In a role-playing game, initiative—that is, the order in which players and enemies take turns—is one of the biggest factors in setting the tone and commitment to combat. Traditionally, the initiative order takes the form of a list that moves from top to bottom, activating player characters and enemies, then resetting at the “top of the order” on the next turn.
But traditional initiative sequence can be a bit 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, allows players to move quickly from battle to battle. Battles can be high stakes, and once you get stuck in a set initiative order, that can be a disadvantage for some players. Developers at Corvus Belli wanted something more exciting for their upcoming game Warcrow Adventures. What they came up with is not a list or even a rule. It’s a circle, and players actually get a say in where their character falls on the edge of that circle in each round.
“We developed an initiative system for Aristeia, another game we published five years ago,” said Alberto Abal, game designer at Corvus Belli. “We knew it would be more interesting if the initiative wasn’t the same every round, and that’s what we wanted in Warcrow.
“We started working with a simple number with numbers from 1 to 20,” he continued. “If you go through the job, you start again from [position] a. We start to think about this, and then someone said, ‘This is like a circle!’ So we implemented it as a circle.”
That simple change to the initiative track shape 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 on their dresser, which is used to control their player character, to move in the initiative order. This means that players can control not only how they attack the enemies on the board, but also when.
“We started playing 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 most important mechanics of the game. Players now have a lot of contact with the action panel, where they spend energy and activate their character.”
That’s not the only unusual feature in Warcrow. Like many new board games, Corvus Belli’s latest effort is powered by an app. Polygon previewed an early version of that app and, compared to other implementations of the technology, offers a fairly light touch. While players roll dice and take turns laying their cards and miniatures on the table, the app just sits there. I was only directly involved when I unlocked new parts of the map, killed monsters, interacted with non-player characters, or made decisions that could affect the outcome of the story itself.
So why an app? Abal said it’s a much more efficient solution than a book full of numbered narrative chunks, which many games have used over the years. It also allows Corvus Belli to add a lot more text than in previous games. Warcrow will be around 200,000 words when it’s all done. The game has one critical path, but players can choose different ways to reach the end.
“Your choices change the scenarios you play,” Abal said.
Image: Corvus Belli
The world of Warcrow is also a great starting point for Corvus Belli. The Spanish company is best known for Infinity, a miniature 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 use a lot of these ideas – for example how armor works and how armor is built for different troops in our history – to design the weapons or armor for our miniatures, for example.”
Corvus Belli has worked hard to steer his new franchise away from the familiar Tolkien-esque fantasy. His vision is inspired by the American Wild West and the tradition of daring embodied by Spanish explorers, Abal said. The action takes place in a city far from the center of an in-game empire, a place called Hawthorne Point. Threatening mystical fog covered the landscape there for generations. But a few years ago, the mists rolled away, revealing an ancient fairy realm to plunder. In the world of Warcrow, players can explore this dead nation and search ruins for artifacts and other treasures. But each character comes to the place for their own reasons.
Image: Corvus Belli
“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 some of the story is still being written – the game hasn’t come out for quite some time. Warcrow Adventures is expected to be released in 2023. A crowdfunding campaign will be launched on Kickstarter on October 18.