Note: This review originally appeared on The Opinionated Gamers:
Designer: Grant Rodiek, Michał Oracz, Michał Walczak
Publisher: Portal Games
Players: 2 – 4
Ages: 10 and Up
Time: 90-120 Minutes
Times Played: 3 (With 2, 3, and 4 Players)
“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.”
— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Cry Havoc was a big hit at Gen Con 2016, selling out early in the convention and topping many hotness lists. The buzz continued through the hobby’s big meeting in Essen, and since then, Cry Havoc has been rising steadily in the BGG ratings.
Portal Games’s latest title is, in many ways, a medium-heavy, asymmetric “men on a map” battle game, complete with the miniatures and beautiful artwork that characterize similar titles. But unlike others in the genre, Cry Havoc has some clever Euro-style mechanics, including elements of deck building and a truly original battle system. I’ve found the game clever, enjoying my plays at each player count, though the game shines best with four players.
Gameplay Walkthrough: Deck building, men on a map, and that oh-so-clever battle system…
Cry Havoc will be played over a maximum of five rounds, and the player with the best score at the end is the winner. The primary way to score points is by controlling areas with crystals when scoring is triggered.
The game plays quite differently with 2, 3, and 4 players. With 2 and 3 players, the “Trogs” faction is not controlled by a player, but rather the Trogs act as a “deterrent” to players trying to capture control of territories. With 4 players, the Trogs are played by one character. The factions each have unique powers and structures, making gameplay asymmetric.
The “Trogs” have the advantage of early numbers, but their structure are relatively weak. The “humans” can move quickly around the map, and their structures allow them to defend territories at a relatively lower cost. The “pilgrims” can extract victory points without necessarily controlling territories. The “machines” have powerful structures for attacking, allowing them to kill units remotely, and they are the only faction that can move structures around the board.
As mentioned above, gameplay will last five or fewer rounds. There are six phases to each round:
- Events. Each round has an event which will impact the positions of the players and/or gameplay. The event is triggered, the initiative (i.e. turn order) track is updated, and players refresh their skill cards to show they are once again usable.
- Draw cards. Cry Havoc has a deck building mechanic. During the draw cards phase, players draw four cards from their deck. If they have more than seven, they discard down. Players have a starting deck, but they can also take additional cards during the next phase, and those cards each have different advantages in the actions that they can take or how they can be employed in battle.
- Take actions. In the turn of the initial track, players take actions. This is the core of the game. Depending on the number of symbols on their cards, players can move, recruit, build/activate structures, draw two tactics cards and keep one (i.e. add to their deck), or enable scoring. There are complex rules around each action, but in short, players are seeking to move around the board and trigger battles, recruiting additional units to their base as necessary.
- Battle resolution. Battles are resolved. See below for additional details on this important — and oh-so-clever — phase.
- Prisoners. First, players score a victory point for each prisoner they have. Then, in turn order, each player chooses to leave their unit in imprisoned or lose two victory points per prisoner of their faction they return from another player to their reserve. You cannot do this if you don’t have enough victory points to pay for the prisoner.
- Scoring (if enabled). Players must activate scoring as an action, otherwise it doesn’t happen. If it is activated, the player that activated it earns a victory point, then all players score one victory point per crystal in each region they control.
Battles are marked in the order in which they are started. During the battle resolution phase, players add a crystal to each territory with a battle, making the territories more valuable as the game goes on. Then they place units on the battle objectives board, with the attacking player placing first. The board has three battle objective spaces:
Region control. The player with the most units on this objective wins the region and gains two victory points. The region control remains with that player even if all of their units are eliminated during the subsequent objectives.
Prisoners. The player with the most units present on this space takes one of the opposing units and places it in front of him as a prisoner. Prisoners are detailed above in the fifth phase, and they can be a great way to earn points.
Attrition. Players kill one unit of the opposing side from any battle objective, scoring one point per unit killed.
Then players, starting with the attacking player, can play tactics cards. These are the same cards used to move around the board, recruit units, and build structures. Some of them provide helpful advantages in battle, such as resolving the battle objectives board in reverse order, or allowing players to move units around the battle objectives board.
After the effects of the battle objectives board is resolved, players place controlling units back into the region, the loser retreats (if applicable and if possible), and the next battle is resolved.
That’s the game in a nutshell. The game is ultimately about moving your units around the board, building structures, and setting up for battle. The winner is ultimately the player that (a) uses clever play during battles, and (b) best takes advantage of his faction’s unique power and structures.
My thoughts on the game…
I can see why Cry Havoc has been such a big hit. Between the clever gameplay, the stellar production value, and the deep asymmetry, Cry Havoc is a game that is worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it. I’ve enjoyed my plays, and this is one of the better battle games released in recent years.
The different factions are well-designed. The asymmetry in Cry Havoc isn’t just pasted on: you genuinely have different tactics and strategies to employ depending on the faction you play. I’ve played with all of them but the Trogs, and I’m impressed by how balanced and well-developed the design is. I had heard complaints of the humans being overpowered, but I didn’t notice that in my plays.
The production value is top-notch. The artwork is beautiful, and the iconography is intuitive and functional. The miniatures are an especially nice touch. The game is so eye-popping that passersby often stop to ask, “What are you playing?”
But the best part of the game, to me, is the clever mechanics, especially the battle system. The best battle games have a clever confrontation mechanic, and I love the one employed in Cry Havoc. The different objectives make for fascinating choices, especially for the attacker, and resolving battles is the best part of the game. The choices aren’t just tactical: taking prisoners or taking/ceding control can have long term strategic implications, and they’re a great way to earn points.
Our first game — which was with 4-players — did take more than a couple of hours, but subsequent plays have been faster. Gameplay is actually quick, with minimal time between turns, so even if the game does run long, it doesn’t feel that way. The game is quite complex, although it is so streamlined that it feels intuitive, and I’ve seen the game taught in about 15 minutes.
I’ve played at all of the player counts, and I think my favorite is at four players. I like the idea of the Trogs being controlled by a player, rather than merely being automa. Three doesn’t quite work as well as either four or two players, and if there is an imbalance in the factions, I suspect that is where it would show. But in the end, it is worth playing this at any player count, as all three offer a materially different experience.
In sum, Cry Havoc compares very favorably to other battle games. I strongly prefer it to Blood Rage, and it would be a tossup for me between Cry Havoc and Cyclades or Kemet. I’m not the biggest fan of the battle game genre, which is why I rate this is “I like it.” below, but I can see brilliance in this design, so I enthusiastically recommend Cry Havoc. It looks like Portal Games has another hit on their hands.
New York City
With less than 4 Players, playing the "neutral" Trogs becomes part of your own strategy, as you are always using them against the player to your right. And you can play your own cards for them in battles as well.