Salt Lake City
Just thinking off the top of my head, I can count on my left hand the number of board games about stealth. And that’s after the freak wood chipper accident of 2011.
Point is, while there are loads of games out there that feature hidden or obfuscated information, there are precious few about remaining unseen entirely. Fewer still about being a lady with robotic spider appendages hiding from an enormous dog-man and some dude who can tell the future. Welcome to Specter Ops.
The first critical bit of information about Specter Ops is that there are two sides, completely asymmetrical, with very different sets of information available to them.
First up are the Hunters. These are the talented individuals in the employ of Raxxon Global, a corporation that’s probably up to no good because board game corporations are always up to no good. It’s their job to maintain the security of their company’s facilities, and tonight the particular base that falls under their jurisdiction has had its alarm triggered. Into their company car they pile, loading guns and fine-tuning their implants. Their goal: to murder whichever Agent has just interrupted their viewing of the Raxxon Silver Oldies Channel’s I Love Lucy marathon.
Problem is, they’re running blind. In the picture above, you can see how it looks for the Hunters — a big empty facility, maybe the alert ping of a server that was recently hacked, and very little else. The Agent is able to move around the facility like the whisper of a ghost’s shadow playing the quiet game, and as long as the intruder doesn’t cross a Hunter’s direct line of sight, she’ll remain completely invisible.
Well, not completely invisible. For one thing, the company car is equipped with a handy motion sensor, able to detect movement in a general sense. But before we get into that, let’s talk about the Agent.
While there are two to four Hunters in any given game, there’s (usually) only one Agent. With a pad of paper showing the layout of the Raxxon facility in hand, she sees and hears everything: the movement of the Hunters, their table chatter and speculation, when they climb into the car to quickly relocate to another area or to use its motion sensor, and — crucially — where the hackable servers are. As the Agent, your goal is to enter the facility, hack three of the four available servers, and then escape through one of the exits at the base’s northern end. From start to finish you’re privy to every piece of information except what your opponents will do on their next turn — and even that’s information that can be massaged, manipulated, guessed at. A hologram decoy or a distracting flashbang can give you just the edge you need to slip the Hunters’ net. Even the car’s motion sensor can be avoided if you move slowly enough.
If the Agent is doing her job right, the Hunters can’t see her at all. It’s even possible, if very difficult, to play an entire game without being spotted once. There’s something exhilarating, almost voyeuristic, about watching your pursuers stumble around, absolutely certain you’re in one place and discussing where they’re determined you’re hiding, while you double back and take an entirely different route to your objective. On the other hand, when you’ve got the bloodhound-nosed Beast sniffing you out and you’re hiding just around the corner, unable to dash across the street to safety because the Gun is covering the whole road with her sniper rifle — well, that’s terrifying.
While playing as the Agent, Specter Ops is a game of precision. Every move must be made carefully, dashing when you’re clear and sneaking from corner to corner when you’re not. The fact that you’re still sitting at the same table as the Hunters makes it even more difficult, because you can’t exactly suck in your breath when they get too close. Instead, the most you can let slip is a little specter oops — because an aloud oops would be noted by them, see.
Sigh. Nobody appreciates good puns anymore.
At this point, Specter Ops probably sounds a bit complicated. And I’m not going to make it sound any easier by mentioning that there are four classes each for the Hunters and Agents, each of which bend the rules in their own unique way. The Prophet, for instance, can use his post-cognition to learn where the Agent was two turns ago. The Beast can sense a nearby Agent, forcing them to announce “close” if they’re within a few spaces. Meanwhile, the Agents have tricks of their own — Blue Jay can hack from a distance rather than sitting right next to a server, and Cobra is the one Agent who has real tools for fighting back against his pursuers. What’s more, the Agents pick from a selection of equipment at the start of each game, so sometimes they’ll have Stealth Fields for crossing open areas without being spotted by distant Hunters, or Adrenal Surges for sprinting farther than normal.
The thing, however, is that this is a deceptively simple game. Most rounds play out with the Agent moving up to four spaces, announcing she’s clear or placing a “last seen” token if she moved past her enemies, and noting where she stopped on her pad of paper. Then the Hunters get to move up to four spaces each, only spotting the Agent if they have a direct line of sight on her when they’ve come to a stop.
Even the stuff that doesn’t sound simple generally is. Line-of-sight is traced along orthogonal lines, with a bit more opening up when a Hunter is standing in the road. The motion sensor detects where the Agent is relative to the car, but only if they’ve been moving quickly. Most items trigger based on range regardless of walls or other obstructions, so there’s no need to figure out if a character has a direct angle to toss that smoke grenade. Sure, some of the item interactions require a bit of clarification, but overall this is a deliciously simple game.
Watch your head. Brag-bomb incoming.
One recent game cast me as Orangutan, an Agent whose main ability is a pair of extra life points. I was being hunted by Puppet, a punk who can both drive the car and use its motion sensor remotely, making him perfect for sitting on an intersection to prevent easy Agent movement while he scans to his robo-heart’s content, and Beast, the guy who can smell you when he gets close.
As with most plays of Specter Ops, my first task was to get off the road, because sure enough the Hunters drove hard to reach the intersection nearest me on their first turn. Puppet scanned the area, giving me no choice but to confirm I had fled into the northeastern area, and Beast dismounted, trying to get close enough to smell me. He got close on more than one occasion, but by carefully doubling back a couple times, all he caught of me was the scent of a couple burrito-farts. Take that, Beast.
Puppet stuck to that intersection like white on rice, but I’d prepared for this. Thanks to my Stealth Field, I was able to bypass their cordon and get ahead of them for a bit. A couple turns later, I flipped my first hack marker. In response, they freaked the hell out, hopping into the car and peeling out in my direction while muttering about how maybe I was cheating.
As an aside, there’s a nice ebb and flow to a game of Specter Ops. You might slip past the Hunters, safely hide yourself away for a while. But the instant you hack a server, the Hunters are alerted and can start closing in again. It’s never truly possible to completely evade them.
This time, however, I’d also brought an Adrenal Surge, rushing from the server I’d just hacked to the other side of the street. This meant that when the Hunters pulled up and taped off the block, I was already gone. A little while later I announced my second hack.
This is where it gets interesting. The Hunters were expecting me to make a nice clockwise trip around the map, so they did what they’ve always done: circle the block and try to contain me. Beast wandered into the area and started sniffing for me. Every turn for the next half-dozen rounds we had the same conversation:
“Motion sensor!” announced the puppet.
Beast moved into the facility. “Where did you say you were?” I asked.
“P25,” Beast replied.
Tap tap tap tap went my pencil on the pad of paper, counting the spaces between me and the Beast. “Nope, clear,” I’d say, sighing with relief. Deeper into the complex the Beast pursued me, my breathing growing slightly faster. I swallowed hard a couple times.
Of course, I was long gone. Puppet had wandered off to check the other street, and in that single-turn window I’d dashed across to safety. From then on, I walked two spaces per turn, never going fast enough for the motion sensor to scan me. It was agonizing, especially when I stopped in plain view in the middle of the street just to keep the motion sensor from recognizing I was a mile away. Eventually I announced the last hack and beelined the exit.
That was one of the tensest games I’ve played in recent memory. There were at least eight incredibly close calls, moments when a single misstep would have given me away, or where the slightest change in a Hunter’s positioning would have revealed my hiding spot.
On the one hand, this goes to show Specter Ops’s greatest strength. As the Agent, it’s nerve-wracking and tense in all the right ways.
On the other, it’s never quite as fun being the Hunter, often more frustrating than thrilling, and certainly more about being methodical in your search than about chasing someone directly. There’s still lots to do and plenty of fun to be had triangulating the Agent’s position and doing your best to read their mind, and occasionally letting slip the hounds and engaging in hot pursuit. But it’s a subtler, less heart-pounding experience.
There’s also a five-player game in which one of the Hunters is a traitor, a faithless wretch who can lie about seeing or shooting the Agent. I’ve had some fun with it, but for my money I vastly prefer the solitary experience of the lone Agent or the clockwork precision of a unified team taking her down.
So, despite those couple reservations, Specter Ops does a great job with its fresh subject matter, and I heartily recommend it.
This review was originally published at Space-Biff!, so if you like what you see, please head over there for more. http://spacebiff.com/2015/04/24/specter-ops/
Also, I suppose I ought to plug my Geeklist of reviews: https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/169963/space-biff-histori...
I'm a sheep.
A lovely, fluffy sheep.
A great review, and one that makes me very sad I haven't yet managed to play my copy!
I do have to say that I actually love playing as the hunter. Both roles are equally stressful in very different ways. For the hunter the stress comes from thinking the agent could be anywhere. For the agent, it comes from the fact that you are actually just around the corner and one mistake will kill you.
In this game both sides think the other will win, and I think that indicates a good game.