In Hostage Negotiator, you play the part of a law enforcement agent responsible for negotiating the release of hostages taken by an unscrupulous figure hell-bent on having his or her demands met. Each turn in the game represents a conversation between you and the hostage taker. You'll play cards and roll dice to increase conversation points, decrease the threat level, and release hostages. Hostage Negotiator uses a unique "hand-building" mechanism that puts cards you purchase directly in your hand for next turn rather than leaving you wondering when the cards will show up like in deck-building games. In Hostage Negotiator there are multiple paths to victory, but the hostage taker has other plans. Will you try to calm him and get him to surrender? Will you stall and bide your time before sending in the team for a major extraction? How many hostages will you save? These are many of the exciting decisions you will make in a game of Hostage Negotiator!
In cinemas many hostage negotiation scenes are a life or death battle of wits between two opponents. In Hostage Negotiator, Van Ryder Games have taken the counter-intuitive step of taking this action thriller trope as the inspiration for a solo player game.
Hostage Negotiator plays painfully true with this inspiration. Either the game can end in glory following a gruelling, nail biting duel of wills. Through offer and counteroffer, terror and sacrifice, the heroic negotiator will make one last throw of the dice and reap the fortune that favours the brave. Alternatively, they will make a series of terrible decisions, fail to heed reasoning and succumb to wave after wave of bad luck until someone has to take over and clean up the bloody mess.
The game, designed by A.J. Porfirio, comes in a robust and compact box for portability. Its art immediately impresses with a kinetically rendered split portrait which cleverly evokes the complimentary nature of the hostage taker/negotiator relationship.
The quality of the art is continued throughout the decks of cards. Each opponent gets a portrait on their situation card which helps the player engage with their target. The other cards devote most or all of their faces to written instructions and flavour, but wherever there is art it’s consistent and evocative.
There are a host of sturdy and intuitive components included to track the player’s progress and represent the fates of the abductees. The game also comes with a handful of custom dice which are used to resolve the effects of the cards with ominously designated “threat rolls”. These dice have three blank failure faces and two faces emblazoned with police shields to indicate success. The remaining face has a symbol representing the two cards which can be sacrificed from the player’s hand to improve it to a success. A simple analysis of these dice shows that though the odds may be stacked against you, near misses can be mitigated.
Playing Hostage Negotiator
The player’s goal is to rescue more hostages than are killed and to eliminate the threat of the hostage taker. This drama is played out on a comprehensive but somewhat busy game board which has three main functions.
The hostage area shows the number and status of the abductees. This is recorded by wooden figures in the hostage pool, the hostages rescued area and a field reserved for those unfortunates who are killed.
The conversation track records points which represent the quality of information you get from the adversary as well as how much your support have benefited from negotiations. The player uses these points to buy cards that represent more potent psychological tricks and tactical manoeuvres for their next conversation.
Another track marks the Threat Level. This is the mood of the hostage taker. At one extreme, the adversary is at peace and prepared to release hostages or even surrender at the next lowering of the Threat Level. At the other, enraged, they will kill at the merest provocation. Of more immediate concern however is the way that the threat level affects the efficacy of the player’s threat rolls.
In most cases the threat level begins in the mid range which affords the player two dice with which to determine the outcome of the cards they are playing. Lower the threat level, gain the adversary’s trust and you will be rewarded with another die. This significantly increases your chances of getting a good or negotiable threat roll. However, if you aggravate your adversary too far you will lose a die. This not only reduces your chance of success but absolutely negates any chance of a resounding success. Other circumstances can give or take dice from the player making the protection of favourable probabilities vital to winning the game.
Each of your opponents in Hostage Negotiator will bring a different energy to your challenge. Most players will begin by taking on Arkayne Massua, a straightforward terrorist who requires straightforward strategy. Deal with demands for money, guns and amnesty, gain the release of the hostages, and address the issue of the hostage taker.
The other “villains” included with this base game offer different challenges through discrete and cunning alterations of gameplay mechanics, along with character specific demand cards each hostage taker requires the player to adjust their strategy and tactics. These adjustments also encourage players to consider their attitude towards the abductors. One character for example has, under great emotional stress, taken hostages to pressure a hospital into giving his son a treatment he can’t afford. Playing the sniper card under these circumstances would be unthinkable, surely?
Should you choose this drastic and expensive course of action however, you will uncover a sting in the tail. Each adversary has a second in command ready to take over, and these individuals are significantly more volatile than their colleagues.
Having chosen your opponent and set-up, the game of Hostage Negotiator begins and falls into three phases:
This is the primary phase of influence for the player. At the beginning of each game you will have a hand of free cards and a tantalising array of purchasable conversation cards waiting for you to pick them up in the spend phase.
The conversation cards have several uses. Primarily, you play them to try and influence the game parameters, improve the mood of the hostage taker or gain leverage against them by conniving conversation points.
When any card is played, a threat roll must be made. The card will give you the results for a resounding success (two shield faces), a regular success (one shield) and a bare faced failure. For example, if the “Keep Cool” card is played it can result in a double improvement in terms of threat level reduction and increased conversation points. On a failure you will lose credibility with the adversary and lose a conversation point.
Then there is the third face of the die, the near miss. As represented on the dice, two conversation cards can be spent to increase this roll to a success. This is a high enough cost to give the player a real head scratching moment as they decide whether the prize is worth the cost.
The third use of the conversation cards is subtle but can be absolutely critical to success. Any conversation card can be exchanged for a conversation point. This may seem like small change but if it can give the player enough cachet to grab just the right card it may be worth the punt.
This phase ends when the player wants it to. There is no requirement to use all of your hand and sometimes it will be more judicious to not engage in conversation at all should you want to jump straight into the spend phase.
Depending on how well the last conversation went you now have the opportunity to cash in your conversation points.
The higher cost cards come with higher rewards, but the wages of failure are commensurately more significant. The successful negotiator must also decide whether to go all in on a higher cost card which could swing the entire game or get a number of less critical opportunities. Either way, all points must be spent or lost in this phase. This adds yet another degree of pressure to the situation.
Now it’s the bad guy's turn. If the terror deck were merely a timing mechanism for the game it would still be appropriately named. However, the flip of each card also turns a screw. On most occasions this turn will add complications for the player but sometimes it brings opportunity or even relief.
The terror deck can bump up the threat level, perhaps negating the effect of all the hard-earned cards you played in the turn. The terror deck can eviscerate itself, demanding you reduce it by half or face this same decision in one of your worryingly fewer future turns. The terror deck can also kill a hostage impulsively, dashing all your hopes of a clean sheet.
But the terror deck can also save a hostage or give you opportunities through minor demand cards. Fate is fickle indeed. But whether it is giving or taking away the terror deck inevitably dwindles, progressing towards the final pivotal turn.
The Pivotal Turn
It is possible to have a thoroughly successful game with dice rolls going your way, your spending efficient and propitious, the terror deck forgiving, all hostages secured and a perp in custody and still have a relatively dissatisfying experience. The true nail-biting nature of this game can be experienced in the turn of the pivotal terror card and the last conversation.
These final, golden terror cards are designed to turn up the stress to breaking point. They can take away a threat die or all of those zero-point cards which have shown their worth as useful pawns throughout the game. There is a card that can swing the threat level to the extremes of the threat level track depending on which is nearest.
Unique to the last conversation is the ability to spend conversation points on cards for immediate use. Strategic planning is cast aside in favour of a hell for leather tactical negotiation with fate.
Final Thoughts on Hostage Negotiator
Hostage Negotiator does a fantastic job of delivering a quasi-cinematic experience to the solo player. As a game, the random elements of the dice rolls and terror deck may be frustrating to those wanting an elegant and solvable puzzle, but this game replaces this lack with a strong narrative and thematic integrity. It can be an inconsistent experience. Some negotiations are one-sided arguments with hostages spilling out more frequently than words. Others have you talking to a brick wall of cruel, indifferent dice and an unspeakable terror deck. But more often than not it is a dynamic, cinematic experience that excites as much as it stymies.
Van Ryder Games have also expanded upon this base game with a more detailed standalone expansion that integrates neatly with this base set. They have also released a number of affordable abductor and demand packs. Each of these bring the same high quality of art and components to the game as well as adding unique game mechanics and well realised characters. This variety adds richness and longevity to the experience. It will be reassuring to the prospective buyer that the company behind it are actively continuing to support the fairly niche market of the solo gamer.
You Might Like
• A specifically designed solo experience, rather than a rule variation.
• A narrative driven thriller.
• The variety of play experiences generated by deceptively simple changes within the rules.
You Might Not Like
• The heavy influence of the random element.
• A theme which involves death and murder.