Morten Monrad Pedersen
A solitaire game about having conversations? That sounds a bit paradoxical, doesn’t it? And a bit tame – I mean we’re used to epic battles with armadas of space ships or hordes of zombies, and now I’m going to write about a board game where you talk?
Well, yes I am – I’m going to write about Hostage Negotiator, which is a game about talking, and it turns out that it’s not tame at all – quite the contrary the game has tense climaxes and the theme is refreshingly different. I was quite curious about how designer A.J. Porfirio would implement a theme of talking to a hostage taker.
Before going on I should disclose that I received a free copy from A.J., but I’ve of course done my best not to let that influence what I write.
A.J. asked me whether I’d review the game, which is currently on Kickstarter, but after trying the game and thinking about it I decided that given the focus of this blog and the novel theme of the game it would be more interesting to take a look at how the theme is implemented rather than doing a standard review, particularly because it’s a game where the mechanics support the theme well.
When setting up you first choose one of three possible hostage takers, each one different than the others and each has a short backstory to explain why he or she is taking hostages, which helps build the theme. You draw a random one of the hostage taker’s demand cards, which represents the primary demand that he has (e.g. wanting someone released from prison) and in most cases you also draw an escape demand card that represents a demand the hostage taker makes in order to ensure his escape (e.g. a helicopter or an armored car). These demand cards are initially hidden from you.
A number of hostages are placed on the small game board and an initial threat level is set for the hostage taker. This threat level represents the agitation of the hostage taker and how good your relationship with him is.
Prototype of the small game board. I do not know how similar it is to the production version.
The threat level
The threat level is represented by a simple track going from 0 to 7. It will be influenced by your actions and random events. Thematically it represents the agitation level of the hostage taker and how good your relationship with him currently is.
If the threat level were to go above the maximum the hostage taker starts killing hostages and if it were to go below the minimum it means that you’ve talked him into releasing one or more of the hostages. Furthermore the threat level is crucial in determining your chance of success with actions you take, by giving you one, two, or three dice to roll depending on the threat level when doing a test to see whether an action succeeds.
This mechanic works out great thematically, it makes really good sense that if you’ve calmed the hostage taker down and have a good relationship with him, then it’ll be easier for you to succeed in influencing him, and similarly it’ll be hard to persuade someone who’s agitated and angry with you to do what you want.
From a game balance point of view the mechanic is problematic, since if you achieve a low threat level everything will be easier for you, including keeping the threat level low, and vice versa, which as mentioned in my previous post about the game sounds like a recipe for runaway leader and fallaway loser syndromes. Luckily mechanics are in place that limits the chance of the two syndromes taking charge of the game.
First of all the parts of the threat level tracks where you get increased or decreased success chances are very narrow, so the player has a fairly good chance of using actions to pull out of a fallaway loser dive, and the random events of the game will often shake you out of runaway leader syndrome by pushing the threat level up.
Let’s talk it out
The core of the game is the conversation system, which consists of a set of cards, of which you start with six. Each card represents something you can try to do during a conversation with the hostage taker. E.g. you can try to calm him down (which reduces the threat level) or chat with him to build up conversation points. These conversation points didn’t really click with me thematically and as far as I can tell very little thematic justification is given for them in the rulebook, but they’re very central to the strategy in the game, since they act like a currency that lets you buy conversation cards to use in the next conversations.
Apart from being about conversations a few cards also deal with other actions, such as trying to mount a rescue attempt or try to kill the hostage taker. These also work well thematically and they can go wrong thus pissing the hostage taker off, which can increase the threat level and make him hang up on you.
Some conversation cards from the prototype I got. I like the fact that each card makes sense thematically and that there are a small flavor texts to make them come alive. I do not know how close the prototype is qualitywise to the production version.
So playing conversation cards are the meat of potatoes of your actions in the game, but you also have the option to give into demands from the hostage taker. These come in three types:
Major demands, which represent what the hostage taker is trying to accomplish by taking hostages.
Escape demands telling you what the hostage taker has demanded in order to make a safe escape.
Minor demands such as media coverage.
The first two are picked at random initially and are hidden from you and can be revealed by you using special conversation cards, while the third demand type appears via random events during the game.
A selection of demand cards. As with the other photos I do not know how similar the cards are in quality to the final cards.
You can concede any revealed demand. Often there’s a small cost to concede, then you get an immediate benefit, but the flipside is that often there’s a serious long term penalty. I particularly like the escape demands. If you concede them you get a powerful immediate benefit, but if you haven’t caught the hostage taker by the end of the current conversation he’ll escape and you lose. This makes thematic sense: The escape attempt is a chance to get the hostage taker in a temporarily vulnerable position, but if you fail to get him during that crucial phase he’ll get away.
The way conceding to demands works is so that you often wait until the end to concede them, you’ll get an immediate benefit from doing this, which will help you with your final attempt to win, but the penalty will mean that if you fail, you really fail. This works great to create a sense climax. Again the escape demands are particularly effective in this regard, because they give a big temporary reward, but up the ante by making you lose if you don’t catch the hostage taker during the turn.
The conversation cards and conversation point system also plays nicely into this by enabling you to work up a small stockpile of cards that support each other in making a final oneshot attempt at resolving the situation feel climatic.
The final conversation of the game also has two special rules that help make it feel climatic. First a so-called pivotal event card is activated just before the final conversation and second you’re allowed to buy conversation cards one extra time during the final conversation, which represents your last ditch effort well and makes the last conversation longer and more epic.
When the game works best the total of all these mechanics adds up to make you feel like you pass a point of no return and everything hangs in the balance, when you launch your final gambit.
A game in progress using prototype components.
When mechanics support theme
After playing Hostage Negotiator twelve times and diving through its theme and mechanics I’ve come to appreciate that we’re dealing with a game where the mechanics are made to support the theme and the theme to a certain extent trumps mechanics, which I find very interesting.
One example is the threat level mechanic discussed above. It’s very thematic, but from a game design point of view it has a mechanical downside: With some luck you can for example win if you simply keep making the threat level go below zero thus talking the hostage negotiator into releasing the hostages one by one. This is probably realistic, but it lets the game fizzle out – it doesn’t seem to happen often, though.
The game also nicely reflects the limited influence you’d have as a hostage negotiator where your main method of influencing the situation is by talking to a hostage taker over a radio, but game designwise giving the player limited influence is a dangerous path to thread. I’m definitely not saying that you don’t have any influence, but that the random events and dice rolls can be stronger than your influence, and I sometimes felt that the game was deciding the direction, not me. For a quick playing game like this (about 10 minutes) high randomness is not a big issue for me though, and as said it works out nicely thematic.
Now, I don’t have any experience with hostage situations, but I imagine that they’re highly volatile and the game reflects this well, one unfortunate card draw can completely change the course of the game. I already mentioned one of the most extreme examples of this, the event card that in one fell swoop can cut the number of turns you have almost in half, which is problematic mechanically speaking, but makes perfect sense thematically.
Summing up it appears to me that designer A.J. Porfirio has chosen a theme first strategy, so if you don’t care about theme and instead look for tightly balanced mechanics and deep strategy, then you might feel let down by Hostage Negotiator. On the other hand if you approach it as a theme first game, then it can make for some nice storytelling and tense gaming – even for less thematically inclined players it can work well as a light and quick playing game when you have 10-15 minutes to kill. I had several game sessions with classic story telling arcs having failed attempts to calm the hostage taker down followed by mad scrambles to fix the situation ending in exciting last minute rescues and truly climatic feeling showdowns.
While I would have preferred the mechanics to be a bit meatier, I do like the game and see it as a good fit for spare time challenged thematic solitarists, and I must congratulate A.J. on his accomplishment with this game. He has managed to make something exciting and smooth running out of the unpromising premise of a solitaire game about talking.