Did You People Go To Negotiator School? No You Didn't!! - Hostage Negotiator Review

I live alone and of course that can get very "ronery" at times. Therefore there will be times when I need a game that can be played solo to pass the time (what little of it I seem to have these days). Most games come with a solo variant, but these usually boil down to controlling multiple player decks or stations by yourself (Sentinels & XCom) or having a specifically designed ruleset that most of the time doesn't really appeal to me or just being so long and complex that it's almost not worth the time to set it all up (Mage Knight & the DVG Wargame series). There are of course exceptions to this rule such as Fields of Arle, Nations and Imperial Settlers which are pretty solid in solo mode.

So as a result of this I have a soft spot for the quick, small, cheap and cheerful solo only games that come out only on rare occasions. Friday has been in my collection for a while now and been a good experience (check out my review), but it's beginning to get a little repetitive. Onirim I've not had the pleasure of trying mainly because it seems to appear in the UK for 5 seconds and then go out of stock immediately, which is highly frustrating as it's a favourite of Zee Garcia's and so far we seem to align quite well when it comes to filler/micro games. Aside from these two I don't tend to hear much of any others in this category.

Now Hostage Negotiator has arrived on the scene to fit in that same category, albeit using more dice than is typically seen and using a theme that at first glance might be seen as rather controversial, but also at the same time sounds more interesting than the previous two mentioned. My copy of Friday has some competition now, so can they get along or will one overpower the other?


Designer: A. J. Porfirio
Publisher: Van Ryder Games
# of Players: 1
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 20 Minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 1752 / 7.50
Treading A Fine Line The components themselves are actually fairly good. You get some wooden meeples, a functional board with rule reminders, various cards with good, if basic graphic designs and some basic custom dice. Not bad for a £15 price tag really, though some cheap sleeves might be an order as the card stock isn't great. It does push the boundaries a little of being a portable game for travel purposes especially with the recommended layout it gives, but with some minor changes (putting the conversation cards in a deck rather than lay out in piles for example) you could get around that. Friday despite having a smaller box could also hog the table space a bit when you got going. The rule book is fairly easy to understand with only some slight ambiguity in places and it is perfectly possible to play your first game as you read it rather than absorb it all up front. The theme is actually stronger than expected - yes the dice abstract it a bit, but the motivations for the abductors and how conversations can go good or bad at a moment's notice fit the context of the game pretty well. The Terror deck racks up the tension even more with unexpected changes to the situation be they good or bad and their respective titles are things you will recognise from any movie where you see this scenario play out. However I say "movie", but even I know that the theme of this game is a little bit more true to reality in some areas of the world. Hostages can be killed off sometimes because you messed up or sometimes even just from the terror deck, one card even does it without any possible intervention from yourself. And the abductor scenarios can be quite realistic in themselves. One of them involves holding up a hospital to get medical care for his dying son, which is not exactly implausible (come to think of it didn't something similar happen in an episode of House M.D. one time?) Another has a teacher with a twitchy trigger finger holding up a classroom of young students. Even though it's all just wooden meeples at the end of the day, you can't help have the thought enter your brain that essentially the game is axing off children and stating you only have to save half of them as a win condition. 

Now of course you could have a whole new thread on BoardGameGeek devoted to the moral implications of having a game based on this theme out there, but all in all, it works in the games favour here. Depending on how seriously you take this theme, you'll be more invested in trying to succeed with as little collateral damage as possible. I might be taking this way more seriously than it needs to be, but I thought I'd bring the subject matter up as I'm sure this has entered the minds of some people with Hostage Negotiator on their wish list. Remember all the controversy when Five Tribes had the slave cards? Some themes can rub people the wrong way and therefore some publishers and designers have to tread carefully. That been said, games like Freedom: The Underground Railroad were received well despite the theme. It's all down to the individual I guess.


We'll Give You One Calf...For Some Guns & Ammunition Of Our Own!


If you're getting the references so far, kudos! I couldn't resist giving that South Park episode a re-watch when I started learning this game. But I digress!

The crux of Hostage Negotiator comes down to your hand management and the dice. You start off with some basic conversation cards and can purchase more depending on how well you did in the last round. It's almost like deck building except once you use the cards, you have to re-buy them later whether they succeeded or not and you can't repurchase those cards (even the free ones) until the end of the next round. So already you're having to be mindful of which cards you use and when. Simply unloading all of your cards from the word "go" can leave you with limited actions in the next round. But you can't sit back and be cautious forever because the Terror deck as well as changing the situation each round also acts as a game timer. You might be having a good round or two but you rarely feel like you're dominating at any time and getting cocky will most certainly result in your downfall when unexpected events occur. There's a good amount of tension present and your choices have meaningful ramifications. The dice might break the game for some though. They add a high element of randomness to the game, which to be fair fits well with the theme (hostage negotiations are never predictable), but it can be frustrating when your best laid combo in your hand falls apart because of the dice gods. A success is only achieved on a 5 or 6 with a 4 being a partial success providing you're willing to dispose of cards in your hand for it giving you the option of picking your battles. Some conversation cards can be purchased which can add extra dice or increase the odds in your favour, but these are quite short term and of course, you have to succeed on these cards first before you get the bonus! It's not a deal breaker for me personally as it helps to speed things along.
...And A Cattle Truck Driven By Michael Dorn In Full Makeup! Sorry, couldn't resist, I'm still laughing now, go watch it if you haven't seen it - "Fun With Veal". I mentioned before that Friday was getting a little repetitive for me. The question is whether Hostage Negotiator will follow suit. You get three abductor's in the box each with their own set of various demands. The demands themselves don't change things up dramatically, but the special setup instructions on the abductors do. One is blank as it's designed for your first few games, but the other two have interesting quirks that force you to play a little differently. There's enough demand cards and terror cards to mix things up a bit as they are randomly chosen each game. The conversation cards also allow you to try a few different play styles - whether it's performing minor extractions consistently or going for the quick sniper kill. Commonly it will come down to one ballsy last move particularly with the Escape demands which give you a decent bonus, but also only give you one turn to capture the abductor before they escape and you lose. Unsurprisingly there's no card that allows you to shoot the hostage to take them out of the equation, so that we'll have to leave to Keanu Reeves. There's enough in the box to keep you going for a little while, but soon you might feel that it's also a bit repetitive. There are however two potential solutions for this problem. At the back of the rulebook there are challenges that can be attempted by players during each game, sort of like a checklist. They require special focus during the game and may force you to play differently to what you're used to, but they are tough and will keep the die-hard players going for a while. The game is also already receiving expansions to bring in more conversation cards and new abductors, both of which would be a decent improvement and add to the variety. However when these will be available in various countries I don't know as I haven't seen any mention of a UK release yet and there's also the cost factor to bare in mind. They need to be reasonable like the promo packs for Sentinels of the Multiverse as opposed to the daylight robberies committed by the Alien Frontier mini-expansions.
Verdict Hostage Negotiator joins the club of small, quick solo games that previously has been dominated by the likes of Friday and Onirim. And despite having not played Onirim, I feel it's a solid game overall and actually better than Friday. Friday can get a little repetitive over many games, but Hostage Negotiator can give you a different experience depending on which abductor you use, what demands they have and how you go about completing the game whether for a change of pace or attempting the tricky challenges. Some more variety is need however to really keep this game fresh, however future expansions will help to solve this problem - of course the downside of that is how expensive these will be because as much as the game is fun, it's not one that I would want to staple a high price tag too especially when other solo games can give you a decent bang for your buck already. The theme can potentially rub people the wrong way, but if you can deal with that, then it's actually represented fairly strongly here despite the use of dice. Conversations can succeed or fail horribly changing the tide of the game much like a typical hostage negotiation and the terror cards add to the tension of not knowing how far you can push your luck. The mechanics of holding back cards for a future turn to set up combos and meeting the demands of the abductor for bonuses, but with the potential to backfire give you some legitimately interesting choices to consider. Overall Hostage Negotiator is a solid design and worth looking into if you want a quick, portable solo game. It's different enough from the crowd that it stands out on its own and has the potential to get better through expansion, but it's not quite at that level of being a "great" game just yet.
YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF:

You want a quick solo experience - it's quick to set up, play and put away. 

You want a game that gives you meaningful choices to make and keeps the tension up throughout.

You want a game that's expandable over time - unlike most solo games this one is going to see future expansion.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS GAME IF:

You want a straight up puzzle game - the dice add a high random element to proceedings and may cause frustration to those who hate "luck".

You don't agree with the choice of theme - it's trying to be semi-serious and it might rub people the wrong way.

You have no intention to expand the game given the choice - the base cards alone won't keep it going indefinitely. 

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