REVIEW: Hostage Negotiator

Juni the cat is looking at the board game Hostage Negotiator.

Hostage Negotiator is a game for one player created by A.J. Porfirio and released by his publishing company Van Ryder Games in 2015. It was voted Best Solo Game of 2015 by the 1 Player Guild. The game is something of a contemporary solitaire classic and it’s ranked just below the top 200 thematic games on BoardGameGeek. Will it hold up to the scrutiny of cats?

Hostage Negotiator, all the contents of the box.
The contents of the box.

Gameplay, Components and Rule Book

A criminal has taken people hostage and your job as a… This is silly! Did you see the name of the game? That succintly sums it up.

There are four main factors that you are able to influence as a negotiator – the Threat Level, the Conversation Points, the state of the Hostages and whether the abductor is alive, captured or dead. Your way of manipulating the situation is by talking to the criminal, trying to earn trust while assessing the situation. If you judge it safe or necessary, you can advise the team leader to send in the SWAT unit or to have a sniper take the abductor out. The talking is represented by Conversation Cards.

A game of Hostage Negotiator in progress.
This is what the game looks like before the first round. On the bottom is the starting hand with six basic conversation cards. Above that the pool of available conversation cards. Above that from left to right the abductor; the game board with the threat level dial, your conversation points and the hostage pool; the terror deck – cards that represent unforeseen events and the whims of the abductor. On the top row are cards that represent the abductors undisclosed demands.

The Threat Level represents the tension of the situation and the abductor’s level of agitation. If the Threat Level is on its maximum and a card says to raise it further, a hostage is killed instead. If it’s on its lowest and has to be lowered further, a hostage is released instead.

Conversation Points represent to what extent you’ve managed to earn the trust of the abductor, and your ability to hold the abductor’s attention. These points are used to acquire Conversation Cards. You start with a few basic Conversation Cards. These represent initial attempts at opening dialogue, and you have to use these successfully to be able to get the cards that represent attempts at further influencing and manipulating the abductor.

The hostages are either in the Hostage Pool, safe or dead. To win the game, the hostage pool has to be empty with at least half of the hostages in safety.

To win the game, the abductor also has to be dead or captured.

The game is played over a series of turns. Each turn has three phases: the Conversation Phase (where you use Conversation Cards), the Spend Phase (where you spend Conversation Points to get the Conversation Cards you need for your next turn) and the Terror Phase (where the top card of the Terror Deck is played, representing the whims and behavior of the abductor).

To determine your success in using a conversation card you have to roll dice, between one and five dice depending on the threat level among other things. If you fail you risk losing Conversation Points or raising the Threat Level.

A polydactyl cat is looking at cards from the game Hostage Negotiator.
On the left is one of the starting cards, Small Talk. If you roll two successes you’ll earn three conversation points, one success gets you two points and failure gets you one but ends the phase. Just Stay Calm lowers the threat level, but if you fail it’s raised instead. And yes, Juni is a polydactyl. I know it’s cute! She’s got opposable thumbs and represents the next step in cat evolution.

And that’s it! You do this over and over again until you win or lose. The rule book is OK. The rules are somewhat confusingly laid out, but jumping back and forth while reading is not a big problem. Just make sure to read it all. Components are of good quality.

If you want to learn more about how the game plays, you should watch this short tutorial video by RollforCrit.

A cat is playing with the pieces from the game Hostage Negotiator.
Now I understand why the team leader gave me that skeptical look when I suggested sending in a cat to reduce the tension…

The Role of Luck and The Thematic Disconnect

I’ve noticed people complaining about the randomness in this game, and I do agree that there is a lot of it. But in my opinion that’s nothing to complain about. If you’ve read any of my other reviews you’ve probably learned that I usually have no problem with randomness in quick solitaire games – on the contrary; I find that an element of chance increases tension and also makes the game more varied and enjoyable – as long as there’s also an element of skill and important choices to make. Furthermore, the goal in this game is to handle an extremely unpredictable, delicate situation. You’re dealing with a volatile, mad person, somebody who will not behave in a rational manner. All factors can’t be accounted for. It should be random. It makes thematic sense.

There is, however, something that definitely does not make thematic sense, something I ran into several times. Let’s call it a clash between the ethos behind the theme, and the game mechanisms. To win the game, the following conditions have to be met: no hostages may be left in the hostage pool, at least half of the hostages have to be safe, and the abductor has to be captured or eliminated. Saving half of the hostages is sufficient to win. But since all of the hostages have to leave the hostage pool one way or another for you to be able to win at all, the best scenario, from a tactical standpoint, is if half of the hostages are killed by the abductor, leaving fewer for you to get out of the pool.

The issue comes to the fore when some hostages are in safety, but a few are still in captivity, and you manage to take care of the abductor. If the abductor gets eliminated or captured when there are still some hostages in captivity, the 2nd In Command – a follower of the abductor – takes over. This new hostage taker kills a hostage every time the threat level is raised, except for the last hostage, and he gives himself up willingly to the police if all hostages are gone. This situation is a dilemma, because under these conditions you sometimes can’t win unless you’re extremely lucky – or make sure that some hostages are killed. Look at this picture:

Hostage Negotiator board game in progress.
The Minor Extraction card will not be enough to win, since it can get a maximum of two hostages out. Since you can’t win if there are still hostages in the hostage pool, in this situation your best bet would be to first use Just a Few More Minutes and hope to fail, or at least only roll one success, thus raising the threat level, causing the 2nd In Command to kill one, hopefully two, hostages. With two or fewer hostages left chances are that you can extract them, causing the 2nd In Command to surrender, winning the game.

Situations when your best bet is to try to get some hostages out of the hostage pool by provoking the abductor into killing them have occurred at least four times over twenty or so plays. I know, It’s only a game and not a real life dilemma, and winning this way doesn’t leave me feeling guilty or anything. But this strange situation causes a thematic disconnect that bothers me when it happens. When you’re taking on a particular abductor, Arkayne, this counter-intuitive solution actually seems a viable strategic option to keep in mind from the outset.

This issue is an interesting example of the challenges a game designer might run into when constructing an abstracted, stylized representation of a real life scenario. Condensing such a psychologically, ethically, tactically and legally complex situation into a few pages of rules-text is an impressive feat, and I have no idea how the designer could have avoided a pitfall like this one. As a player, you just have to live with it. I can, although it’s somewhat problematic in a thematic game like this.

The Verdict

Apart from the issue of the thematic disconnect, Hostage Negotiator succeeds in telling its story. The randomness – shuffled cards and die-rolls – makes the game sufficiently unpredictable to convey the tension, surprise and insecurity that is at the heart of this story. I mentioned above that there also has to be an element of skill for me to enjoy a game. With regards to this, Hostage Negotiator passes. You can lose to a bad die-roll, but you can also lose after making a poor decision. Making decisions in this game is not particularly tough, though. I am not yet at the level where I can always make the statistically best choices, but improving your odds in this game is pretty easy. You soon learn what cards can be expected to show up in the terror pile. You quickly start to see the margins you have to stay within to balance risk against potential damage. You soon learn which conversation cards you always want in your hand and which ones you almost never need. So how much luck is it, in the end? Too much for an hour long game, but this game takes 10 to 20 minutes. And I seem to win about two thirds of my games against Arkayne now. Against the other abductors I’ve not played as many times yet.

Hostage Negotiator is short and intense, a light tactical challenge with exciting dice rolling. Playing against the same abductor can get samey after a while, but there are three in the box and they provide slightly different experiences. When you’ve grown tired of all three there’s a bunch of small, affordable expansions. I enjoy Hostage Negotiator, and any solo player who doesn’t have a problem with a significant element of luck should give this game a try. I will keep it for sure.

Other People’s Opinions

“Game play is dependent at all points on the success or failure of rolling dice, meaning that an experience which one would assume to be characterised by careful and specific interactions is in fact shaped by fairly outlandish fortune” writes J Ford in a review on BoardGameGeek. Ford concludes that “[i]f your interest is in the subtle back and forth mental jousting match suggested by a game called hostage negotiator or a sense of discovery and progression within a coherent, single narrative then Hostage Negotiator is best avoided.”

I stated concern about the game getting samey after a while. MonoPlayer addresses this: ” I still haven’t unwrapped my copy of “Hostage Negotiator: Crime Wave” which I already own for months, because I am yet to grow bored of the base game.”

“… boy is it an entertaining game!! It has a truly unique concept/theme, some great mechanics and offers a genuinely tense experience” writes Peter Williams in a review on BoardGameGeek. He also gives some advice: “Just keep in mind that there is a rather steep learning curve involved. Your first handful of games are likely to result in tragedy and it will look like the result of randomness or poor game design. But familiarise yourself with the Conversation Deck, the Demand Cards and the Terror Deck. The closer you look the more you will see the skill and subtlety with which the game was built. You will start to carve strategies that will (mostly?) work in your favour. And this will be extremely rewarding.”

There’s some difference of opinion for you! Some think it’s all luck, some think it’s a lot of skill, some think it’s hard, some think it’s pretty lightweight… Thanks for reading. I hope you got something out of it. We’ll soon be back with another review. Meow!

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