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A scene from the bridge of a French Leviathan as it is rammed by a German Leviathan. The grim-faced captain and his crew man their stations as the ships explode in the background. Image: Doug Chaffee/Catalyst Game Labs

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Leviathan-class steampunk miniatures will compete with Star Wars X-Wing, Armada

The BattleTech-inspired wargame returns at Gen Con 2022

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Leviathans, the ambitious steampunk airship miniatures game, is being relaunched more than 11 years after its initial debut. With a crowdfunding campaign set to go live on Aug. 2, just ahead of the Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, publisher Catalyst Game Labs (the tabletop home to the BattleTech and Shadowrun franchises) has cleared the deck, as it were, overcoming a decade’s worth of impediments to bring the epic game to market in a proper fashion. Polygon spoke about the project with co-creator and company founder Randall Bills in late July.

Hobbyists likely know Catalyst for its 2019 BattleTech: Clan Invasion Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $2.5 million to relaunch an all-plastic line of miniatures based on the shared library of legacy BattleTech units (also part of games by Harebrained Schemes and Piranha Games). With millions of mechs now in circulation, Randall says it’s time to expand the company just a little bit. His son, Bryn Bills, is the Leviathans line developer.

A scrum of German and Italian warships backlit by a setting sun and a thunderhead. Ships burn in the distance as explosions rip into the battleship passing in the foreground. Image: Catalyst Game Labs

“Over COVID, to entertain ourselves, we probably played upwards of 70 different miniatures games to try to just get a better feel for the industry, and Leviathans is still one of my favorites, after going through all of that, after all this time,” Bryn Bills said. “I love this universe, I love the art style, the ships. There’s really nothing that I don’t enjoy top-to-bottom.”

The historical wargame’s point of departure comes in 1878 with the discovery of the lighter-than-air substance known as electroid. Seagoing warships rapidly become obsolete, with the colonial European powers now contending for the airspace itself. In this way, the franchise is reminiscent of the 1920+ universe, the basis for the hit strategy game Scythe, but without the pastoral kitsch. This is all-out war. The game itself will open in 1910, with a full-scale engagement on the French-German border.

A French captin in a loose cap, a pistol at her side. The sides of her head are shaved and she stares boldly at the camera with a hand on her hip.
A woman in a flowing dress, the hint of a gilded gorget at her throat beneath a high military collar. She wears a fur cape and a sword at her hip.
A Sikh man with gilded pauldrons and cuffs, a curved dagger and a spyglass on his hip. He wears leg wraps over simple peasant shoes and wears a monocle.

Clockwise from left, Tao-so Togo Takeshi, Camilla Romano, Anastasia Romanov, and Amil Dhar. Images: Marco Pennacchietti/Catalyst Game Labs

Leviathans, is, at its simplest, giant battleships flying in the sky blowing each other up. Most of steampunk centers around, you know, dirigible type things with their flapping wings on the side. Kind of spindly things, which is a really cool aesthetic. Leviathans is unique because you literally take World War I, World War II battleships and slap some magic on them and throw them into the air. And so these are massive machines with giant chunks of metal falling off each other. Just a whole different scale going on this version of steampunk warships than what is out there.”

Contents of the proposed starter set coming to crowdfunding. Ships shown here unpainted.
Four ships, an assortment of dice and dry-erase cards, plus maps.
Image: Catalyst Game Labs

Leviathans remains largely unchanged from its 2011 debut. It uses a proprietary system of color-coded dice to streamline engagements, which rely on concepts like armor statistics and penetration (a holdover from the BattleTech universe). Like modern skirmish games such as Necromunda and Warcry, it only requires a handful of miniatures to get started. The rules include basic and advanced layers, with systems for momentum, elevation, bracketing fire, and torpedoes, creating a unique and dynamic three-dimensional tableau on the table. The final product will feature a $70 starter set with four ships, maps, dice, standees, and massive four-inch pre-painted miniatures. Manufacturing samples are still underway, but the goal is to have miniatures of the same level of off-the-shelf detail as the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and Star Wars: Armada.

A game of Leviathans set up for play.
An early pre-production sample of the ships as they’ll look with their final paint applied.
Photo: Catalyst Game Labs

“We decided to have a smaller starter box, with not a full set per side, to let people understand and get into the game without having to commit to, you know, the $100 coffin box. [...] The dice are simple, the cards, the whole — everything is supposed to make it easy,” Bryn said. “And so that was just another goal of making this an entry-level product for people getting into tabletop.”

Ships will have different sizes and statistics, starting with slower and more heavily armored Leviathan-class battleships, then ship-of-the-line armored cruisers, with faster cruisers at around the same size as those, plus nimble destroyers. There will also be smaller attack aircraft in the game — not as miniatures, at least at first. They’ll use tokens for now.

Issues related to colonialism are being considered to help the game appeal to a wider audience. But while the newly announced updated version of Puerto Rico from Ravensburger is adjusting its timeline — among other things — to refocus the gameplay on local farmers rather than colonial governors, Leviathans is keeping its original timeline mostly intact.

“The world [of Leviathans] is not a great world,” Bryn Bills said. “That’s not something we necessarily want to avoid, but it is something we definitely want to deal with. [...] Especially in Europe, white guys were the ones in power [at the start of WWI]; it was all men in charge of the nations.” Other fictional departures will be included as the game’s narrative timeline tracks on. The British monarchy won’t be the only one with a woman at the helm, for instance.

“Especially for the British, India is a big part of what they are, and trying to let Indians be a bigger part of the British Empire — not by ignoring the fact that they shouldn’t be, but still giving them the power to do things. One of the main characters we have for the British is an Indian captain who’s dealing with the fact that he can’t actually be a captain. But he’s good enough that they just kind of let it slide, and dealing with what he has to overcome because of those prejudices during this conflict.”

The final game will also ship with a points system for competitive matched and campaign play. An anthology of fiction was already released in 2021. It includes work from alternate history author Harry Turtledove — as well as key art from the late Doug Chaffee.


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