Review: Battlefleet Gothic: Leviathan15 Jul 2016 7
Review: Battlefleet Gothic: Leviathan
Released 07 Jul 2016
Old-time fans of the Battlefleet Gothic franchise could be forgiven for thinking that the PC version of the game, Armada, just wasn't Battlefleet Gothic enough. For all its charm and depth it was a real-time action strategy game with little to link it to the original tabletop rules. Leviathan, however, is the real deal, an adaptation of that venerable miniatures title. Tabletop has finally become palmtop.
With the physical version discontinued and passing into myth, here's a summary. It's essentially a turn-based game of Ironclad ship to ship combat, translated into science fiction. Suspiciously phallic starships do battle with one another, trying to cross the T on a galactic scale so they can bring broadsides to bear while suffering minimal damage themselves.
There are some neat design ideas to keep things both simple and futuristic while retaining that classic sense of ships at sea. Both torpedoes and squadrons of small ships are treated as 'ordnance', which means they get fired like weapons but can then move independently. Successful hits create blast markers of wreckage and plasma which diminish the shields and firepower of craft unlucky or unwise enough to stray into them.
Success in combat is dice-driven as you might expect. But this is one of those games where the sheer volume of dice matters. Good manoeuvring to get all your broadsides into range will help you throw a ton of cubes and you can ride the averages to victory. Bad strategy will leave you reliant on the whims of fate. So players can enjoy the fruits of planning while relishing the spicy sauce of random excitement.
Getting your vessels where you want them is down to a combination of the size of the craft and the orders you give them. Vast battleships and cruisers are much slower to move and turn than lighter escort craft, but of course they can take and give a lot more punishment. To help, each can make a leadership dice test to apply a special order which trade costs off against benefits. You can get re-rolls for your attack dice, for instance, if you forgo the ability to turn. Or you can get extra turns, or extra movement range, at the cost of halving your offensive dice.
In a clever design move, players can earn chances to re-roll those vital leadership tests each time they complete one of the in-game tutorials. There are six of these in total, slowly going deeper into the rules each time. From basic manoeuvrer and weaponry, you'll eventually learn how to ram enemy ships and send out boarding parties. Breaking the rules down and offering a reward for successfully understanding each component is a great way to allow players to get stuck in early, then learn the full game at their own pace.
Unfortunately the same imagination wasn't applied to the game's interface, which is a mess. Menus are ugly, and things are often not where you want them to be. To start with it can be hard to understand what you're actually selecting, and why actions turned out the way they did. Moving ships demands use of an on-screen throttle and a steering wheel which, while pleasingly tactile, proves to be clumsy and imprecise. And while the ships themselves looks good enough on the screen, once battle is joined everything becomes a confusing mess of hardware, ordnance and blast markers and it's hard to make head or tail of what's going on.
The original game was squarely focused on one-off battles. That meant players could rush in gung-ho, all guns blazing, and not care about their losses. This digital version allows these fights of attrition, where you pick forces from a roster of unit types up to a given point value. But it also wraps the whole thing in an overarching campaign, pitting the Imperium of man against the horrible, slithery alien Tyranids. While the presentation and the narrative are basic, it does a great job of tying things together and extending the replay value of the game.
Theoretically you can extend it further by playing multiplayer. In practice this is harder than it sounds. There's a solid hotseat option that's particularly appropriate because without hidden information you and your opponent can hunch over the screen at the same time, ooh-ing and aah-ing over all the pretty lights of destruction. The online multiplayer appears to check all the boxes too, with options for open or closed games. Neither, however, appeared to work. There's no way to know whether that's down to bugs or an empty pool of players, but hopefully either will be fixed in the fullness of time.
Interface and multiplayer issues aside, Battlefleet Gothic translates so well to touchscreen that it seems a marvel more miniatures games haven't followed suit. The turn structure works well and it feels appropriate to go pushing pixels around with your fingers in lieu of models. Not for the first time, Leviathan proves that touchscreen adaptations of popular franchises can be just as good, if not better, than their PC counterparts.