August 20, 2017

Game Review: Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc is a rare case of a game that I like in a great many ways, yet also didn’t really leave me satisfied as a gamer. I'll try to explain. My experience with the game is based so far on a two-player game and a three-player game. No rule summaries here as usual (I highly recommend if you need that) just analysis and opinion. 

First the good, and there’s a lot of it: 

Components: The game components are gorgeous. The board and pieces are nicely illustrated, distinctive, and vibrant. Each position has unique miniatures with snap on colored bases that can easily be distinguished from one another—a great boon for a player that has suffered through various RISK and RISK-like games that had armies with colors a tad too similar. Opening the box, this was a game that I definitely wanted to play.

The rulebook is solid. Some things, especially combat, are easier taught live or via video (more on combat later). But the book covers all the bases and has an excellent section on setting up the game.

The design of the game shows a lot of care, and some game elements such as an on-board round marker make play easier. Card symbols are distinctive. The designer clearly has played many board games and incorporated some neat mechanics that game presentation makes easy to implement.

Style and Theme: The theme here is good, however I think card wording and other things could have brought it out more.

Overall Play: Each player controls a distinct race, and each race is different when it comes to abilities and game play. After playing one race, I was anxious to try out another and see how it played. Varied special “add-on” abilities for each race and randomized map chits add to the replay value. Considering how very different the races were, both of my games were pretty close affairs. (I’ve seen a number of complaints about the strength of the Trogs race, but as my two games had less that four players I never got to see that race controlled by a player.)

One area that left me less satisfied was combat—both the process and the act of taking over the board. The diceless combat system was unique and creative in design, but also felt, well, weird and left more than one player confused. I found myself yearning for a touch of randomness—an add-on dice roll or something that would add a bit of unexpectedness and luck to the proceedings—but players who prefer a more calculated, nonrandom affair will enjoy it. But again, it’s clear thought was put into design choices here too; the decision of “take prisoners or just kill the enemy solders” became a nice tactical choice—do I kill enemies for a quick victory point boost and allow the other player to get the troops back into their reserve, or do I forgo points but potentially deprive the opposing player of troop pieces they'll need? I like having to make these hard choices.

Combat across the board left me unhappy. The majority of the game was players waging fairly one-sided battles against the non-player Trog positions. Player vs player action really only reared it’s head very late in the game, and then the limited number of troop pieces—twelve I believe—left me feeling hamstrung. Mustering troops to attack positions held by other payers pretty much meant vacating a position I already held and leaving that spot open to easy attack, because I couldn’t generate new troops to protect it. This design choice may have been made to avoid RISK-style turtling, etc., but as a player it presented me with no good expansion choices late in the game, since risking a new combat to take a new region pretty much meant leaving another region I held extremely vulnerable. I ending up staying put. (I played the Pilgrims, which likely do better strategically by squatting down and simply generating crystals after a while in any case, given their opponents’ combat abilities. So maybe my choice wasn’t that bad.)

I also need to mention the Events mechanic, which just didn’t seem to work well or provide any excitement. As I understood the rules, the event markers (which are shuffled each game) are triggered if a player gets a specific number of victory points and lands their victory point marker exactly on a space marked with an event marker, otherwise the event marker moves down to “double up” with the next event marker. In my two games, the players typically leapfrogged the events. And when the events were finally triggered, they were boring. The game would have done better with stack of event cards (with more interesting events) and a rule that you simply trigger an event at the start of each turn, period.

Final Thoughts. This game has excellent production values and shows great care in it’s design. It offers unique positions with unique abilities for each player, and lots of discovery. I love games with different factions to play, and this game offers that in spades. The game makes the player make some hard decisions —capture troops or kill them? —give up a card for the icons or hold it to play in battle? 

Combat across the board is less fulfilling however, and what began as a really fun start eventually bogged down into a hesitant, measured, and less fun affair. A single card another player holds can ruin your day, and the simple decision of player to enable scoring one turn can push their final score into victory. I won the game via the Pilgrim’s crystal-hoarding ability, yet I really didn’t see anything wrong in the way my opponents played and never felt like I was winning when looking at board dominance—victory felt a bit too arbitrary and not earned.

I would play Cry Havoc again, if only to try our each race at least once, but in the end I found myself yearning for a somewhat more traditional take-over-the-board combat experience.

Components: A
Theme: C+
Gameplay: B–

Overall: B–
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