Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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First Impressions: Hostage Negotiator

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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”I’ve been told that you’re a hostage negotiator?”

“Yeah, that’s right”, the gentleman on the other side of the dinner table replied.

“So, you’re negotiating with hostages. Isn’t that a tad unfair? I mean if they’re hostages it stands to reason that their bargaining position is pretty bad. It’s really kind of like stealing candy from children isn’t it?”

A bewildered look flashed across his face, “erm, no, that’s not what I do.”

“Ah, so you’re a negotiator, who’s been a hostage.”

This time the bewilderment stuck to his face. “No, I’ve never been a hostage.”

“Then why the fuck do you call yourself a hostage negotiator?”

OK, sorry about the intro, but the term “hostage negotiator” has always made me think of the two silly interpretations above. The reason that I’m going on about it is that I’ve been playing a game called Hostage Negotiator lately.

Coming soon on Kickstarter

A Kickstarter for the game is going to be launched soon by Van Ryder Games and in the interest of disclosure I’ll state upfront that I have received a free preview copy of the game’s cards and playmat from the game’s designer A.J. Porfirio, though I’ve of course done my best not to let that influence my evaluation of the game.

The theme

If you’re not as intent on misunderstanding the title as I was in the introduction, you’ll have guessed that that the game is about negotiating with a hostage taker for the release of the hostages he or she has taken.

This is a rather novel theme, and I’ve never seen anything like it in a board game before, though before trying it I thought that the tragic real life like nature of the game might make me feel a bit queasy, like I’ve discussed in a previous post: Are you put off by tragic real life themes? – Or why I’m not a grognard (yet).

On the other hand I was intrigued, the theme is refreshingly different and seems tough to implement as a solitaire board game, so I looked forward to reading the rulebook and see how A.J. Porfirio had done it mechanically.

It turns out that he has done a good job. The fairly simple mechanics of the game seem to support the theme rather well and it has a lot of elements that does this, such as
1 There’s an abductor who usually has a demand corresponding to the goal he want to accomplish.
2 An escape demand corresponding to the way he wants to escape from the situation.
3 There’s a number of hostages that you must strive to get released.
4 Having conversations with the hostage taker is the main way of reaching your goal.
5 You must try to keep the hostage taker calm and the better you do this the greater your chance of influencing him and the smaller the chance of him killing hostages.

I’ll talk about the mechanics and how they relate to the theme in a future post after I’ve gotten more experience with the game.

A photo of a game of Hostage Negotiator in progress with prototype components.

Concern: Runaway leader syndrome?

So, on the one hand reading the rulebook left me impressed, since it seemed that Porfirio had succeeded in implementing a theme that I thought hard to turn into a board game. On the other hand reading the rulebook and seeing the components left me a bit concerned.

First of all it seemed to me that the game might have mechanical issues: As mentioned above if you manage to calm down the hostage taker you have a greater chance of influencing him. This is implemented by having the agitation of the hostage taker and your relationship with him determine how many dice you roll when testing whether your actions are successful. While this is great thematically it mechanically makes it easier to do actions if things are already going well, and harder to perform actions if you’ve failed initially, which sounds like a recipe for runaway leader/fallaway loser syndrome, but there are also mechanics in place to inhibit this.

Second the game seemed luck prone, since the success of your actions is determined by dice rolls and since the issue described above could make the first few rolls very important in determining whether you’d go down the winner or loser track, again however there are some mechanics that the player can use to limit the influence of Lady Luck.

Luckily my fears weren’t borne out in the five times I played the game before writing this post The first was a ridiculously easy win, but it turned out that I had gotten a rule wrong, which caused the issue. Out of the four following plays three of them ended with a win that more or less was as tight as possible with the very last action determining the game, which made the end feel nicely tense. I’ve won all my games so far though, which I don’t like, but I’ll read the rulebook again before writing my next post to make sure that I’m not getting the rules wrong.

So based on my current plays it seems that my concerns in were off base, though I’ll of course need to play more to get more data.

Concern: Samey

Another concern I had after reading the rulebook and studying the components was that it seemed to me that the game would quickly become samey, since the number of different actions available to the player is limited, and it seems to me that there are a limited number of possible strategies.

I’ve learned, though, that people who complain about a game without really playing it often end up looking rather silly, so I reserved judgment till I had actually tried playing.

After the first couple of plays it seemed to me that my concern in this regard was correct. I chose a strategy based on keeping the hostage taker calm, and talking him into releasing the hostages one by one using the same few actions over and over. I got some good dice rolls and won.

In the next game however I didn’t manage to keep the hostage taker calm and thus had to change strategy towards the end and go for a last minute rescue operation, which succeeded by a hair and showed that you must be able to adapt your strategy and can’t just do the same thing over and over. On the other hand it confirms that luck is important in the game.

In the final two games I chose another hostage taker and my strategy from the previous one worked badly and it made me think harder about how I played and showed me that there is strategy involved, and while luck still seems important it’s less of an issue in a game that plays in ten minutes.

Concern: Feeling queasy

As mentioned above I can have a bit of a problem with games that are too close to real life tragedies and this one seemed that it might give me a problem. After five games though there have been little of that, so it seems that this concern was also unfounded, which is nice, but on the other hand that could also indicate that the theme didn’t click fully with me. One contributing factor to this might be that I’m currently representing the hostages by small yellow eurocubes and while I’m not a stickler for fancy components I must say that eurocubes don’t look much like humans .

Overall thoughts

So it turns out that most of my initial concerns weren’t borne out in initial gameplay. I still think that the issues are there, but that they’re less significant than I had thought.

Overall the game has a fresh theme and plays quickly, so it looks like a nice fit for spare time challenged thematic solitarists. I’ll have to play it more to get more data and see whether the game has longevity, but for now I have to say that I’ve had fun and I’m looking forward to play the game some more.
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