[Disclosure: The publisher provided me with a free preview copy, so I am totally on the take. The components and rules in the final game will likely vary from the ones I used.]
“I don’t want to talk to some flunky pig trying to con me, man.” -Sonny, Dog Day Afternoon
Why has there never been a game about being a hostage negotiator? The theme is ripe with possibility. Lives are at stake. Questions must be answered. Extreme time pressure is at odds with the calm delicacy the situation demands. It has all the ingredients for a deep game with rich narrative potential. It also has one big problem: Someone would have to play the role of the person holding and killing hostages.
Hostage Negotiator neatly solves that problem by being a solitaire game. You are the negotiator and the game runs the abductor so nobody will feel the urge to shower after playing. Unless, of course, you are drenched in sweat from the tension. That can happen, because playing this is like fiddling with the tab of a dropped soda can.
Playing the Game “I once talked a guy out of blowing up the Sears Tower but I can't talk my wife out of the bedroom or my kid off the phone.” -Lt. Chris Sabian, The Negotiator
The goal of Hostage Negotiator, as you may have guessed, is saving as many hostages as possible and catching the bad guy (or gal) before they escape. You start by choosing one of the three included abductors who each impose different setup conditions, add special rules during gameplay, and establish different victory conditions. They also have a Major Demand that remains secret until you suss it out, and two of the abductors have multiple cards representing these so you are never quite sure what will happen once it is revealed.
That adds a lot to the replayability, as does the Terror Deck. These cards are flipped over at the end of each round and have a variety of effects (some positive and most negative) that prevent the game from becoming a rote exercise. Only ten are used in each game, drawn from a deck of 21, so you never know what’s coming next. At the bottom of the Terror Deck is one Pivotal Event card that has a major impact on the game, and since that is drawn from a deck of six cards it keeps each game even fresher.
The main game board tracks the Threat Level, your Conversation Points, and the current status of all hostages. Nearly everything you do in the game interacts with these resources. The Threat Level tells you how many dice you roll (between one and three, but up to five depending on other effects) during a Threat Check. If you reach Threat Level seven a hostage is killed each time you are forced to increase the Threat Level beyond that. Similarly, if you get the Threat Level down to one a hostage is released each time an effect would cause the level to go lower than that.
Reducing the Threat Level to get more dice is crucial because nearly every card you play in the game triggers a Threat Check roll. A five or six is a success, and most cards deliver great rewards for two or more successes, minor rewards for one success, and a penalty for a complete failure.
A Deck-Builder That Isn't “Pop quiz, hotshot. There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”-Howard Payne, Speed
Anyone who has ever played a deck-building game like Dominion, Trains, Core Worlds, etc. will likely look at pictures of Hostage Negotiator and assume it plays similarly to those. It’s more accurately described as a hand-building game. You always begin with the same six cards (two each of three pairs), but unlike most deck-builders that start you with an anemic core deck these cards are powerful and interact with one another and the game in interesting ways.
As you play you have opportunities to gain Conversation Points that can later be cashed in to buy Conversation Cards from the tableau. These cards vary in utility, allow for complex combos, and are added to your hand for use in future rounds.
Conversation Cards are used in three ways. You can play them face-up for their effect (which often triggers a Threat Check roll), you can play them face-down to convert them into Conversation Points (one per card played this way), or you can play two face-down after a Threat Roll to convert a 4 into a success. Conversation Cards generally increase Conversation Points, decrease the Threat Level, or do both if you roll one or more successes after playing them. They often do the opposite and/or end the conversation if you roll no successes after playing them. Being forced to end the conversation early is often a terrible outcome because you can no longer play cards that round and the abductor gets a chance to act.
You never draw from a deck to see what you have at your disposal at the beginning of a round. Instead you get whatever cards remained in your hand from the last round plus anything you purchased that round. Played cards cycle back to the tableau only after you have made those purchases, so everything you play from your hand in a round will not be available for purchase until the following round. The seven cards you start with cost zero Conversation Points, so you can always take them back into your hand for free if they are in the tableau. This is good because sometimes you get few to no Conversation Points and can’t afford to buy anything else.
This is much different from the deck-builders you are familiar with. There is no need to dump everything from your hand each round so you can set up huge turns with big combos. You always have access to all the cards you bought instead of having to draw them blindly. Rolling dice during Threat Checks means your cards won’t always do exactly what you want them to do. Cards you play have to be re-purchased before you can use them again instead of cycling back into your hand. And since the Conversation Point track resets to zero every round you must make efficient purchases and can never coast on some well-oiled engine you’ve assembled.
Is it Worth Your Time? I look for three main things from my solitaire games:
Are the Decisions Interesting? Hostage negotiating is like professional gambling. It’s all about keeping your cool and tilting the odds in your favor as much as possible to mitigate risk. The game does a terrific job of presenting you with a variety of choices that let you do just that. It is important to figure out the optimal order to play cards in and what cards you want to keep in your hand to help in future rounds. It is often excruciating to decide if you would be better off playing a card (or a pair of them) face-down to get yourself out of a jam, or taking a hit so you can try to use those cards for their more effective face-up abilities.
The fact that played cards become unavailable to you for at least one round also complicates things. It is tempting to press your luck going for a big play, but if you miscalculate or get greedy you are so weak during the next round that it isn’t worth it. Efficiently juggling the cards in your hand, the cards available for purchase, and the played cards that will be unavailable to you for a round takes some practice.
It’s also neat that there are often several approaches you can take strategically. If you’re doing well at talking the abductor down you can do things that help with that. If not, you can work towards building up a hand that will let the folks with guns get into position and make a mess. Each game is its own unique roller coaster.
Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure? Loud and clear. Hostages are represented by meeples and move to a Killed or Saved box throughout the game. Having even one of them die is no fun, and it’s rewarding to complete a game where you manage to save all of them. Even if you save the majority of the hostages the abductor can escape, meaning you lose. It’s also possible to lose if you ever need to draw a Terror card but can’t, effectively putting you on a clock for the entire game. Winning feels good, because although there are some big luck factors it’s your clever card play and ability to capitalize on or roll with that luck that secures victory.
If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated With the Design? Yes, and it is executed wonderfully. Think about your goals in a real hostage situation. You’d want to calm the abductor down and establish a rapport with them (Threat Level). To do this, you would interact with them (Conversation Cards and Threat Rolls), hoping to buy time and get an edge over the abductor (Conversation Points) while figuring out their motives (Demand Cards). Real hostage negotiations rarely go smoothly (Terror Cards) and sometimes end abruptly (cards that trigger the end of a conversation before you want it to end).
The designer even put speech bubbles on all of the Conversation Cards that tie into their effects and do a great job of evoking the peaks and troughs of the kinds of negotiations you hear in movies and on TV.
The Verdict “Buses, Kojak, or I'll give you two of the longest days of your life.” -Dalton Russell, Inside Man
I have no idea what the final box will look like, but this would make a terrific travel game. It sets up and tears down easily and games never take long because that Terror Deck timer is always ticking. Hostage Negotiator has earned a special spot on my shelf next to Friday and Infection for games that I’ll always throw into the suitcase before a trip. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the original box cover art, which has been replaced by something much lovelier that doesn’t clash with the art design inside the box.
It’s not unusual for an indie game to capture its theme so well, but it is rare for one to do so using tight, innovative gameplay mechanisms. Hostage Negotiator is a compact game with a big and innovative design, and it’s refreshing to see such deep gameplay emerging from so few components. The real triumph is the replayability granted by the various abductors, the randomly-chosen Terror and Demand cards, and the use of dice. No matter how familiar you get with the cards you still feel like you’re in the position of a hostage negotiator who never quite knows what will happen next. It should also easily accommodate expansions (more abductors would be nice), so I can’t wait to see what designer A.J. Porfirio comes up with next.
Attica! Attica! Attica! [obligatory Not Safe For Work movie clip]
Great summary of the rules, the gameplay, the theme and the decisions.
Although I've been playtesting this game quite a bit, I can't wait for the game to come out.
Agree. I haven't been a playtester, and stumbled on this when Ricky posted his video review the other day. Definitely going to kick this project when it releases tomorrow. I really like the theme and the overall solo concept. Hoping this makes a good travel game (I'm on the road a lot for work). I also think this might lend itself to some nice stretch goals of additional content like antagonists, demands, etc. (and/or community content).
Thanks for the shiny stuff, Phil! And for the kind words.
I didn't realize until I looked up the quotes for this that much of Dog Day Afternoon was improvised, including the famous "Attica!" lines. Between that and Pacino's incredible performance it's no wonder why it seemed so authentic and engaging.