Review: Hostage Negotiator
Although solo gaming is growing in popularity, not too many board games are made exclusively for solo play. One exception is Hostage Negotiator, a solitaire game whose successful funding through Kickstarter revealed that demand really is high enough to support the publication of one-player board games.
Your role in Hostage Negotiator is exactly what you would expect: You must free hostages from one of three abductors (more are added through expansion packs). If you neutralize the abductor and free more than half of the hostages, you win. If you lose more than half of the hostages, or if the abductor escapes, you are defeated.
This game is generally billed as a dice chucker, but it incorporates several interesting strategic elements, including deckbuilding. To make progress with an abductor (or not), you engage in several "conversations," during which you play conversation cards. Your starting hand consists of six zero-cost conversation cards that you must use to improve your situation. Depending on how you deploy the cards, you can reduce the abductor's threat level—thus lowering the likelihood of a hostage's death and giving you more dice to roll—and/or win conversation points, which are used to purchase more useful cards for the next turn. Once you have figured out some of an abductor's demands, you also have the option of conceding them, which can provide short-term benefits but also nasty long-term consequences. Each round, you must draw a card from the terror deck, which further complicates your situation and pushes you closer to a pivotal event that will bring the game to an end.
The dice rolling aspect of the game might drive some players crazy. It is entirely possible that all of your rolls will be terrible and that you will lose the game as a result. But I actually found the randomness to be a lot of fun because it was easy for me to imagine myself on the phone with a panicky, unstable hostage abductor whose actions were becoming increasingly erratic. Also, as I played the game more, I developed strategies that made me feel like I had a chance at success, so it was satisfying to fight on even if I ultimately lost.
Hostage Negotiator is a highly replayable game, with a lot of variability built into it. Not only are there slightly different rules for each abductor, but the randomization of terror cards and abductor demands creates a slightly different scenario each time you play. If you pick up more abductor packs, you can also try your skills against abductors with different special rules and abilities.
Although not all of the abductors are compelling, Hostage Negotiator does a good job coming up with interesting mechanics that are connected with the abductors' identities and personal situations. This isn't immediately clear in the base game. The recommended first abductor for beginners, Arkayne Massua, is a generic terrorist type who wants weapons, money, etc.
But the others, Edward and Donna, provide much more interesting scenarios. Donna, in particular, is a favorite of mine because she is a teacher who has been denied tenure, and who has taken several of her students hostage in a desperate bid for professional security and affirmation. I always wonder: How old are her students? Did she have the nerve to threaten her most brilliant and delightful pupils, or did she work in a school where everyone treated her like crap? How would it feel to be a kid in that class, proud that you did your homework assignment for once and then coming to the realization that this was no normal school day? Some of Donna's demands are darkly hilarious, and it really adds to the joy of playing the game.
Hostage Negotiator is at its best when it helps you tell yourself a story. In the expansion packs, some of the new abductors are generic criminal types who just have cool added mechanics. But one is so sympathetic that his hostages get Stockholm Syndrome, which makes freeing them more interesting and challenging. While all of the different abductors make for fun and clever puzzles, my favorite experiences with this game come from testing myself against the ones with the most nuance. They make the conversations, hostage meeples, and terror events really come alive.
If you enjoy solo games, I would say that Hostage Negotiator is a must-have for your collection. It manages to be interesting and tense, play after play. And it also has the potential to provide you with an imaginative experience that takes you beyond solving a puzzle and immerses you in a high-stakes adventure.
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My name is Liz Davidson, and I play solo board games. A lot of solo board games...