and aid them. It’s a game that stands on the shoulders of other co-op giants - and might just measure in above many of them as a result.

Publisher Moon Crab Games provided Dicebreaker with a copy of Leviathan Wilds’ Founders Edition. A second printing of the game is due to launch via Gamefound later this year.

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