Today we share with you the first in a series of design journals from Cry Havoc designer Grant Rodiek. Enjoy!
In the spring of 2012 I was looking for a new game to design. It’s wild thinking back 4 years, mostly because in that time I’ve played so many more games and learned so much more about design, creating fun experiences, and the hobby in general. 4 years ago I knew relatively nothing, and Cry Havoc, which was then Battle for York, was a wonderful tutor. Also a harsh mistress.
After my first design was published, I felt surefooted in card design (ha!) and wanted to design a war game with a board. I loved war games, or at least what I thought were war games. Risk, believe it or not, was probably my biggest inspiration. I loved the game as a kid and appreciated its simplicity. I’m nostalgic for it and Stratego, the latter of which is still an amazing game. However, I saw a great deal of room to improve, so I began.
I knew I wanted to make a game based on 18th and early 19th century warfare (think Napoleon), but I didn’t want to be constrained by history. It’s my favorite time period. Plus, the technology is simple and the types of the different arms groups — infantry, cavalry, and artillery — have intuitive roles.
I wanted the game to be short – 60 minutes or fewer. Practically, I knew I’d never be able to test a 2 hour game, and I didn’t play “long” games then. I wanted the game to play with more than two players, which seemed to be the most common war game player count. Finally, I thought it’d be fun to make a game without dice. I don’t really dislike dice at all, I just thought that would pose a novel challenge. Spoiler: it did.
Initially, I spent a long time doodling maps on dry eraser boards, some of which still have remnants of the drawings. Thinking about Risk, I knew I wanted a smaller map that didn’t have room to hide. I wanted players to get to the action quickly.
I always assumed players would start from a home territory. I assumed, like Risk, they would need to recruit and move units as core choices in the experience. To address one problem I had with Risk, I decided to limit the players’ unit pools to only 15 units. Once you cap out, you need to focus on fighting, not just overwhelming your enemies.
I love multi-use cards. They were the cool part of Farmageddon (my first design), so I again looked to that experience for Cry Havoc. I created a decision around using each card for Reinforcements OR Tactics. That was one of the first ideas I had, and it remains the core of the final design.
The first test went badly. I had a pencil drawn map on a poster board with a pile of index cards with numbers scribbled on them. I don’t remember the specific details, but the win condition was to capture one player’s home territory. This meant everyone sat back, waited for someone to screw up, and pounced. It was a lousy experience. I knew then and there I wanted to build the game around reasonable aggression. No sitting back. No camping. But also, you couldn’t be eliminated for a single misstep.
I needed to answer this question: How do I make a 4 player war game that keeps everyone involved the entire game? What other goals were available instead of objective elimination? I looked to European style designs and victory points.
I added country and city spaces. The country was worth very little, but the few precious city territories were worth a great deal. Initially the cities were on the exterior of the map, so players naturally stayed away from each other. I moved the cities to the center to force conflict and tension.
Another problem emerged, which was that players’ flanks were too comfortable. A very clean “front line” emerged and it was impossible to threaten somebody’s flank. World War I’s trench warfare isn’t terribly compelling! Therefore, I introduced seaports. Four territories on the exterior of the map that were considered adjacent to any other territory on the exterior.
I shifted the game towards one of a finite number of rounds, some with scoring, some without. This let players spend a round or two setting up and positioning themselves, almost like a winter and campaign season. I added in endgame strategic goals. I had a handful of them, but only a few came into every game. They might reward bonuses for having the most cities, the most country territories, and so forth.
I thought about tactical combat in highly abstracted terms. I designed my battle system after the high attrition battles of the Seven Years and Napoleonic Wars. This was never meant to be a simulation, so instead of precisely moving cavalry to the right side, I instead designed tactics that represented a cavalry charge’s effect on the battle.
The most important thing in Cry Havoc were battles. I always wanted players to fight, fight often, and have fun doing it. This is an aggressive game! I hated how players spent 3 hours in Eclipse building fleets for maybe 1 or 2 final round battles.
I focused all complexity on battles and reduced it elsewhere. I provided incentives for being aggressive. Points were awarded for winning battles, claiming territory, and capturing prisoners. Plus, I made sure to make it possible to recuperate after a loss. Nothing sucks more than losing in round 1 and being dragged through another 5 rounds.
Battles, specifically, were fought in waves. Players would arrange all units involved in the battle in 3 waves, then play offensive and defensive tactics to modify things. Artillery Bombardment would cause your opponent to lose 3 units outright. Fortresses on the map would cause high attrition for the attacker initially (the forlorn hope), and a fighting withdrawal would let you ding the enemy and move your units away. Fast, brutal, and abstract.
I took the game to Gen Con 2012 after crunching on it all summer. Every night after demoing Farmageddon for 8 straight hours, I’d test what was then Battle for York at the First Exposure Playtest Hall from 8pm until midnight. I did this for 3 days and learned a great deal. Firstly, I had to fundamentally improve my approach towards graphic design. The game’s presentation was making it difficult to play.
I also learned the game was too slow. Players took three Actions in a single turn, with each player having one turn per round. This meant player four had to wait a very long time, especially if players 1-3 had analysis paralysis. Furthermore, so much could happen on a single turn that the weight of the decision could be crippling.
The game also had a lot of public information with Tactics. Plus, there were four distinct factions, each with their own tactics, which led to a lot of cross table reading. This public information problem would plague us for a long time and took us, me and Portal, a long time to fix.
I made a really big change to the game: on each turn, a player would now take a single action. Players would take 3 total actions each round, but spaced out. This fundamentally broadened the strategy, made turn order less of an issue, and completely eliminated the pacing problem. Cry Havoc isn’t a short game, but it’s a brisk one.
Year one was fruitful, but year two would prove decisive and tumultuous. I’d deal with a crisis of confidence, quit, settle, then send a hail mary pass to a Polish guy with a weird last name. But, that’s a topic for next time.