'Cry Havoc' Advances Board-Gamified War

The new tabletop battler offers a brilliant take on strategic conflict.

Angelina X. Liang

Cry Havoc, the latest from Portal Games, is a tabletop standout defined by savagery. A tight sequence of battles set on a cramped map, the game sees aliens fighting over resources a la James Cameron, but the plotting here is more satisfied than anything Avatar could offer. Plenty of games force little plastic figurines to duke it out within constricted cardboard arenas, but this game feels different.

Each of Cry Havoc’s four groups — humans, machines, psychic slugs, and trolls in space — brings strange and powerful abilities to the table. But, again, plenty of games have distinct factions and asymmetrical warfare. Still, the game feels different.

Why is that? Because Cry Havoc earns its Shakespearean invocation of a title by making war into more than a series of odds-driven clashes. The combat mechanic is odd but bold, a grand melee defined more by depth and tension than by chaos.

If we are indeed in the “Golden Age of Board Games,” this era has as much in common with a Cambrian explosion as it does with the Age of Enlightenment. There are more new games than ever, with the hobby board games market growing an estimated 56 percent from 2014 to 2015. And it is only out of this rich ooze that something like Cry Havoc — a snappy armored trilobite in a world of jellyfish — could crawl.

Combat mechanics are a relatively recent evolutionary development. Since chess gained popularity 1,500 years ago, the act of capturing itself has all the drama of overwriting a saved file. A pawn just winks another pawn out of existence.

And so games went, more or less, until a Prussian military man by the name of Georg von Reisswitz brought something out of his family parlor and plunked it down in front of his fellow officers in the early 19th century. The von Reisswitzes called it Kriegsspiel, which means, in the German tradition for naming the very thing and not an inch further, mein freund, “war game.”

Kriegsspiel delivered a gift of gold to the infant war game: dice. Up until this point dice were good for divination, gambling and games of abstraction, but not widely used for approximating the odds that this artillery encampment would blow that tin soldier’s head off. For the randomness of the battlefield, dice were a perfect shorthand.

The idea caught fire. Consider W. R. Livermore, the Harvard and West Point graduate who, in the later half of the 19th century, produced a 123-page rulebook for what he called “American Kriegsspiel: A Game for Practicing the Art of War Upon A Topographical Map.” Within its pages are some promising stuff, along the lines of: “… dice are used to decide the result of a firefight as well as that of a hand fight. Open up a modern war game rulebook at random, and chances are you’d find something similar today.

(But Livermore was more concerned with simulation than stimulation. For instance, troops firing up at an angle of 10 degrees to the horizontal are 60 percent effective, whereas troops firing upward at an angle of 5 degrees are 80 percent effective. Destroying a bridge 1,000 yards away with four three-inch cannons should take, oh, 10 to 15 minutes, he wrote. Which is to say, eat your bradycardic heart out, Monopoly.)

If Kriegsspiel successfully glued dice and tabletop combat together, over the next century, the cement of that union would turn rock-hard. Perhaps no other person played a larger role in preserving the concept of risky “combat dice” than French director Albert Lamorisse, who invented a game called La Conquête du Monde in 1957.

You have probably played La Conquête du Monde or at least heard of it by its English name, which, appropriately enough, is Risk. Risk sold by the millions and millions despite its heavy reliance on luck and its proclivity to drag. (To be fair, certain versions of Risk perked up the rules and curbed too-long playtimes.)

Game designers, even the brilliant ones, found creative and smart ways to use dice. As an offshoot of unpredictability, dice also produced tension and encouraged taking risks. There is excitement within those thermoset polymer cubes. Consider Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax’s love for dice. As Wired wrote in a biography of the game inventor: “Gygax was fascinated by the way the rolling of dice affected — and enlivened the game experience. ‘Random chance plays a huge part in everybody’s life,’ he says.”

Dice-rolling ran rampant through the board game ecosystem, powering Monopoly’s movement and fueling Risk’s battles. Minatures games, children’s games, and war games of all stripes embraced dice just as Livermore and Lamorisse had, rolling bones to resolve fired guns and fisticuffs, from King of Toyko to Warhammer to elaborate pen-and-paper RPGs.

But there is a downside to multifaced chaos. Rolling a die, running the number generator or the chance machine, wrests control away from the player. The dice may begin in your palm, but the final results are mitigated at best and completely out of your hands at worst. What if there were a way to rule the world without worrying about dumb luck? What if we wanted our tabletop fates to end in our minds and in those of our opponents, alone?

While dice continued their popular reign, by mid-20th century stranger things appeared below the surface. Prior to Risk’s creation, in fact, the board game Diplomacy — what Grantland onced called the board game of the alpha nerds — marked an example of what’s called “deterministic” resolution. The superior force will win, every single time. The players’ inputs directly and predictably determine the outputs.

There is no luck to Diplomacy’s fights; instead, the game generates its intensity through alliances, cobbled together in secret and just as swiftly broken. In such games, the drama is not in the battle itself but the maneuvers and feints leading up to it.

Hobbyist games like Cosmic Encounter took up Diplomacy’s mantle, championing less random forms of combat. In a game of Cosmic Encounter, for example, fights between two players are decided by the number of units on either side of a battle, plus a numbered card played from the players’ hands.

Later permutations like the Game of Thrones: the Board Game and Blood Rage borrowed the essence of this mechanic: Sum together dudes on a board plus a card that does something special but mostly adds a number. May the highest total win, forever and always. The strategy of such games becomes more about baiting high cards, or knowing when to throw down a choice card of your own, rather than dicey tactics of banking on a good roll or a completely surprise ambush.

And here is where we find Cry Havoc. It also rejects dice. The game’s combat uses both figurines plus cards, like Blood Rage or Cosmic Encounter before it. But by splitting combat into three objectives, it takes the non-die paradigm in a new and unusual step. It finds tension in the unit-plus-card combo in a way that Diplomacy, Blood Rage, and Cosmic Encounter cannot, because the outcome of its fights are not wholly binary.

You can “win” a battle in Cry Havoc, though do so at an immense cost. Or you can lose a region, but lose brilliantly.

Here is why that works. At the beginning of Cry Havoc’s combat, all figures in a battle are removed from the territory on the map. The attacking player divvies up his or her figures among three objectives on a piece of cardboard called a Battle board: Region Control, Capture Prisoners, and Attrition. The defending player does the same.

The three objectives in the Battle board.

Using cards from their hand or other abilities, players then take turns adding or rearranging the number of units among the objectives. Or, with the right ability, they can manipulate the sequence in which the objectives are resolved. It is a bit like shifting counterweights to throw off a scale balance. You want advantage, not equilibrium.

Afterward, totals on each half of the Battle board are compared. The player with the high number in Region Control gets to place any surviving units back in the region; the high number in Capture Prisoners gets to take a prisoner; for every unit in Attrition, an enemy figure from the Battle board is killed.

And that, in a futuristic war head, is that.

In most combat games, be it Risk or Cosmic Encounter, losing a fight means losing forces as well as a region. This, broadly speaking, sucks ass. You will still suffer defeats in Cry Havoc, although smartly playing the Battle board enables you to lose on your terms. There’s a sting to seeing the region you wanted wrested away, sure, but the right placement on the objective squares means you can dull that blow.

Say you are on the attack, and shift all of your forces in the Attrition square. Yes, your opponent wins control of a choice spot. The diminished enemy survivors returned to the board, however, will be easier prey next turn.

The mental feints that emerge on the Battle board would not be out of place at a rock-paper-scissors tournament. There is still uncertainty: Do you guess that your opponent is not holding a card that could upend your plan? Do you take a risk and cede the area to your enemy — but slaughter all the pieces, in one of the most innovate approximations of a tabletop Pyrrhic victory?

In a way few other combat mechanics allow, you — not random chance nor, necessarily, always having the perfect card — are responsible for salvaging the most out of a given battle.

If board gamers are a smart bunch, (they are) Cry Havoc should make them sit up a little straighter and take note: It is a glimpse of what is possible in the world beyond typical cardboard conflicts. Let slip this odd duckling of war.