At Gen Con 2016, Cry Havoc was one of the games that was the talk of the show! Everyone was interested in it, wanted to own it and was trying desperately to get into a demo at the Portal Games booth. I was actually lucky enough to get into a demo that was run by the game’s designer Grant Rodiek and from that chance meeting, have reached out to Grant to see if he can give us some more insight into this great asymmetrical card driven war game. Here is a link to my review of the game written after our demo at Gen Con. Because both our names are Grant (a Latin baby name which means Great!), I have added our last name’s initial along with Grant after questions and answers as appropriate; K. for Kleinhenz (me) and R. for Rodiek). Onto the interview:
Grant K.: Tell us a little about yourself.
Grant R.: I’m a 33 year old living in San Francisco with my wife, Beth, and corgi, Peaches. Big fan of reading history, classic cocktails, and excellent science fiction. My favorite books are Dune and The Expanse series!
Grant K.: How did you get into board game design?
Grant R.: As of now I’m an 11 year veteran of the video game industry as a producer and designer. About 6 years ago I really needed to make something that was my own design outside of work. I found video game development to be an insurmountable task (coding, modeling, animation, etc.), and really, I just wanted to design. Tabletop provided a perfect platform to make things and I dove in head first.
Grant K.: In our brief conversations and interactions on Twitter, I can tell that the design bug has bit you and you are loving every minute of it. Why do you love it? What is your favorite part about design?
Grant R.: I find immense satisfaction in turning a good idea into an actual game. I love finding a good solution to a tough problem, and I love coming up with a unique idea. It’s just very satisfying to have an idea, struggle, and emerge victorious. I love being able to point to people having fun and say “I made that!”
Grant K.: How has your background in video game design helped in board game design or is it all just game design?
Grant R.: It has helped immensely. Due to the cost and risk associated with video games, we have to be very good about creating a strong hypothesis and preparing to execute against it. We have a lot of process to ensure we’re successful. Now, board games don’t need so much process, but I’m very good at outlining my ideas, writing rules early, listening to feedback, and methodically improving the game. I try to be as scientific as possible through testing and constant iteration. Video games have basically provided the tools to be successful at my craft. This lets me focus on the fun stuff because all the tedious things are just routine and muscle memory.
Grant K.: How big was the jump from designing video games or even games like Farmageddon to Cry Havoc?
Grant R.: In many ways it’s really similar. Something I love about board games is that I can have an idea and test it very quickly, sometimes immediately. Video games could take weeks or months before an idea comes to fruition. Something I’ve said many times is that video games tend to be more complex than they should be, because the computer calculates things for you. Board games do a very good job of crafting simple feedback loops and strategic choices with clear consequences. It has focused my thinking at work and it’s something I think more video game designers should strive towards.
Grant K.: How did you make contact with Portal Games and why did they take a risk on you?
Grant R.: I emailed Ignacy in the late spring of 2013 and asked to demo the game to him at GenCon 2013. He agreed and he spent about a half hour with me on the Sunday at the end of the con. He really liked the ideas, particularly the combat mechanism, and took my prototype back to Poland. He tested it for a bit, had some concerns, and in January he offered to sign it. He told me his three high level ideas to improve the game, all of which I agreed with, and said it might be a while before the game came out. Again, no worries. So, we signed the contract and dove in.
Grant K.: I too was drawn to the game because of the battle mechanic. It was just so fresh and such a novel approach on combat. Let’s talk about Cry Havoc. How difficult was it to design an asymmetric game? What was the hardest part?
Grant R.: Asymmetric design is incredibly difficult. The game I pitched to Portal was asymmetric, but it was mostly a feel thing. Every army had unique benefits, but they largely operated in the same space. Ignacy and Portal really pushed the game towards true asymmetry in the final stages of development. This is why the Pilgrims and Humans, etc. all fight so differently. It’s also why people struggle so much with learning the game! They might apply the same methods they use with the Humans (a simple race) to the Machines (not simple) and wonder why they’re losing.
The most difficult part is creating truly distinct factions within largely the same rule set in a way that isn’t too complex. We spent a lot of time smoothing over many of the Skills and such and it’s a really tough exercise. You also have to make it all fair and balanced, at every player count, and it’s tough.
Grant K.: How did you decide upon the setting for the game? Do you typically design mechanics first or theme?
Grant R.: I actually don’t start with theme or mechanisms really. I focus on the experience, goals for the design, and then select the thematic and mechanical pieces that best support it. Cry Havoc began with the goals of:
2-4 Players (instead of just 2);
Zero dice. All combat resolved through cards;
Relatively short play time (1-2 hours).
Initially I chose a faux Napoleonic/French Revolution theme because I love history and I love that time period. I also love the warfare of that period. Ultimately, we changed it to science fiction because Ignacy wisely noted that the faux Napoleonic wouldn’t sell. We focused on some classic science fiction archetypes, but made a few twists I really like. The visuals of the Pilgrims are quite novel, and the Trogs instead of a classic bug/zerg type is also appreciated. Science fiction is something people get and it’s good to be intuitive and familiar for folks. Long term, somewhat like Ignacy has done with 51st State and Imperial Settlers, I would LOVE to explore different themes and twists using the core mechanisms of the cards and battle board.
Grant K.: What was your inspiration for the science fiction setting?
Grant R.: We looked to classic science fiction ideas. We were inspired by Starship Troopers and its mobile infantry for the Humans. The Machines were inspired by Terminator’s Skynet or the Machines from Oblivion. The Pilgrims were inspired by the Protoss and even just your classic little green men, as well as the aliens in XCom. The Trogs were inspired by the Navi of Avatar, Orcs, the Zerg, and earth gorillas. We tried to look to classic science fiction, characters, and conflict.
Grant K.: Whatever your inspiration was, well done. I love the theme and feel that you nailed it because it doesn’t feel painted on and very easily could have. Why did you choose to make the game card driven?
Grant R.: I started this game almost 5 years ago now, back when I had played far fewer tabletop games. When browsing BGG for war games I noticed almost all of them used dice. This is before Kemet, or Cyclades, or Blood Rage, etc. I thought it would be a fun challenge to design a game without dice, because I hadn’t played anything that did that. That’s about it. Nowadays, I tend to lean towards cards because I love playing with them and love designing with them. By far my favorite component.
Grant K.: What is each faction good at? How do they differently go about trying to win the game?
Grant R.: I’m actually writing detailed strategy guides for every faction now, but I’ll give you a quick run down.
Humans: One of the more straightforward factions. They are highly mobile and benefit most from appearing where their enemies are weak or exposed.
Trogs: Guerrilla warfare that need to get a big enough lead early that they can maintain. They need to carefully manage their reserves, constantly fight the other players, and build a healthy nest of points for themselves in the center of the map.
Pilgrims: Reclusive, defensive, Euro style faction. They need to build a “triangle of death” where they flood it with crystals and defend themselves using Power Orbs when attacked. They should also aggressively attack the others, even at a disadvantage, to protect their fertile regions.
Machines: Slow, but inevitable race. They are all about Structures. They should focus on Mountains to build massive networks of shred drones, factories, and bunkers to eliminate and squash all opposition. They can afford zero wasted actions.
Grant K.: What is your favorite faction to play? Why?
Grant R.: I’ve been playing the Machines a great deal lately. They are tough to play, but they have some truly delightful skills. Transform is so much fun to play. Transform plus Moving City is a devastating combo that is delightful to play.
Grant K.: Tell us about the battle system. I love it and find that it is very unique. Where did the idea come from?
Grant R.: As I noted above, the game was originally about Napoleonic warfare. It is very attrition heavy, and often based on waves of attack, broken by decisive use of artillery and cavalry. After Portal signed it, we took my original mechanism and built it around the various objectives of combat and how, more realistically, you don’t outright win or lose a battle, but can be successful in some objectives and fail at others.
Grant K.: How do the terrain decks work? How does this help with building theme?
Grant R.: Players can add cards from one of four Terrain pools to their hand and deck. Every Terrain is affiliated with one of the core Actions, but they also provide Tactics that can only be used in battles in the associated region. For example, I can use a Mountain Terrain Tactic in a Mountain Region.
Thematically, the idea is that you are equipping and training your units to fight in that Terrain. If you’re fighting in an Ocean, that might mean a navy. Fighting in the Jungle means different Tactics entirely.
Grant K.: What are some of the subtle play tactics that can be used in Cry Havoc?
Grant R.: There are some Tactics that are very straightforward, like adding a Unit from the Reserves to the Battle. Others though, can allow for some bluffing and require a little setup. For example, you can reverse the order of Objective resolution (or fake that you’re doing that), or you can bring in Units from adjacent Region (or scare someone that you plan to do that). The Tactics in your hand will largely dictate how you setup for the Turn.
Grant K.: How do players score and why is this so strategic?
Grant R.: Players score from a variety of Skills, for Attrition (killing opponents in battle), and capturing Territory in battle. But all of them score from Crystals in their Regions. When a player enables scoring, which is an Action, the player who enabled scores 1 point per Region they control as a bonus. Then, all players score 1 point per Crystal in the Regions they control. There are a few twists. For example, 1 Crystal is added every time you fight a battle, which means contested regions will slowly become more valuable. But, Pilgrim structures can make Regions more valuable as well. There are so many factors behind how and why Regions become valuable, which makes every game dynamic and there isn’t just one way things play out.
Grant K.: What is the role of structures in the game? Are the structures the same for all factions?
Grant R.: Every faction has 3 unique structures and the Machines have 5 unique Structures. Players can spend Actions to build Structures in Regions they control. Structures let you recruit units in the field, conquer regions, kill enemy units, add crystals to regions, give you tunnels to teleport around the map, and more. They’re very powerful and a big key towards the asymmetry of the game.
Grant K.: Any strategy hints you can give players?
Grant R.: You’ll have to read the Strategy Guides posted on the Portal Site and BGG! There’s a lot of content and it’s tough to answer here.
Grant K.: I also know you are working on another game called Druids. What is Druids about?
Grant R.: Druids is finished! It’s a 2 player abstract strategy game that plays in about 10 minutes. The game does a few neat things. It has a goofy movement mechanism where you can move a piece to an orthogonal space you aren’t facing. This means your pieces zig zag around the board and it’s super clear where your opponent cannot move. You can also gain powerful stones, hence the namesake Druids, which give you animal inspired special moves. Finally, you have 5 Terrain tiles around the board that change the spaces they’re on. But, you can move them as well. There are a few really cool layers between the Terrain and unique stones that lead to a deep little strategy game in such a quick space.
Grant K.: Why did you choose to do wooden components? Is this a thematic choice?
Grant R.: Not thematic at all. I ordered a few wooden sets from my friend with a wood shop in Utah and really loved it. Folks also responded very strongly to it. For years, I’ve wanted to do a weird, artsy project on Kickstarter that was less about typical commercial success and more about, I don’t know, saying “here is a cool idea, take it or leave it.”
Druids became that idea. There aren’t a lot of wooden games like it.
Grant K.: How has it done on Kickstarter?
Grant R.: It fully met and exceeded my expectations. I needed to sell 200 Units to be able to hire an artist for my next game, Solstice, and we ended up selling about 230. This gives me a little more money to pay my folks and get started on Solstice, which I hope to publish in early 2017. The campaign was only about 12 days long and ended a few days ago. We’ll be fulfilling it in December in time for Christmas, which is neat, I think.
Grant K.: What other projects are you working on?
Grant R.: I’m really busy right now. I’m on BGG a few hours every day to respond to questions and provide support for Cry Havoc. I’m in the process of putting together all the components and fulfilling Druids.
I hope to soon begin illustration work on Solstice, which I think is about 95% finished design wise. Once I have some art and basic layout, I’d like to do a final round of blind testing. Solstice is a 2-5 player, 30 minute game that’s all about drafting and deception. It’s originally inspired by Dune and is a deep, challenging game in such a short period of time. Very proud of it.
I’m also working on my narrative campaign driven space fleet tactics game, Sol Rising, for a pitch in December. Which I need to get to! I’ve started the design for another abstract game…which I need to prototype. And a few other things. Very busy!
Thanks for the time for the interview. I am excited about your future games and I know that we are all expecting great things from you Grant! If you are interested in finding out more about Cry Havoc, please go to the Portal Games website.