Hi there. If you're reading this, it's either because you know me or you spend way too much time hitting "I'm feeling lucky" on Google. Either way, welcome.

Illumination is a perpetual work in progress, so please pardon our dust. The intent of the place is to provide space where I can lay down my thoughts and observations about the world around me and the things I do. That means it could be filled with nearly anything, from silly accounts of my gaming antics to thoughtful political discussion and anything in-between.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ironclad (on Monsters In The Sky)

I sometimes think I was born a decade too late. I missed the early days of most of my hobbies –the dawn of such enduring games as Dungeons & Dragons, Battletech and Warhammer were all before my time, or I was too young to have made any sense of them. I wasn’t around for the explosion of controversy over James Dallas Egbert[1]  or the early years of White Dwarf and its riotously joyful celebration of this strange new hobby.

It’s strange to say that I miss something that I never really experienced, but having been given –through old magazines, discussions with older gamers and the depth of history that rests behind these games awaiting only a bit of curiosity to discover them- a glimpse into what this odd social group of mine was in the past, I find myself feeling a fond nostalgia for these things, a vague wish to return to the idealistic simplicity (if not the game mechanics) of those times.

In light of that, I’ve found the last month to be a fascinating process. After all, I’ve never been one of the first people in the world to play a game that is so brand new it’s not even on store shelves yet. After having spent the greater part of my life sitting on the shoulders of the hobbyists who have come before me, the ground floor is a very interesting place indeed.

 I’m talking about Leviathans, and it’s been a while since a game has captivated me so completely.

I’m not entirely sure where I first caught a link to that site[2], but from the moment my eyes landed on the header and saw the great ships clawing their way through cloud-streaked skies, their mighty guns turned on one another… I was hooked. I was in. I was going to play this game, and it was going to be glorious.

And it also wasn’t out yet. Damn.

Even so, I soaked up what I could. I perused the Lieutenant’s Manual and the fiction, I poured over the sketches of the ships, my mind’s eye feeding me images of these great beasts of the air in majestic flight, everything cool about early 20th century naval combat catapulted into the silver skies and altering the course of history forever. There was a weight to what I read, a gravitas lent to it by how closely this world of behemoths of the skies mirrored our own; how little it took to spin the world of Leviathans off in a direction completely alien to our history, and yet how familiar.

I was already a fan of steampunk and its flock of related subgenres, but Leviathans was something else… something that defied description, my command of language insufficient to produce a word adequate to the task.

Whatever it was, whatever it was called, I was sold. Each new sliver of information, each new image, drew me further and further into the game and the fascinating world wrapped around it.

Months pass in growing frustration of my inability to see it in person as I absorb every new blog post that goes up, fascinating developer insight put to page with an unpretentious openness that is refreshing and exhilarating after years of stifling Games Workshop propaganda and ever-growing disdain for the designers of Wizards of the Coast.

Three months ago, Randall announces that he is going to be running demos of Leviathans at Games & Gizmos in Redmond. My brain vapor locks, refuses to process. I have to read it again. Live demo, in Redmond. Friday night.

On the kitchen wall, my calendar explodes, scattering shrapnel across my timetable and sending discarded plans scything outward in a lethal blast radius sufficient to send the contents of my painting station diving for cover. I will be there, hell, high water, or coming of Christ.

But no. I get out-voted. D&D is the same night, and the players want to play. I oblige, sending waves of minions crashing down on them while my brain is busy steaming through the skies over Europe-circa-1910, my battle group angling to cross the T of a column of British warships that have transgressed too far beyond the Channel.

A month passes; the next supposed date of the demo is upon us. It isn’t other gaming that gets in the way this time; it’s pneumonia –not me, but rather Randall. Disappointing, but unavoidable. I wish him well and a speedy recovery –Gen Con is looming ahead, and while the mad, headlong dash to that particular finish line has yet to begin, it will soon enough.

July. The weather finally breaks here in Seattle, our usual palette of gray skies and rain-soaked evergreen giving way to a spectacular and comfortable summer of warm days, cool nights and brilliant sapphire sky as far as the eye can see. It’s perfect weather for flying.

This time, there’s no missing it. I’m writers blocked to hell and back on the D&D game anyway, and one of the players is down with a please-put-an-ax-in-my-skull-to-end-the-pain migraine. I want to feel bad about both, but can’t quite bring myself to. It’s the opportunity I needed.

Games & Gizmos is in full swing by the time we arrive, and I immediately spot Randall amidst the crowd, his mad-scientist beard marking him out a senior most among the geeks and gamers in attendance (his Catalyst Game Labs shirt helps too). On the table before him is arrayed the trappings of his creation: the beautiful hex maps, the spectacularly-sculpted ships –bigger than I thought they’d be!- and of course the dice, a pile of technicolored twelve-siders that seem, along with the models, to glow of their own inner, heavenly light. Or maybe that part was all in my head. I’m not sure.

Randall notices me peering intently over the top of my sunglasses at the ships and introduces himself, asking if I’ve ever heard of the game. I give him a grin and tell him it’s the reason I’m here.

The next hour is sheer joy, watching a master at his craft, as Randall explains the game to me. I’ve been doing this whole “wargamer” thing for a while now and I’m an old Battletech hat, so I’m able to keep up reasonably well, but getting to dialogue firsthand with one of the industry titans on the design of his game is a glorious, enlightening and entertaining spectacle. I wish I’d brought a tape recorder, or at least a notepad. Ideas and insights and the wisdom of experience flows from him like raindrops from the usual skies of our city.

I’m not just fanboy gushing here, either. Games design is a fascinating topic to me, and I always enjoy direct insight from those fortunate enough to do it for a living. The hows and whys of a mechanical system or a decision based on the fiction of a world over the abstracted rules, the level of detail gone into and the thought committed to the process… it’s a creative, visceral, hands-on process that enthralls me and which I would love to someday break into. Until then, however, I can learn as much as I can from the people who, in the end, are responsible for keeping me entertained on many, many evenings.

It’s a little later that one of the two sets Randall brought with him frees up and I settle into my first game of Leviathans. Randall’s explanations of the rules are clear and precise, and the rules themselves are a crisply-engineered example of games design done right. Ten minutes and he turns us loose in the game, and I already feel like I know what I’m doing.

What I remember about naval tactics from games and readings past applies- maneuver is paramount, maintenance of position, range, arcs of fire and the importance of escorts. Even the quick-start version of the game feels complete and rich, and though the movements of the game itself are restricted somewhat by the gex grid upon which the game exists, I can see the concessions made for ease of play made here and agree with them.

Two games took a couple of hours, with plenty of hobby-related chatter in between while we sorted out the game and made comparisons to other systems we knew –the relations to Battletech are obvious in Leviathan’s heritage, but there are also concepts drawn from other places, or at least trains of thought that I found familiar.

Leviathans does a good job of replicating the “iron clad” feel of warship combat of the day –a design goal that Randall mentioned to me while we were speaking- where opposed ships are well-protected enough to take a pounding before they go down, and the game uses a very simple conflict resolution mechanic (effectively a target number system, but with the added twist of having the great majority of roll modifiers that would otherwise be present rolled directly into the dice of the game) that emphasizes the sheer toughness of the ships without de- or under-emphasizing the power of their weapons.

The action is smooth and fast, and I was playing comfortably with the rules within minutes of sitting down at the table –another refreshing thing after perhaps too many years dealing with arcane and esoteric game systems whose highest barrier to entry is the sheer impenetrable complexity of its rules (Warhammer 8th, I’m looking at you).

The game as we played it was paced well, and while it was only a small skirmish between a pair of Light Cruisers with a single Destroyer escort each, I immediately felt that it would be just as comfortable handling a larger fleet.

Most importantly, however, amongst my thoughts on the mechanics of the game and the arrangement of its unique dice structure, damage tracking systems, and all the other minutiae I was immersed in, a single thought, a single impression rose above all others:

Leviathans was every bit as gloriously evocative as I imagined it to be, immersive in a way I haven’t felt since I played my first game of Necromunda on that chilly New Year’s Day in ’96. By the second game, I wasn’t moving miniatures around a hex map and rolling dice anymore; I was shouting headings to my helmsman and directing fire from the bridge of the Cruiser Pontbriand[3], the noise of the game store around me having melted away into the heavy thrum of warship engines, the booming of big guns and the howl of incoming enemy shells.

And it was glorious.

In the two weeks since then, I’ve gotten a hold of all the materials currently available for the game, and the household has been throwing our proxy fleets into combat in the wild blue yonder over and over again. Even limited to the quick-start rules that are currently available, the game continues to be immensely entertaining, and we are all excitedly awaiting the release of the full boxed game. My wife is already coming up with new scenarios to play, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her art taking on a decidedly more… naval theme in the coming months.

Gen Con and the hopeful release date of Leviathans is barreling down the tracks at breakneck pace, and my anticipation is only increasing as it draws nearer.

And it feels good to feel good about a new game again. 

[1] – Wikipedia’s comments on the man are here; the tl;dr version is that the unfortunate events surrounding this young man who took his own life are the source of a great deal of the misinformation, controversy and misunderstanding about D&D that persists to this day.

[2] – it may have been from the good people at Brass Goggles, a fantastic community of Steampunk enthusiasts whom you would be remiss to not introduce yourself to!

[3] – The look of the French fleet caught my eye from the moment I discovered the game, and handling their elegant, swift vessels in-game only cemented it. While my wife is eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming German fleet and my roommate the Italians, I think my tours of duty in the skies of the Leviathans world are going to be in defense of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

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