Let Slip the Trogs of War
Cry Havoc, a triple-header by Grant Rodiek, Michał Oracz, and Michał Walczak, wants to be one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard about. Hell, it’d like your ears to bleed when you hear just how cool it is. Soldiers dropping from orbit, rampaging machines who’ve never heard of the Turing Test and couldn’t care less, four-armed knockoffs of either the Eldar or Protoss — depending on which you think is a better representation of the ancient grumpy alien trope — and muscle-bound idiots who care for nothing so much as pumping their arms in the air to the catchy beat of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Cry Havoc has all that and more.
But instead of dripping honey into your ears, there are precisely two things I want to say about Cry Havoc. Just two. Not three, not one. Two.
First of all, asymmetry sure seems popular these days, doesn’t it? Well, when it’s pulled off with as much panache as Cry Havoc, it isn’t hard to see why. A huge amount of this game’s appeal comes down to boasting four factions whose similarities pretty much begin and end with “They have fighters” and “They want crystals.” Whatever alignment of stars that led these four powers to slug it out on the surface of Cry Havoc’s unnamed planet, I’m cool with it. There isn’t much of a backstory to the goings-on, but objection overruled, because long-winded stories just stand in the way of letting these guys get down to the business of crushing and shooting.
While this seems to be primarily Grant Rodiek’s rodeo, Michał Oracz’s fingerprints are hard to mistake. After all, this was the guy who gave us the dozen-odd factions of Neuroshima Hex and the colorful stragglers of Theseus: The Dark Orbit. And like those games’ war-weary killers or desperate collapsing-space-station survivors, each of the sides in Cry Havoc is doing their own thing.
Let’s start with the Trogs, the natives whose planet is undergoing a three-way invasion. They’re your typical tree-hugging locals, not too different from Avatar‘s Na’vi, if the Na’vi spent less time prevaricating about the mysteries of life and more time flexing and getting stuff done. They start out all over the place, and can muster extra bodies just by rolling over to the neighbors and asking them to join up. Even later on, they can disappear into the shrubbery for a few minutes, only to pop back out with extra guys in some region that nobody was expecting to get reinforced. It isn’t uncommon to see the board swamped in green for the first few rounds.
This is where the other factions need to scramble to keep up, each with unique tricks up their own sleeves.
The Humans, for instance, like to strike without dirtying their hands. Sometimes this means chucking artillery shells into a region, other times it means using airfields to conquer adjacent areas without squelching a single boot into the mud. And the Humans are unique in their ability to capitalize on these temporary gains by churning them into easy victory points. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, are all about the long con, gradually setting up harvesters to pool crystals, then unleashing them for powerful abilities or points.
The Machines take an entirely different tack by focusing on setting up structures to do their fighting for them. Most of the time, getting thrust into battle means that region is done for the time being, totally locked off for reinforcements from either side. It’s even difficult to evacuate your guys in the event that you want to use them elsewhere. The Machines, however, have all sorts of buildings that tinker with the rules, whether by using Shred Drones to kill off guys in battle regions prior to the actual fight — normally impossible — or using Matrix structures to give them extra combat cards.
See, while the focus in Cry Havoc is about moving guys around the map and starting ruckuses, this is all handled by some very light deck-building. Each side starts with a set of cards that gradually transforms according to their changing needs and tactics. For example, losing guys can be a swift kick to the gonads, forcing you to spend cards both on the recruiting of new fighters and the shuttling of them back out into the fray. So as the Humans, you might pick up some extra movement cards to ensure you don’t get bogged down after losing a single fight, while as the Machines you might focus instead on using more construction cards to set up factories and manufacture your soldiers on the spot rather than calling them down from orbit.
The result of these asymmetrical fighting forces is a dynamic and ever-evolving battle that’s simultaneously intimidating for newcomers and totally balls-out awesome to behold in action. This is the lifeblood of the game, especially in the sense that it never quite feels balanced — especially when your opponent racks up a whole bunch of early points because you’re playing as one of the slower-burning teams — while remaining mostly fine-tuned in practice. Just don’t go in expecting to uncover all of Cry Havoc’s nuances at once and you should be okay.
Which brings us to the second thing I wanted to say about Cry Havoc: the battle system.
Picture this. There are no dice to roll, no pogs to flip. Just a board for placing your participating warriors, attacker first, and then the very same cards you might have been tempted to use for moving or recruiting soldiers. Did you use your Deploy Holos card to set up a Power Orb rather than holding it in reserve for the battle? Too bad, it’s gone. That’s the tradeoff you’re presented with every single time you take an action.
The way it works is simple. There are three “slots” you can deploy your troops to. The topmost one determines who wins the battle itself, and yes, even if you have nobody left standing once the battle concludes, you still win and force your opponent to retreat — though of course they’ll probably be back before too long. The middle slot lets you capture an enemy piece, holding it hostage and earning a steady drip of points each turn until your opponent pays a couple victory points of their own to get it back. And the bottom one kills off enemy soldiers, removing them from circulation and earning a smooth point apiece.
The trick is that each battle comes with its own needs and expediences. If you’re in a scoring round, it might pay to lose a few guys, even maybe let your opponent take a hostage, in order to claim that location. Those crystals ain’t going to haul themselves to the bank, after all. But if you’re on the losing side of a fight, or if there’s no particular reason to hold a location right this instant, then it can be a good idea to kill or capture your enemies, leaving them crippled and picking up a few points of your own.
Best of all, any cards you didn’t use earlier are now used for manipulating your position on the battle board once both sides have ponied up their intended strategy. Maybe you thought you were going to have the most guys on the capture slot, but then your opponent dropped another guy into the battle via some trickery — well, use a card to shift your guys around so you’re suddenly winning control instead, or flip the resolution order so that casualties are applied first rather than last, killing off all his guys before he can do anything. There are any number of ways to get ahead even when you’re losing the battle, and half the joy of each fight is in figuring out how to deal the maximum number of setbacks to your opponent.
Summed up, Cry Havoc is a colorful and fast-paced slug-’em-up that presents a wonderful four-way romp, dishing out truly unique factions to its players and then giving them one of the smartest methods of settling their differences ever put to cardboard. Figuring out your team’s particular strengths and shoring up their weaknesses is nothing short of a delight, and while those very same advantages make it hostile and frustrating for newcomers, particularly at a table packed with veterans, that’s a small price to pay for one of the slickest games of its style out there.