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Subject: Let slip the dogs of war... rss

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Mitch Willis
United States
Kathleen
Georgia
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Overview
Havoc: The Hundred Years War is a card game based on poker in which you try to win up to 9 battles fought during the Hundred Years War. It’s the first game from the newly formed Sunriver Games company. Havoc comes with 108 regular cards in six suits (values 1-18), 12 multi-colored "Dogs of War" cards, 9 battle cards, 2 double-sided Havoc/Peace cards, 15 victory point tokens, and 3 reference cards. Winning the game involves collecting victory points, which is done by doing well in battles by either winning ‘em outright, or by finishing second or third in some instances. The winner is the player with the most victory points after the ninth, and final, battle.



Off the Box
Havoc is listed as being designed for two to six players. We’ve found that it plays ideally with four to six; with two or three players it’s easy to pick up cheap points. Playing time is listed at 60 to 90 minutes and that feels about right. While the theme is not essential to game play, the descriptions on the regular cards and battle cards display interesting information. The art is also well done and helps suck you into the theme.



Setup
To prepare, the nine battle cards are displayed face up in sequence, with their corresponding victory point tokens just below. Each player is given one dog of war and dealt seven regular cards. Three cards are dealt face up below the battle cards and VP tokens, forming the Recruits Area. The rest of the regular cards form the draw deck. The person on the dealer’s left becomes the initial Peacekeeper and is given the Havoc/Peace card with the Peace side face up. The Peacekeeper begins the first round and each subsequent round as well.



Game Play
During your turn, you can do one of two things; you may either recruit troops or cry "Havoc" and start a battle. You recruit troops by drawing two troop cards in any combination from either the recruits area or draw pile. You then must discard any one card from your hand to the recruits area. The recruits area has a maximum limit of five cards, so if during your turn it’s at the maximum, one of your draws must be from the recruits area. Each time the turn comes back to the Peacekeeper, he rotates the Peace card and takes his turn. If it comes back to the Peacekeeper more than 2 or 3 times (depending upon the number of players) without "Havoc" being declared, then that round’s battle is not fought. The battle cards and corresponding victory point tiles are removed and the Peacekeeper draws one card for keeping the peace. Play then advances to the next battle.

When you’re ready to declare a battle, you cry "Havoc" at the beginning of your turn (before drawing any cards) and lay down 2 cards. Any one wishing to participate in the battle must also lay down 2 cards. If you don’t wish to join the fight, you pass and draw 1 card from the draw deck. Once you pass, you are out of the fight. Play then proceeds clockwise, and to stay in the battle you must lay down at least 1 card. You may pass at any time, but once you pass you can no longer play cards. You can, however, still win the fight if the cards you’ve played form the highest hand after every one has passed.

The winning hand is based on the best poker hand up to six cards. The handy reference cards included show the ranks of the various hands. Any one familiar with poker will recognize most hands (full house, two pair, etc.) but with six cards some unique hands come into play (big house, trios, three pair, etc.) The winner of the fight takes the battle card and the points that go with it. If the battle has points for second or third place, the corresponding player will take the victory point tiles for those places. The Havoc Caller follows the post battle instructions for each battle (usually consisting of giving the Caller an extra card), the Peace/Havoc card is given to the battle winner (who becomes the new Peacekeeper), and the next round is started.



Dogs of War
An interesting mechanic used in Havoc is the "Dogs of War" cards. They are multi-colored and can be used in any suit and each have a value of zero. They can be used as part of your battle hand or played outside of battle. During your recruiting turn, after your initial two draws and discard, you may discard one dog to draw one card from the draw deck or discard two dogs and take any one card from the discard pile.

In battle, they are used much the same way. Any dogs (up to two) you play during a battle can be used to retrieve a card after the battle. You can use one dog to pick up any one face up card on the table. This card can be a card that one of your opponents’ played, one that you’ve played, or one from the recruits area. If you use two dogs, you can search through the discard pile and select any one card.

I think the "Dogs of War" cards are an essential element to the game. They add another layer of strategy, as well as being relevant to the theme. During the Hundred Years’ War (or any battles during the time period as far as that goes), dogs were trained to retrieve weapons, arrows, and other such loot from the battlefield. It fits the theme well.



End Game
After the 8th battle, play deviates from the norm. Each player is dealt two cards in preparation for the 9th and final battle (Castillon). Any "Dogs of War" (up to two) you have may be exchanged for cards from the draw deck. You then put together your best poker hand of up to six cards and display it. There’s no need to bluff on the final battle since there’s no need to conserve cards. As in other battles, the best hand takes the battle card and the rest take the appropriate victory point tiles depending upon how their hand ranks. Unlike other battles, the final battle doles out points all the way down to 5th place. All battle points are then added together and the one with the most points is crowned king/queen. If a tie occurs, the person holding the least amount of cards is declared the winner.



Strategy
There are a surprising number of decisions to be made when playing Havoc. You must decide what battles to fight, when to retreat, when to use your strong hands, when to bluff, and when to play your "Dogs of War." Decisions can be downright agonizing. Do you play your 6-card straight flush as one powerful hand, or do you break it up in order to have two fairly strong hands? Do you try to go all out and win one of the higher point battles or do you instead try to win two lesser battles with smaller rewards? Do you play cards early and try to get some cheap points or do you horde your cards and make a late run? These are just a few of the tough decisions you’ll have to make.

Bluffing can play a big role in Havoc. In my limited experience, bluffing works better in the lower point battles since players aren’t as concerned about them as the larger ones. You could cry "Havoc," lay down three of a kind or maybe 3 cards in a row of the same color, leading other players to think that you have a powerful hand and bow out, allowing you to pick up some easy and cheap points. It also works in reverse; if you have a powerful hand and want to suck more people into the battle, play your cards in such a way that the others think that your hand is weak. Of course, as in real poker, there’s always the chance that your bluff will be called.

Some times you’ll find you have a card that can possibly be played in two different ways. For example, you might have the green 8 which is in the middle of your powerful 6-card straight flush but you also have a total of four 8’s which also can be a strong play. This is when I find the "Dogs of War" most useful. You could play your four 8’s in a smaller battle along with a dog; that way you should probably be able to get some points and after the battle you can use your dog to retrieve your green 8 back into your hand and keep your straight flush intact for later use. Another good use for a dog during battle is when you see an opponent play a card that you’ve been looking for; some times you might want to participate in the battle just so you can play a dog to collect the needed card.

I’ve read where a popular strategy is to stock your hand for the higher reward battles, such as Agincourt and/or Castillon. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried this a couple of times and lost both games. In one game I won both of those big battles, but not much else, and in the other I won Castillon but lost Agincourt to a higher 6-card flush, which crushed me since I got no points at all and my hand was severely depleted. In my last game, I went with a different strategy and it seemed to work, since I ended up winning. Instead of letting every one stockpile their hands, I would cry "Havoc" earlier, especially in the weaker battles, some times not drawing any cards before declaring. I would usually play a pair, and many of my opponents would bow out, not wanting to break up the hands they were carefully building for the bigger battles. I actually got some cheap points that way, and won a couple of battles as well. While it worked that particular time, I’ll have to reserve judgment on that strategy until I’ve played a few more games.



Conclusions
The more I play Havoc, the more I enjoy it. It has agonizing decisions, not much down time, and more importantly, it’s a lot of fun. And, as mentioned before, although the theme is not essential to game play, the Hundred Years’ War makes for a nice background to the game. It reminds me of when I use to play Avalon Hill’s computer version of Kingmaker, when before each battle the computer would declare (with a lovely British accent), "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!" Gotta love that Shakespeare fellow! I currently rate Havoc a 9.


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