What is this game about?
Hostage Negotiator is exactly what it sounds like: Hostages have been taken, and it's up to you to talk down the abductor and release innocent people. If you free half of the hostages and capture or kill the abductor, you win the game. Otherwise, you lose.
And Hostage Negotiator is truly set up to feel like an attempt to speak with an unstable person. Each round begins with a "conversation," where you play conversation cards in an attempt to advance your interests. You start with a hand of free conversation cards, but earning "conversation points" can allow you to purchase better ones with different abilities. Will you attempt to pull off a "minor extraction" and break out some hostages? Will you sweet talk the abductor to suss out his or her demands, or to help maintain calm? At various moments in the game, you can even choose to concede one or more demands—a decision that comes with immediate rewards, but potentially awful long-term consequences. After you play your conversation cards and purchase new ones, you will also resolve a "terror phase" in which the abductor inevitably does something terrible.
All of your successes and failures are determined by a roll of the dice. If your abductor is calmer, you can roll more dice and have a greater chance of success. The more agitated your abductor becomes, the fewer dice you get to roll—and failure can lead to further escalation and even the death of hostages. This is a high-tension game, and even the best-laid plans can go awry.
How does it play solo?
Hostage Negotiator is solo-only, which means it is custom-made just for us solo gamers!
I love Hostage Negotiator and have for a while. I wrote positively about it back in 2016, before I had nailed down a consistent review format, and if anything, I like it better now than I did back then. Even though I've had this game for years, it's still one that I pull out for a quick play, and it will never leave my collection.
It is absolutely true that Hostage Negotiator can be a luck fest. Sometimes you will lose because the dice hate you, and that's just the way it is. But for me, that is just part of what Hostage Negotiator does best, which is tell an excellent story. Of course your plans won't always work—this is a game about trying to negotiate with someone who is not acting rationally. Hostage Negotiator gets better the more you give yourself over to your imagination. I love inventing dialogue for myself as I play, and each abductor comes with a backstory that gives him or her motivation and makes the gameplay more immersive. As you play more, you will also discover that while there is some luck involved, there are clever card combinations you can build to mitigate your luck and increase your odds of success.
What delights me the most about Hostage Negotiator, especially now that I've owned it for a long time, is the variety among abductors. In addition to the base game, there are several "abductor packs" you can pick up that contain new backstories, new terror and demand cards, and new tales you can tell yourself while you play. Probably the most boring abductor in the whole series is the starter one, Arkayne Massua, who is just a generic "terrorist" type. Beyond him, you get a number of abductors, some of whom are cold-blooded criminals, but others of whom are more sympathetic—one even causes the hostages to develop Stockholm Syndrome!
I should say, in case it isn't obvious, that Hostage Negotiator has a brutal theme. Hostages die. Sometimes you really mess up, and they all die. And in some cases, those hostages are even more young and innocent than you'd expect. My favorite abductor to this day is Donna Scarborough, a disaffected teacher who takes her class hostage. Dealing with her is dark, especially because I'm a teacher myself—and because it's not 100% clear whether Donna is a college professor or going for tenure in a secondary school system. I find this darkly amusing, because this is all an imaginative exercise. But if that's not your style, I really can't blame you.
Do I recommend it?
Definitely. If you're a solo gamer, you should absolutely give Hostage Negotiator a try. I consider it a "solo classic" that should be in any collection.
Overall Rating: 5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.