Saturday night at the Metropolitan Wargamers allowed me the chance to try my hand at the latest game sensation that’s making it’s way through the club’s membership. Recently produced by Catalyst Games Labs, Leviathans is quickly growing in popularity with its late 19th-century steampunk alternative reality of airship wars battled out in the skies over Europe between France and England.
Steampunk In Popular Culture
Anyone who has been aware of sci-fi and fantasy fandom over the past few years is no doubt aware of the rise of the popularity of steampunk. Broadly, steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction involving a vision of the world from the Victorian era through the early years of the 20th-century where anochronistic modern mechanical technologies, often powered by steam, create an alternative history of science, exploration and warfare.
In popular culture, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are usually viewed as the grandfathers of steampunk. Aside from the Victorian visions of Verne and Wells, my earliest exposure to steampunk was with reruns of the 1960s TV show Wild, Wild, West. The show followed the exploits of James West and Artemis Gordon, two US government secret agents travelling the Old West of the post-Civil War era equipped with retro high tech gadgets. The show made its way to the big screen in 1999 with a much-maligned film adaptation starring Will Smith, Kevin Klein and Kenneth Branaugh. What the movie lacked in character and story, it more than made up for in capturing the steampunk ethos of monstrously destructive weaponry wrapped up in a 19th-century Old West plot.
In the 1980s, underground comics writer Dave Stevens introduced the Rocketeer, a barnstorming stunt pilot and reluctant jet-packed superhero. Set in 1930s NYC and LA, the Rocketeer did battle with Nazis and crime syndicates armed with all manner of fanciful lasers, transported by airships and other might-have-been rocket technologies, and conniving with evil plots of world conquest. The comic eventually found its way to Hollywood and a beloved 1991 live-action film adaptation by Disney. Both the movie and comic capture an aesthetic of sexy and functional design bridging an Art Deco look with an alternative pre-WWII era where secret agents vie for control of fantastical emerging technologies.
Jetpacks and high-flying airship battles also figure prominently in the 2004 Japanese anime film Steamboy. Set against the backdrop of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, the story follows a young inventor boy from the mills of England’s Industrial Revolution to a showdown over technology which threatens the balance of worldwide power. The classic Victorian England setting provides the stage for an ultimate steampunk-themed battle with a massive metal castle-like flying fortress, robots, jet-packed paratroopers and British soldiers fighting to preserve the fate of the British Empire and world peace ahead of the Great War in the coming decades of the early 20th-century.
The interest today goes far beyond the pages of comics and TV and movie screens, and the examples above are just a few of my particular touchpoints in steampunk. There are steampunk cosplayers, conventions and even bars and meet-ups where like-minded fans can live out their steampunk fantasies.
Like so many fantasy interests, steampunk has also made its way to tabletop gaming in a big with a number of gaming systems over the past few years. The thematic historical “what ifs” and opportunities to let the imagination go wild with miniature modelling makes steampunk a particular draw for gamers.
Leviathans is the darling of the moment for steampunk-minded gamers. Produced just this year, Leviathans is a complete board and miniatures game that comes in an incredibly well-designed package containing rules, charts, game boards and detailed plastic airship models which are ready to go straight out of the box for about $100. The core set comes with massive French and British battleships along with smaller destroyers and other ships which levitate above the game board on clear plastic stands. The ships are armed with all manner of guns, turrets and torpedoes manned by crews who furiously fire away at the enemy while working to keep their airships aloft.
Each ship comes with a card detailing the armaments, engine power, stabilisers and other equipment particular to each class of ship. Players take turns manuevering their ships and bringing their weapons to bear on the enemy. Combat results are determined with multiple colored dice which factor in the strength of firing weapons, the durability of an opponent’s armor, the placement of hits and the presence of crew. As ships take fire, their effectiveness in movement, combat and the ability to make repairs is affected. Multiple hits to the same area of a ship may result in a hull breach and the ship crashing to earth in a hulk of flame and twisted steel.
The scenario I played involved my side’s two damaged French battleships attempting to flee off the far side of the board while moving at half speed and being swarmed by my opponenet’s smaller British destroyers. The quick manueverability of the British ships was initially no match for the powerful guns of my French fleet, and two UK aircraft were quickly blown from the sky. Further damage to the already slow French engines eventually made them sitting ducks in the sky, and my team’s French ceded defeat as evacuation to the far side of the table became impossible.
Popularity of Leviathans is spreading quickly with a few new French and British expansion ship fleets already available. A new German fleet is also under development, as is an online version of the game. The game is being produced under a Creative Commons license, allowing for a free distribution of rules and also encouraging fans to collaborate openly on the development of the game. With the quick rise of Leviathan’s popularity and the continued gaming interest in steampunk, I’d expect this game to rule the sky for quite some time.