Hostage Negotiator & Abductor Packs #1-4 Review


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Posted by Byron on Jan 28, 2016

I'm calling it now: best conversation simulator of 2016. Hostage Negotiator is a solitaire game of....

"We're done here."

Let's not do anything rash here; I'm going to need you to stay on the line. Of course I can understand where you're coming from: a lot of people, for whom the biggest draw of gaming is its social aspect, have a hard time picturing a purely solitaire game, and even with its 4 expansions, that's all Hostage Negotiator is. There are no competitive or cooperative modes; it's 1 or nothing. While an increasing number of publishers and gamers alike are embracing solitaire gaming, a solo-only game is still exceedingly rare.

"You have to be pretty confident to limit your potential audience like that."

Or Friedemann Friese levels of narcissistic. In the high-stakes world of hostage negotiation, though, confidence is your only weapon, and most people prefer to work alone. You have to convince an angry, irrational man (or woman) that you're his best and only friend in the situation, that you're looking out for his best interests even as the SWAT team converges on the rooftop, and that's just not the sort of thing you can trust to a committee. You're just going to have to trust me on this: this game could only work solitaire.

"I'm not buying it. Why not have someone play the abductor?"

Well, aside from the morally squicky element of this role, there's the fact that the taking of hostages is inherently irrational. A person playing logically and strategically to achieve the hostage taker's goals would make a poor representation of this act of ultimate desperation. On the other hand, the randomness of HN's dice-and-card-draw AI provides an uncanny simulation of a morally conflicted individual at the end of his emotional tether. No theme is more perfectly suited to a solitaire game.

"Let's talk, then. What's this about a conversation simulator?"

The game takes place over a series of "conversations," in which you play cards from your hand primarily to manipulate two sliding values. The Threat level represents the abductor's anger or emotional amplitude: at maximum, he barely listens to a word you say and will kill hostages on a hair trigger, but if you can calm him down, he's a lot more easily persuaded and might actually be convinced to release hostages or turn himself in. The other value tracks conversation points, an abstraction of you gaining the abductor's trust and candor. After each conversation, you can spend conversation points on new cards, with the higher-cost cards representing trickier gambits: lying, extracting hostages, or ordering the sniper to take the shot.

"So it's a deck-builder. Is this supposed to impress me?"

Actually, that's the clever thing about Hostage Negotiator. The mood of these conversations can turn on a dime, and the abductor won't buy the same bullshit over and over again. Playing a card removes it from your hand until you can buy it again. To counter this, there's a supply of 0-cost basic cards that are always available, except on the same round you played them, but they won't get you far on their own. HN never gives you a chance to relax; after every small success, you get sent back to square one.

"Is the game solveable? I don't like solveable games."

Not really, no. There are two reasons for this. One, the abductor's behavior is driven by a random deck of Terror cards; you reveal one at the end of each round. These are blatantly unfair: the abductor might get impatient and swing back several spaces toward angry on the Threat level, or he might start killing hostages arbitrarily, or he might actually experience a moment of weakness and release a hostage. Because the abductor's behavior is so erratic, you can't employ the same strategy every game. More importantly, every conversation card you play has a chance of backfiring. Playing a card means making a threat roll, the number of dice rolled depending on the Threat level. If you roll 1 success (a 5 or 6), the ploy worked. 2 or more successes gets you an exceptional bonus. But no successes means the abductor didn't buy it, and these usually come with negative effects. More powerful cards carry heavier risks; failing to eliminate the abductor, for example, could allow him to escape for an instant loss. Since your tactics won't always work, you need to be adaptable.

"Okay, I'm listening. Anything else I should know?"

There's a ton of variety baked into this little game. Aside from the random Terror deck, the abductors can have Demands, which cost conversation points to concede and offer an immediate benefit in exchange for a lasting consequence. Major Demands are abductor-specific, and most abductors have 2 or 3 options, while Escape Demands are common to all abductors. Conceding an Escape Demand is a last-ditch move, since it means that the abductor will escape at the end of the conversation if you haven't captured or eliminated them by then. There are also 3 abductors in the base game, each of whom has a different feel. Arkayne is the generic (and uncomfortably racist) Middle-Eastern terrorist, representing a sort of baseline for the game. Donna is a pissed-off teacher and the only female abductor so far. She's more given to mood swings, killing or releasing hostages on a whim. Edward Quinn is the most interesting character in the base set: he's a normal father who has taken hostages in order to get a life-saving surgery for his son. He's a good guy, so he won't kill the hostages...unless you push him too far, in which case he kills them all and takes his own life.

"You have me convinced."

Not so fast. There are four mini-expansions for the game known as Abductor Packs, and they raise the total abductor variety to 7. In addition to a new abductor with new demands and special rules, though, they each add a new gameplay mechanic (only for use with that opponent). Abductor Pack #1 has you face off against a disgruntled CEO who's just been let go by his Board of Directors. The main innovation here is a new set of conversation cards representing your contact on the inside. You can pull off some powerful maneuvers with these, but if the CEO ever figures you out, that hostage is killed and all these cards are removed from the game. The real reason to get this one is the numerous generic cards (Terror, Escape Demands etc.) it adds to the game in addition to the abductor-specific ones.

Abductor Pack #2 does everything in pairs: you have two abductors, twins in fact, and many of the new cards offer you a decision between two options. These decision cards are nice—if the abductor has the new Speedboat demand, you can be honest about it or rig the boat with explosives—but overall, this is the least interesting expansion. Abductor Pack #3 is a lot better. Lieutenant Jackson has been framed for murder, and it's your job to keep him from killing any hostages while you try to gather evidence to exonerate him. His hostages can develop Stockholm Syndrome, choosing to believe the Lieutenant's story and refusing to be rescued, so you need to prove you're on his side, too, before you can win. Last and best is Abductor Pack #4, a take on Speed in which an abductor has hijacked a bus and is racing toward the Mexican border. While the bus is in motion, you will be subject to various location effects that change the game drastically; for instance, racing along a cliffside amps up the Threat meter continuously until the bus misses a curve and all the hostages plummet to their doom. If you were going to buy just one expansion, for sheer variety and ingenuity, this is the one to get.

"Okay, here are my demands: I want the game, all four abductor packs, and an armored van to transport me to game night."

Anything you want. You can trust me.

Captain, send in your men! Let's take this guy out!