Hostage Negotiator Review

robsmIt never ceases to amaze me just how intense some board games can be – especially solitaire games. Granted I never expected hostage negotiation to be a breeze but Hostage Negotiator, from developer A.J. Porfirio and publisher Van Ryder Games, has actually managed to get me nervously talking to myself – even sweating a little at times. It also made me swear. A lot.

Not gonna lie, I'm a little bummed the cop on the cover doesn't look more like Kevin Spacey.
Not gonna lie, I’m a little bummed the cop on the cover doesn’t look more like Kevin Spacey.

Hostage Negotiator puts you in the scruffy, sunglasses-wearing khakis of a police hostage negotiator (which is to be expected, really). It’s your job to get as many innocent people out alive as possible, while simultaneously trying to get one of three abductors to give themselves up. Or, if worst comes to worst, you can also risk some of the hostages and try to have the perps eliminated.

Each abductor has slightly different rules for you to follow – such as raising the Threat level rather than killing hostages or releasing a hostage every time you manage to roll two 6s. On top of this you also have the Major Demand and Escape Demand cards that can come into play (depending on the abductor), as well as a deck of Terror (a.k.a. event) cards that do well to mix each game up a bit. You won’t be using every single card in a single attempt either, so you’ll never quite know what to expect.

It looks so innocent at first.
It looks so innocent at first.

When it comes time to actually deal with the abductors, you’ll be using various Conversation cards to try and diffuse the situation. Whether or not your strategies work as intended depends on how well you roll the dice, though. Each card has three different possible outcomes (one for two successes, one for a single success, and one for failure) that get progressively worse as you move down the list. Bigger gambles can have bigger payoffs, but also much more dire consequences if you screw up.

And screw up you shall. A lot. Solitaire games are supposed to be difficult but sometimes Hostage Negotiator feels downright mean. For example the threat level determines both how many dice you can roll (from one to three) as well as how easy or difficult it will be to free hostages. If the threat is at its lowest you get lots of dice and lowering it further will have the abductor setting people free. If the threat is at its peak you only have a single die to roll and any further increases to the threat will result in casualties. In other words the harder things get, the harder things get.

Although it's less complicated than it looks, too.
Although it’s less complicated than it looks, too.

If you play your cards right (and roll well) you might have a chance, though. Some Conversation cards will earn you conversation points that can be used to purchase much better cards from the pool, while others can greatly reduce the threat or even instantly release several hostages at once. Any card, regardless of its initial cost, may also be used to either give you an additional conversation point (which is extremely handy in a pinch) – or if you roll a symbol that looks like two blocks, two cards may be discarded to turn it to a single success (also handy in a pinch).

It sounds complicated but the rules are actually pretty easy to follow. Plus there’s a handy reference guide on the back of the manual. You simply play Conversation cards, roll dice to determine success/failure, spend any points you have to buy more cards (starting cards are free, thank goodness), then flip over the next Terror card and deal with it. Actually knowing when it’s best to do what takes time to figure out, however.

Cherish the occasional hostage recovery, because it doesn't take much for everything to go south.
Cherish the occasional hostage recovery, because it doesn’t take much for everything to go south.

There are an awful lot of things to consider in a single hand. Since the dice all have three blank faces, one face for that “discard two cards” trick, and two faces for success, you can never be certain whether or not your plans will work out. It might seem like a good idea to try and stockpile conversation points to buy better cards for the next round, or maybe it would be better to try and reduce the threat level so you can roll three dice. Perhaps it would be best to give in to the abductor’s demands for food and water even though it could make failed rolls even more disastrous. And then once your turn is over you flip over that Terror card and suddenly everything you were working towards has been for nothing.

You can definitely chalk it up to luck (or a lack thereof) of the draw, but I’ve yet to have a single playthrough where I didn’t feel like the game somehow knew what I was up to and kept stonewalling me. I’d lower the threat and it would raise it back up. I’d free a hostage and the abductor would take two more. I hate to say it but after a while the tension and atmosphere I was enjoying so much gave way to frustration and an intense hatred of those stupid dice that roll so badly so often I’d almost swear they were weighted. Okay I know they’re not weighted but I was getting so angry after all those botched rolls and Terror cards that negated my turns that I found I wasn’t really having fun anymore.

Not pictured: me losing within six rounds.
Not pictured: me losing within six rounds.

I took a bit of a break, collected myself, then came back and tried playing against a different abductor and things went a little better. There was still some frustration but the penalties for failing weren’t quite as harsh. Honestly, while the manual recommends you play your first game against Arkayne I’d suggest you ignore that advice and play your first few against Edward. Yes, Edward has “special rules” while Arkayne has none, but he’s basically the game’s easy mode – which is where most beginners should start, really. It’s not that I think Hostage Negotiator is so hard that it’s not fun, but there’s a lot of nuance to the strategy that you probably aren’t going to have the chance to pick up on unless you’re playing against the easier abductor.

Even though it can be frustrating (super-frustrating) at times, I’d definitely recommend Hostage Negotiator for solitaire players looking for something a little different – and a lot challenging.

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