After my previous adventure in print and play solo games, I found the experience to be more rewarding that I expected. It showed me that games designed for solo play can be engaging and worth playing, even if it is me, in a room, on my own, cursing the dice rolls. So, I decided to explore a bit further. How? I bought a game that was exclusively a single player game, a game that is currently in it’s 3rd printing, with 4 expansions available and more on the way. If that doesn’t sound like a successful game, I’m not sure what does. A game with a theme I’ve not seen attempted anywhere else. That game is Hostage Negotiator.
Samuel & Spacey
I remember the 1998 movie The Negotiator fondly. Samuel L Jackson is a renowned, respected hostage negotiator who is falsely accused of murder and embezzlement, and to prove his innocence the hostage negotiator becomes the hostage taker. In rolls Kevin Spacey, another illustrious hostage negotiator from a different precinct, who doesn’t like sending in the troops, but prefers to talk and avoid violence whenever possible. There’s this tension throughout the movie, where Spacey thinks he can talk Jackson down, but there’s always someone who wants to send in the troops, take out the criminal and save as many hostages as possible. This is the tension this game tries to bring to your tabletop. Stick or twist, believe in yourself, keep talking, know you can get the hostages out safely…or risk it all in a SWAT team attack that may end in tragedy.
Let’s be Friends
Hostage Negotiator isn’t a complex game, like a lot of modern games it’s core mechanics are quite simple. But it’s not an easy game. Each turn you play conversation cards from your hand, rolling a dice to determine the effectiveness of each conversation piece. These cards can help calm the hostage taker, generating “conversation points” among other things. I generally don’t like dice for generating outcomes, but here it works: you’re dealing with an unhinged person, someone who is willing to put other people’s lives on the line in order to get what they want. You never know what impact your words will have on them, you don’t know if asking about their family will send them into a rage or relax them.
Next you use any conversation points generated to buy new conversation cards. These cards are more powerful, and it’s very clever how you use basic small talk (in card format!) to build the rapport with the hostage taker before using that to move onto bigger topics, like discovering his demands, getting him to trust you enough to release hostages or ultimately getting the sniper to take that shot. These cards go straight into your hand and once they’re used, they go back into the available conversations.
After you buy these cards for future conversations, the unhinged individual that is the hostage negotiator does something threatening: you draw a card from the “Threat Deck”. This could have a number of effects, like adding to the hostage taker’s demands or even killing a few hostages. The threat deck is also the game timer, so as more threats are revealed, and the size of that deck dwindles, the pressure increases on you to pull the trigger and send in the troops.
How long can you spend trying to win over the hostage taker? This is what you have to ask yourself when playing Hostage Negotiator. Should you try for the breach, sending in troops, or perhaps call for the sniper to take the shot? Perhaps you should try some different conversation topics, ask about his family, his wife, his kids, try to learn about him, so you can help calm him down. He might release some hostages, but you never know with these criminals, they’re unstable, and a bad dice roll or card flip could cost you time or, tragically, hostages.
Hostage of Love
My first impressions of Hostage Negotiator leave me leaning toward love, though I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever get that far. As I mentioned on the previous podcast and earlier in the post, dice determining outcomes can frustrate me. I understand the need for it in this game, and I appreciate the impact and how the dice rolls add to the theme, but on the wrong day I think it might just be enough for me to not enjoy the experience. On the other hand, the game has a deck builder feel to it, without the deck part! In a deck builder you buy a card, add it to your discard pile and you might see it in a few turns. Hostage Negotiator has a similar mechanic, but the card goes straight to your hand for use on your very next turn. Mmmm…. instant gratification.
However, as I mentioned the game is incredibly thematic. The way the game implements the theme is fantastic, using small talk to build trust to eventually talk the hostage taker down is magnificent. I even found myself reading out the flavour text on the cards in a gruff voice as I played them, on my own, in an empty room, with no one around to appreciate my voice acting show.
As first impressions go, it’s incredibly positive. This game is definitely something I’ll pull out again. There’s three different hostage takers in the base game, with their own demands. The threat deck is created randomly every game, with some cards being left out. There’s plenty of replayability in there for me to keep going back to, even without the expansions which add more hostage takers.
Look, it’s bad enough I’m here in an empty house playing games on my own, I’m not going to start drinking on my own too! Don’t even think about pointing out there’s a beer in the picture above…
As usual, comments and criticisms welcome and encouraged. Have you played Hostage Negotiator? Do you have other, commercial solo games you’d recommend? Please let us know in the comments below!