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A colorful cast of characters climbs around on a leviathan in key cover art for Moon Crab Games’ Leviathan Wilds. Image: Moon Crab Games

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Shadow of the Colossus inspired a new tactical board game called Leviathan Wilds

From the co-designer of Star Wars: Imperial Assault

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Moon Crab Games is a new studio that was formed late last year by former staff members from Z-Man Games and Fantasy Flight Games. Its first title, Leviathan Wilds, is a novel new board game by Justin Kemppainen, co-designer of Star Wars: Imperial Assault. The project takes its inspiration from the titanic yet intimate battles in Shadow of the Colossus, the classic video game by Japan Studio and Team Ico. It combines hand management with tactics, creating a campaign game focused on movement and combat.

Shadow of the Colossus is a real favorite of mine, but there’s a bit of tonal diversion,” Kemppainen said. “This is using the cooperative game tropes to be about hope, triumph and doing something positive. The really early concept was using those melancholy and bleak tones because I’m a huge fan of things like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. But with the last couple of years being what they were, it was just nice to shift focus to something that was a bit more uplifting.”

A central gamebook with four player boards. Rules for the enemy AI sits below the book.
An early prototype of Leviathan Wilds laid out for four players.
Image: Moon Crab Games

While Shadow of the Colossus tells a tragic story of misunderstanding and destruction, Leviathan Wilds takes a much different tone. In the lore of the game, humanity once lived alongside gentle giants known as leviathans, but a slow-moving corruption caused them to begin wreaking havoc on the world around them. After generations hiding from the rampaging creatures, humans have finally devised a way to cure the leviathans of their madness. From two to four players can take on the roles of adventurers brave enough to climb onto one of the creatures to try and heal it before they lose their grip, are crushed by the flailing beast, or succumb to the same blight afflicting the leviathan.

Polygon played an early alpha version of the game via Tabletop Simulator. In our first battle we faced off against The Sage, a relatively chill, turtle-like leviathan designed to provide an introduction to the game’s mechanics. I played Kestrel, a highly mobile skirmisher who’s perfect for selfish players who want to focus mostly on their own moves. Kemppainen handled the healer, named Fix. The other two characters are the tank, Hazard, and Mystic — a spellcaster who uses powerful ranged attacks often at the cost of their grip. I found Leviathan Wilds to be a fast-paced but satisfyingly fiddly experience that rewards teamwork, but one that doesn’t require quarterbacking.

A green meeple leaps from square to square.
The animation shows how players move and jump between different locations on a leviathan.
Image: Moon Crab Games

On the table, leviathans take the form of a two-page spread in a spiral-bound book. The striking art from Moon Crab Games creative director Sam Shimota, who previously worked with Kemppainen on World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King - A Pandemic System Board Game and Pandemic Legacy Season 0, is divided into a grid with different colored frames indicating types of hazards. The goal is to use climber-shaped meeples to move around the leviathan and remove the binding crystals that have driven it mad. The crystals are represented by blue and white six-sided dice, with the number on the face indicating the crystal’s current strength. But the leviathan becomes increasingly agitated by the heroes’ presence.

“Even though we’re trying to help it, it is not entirely of sound mind so it’s going to be trying to kill us the entire time while we’re trying to heal it,” Kemppainen said.

Every leviathan has its own deck of threat cards, and one is played at the start of each player’s turn. They indicate what negative effect will happen at the end of that turn, which can take the form of the player who’s highest on the leviathan taking damage, or the leviathan attacking the areas where players are currently positioned. Players then have the opportunity to try to avoid or at least manage those attacks by taking actions — a smart way of simulating the giant creature’s slow but powerful movements.

An animation showing a meeple leaping from one side of a leviathan to another in order to avoid an attack.
Players must avoid damage, using their small size and speed to evade a leviathan’s awkward attacks.
Image: Moon Crab Games

You can’t play too cautiously, though. Every time a leviathan’s deck runs out of cards it’s shuffled again, but not before the creature’s rage level goes up, making threat cards even nastier. Players who want more of a challenge can even start the game at a higher rage setting.

To power their actions, characters have a unique deck of 10 cards, each with two different effects. Cards can be played for their action value, which indicates how many action points get spent that round. Points can be used for simple actions like climbing, attacking crystals, healing, resting, or jumping and gliding to move while avoiding hazards.

“The movement system kind of came out of playing Breath of the Wild,” Kemppainen said. “Gliding is my favorite thing to do in that game.”

Those same cards also include defensive bonuses. Moving through a blue square or striking a blue die typically afflicts a character with a point of blight, which can never be removed. But action cards with a blue icon can offer protection. Likewise, red zones make players lose health while yellow loosen their grip, which is manifested by discarding a card from the top of their deck.

Four characters armored with what look like bones.
The hero characters in Leviathan Wilds.
Image: Moon Crab Games

The bottom of each card provides an ability that can be used at any time, which is where the flavor of each character really shines through. Many of Fix’s abilities, for instance, provide healing, while Kestrel’s involve moving and hitting harder. But these abilities are constantly trading off with the top of card abilities. For instance, Critical Strike provides extra damage when attacking a crystal, but is also a good card to play as an action when hitting a blighted blue die. That bottom text is also particularly useful during another player’s turn when you might want to use it to move away from a coming attack, or to help make a friend’s action become more effective. It’s a clever mechanic that increases teamwork and keeps players engaged in between turns, while also blending a bit of luck and strategy based on what cards get drawn.

Player boards are used to track each character’s health and blight level, while also serving as a rules reference. If the health and blight ever equal each other, your character is knocked out and can no longer play cards. Players can only reshuffle their discarded cards to replenish their deck by taking the rest action, which has to be done on a rest square found either on the ground or a convenient ledge on the leviathan.

Players will need to manage their resources carefully to avoid running out of cards too quickly or wasting actions resting to just get a few cards back. If their deck runs out, they fall to the nearest rest square or all the way to the bottom, hitting every hazard on the way down. Falling is a free action, so it can also be done strategically to quickly get to another zone of the board.

I never felt particularly pressured during the session, which makes sense given it was the tutorial. But I was impressed with how quickly we were able to get into the rhythm of the game after the rules were explained, completing the scenario in about 45 minutes. The second scenario, The Sentinel, promises more of a challenge with a highly vertical map that requires players to jump and glide to navigate big gaps that would otherwise cause them to plunge to the ground.

While they haven’t been integrated into the demo yet, characters will earn additional skills in the form of enchanted mementos created to commemorate their successful mission.

“That’s the sort of $10 lore way of saying it’s like Mega Man,” Kemppainen said. “Once you beat a leviathan, you get to have a power related to it.”

Each player will choose one memento from a pool before confronting a new leviathan, which can give them a special ability to use once per rest or scenario. Mastering these extra tactical elements will be key to winning on higher difficulties.

The final product will also have a bit more narrative, with text to read before players face each leviathan and if they successfully heal it.

“The game is going to be divided into biomes that form their own mini stories,” Kemppainen said. “You go to the Wandering Garden and there will be a handful of leviathans there and you’ll play through that and you’ll discover why you’re interested in going there and what’s happening while you explore.”

Kemppainen hopes to have about 20 Leviathans for the retail version of the game, with stretch goals providing additional leviathans and climber cards for some light deck customization. The in-development game will enter crowdfunding later this year, with a release slated for 2023. Those who are interested in learning more can access the same demo we played on Tabletop Simulator. The preview will be updated monthly until the campaign launches. Moon Crab Games will have more information, including a newsletter, available at its website.

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