02 December 2016
We let slip the dogs of war on the card-driven strategy title
“Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”
Mark Antony’s famous passage from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has been aptly chosen as the title of this ‘deadly intense’ strategy board game from Polish outfit Portal Games. Cry Havoc is a card-driven, asymmetric, area control game set in a new sci-fi universe, and from the first turn you’ll be gripped by the brutal significance of every move you make.
The story goes that a resource-rich planet has been discovered by three races – humans, machines and the alien pilgrims – each with a desire to make it their own. However, there is a fourth faction at play: the trogs.
In a two- or three-player match these primitive, tribal, troll-like creatures act as the indigenous resistance, beginning the game off-board and only appearing when one of their territories is invaded. In a four-player game, however, the trogs are a playable race with an equal chance of winning.
Taking control of one of the factions, players vie to score as many points as possible by killing enemy units, taking prisoners, controlling regions and possessing the all-important crystals that represent the planet’s coveted natural resource.
What lies within the hefty box certainly delivers on this epic proposition; it is chock full of components, representing the four factions with dozens of cards, tokens and plastic miniatures. A large table is required to accommodate all this and, while experienced players will manage a game in under two hours, you’ll want to set aside a whole evening for your first play. Setup and learning will take the best part of an hour and, once underway, you’ll be regularly dipping back into the rulebook for clarifications as you go.
“Cry Havoc’s visuals do not live up to its excellent gameplay.”
The game is played in rounds, with players taking it in turns to perform three actions per round. To take an action, you simply discard cards from your starting hand, cashing them in for movement points, building points or recruitment points. Each card offers a different mix of these three currencies, but the real rub is that some cards also have special abilities that you cannot use if they are sacrificed for action points. The dilemma hits home straight away. Do you use a card right now for its movement points, advancing your troops to take ground, or hold it back and use the special ability to thwart your opponent’s next turn? Hand management is a huge part of the game, and players can gradually bulk-out their starting deck by drawing from four on-board stacks that contain more powerful, strategy-altering options.
As your faction grows and spreads outward from HQ, you will be asked to flip facedown exploration tokens that are placed randomly during setup. These not only reward early expansion but also shape the board into a unique landscape each game, adding friendly units or even point-scoring crystals to a region and immediately attracting the envious gaze of rivals. But it can be a double-edged sword, and is especially fun with three players to hold your breath as the level of trog resistance in a newly explored region is unveiled.
Despite truly varied factions that all look and play differently, the game always feels balanced if you focus on what your faction is best at. Each faction’s personality comes across through the structures they can erect and their unique skills. The humans excel at capture and control, using watchtowers and airfields to cover more ground than their troops alone could manage. The machines have more building options than any other faction and can churn out scary orbital snipers or shred drones to help clear their path of enemies. While the pilgrims are perhaps less offensively bent, they can both mine for and multiply crystals – or teleport!
The most fun, compelling feature of the game is how it handles combat resolution. Whenever a battle is triggered, the warring units are temporarily removed from the main board. Then, starting with the attacker, players distribute their forces onto the battle side board which is divided into three sequential zones – objective, prisoners and attrition.
Each zone grants a unique award to whoever dominates it, which is resolved simply by whoever has the most units there. Dominating the objective zone gives you control of the region. Winning in the prisoners zone allows you to take one enemy unit prisoner (even if you lost region control). Lastly, for each unit a player has in the attrition zone they may kill one enemy. This simple mechanic offers up huge scope for tactical play; do you throw everything you have at securing region control, or yield ground and focus on wiping out as many enemy forces as possible? Taking prisoners is also a viable option, since they score points every round, but the challenge is getting the balance right. The choices are tantalising and make every battle a considered thrill, even just to watch.
Sadly, Cry Havoc’s visuals do not live up to its excellent gameplay. There is plenty of decent artwork on the cards but it’s the board that lets the experience down. The artistic direction here is drab, cluttered and detracts from the experience where it ought to elevate. Component quality is good, but it’s not a pretty game.
While the game actions themselves are simple concepts, the huge variety of tactical options they present and the way they interact with the many unique faction powers creates a lot of exceptions – this can be tough to digest for newcomers. The rulebook also doesn’t do a great job of helping you find quick answers to more advanced conflicts.
Overall, what you have here is a taut, compelling and relentless strategy game with genuine replay value that justifies the price tag. It falls down a little in the looks department, and the steep learning curve delays the real sweet spot perhaps just too long for more casual players, but when you can get past all that, you can look forward to regular, two-hour sessions of gripping, varied sci-fi conquest in its purest form.
Time: 90-120 minutes
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