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Game Design Journal

Cry Havoc Design Journal 06

Cry Havoc Design Journal 06

Whenever I start working on a game, or on any project for that matter, I delve into it COMPLETELY. It’s not like wading in it up to the knees, or even up to the neck; it’s like taking a plunge to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I can’t think of anything else than the project, it keeps whirling in my head day and night, in the mornings, in the evenings, when I work, when I eat, when I’m running my errands. I keep working on it even when I’m asleep, sometimes even more efficiently than in my waking hours. All the time I take notes, visualize, test, improve, check off successive elements of my “to improve” and “to develop” lists.

And once the project finally draws to its end, I purge it from my memory and move on to the next one. I forget almost everything that concerns a past project.

That’s the way it is. We’ve finished working on Cry Havoc a long time ago.

And I barely remember anything from that period 🙂 .

At the beginning, Walec sent me a rule book. An awfully long and complicated rule book. I did not read it. I hate rule books, especially the long and complicated ones.

I got to know the game when we actually played it.

To test and develop Cry Havoc, we were given a separate room at Portal Games, a small one and full of blank components used in creating prototypes.

We set up a small table (after all, a game should respect gaming space and fit on an average table!), and Mirek was thoughtful enough to prevent us from stifling and getting burned alive (if I remember correctly, it was midwinter; where did the heat come from, anyway?) and provided us with a bizarre steampunk-like ventilation and cooling system made of plastic pipes that carried the heat to the corridor. Suddenly, it was pleasant inside the room, but in the corridor there was a burning stench and waves of horrible heat were blowing. I could swear there was smoke coming from the pipes.

Perhaps because of this heat for most of the time the planet on which battles took place in Cry Havoc was being scorched by the deadly rays of a gigantic star—every turn some units would drop dead, depending on how close to the center of the board they were. Eventually we scrapped this rule—apparently spring had come to our little room and to Cry Havoc, the temperature dropped, and we could leave that climatic rule behind.

The second thing I’ll never forget is working with Walec. That was truly a “wow” experience. I’ve been working with games for several years now, as a member of very various teams. When at work, each team or tandem produces a slightly different energy, has a different style and different strong points—all this translates into how fast the work proceeds and what its final outcome will be.

Walec was like a machine gun. A volcano of ideas coupled with creative ADHD. At times I even had enough of this and longed for a moment of rest from all these “new ideas” of his.

When I find something wrong with the game, I turn my nose up at it with a long “hmmm”, but I rather do so to take a closer look, to investigate—does the problem really lie here and not somewhere else where we hadn’t looked for a long time, or somewhere where we had not looked at all.

– But with my every “hmm” Walec would come up with a new idea for that part of the game—or the game itself. And it took him about three and a half seconds.

– “Hmmmmm—”

– “Okay, so let’s to this differently. I have an idea, maybe this will work? [and he comes up with a new, very very clever rule].

– “Oooh, that’s interesting, but the thing is that hmmmm—”

– “Okay, so in that case maybe we could do it this way?” [and he comes up with another great idea].

– “You know what, that’s a good one, but it won’t work here, because—”

– “Okay then, something else just entered my mind! Why don’t we—” [and he comes up with yet another great idea].

– Working with Walec was like selecting the best ideas (and they were coming at me like a volley of missiles) as to how to best solve the problem at hand and what fitted the game best.

– Then we tested each idea. Didn’t hit the right spot? Another volley. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. And so on. Rat-a-tat-tat with his inexhaustible supply of ammo.

– Absolutely mind-blowing.

If I were to rely on my memory, my reminiscences would end here.

Fortunately, I always take notes when I work on a game. And not just two or three keywords, or some scribbles on how the tests went. I always produce monstrous quantities of notes. My standard is a ream of paper per game.

Let’s have a look at some of these notes, let’s take an excerpt.

My impressions after the first round: heavy and difficult, tough choices to make.

Battles: Not varied enough, resolving them is like shooting in the dark, their outcome too uncertain, the stakes too high—I wouldn’t play such a game. A large, heavy, cumbersome engine to move miniature pieces around; not a single spectacular avalanche; no light and rapid flow; no combos, etc.

Too heavy, too slow. What’s good? Nothing. Maybe the battle board, but it’s too complex to understand, anyway. Arduous battles fought with tiny pawns and for low stakes only. All I can do is to try to gain a small advantage, slowly.

When I fall behind, I see no chance to bounce back, to catch up, to recover, I just began my laborious chase but with no great emotions. Turn by turn the game should gather speed, in every turn the stakes should grow higher.

There’s no huge mechanism I could build (even at a cost of losing many points) that, once pulled off, would wreak total havoc, create an avalanche effect, a combo. I should be able to build an engine that pays off.

Since the factions are painfully symmetrical, I can always see if I’m lagging behind or not. This is no chess.

Everyone should start with a strong building already in play, but a different one for each player, something unique to a given faction. There should be no swing effect and the first turns shouldn’t scream “nothing happens now, this is just the beginning, it will get better later.”

Double-sided player boards slow down the setup, because the player needs to learn the game, choose the side of the board, etc. before the actual gameplay. Instead, you should just follow simple instructions, play and enjoy it.

Replayability!!!

You pay for the tactics two or three times: 1) Take a tactic you wish to learn, 2) Learn to use it, 3) Pay to use it. That’s like wading in the tar.

Cards often become useless towards the end of the game: There is nothing for you to recruit (no units remain), nothing to use (no opportunities arise), nothing to build (no spaces left).

The number of troops should be greater, so that the battles are truly spectacular. It would be best if they were more rapid and more frequent. As it is, they are almost one-on-one fights, and not until the end of the game does a skirmish (or maybe two) happen. This is a game about battles—we need a LOT of them EVERY turn.

We have to throw out all the cancels from the game!!! All those things that cancel the rules, cancel the tactics, and those that cancel other cancels. There are rules for movement but everyone manages to bypass them using the orbital. There are tactics, there are rules for battling on that nice little board, but everyone ignores them, gets around them. Too many tactics treat the rules much too lightly. A cancel, a greater cancel, canceling a cancel.

You need to go a long way to use the tactics, so gaining them should be automatic—but more convenient than “every time you gain control over the area.”

Little fighter bombers—easy and fun. Simplify other structures this way.

Sometimes you’re left with an excess of cards when there is nothing more to be done.

The core of the battle is fun, but the tactics cancel it. The core of moving around the board is fun, but the Orbital cancels it.

Add special features for units, fortresses, etc. as card upgrades.

Add some tactics cards, and every player will know in advance what they may be—like secret commands of sorts.

And then add some special faction features to use in battles, and each of them will be upgraded in a different way.

Light and easy rules—like bombers and fortresses—instead of complex and tedious tactics or any other devices messing about with the overcomplicated rules.

What you’ll get: the avalanche effect, light and fast gameplay, combos, built mechanisms.

Trogs—let them have a special rule to crop up all around the board. Let them appear wherever they want, in an empty region, even with no neighboring Trog units. They will build no roads, they will use no orbitals. But they—and only they—will build tunnels through the mountains.

A similar thing can be true for each faction—one will be capable of building roads, another of creating orbital launchers, yet another of building forts, tunnels, villages, barracks, bombers, etc. Each faction will play differently. There should be a twist to each faction. One will take over half of the board straight-away but with single units, another will wait, strengthen, and use powerful troops to crush a selected region. Another faction will run around the board like a bunch of monkeys.

Everyone should be able to use what the others have built—to seize the land together with its infrastructure.

Kemet is somewhat similar and it’s great. Cry Havoc is to be better.

So when we were working on the game, during each playtesting session we would note down dozens of elements to be fixed, problems to be solved, holes to be plugged, goals to be achieved, mess to be cleaned up.

With Walec up and running like a jet engine and with our focus on precise changes to be introduced (which we tracked with our lists of problems to deal with), the work went ahead like a Pendolino train.

Finally, our to-do lists became shorter and shorter. The major points, those regarding the overall feel of the game, were checked off, and ever smaller ones would appear, dealing only with details or balance.

And we were increasingly successful in bringing out those magical features that, in my opinion, are the key elements in any game: its PROMOHOOKS.

But this is something I’ll write about another time.

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