In a role-playing game, initiative — that is, the order in which players and enemies take their turns — is one of the biggest factors in setting the tone, and the stakes, for combat. Traditionally, initiative order takes the form of a list that moves from top to bottom, activating player characters and enemies along the way, then resetting at the “top of the order” on the next turn.
But traditional initiative order can be a little boring. That’s especially true for a subset of RPGs known as dungeon-crawler board games. Like Diablo, this action-oriented genre of games, including titles like Gloomhaven and Descent: Legends of the Dark, empowers players to move quickly from fight to fight. Combat can be high-stakes, and once you’re locked into a fixed initiative order, that can put some players at a disadvantage. Developers at Corvus Belli wanted something more exciting for their upcoming game Warcrow Adventures. What they came up with isn’t a list or even a line. It’s a circle, and players actually get a say in where their character falls on the edge of that circle in every round.
“We developed an initiative system for Aristeia, one other game that we published five years ago,” said Alberto Abal, game designer at Corvus Belli. “We knew that it would be more interesting if the initiative wasn’t the same every round, and we wanted something like that in Warcrow.
“We started to work with a simple track that had numbers from one to 20,” he continued. “When you go through the track, then you start again from [position] one. We start to think about this, and then someone said, ‘This is like a circle!’ So we implemented it as a circle.”
That simple alteration to the shape of the initiative track suddenly unlocked a host of creative new game mechanics. The end result is a system where players can directly influence their position on the initiative track by spending power — a limited resource — each turn. Players simply drop a power token onto their sideboard, used to control their player character, to move themselves around in the initiative order. This means players can exert control over not just how they attack the enemies on the board, but when.
“We started to play with this new mechanic, and we developed new mechanics to push and pull the characters around this circle,” Abal said. “It was, I think, one of the key mechanics of the game. Players now are very in touch with the actions panel, where they spend energy and activate their character.”
That’s not the only unusual feature in Warcrow. Like many other new board games, Corvus Belli’s latest effort is driven by an app. Polygon previewed an early version of that app and, compared to other implementations of the technology, it offers a fairly light touch. While players are rolling dice and taking turns with their cards and miniatures on the table, the app just sort of sits there. I only ever engaged with it directly when I was unlocking new sections of the map, killing off monsters, interacting with non-player characters, or making decisions that could affect the outcome of the narrative itself.
So why an app? Abal said it’s a much more efficient solution than a book filled with numbered narrative chunks, which many games have used over the years. It also allows Corvus Belli to add a lot more text than it would have in past games. Warcrow will contain some 200,000 words when it’s all finished. The game has a single critical path, but players can choose several ways to reach its ending.
“Your choices change the scenarios you play,” Abal said.
The world of Warcrow is also a big departure for Corvus Belli. The Spanish company is best known for Infinity, a miniatures skirmish game with roots in anime and hard science fiction.
“It’s a fantasy game [set in] a new world,” Abal said, “but we have tried to understand many things in our history. We take many of these ideas — for example, how armor works and how armor is built for different troops in our history — in order to design, for example, the weapons or armor for our miniatures.”
Corvus Belli worked hard to steer its new franchise away from familiar, Tolkien-esque fantasy. Its vision takes its inspiration from the American Wild West and the tradition of daring embodied by Spanish explorers, Abal said. The action takes place in a town far from the center of an in-game empire, a place called Hawthorne Point. Menacing, mystical fogs covered the landscape there for generations. But, several years ago, the mists rolled back, revealing an ancient elven empire to plunder. The world of Warcrow allows players to explore this dead nation, searching ruins for artifacts and other treasures. But each character comes to the place for their own reasons.
“All nations now send people — adventurers or mercenaries, these kinds of people,” Abal said, “to take magical items or information about the past.”
How do those adventurers come together? Abal said that portion of the story is still being written — the game isn’t due out for quite some time now. Warcrow Adventures is expected to be released in 2023. A crowdfunding campaign launches on Kickstarter on Oct. 18.