My #2 game on my Top 10 Games I’m Interested in Trying Out at Gen Con 2016 list was Cry Havoc from Portal Games. I tried several times to get into a demo at the Portal Games booth but each time we went it was totally swamped and there were people waiting 2 deep to get into a demo. I had basically given up on seeing the game when on Saturday around 11am there was a lull in the Exhibit Hall in general and when we passed by the booth, lo and behold, there were two open spots for Tim and I. We sat down eagerly and to our surprise at the table sat Tim Norris with Grey Elephant Gaming who lives in our same town and whose videos we often watch. We talked for a few minutes and then our demo began. There was one more surprise in store for us as the designer Grant Rodiek was in the booth and took over our demo! So not only was I going to get to play the game, it was being demonstrated to us by one of the creators! It doesn’t get much better than that!
So what is Cry Havoc all about? Cry Havoc is an assymetrical, card driven, area control game, where players battle for control of regions on a planet. These regions are valued by the number of crystals on the region. Each player controls one of four unique factions including the Humans, Trogs, Machines and Pilgrims with special abilities and tactics that suit their strengths. The game comes with 54 custom plastic miniatures that are beautifully sculpted, a large format board and over one hundred unique cards. So what does asymmetrical mean in Cry Havoc and what is meant by Card Driven?
Assymetric is not a simple thing to describe. Asymmetric means by definition not the same but in gaming it is much more than this. It means that each faction starts with different setups and has very different end goals for victory and generally will take different routes to get there. This can make the process of balancing a game very difficult for a designer but creates a gameplay experience that is unique and varied and can be experienced from many different viewpoints. It can also create a very tense play experience as well as you don’t always know how your opponent will act during the game.
Card Driven means that actions are taken using cards. The cards typically are used in multiple ways including for actions, events and for use in determining the outcome of battles. So when you see these fancy game terms just know that the meanings in terms of gameplay are more simple than they sound.
Before I get into the overall feel of the game I wanted to start with the combat system. As I have looked at the game over the past several months, this aspect was the real draw for me. When one player enters another players controlled region a combat is initiated but doesn’t resolve until later. The attacker gets an attack token. When it is time to resolve the combat at the end of the turn, each player takes all of the units in that region, and first the attacking player followed by the defender, places all of their units on the Battle Board in the areas that you have an interest in. The Battle Board is broken into 3 separate Objective areas. At the top of the board is the Region Control Objective, in the middle is the Capture Prisoners Objective and at the bottom is the Attrition Objective.
Once both players have placed their pieces, both players can then play cards with battle abilities to move their units around, add units to one of the Objectives from their supply or another part of the board or even change the order in which the boxes are resolved. Finally, the Battle Board resolves from top to bottom. First, whoever has the most units in the Region Control Objective box gains control of the region on the game board where the battle is occurring and will get to place a control marker forcing the other player to retreat after the battle. Next, whoever has the most units in the Capture Prisoners Objective box gets to capture one opposing unit on the Battle Board which depletes the other player’s available forces and scores one point per turn. Finally, for each unit placed in the Attrition Objective box, you will kill one other unit and score one point for each unit killed.
This concept is revolutionary! A way to adjudicate battle in some other manner than who has the numbers superiority or the most powerful units or who rolls the highest numbers on dice. This battle mechanic is the “bees knees” and makes this game amazing! I love that you can play cards to add or remove units or even change the order that the Battle Board resolves in. You will never actually know the outcome of the battle based on the situation at placement. You may have 4 units to your opponents 1 and still not win the objective you want to win. This makes for a very tense and unsure position during each battle. This mechanic sold me on the game!
As for the rest of the game, it is at its heart an area control game between four very asymmetric sides on a claustrophobic and very tight map where you are never more than a few spaces from anyone. Each faction starts with a unique deck of cards and unique buildings they can build. At the start of the round, you draw a few cards. There are three action phases per round, where a player chooses an action. These actions include moving units, building units or constructing buildings. The players fuel these actions with the symbols on the card. Or they can use a special ability on one card in place of the symbols.
The factions play very differently as is implied by describing the game as asymmetrical. I played as the Trogs who are the indigenous residents of the brutal planet that is the game’s setting and they spawn units from tokens seeded at the start of the game when players explore new regions, giving them a quick start. They, however, only score half points for crystals. The Pilgrims player is the more traditional “Euro style gamer” whose objective is to trade for crystals to score points without having to fight for them. The Machines have a lot of very interesting buildings that give them significant abilities and the Humans are good at combat. Besides the starting deck, you can use an action to draw new cards which have different symbol distribution, or can give you a combat bonus in certain regions acting like a deck builder. I liked the cards as well as you can really see the advantage to planning ahead for your next several conquests and trying to obtain the specific terrain cards that will give you bonuses and help you win your desired objectives.
What I Liked about Cry Havoc
Miniatures – I like games with miniatures and these miniatures are a solid and well done part of the game. Having an army of painted Trogs would be a truly frightening experience!
Battle system – I love the different take on combat and feel it is very well done and the central focus of the game. My personal favorite part and reason for my interest in the game.
Card driven – l love the cards and the planning that is required to better build your deck to improve your prospects in battle. The cards are thick and well made and art is great, giving you that true Sci-Fi feeling!
Asymmetric factions – as a war gamer l love asymmetric factions and feel that these are well done in the game. I didn’t get a whole play in and only played as the Trogs but you can tell the factions are balanced.
Theme – I love Sci-Fi and am always on the lookout for the next good game.
What I Didn’t Like about Cry Havoc
Length of demo – Portal Games needs to move toward a bigger booth space. Because there were only 2 tables we only got an abbreviated 10 minute demo that didn’t give us enough time to explore all parts of the game. I was unable to see the effects of buildings, dive into the deck building or see the use of skills development.
Availability at Gen Con – the game was sold out before the Exhibit Hall was even opened! Come on…not cool!
Trogs Player Disadvantaged? – having played the Trogs faction and being the indigenous faction and already on the board in force, I wonder if the other three factions will simply see them as THE threat and gang up on them. This can make for a frustrating play as no one likes to be targeted over and over again.
I loved Cry Havoc and will definitely be picking this up very soon! I love games that take rather mundane mechanics, like conflict, turn them around and change them up, ending in an advanced and vastly improved alternate take that is fun! This is the case with Cry Havoc. After we played, Tim who was not really interested in the game before we demoed it, said that it was a good game! The game play and battle mechanic changed his opinion and created interest where there was none before. We also had an added bonus of demoing the game with Grant Rodiek. He was a really cool and interactive guy and he agreed to give me an interview on the game, the design experience as well as a look at some of his other game designs. Look out for that interview over the next month.