New York

If you follow my Twitter or Instagram feeds, you might have noticed me testing something that looks eerily similar to Cry Havoc. And, if you follow my newsletter, you know that is precisely what it is. I find my most successful design efforts are driven by intense whims to use a certain mechanism, or create a certain style of game, or merely take another pass at something. This is why I rip up and remake games like Sol Rising, or make an abstract, or return to the land of York. Right now, I have a really strong whim to tinker with York.

Inspired by Richard Borg’s re-theme, revision, and remixing of his Command and Colors mechanism, and inspired by Portal’s work in converting 51st State into Imperial Settlers, I approached Cry Havoc. This isn’t uncommon in the industry. Lang is taking Blood Rage and turning it into Rising Sun. Fantasy Flight took Descent, made Descent 2nd Edition, and then Imperial Assault, and now Doom. I came at it with enthusiasm and fresh eyes with many of the same goals I had in approaching Farmageddon for the Farm Fresh Edition.

I asked myself some questions. 

  • Could I make Cry Havoc simpler and faster, without sacrificing depth?
  • Can I tweak some of the features to create something familiar, yet fresh?
  • Can I approach a new theme that is near and dear to me just for the sake of fun?
  • Are there ways to make the core experience more satisfying using what I know now?
  • Can I make the game more approachable?

There are some things that are sacred and strong with Cry Havoc.

  • The battle system is very well regarded. It presents a lot of tough choices.
  • The deckbuilding is a very good implementation.
  • The core Action system hasn’t changed in almost 4 years, so let’s leave that intact.

Now, many people love the asymmetry and complexity of Cry Havoc. Hell, I do! It's honestly a game I will play any day, any time, any faction. I love it. But, this alienates some audiences, turns off some gamers, and it is good to recognize that. As a designer, I see opportunities to reach new people with a similar, but different pitch. I think that's exciting to tackle. You cannot, and should not, try to make one game please everyone. Which is why you create another game!

The first thing I did was remove asymmetry from the design. Well, almost. And then, yes. Cry Havoc was an asymmetric game from day 1, but before Portal signed it, I created a symmetric version of it to ease new players into the game. Asymmetry creates one of the most difficult learning curves in any design, so I took a “director’s cut” of the powers in the game and turned them into a shared faction. New players could use the backside of their player board, begin the game on equal footing, and have a simpler first game. This was very well received by my testers then. One of the best things Portal did was turn the asymmetry in the game up to 11, but this meant the generic mode disappeared, and the game only became even more difficult to learn. If you get past the learning curve? Great. If not, oh no! Again, it's something I love, but your mileage may vary.

No asymmetry for York means a few big differences:

  • No player Skills.
  • Identical starting decks.
  • No unique structures.
  • No core rule changes, like ½ points for Trogs, the pool for Pilgrims, or Trogs having a different starting setup.

Now, I took the idea behind Skills and molded them into Leader powers. Every player was given one Leader at random. Every Leader power could be used once per round, as a free Action, but they all required you discard a card. They worked well, were nice, but I needed to remove them in order to fill another hole, which I’ll get to. Therefore, asymmetry was briefly allowed in the game in a very minor form, but is now gone for good.

Structures are now shared. There are three each of four different Structures, which can be built by any player until there is no more supply. If you take over a Territory with somebody else’s Structure, it is now your Structure. One of the biggest points of confusion in Cry Havoc is the sheer breadth of content and situations Structures create. They create a lot of exceptions, tweaks, edge cases, and I wanted to do away with all of those. As a result, Structures no longer have Activation. You build them, they do what they do. The cannot counts as two Units, can’t be manipulated by cards, and can be moved with your Army. The Fort provides a defensive bonus and recruiting option. Telegraph Stations provide additional card draw. Supply Depots provide temporary Tactics. Also, all Structurs cost the same to Build. 

However, and this is why Leaders were removed, when I removed the Activate Structures Action, I removed a key piece of the Cry Havoc Action economy. This removed some of the crucial tension and gave players too much time to draw cards and move Units. One of the keys of a good Euro, particularly a Knizia design, is that you need to do five things and only have three. Without this Action, players had plenty of time to do everything.

Therefore, I ported the Leader abilities into Logistics. Each has a cost: one or two Build resource from your cards. On your turn, during a Build Action, you can now build Structures and/or activate each Logistic Power up to once for paying its cost. Logistics powers are very potent, but limited, and fill in the hole that Skills and certain Structures used to provide. They return the tension to the Action economy and based on the three Logistics powers in the game (from a pool of seven), it can dramatically alter the tone and pace of the game. This means you have a nice element of variance as well as another strong choice in the game.

Much of the content in the game is replaced, but fulfills a familiar role. There are still Events every round. I shifted them away from negative effects towards positive ones. I asked myself for each: will this lead to interesting and varied gameplay. So far, the answer is yes! My favorite is the one that adds Peasants to valuable Regions, or the one that gives you a Bonus Unit for seaborne assaults.

The Exploration tokens are now Scouting tokens, so there are incentives to move out and explore early. There are new Scouting bonuses, so they vary the game more. I like the Trogs, but now they are revolting Peasants. They don’t belong to any player, but act as an early pressure as you invade the interior. They still act to seed the game with its starting Resources, but there are some new tokens as well that change things up.

There are some other content changes that are incredibly subtle but very important. Players now begin the game with a reserve of 15 up from 12. The Plains Tactics cards (previously Oceans) provide three Movement, up from two. Mountains, used for Build, only provide two Build Resources, down from three. Structures are more precious now!

There are simplifications throughout the design. Now, if a card provides a bonus, such as points, update initiative, or drawing, you can only cash in a single bonus. This means I have to choose, and it means there are no exceptions. Choose the one you want, and do just that.

There is only a single map layout now. Players have HQ regions which you place on the exterior based on the player count. In a two player game, you actually cover up a region, which tightens the map. Another map change is that you no longer have the opposite cross Regions. Instead, seaports, an old York mechanism, have returned. I can move from an Ocean to any other Ocean as if they are adjacent. This allows for some cross world combat and forces players to move cautiously.

Scoring has seen monumental changes. Firstly, Enable Scoring is no longer an Action. Players now Score for their Region Resources automatically at the end of Rounds three and five. More differently is that in round three you remove half of the resources in a region (rounded up) and place them in front of you. So, if you score big in round three? Great, but you depleted that Region. You need to move on and find new resources to exploit!

There are other ways scoring has changed. I baked it into the new player Reference board to make it easy to learn, but also satisfying. Effectively, I want scoring to feel like cashing in your chips at a Casino. When you Kill an enemy’s Units, you place them on your board. At the end of each round, you give them back and score 1 VP per returned Unit. If you win the Territory Objective in a Battle? You keep the Battle token. At the end of the round, you cash it in for 1 VP. If you took a Territory from an opponent? You get that too and it’s worth 2 VP! This means taking Territory is worth 1 VP or 3 VP, providing an incentive (paired with reduced resources) to not turtle up, but keep moving to take new Territory. Prisoners still provide 1 VP each round, but you can return them during a battle after “interrogating them” to force an opponent to lose a card. They can be quite clutch!

The Battle system was one of the coolest and well regarded features in Cry Havoc. I hope that’s still the case for York. I’ve experimented with quite a few changes, but it’s fairly familiar, which in light of the game’s other changes is okay. The board is now presented with left, center, and right flanks. It more closely resembles a Napoleonic battlefield and I think it’s a subtle thematic change that helps.

You no longer score points for the individual objectives, but for what you accomplish doing those. I think this is simpler and it reduces the amount of information on this board. Almost all the Tactics are new, and they really add pressure to when you play which card. My favorite is Charge, which supplants Shifted Priorities. Shifted Priorities reversed the order of combat resolution. Charge, somewhat similarly, immediately resolves a Flank as it stands right now. You can then move those Units elsewhere to another flank. It’s very potent and exciting if you have your cards setup.

In other changes, all three stages of the battle are resolved via majority, which streamlines things. For the prisoner, nothing happens if you tie, and it is resolved firstly. For the Territory, defender wins ties, and it resolves secondly. For the Attrition, the player with the majority of the Units kills two enemy Units, but they aren’t removed until after the Battle (aka they cannot affect the state of the Battle). Tied? You each lose a Unit.

So far I’m very pleased with the experience. The game plays well with 2-4 players and is down to 60 minutes to play the game with four. It feels different and fresh, yet familiar. It’s much easier to teach new players, but still feels like you can experiment with a variety of paths and strategies. It is still a game that is heavily focused on combat, particularly the “run at your opponent with bayonets” type. You cannot turtle or sit back, now less than ever!

Right now I’m designing the game for me. I have no clue what will happen with it. But, I love these mechanisms and the world of York. It’s nice to be back.