Hostage Negotiator – Hold the line, love isn’t always on time.

I – Introduction

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An easy box to carry on a trip and save hostages just about anywhere.

Fact sheet
Author: A. J. Porfirio
Publisher: Van Ryder Games
Illustrations: Kristi HarmonVenessa KelleyChase Williams
Year published: 2015
Player count: 1 player
Recommended player count: 1 player
Length: 20 minutes
Set-up and teardown time: fast, 5 minutes
Mechanisms: hand management, dice rolling, risk mitigation
Card size: 63X88mm

Crisis! An ill-intentioned individual has taken several people hostage and is threatening to kill them if their demands aren’t met. Said demands aren’t known yet. As a negotiator, it is your job to hold the line as long as possible and to have the individual calm down, release hostages, and surrender. Should you need them, snipers stand at the ready, in case things turn sour. Just don’t let them kill too many people, or escape. Innocent lives are in your hand.

This review was written after 109 plays, including every released expansion.

II – Flow of the game

To play a game of Hostage Negotiator, the player selects an abductor, prepares a terror deck by using a pivotal event card, then putting ten random terror cards on top of the event. They then place major demand and escape demand cards according to the abductor’s special set-up rules. Each of the three abductors will also have their own specific rules, starting threat level, and number of hostages.

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Ready to start negotiating hostages with Arkayne.

Each turn, the player plays cards to try and gain effects varying from lowering the threat level, gaining conversation points, releasing hostages, or temporarily gaining additional dice to roll during threat rolls. A card can be played facedown to gain a conversation point, or face up for its printed effect. When played face up, the player makes a threat roll, rolling as many dice as their threat level allows. On a 5 or 6, they gain a success. On a 1 to 3, they get nothing for this die. On a 4, the player has the option of playing two cards facedown from their hand to convert the 4 into a success. Cards have three outcomes : double or more successes, single success, and failure.

When the player decides to end the conversation for this round, either because they don’t have any more cards to play, because they do not want to play the cards they have in hand, or because they have failed a threat roll that ends the conversation, they enter the spend phase where they are given the opportunity to spend their conversation points to add cards to their hand. Each card costs a certain number of points ranging from 0 to 8. Cards played in a given round are not available for purchase during the round’s spend phase. Unspent conversation points are lost at the end of the phase. Then cards played this round become available for purchase again during the next round.

Next is the terror phase. The player draws and resolves a red terror card. If the pivotal event is drawn, the last round of the game begins, during which the spend phase is merged with the conversation phase and the player is able to purchase cards at any time, as long as a card is not being resolved.

To win the game, the player must rescue at least half of the hostages, there must be no hostage remaining in the hostage pool, and they must either have the abductor surrender, or eliminate them and accept a surrender from their second in command. If at any point more than half the hostages are killed, or if the abductor escapes, the player loses. If they are not able to draw a terror card during the terror phase (most commonly after the pivotal event), the game is lost.

III – A measure of Hostage Negotiator

Pros:
– Hostage Negotiator is rewarding! Daunting at first, the game goes from difficult to difficult to lose as the player learns the ropes, masters the art of conversation, and grows out of falling into the traps and distractions the system throws at them. Soon they are  ready to tackle tougher challenges provided by expansions.
Hostage Negotiator is grim! The theme is not an easy one, but hostage situations are brilliantly depicted in a game that manages to feel more thematic that it would appear at first. Winning without casualty will be seldom, regrets will abound.
Hostage Negotiator is an impressive game system! A weird pro considering the limited amount of opponents offered in the box, but HN offers a game system with room to grow. Its expansions turn it into an endlessly replayable game that offers many challenges and stories to be told. This engine also serves as the basis for Final Girl.

Cons:
Hostage Negotiator feels more like an introduction to the system! With only three abductors, there isn’t a lot of diversity in the box, and expansions soon become mandatory to increase the game’s replayability. Luckily, they are even more enjoyable than the base game itself.
Hostage Negotiator is frustrating! There is no easy mode to speak of, and if the player fails to heed to tips scattered in the rulebook, the first plays can feel mercilessly random and punishing, with little to no means for the player to mitigate luck. Even an experienced player can be defeated by a bad roll.
Hostage Negotiator could look better! The graphic design isn’t very modern or exciting, and some art pieces are too goofy to be taken seriously. While this will not impact the gameplay, it may turn some people off just from looking at the back of the box.

IV – The wall of text (a.k.a. the Comboteur Fou’s opinion)

Gameplay

A staple?

There are games that are considered staples among solitaire players. With its smooth gameplay, unique theme, travel-size box, small footprint and short playtime, Hostage Negotiator has been gracing solitaire gamers’ tables for half a decade and has garnered a reputation that makes it a worthwhile addition to any solitaire collection. But is it worthy of its excellent reputation?

Several key design choices give the game a unique flavor that makes it stand out from other solitaire, dice-centric games, and makes it such an ingenious one. Resolving cards through dice rolls, managing conversation points, the threat level, and purchasing new and old cards all contribute to building the experience that is Hostage Negotiator, an experience not quite like any other.

Where the real terror lies…

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These backs will often be seen.

One of the most unique, and at first confusing, aspects of the game is that the greatest antagonist can be the player themselves: playing a card face up means taking the risk of losing more ground than the potential gain it can net the player. Each card bears a penalty for failing to roll a success, said failure will then add to an already meaningful tempo and resource loss for simply playing the card, which can make the player feel like their card play is more damaging to their strategy than the actual terror cards.
Such failure effects range from losing conversation points or raising the threat level to the abductor ending the conversation, killing hostages, or in extreme cases, the player losing the game altogether. This makes each and every card resolution threat roll a tense moment that can potentially induce frustration as the player may feel that they have spent time and resources to purchase and trigger a card, only to damage their strategy and their chances of winning.
It thus becomes tempting for the player to spend resources to ensure they fail as few threat rolls as possible, which would also be a mistake that could just easily result in a loss.
Figuring what to play and when to play it is a key part of the game’s strategy and of the fun it can bring the player. It may not always be interesting to reveal demands or to lower the threat level, whereas gaining conversation points is almost always worthwhile — although there will be turns during which the player won’t be able to gain enough to purchase cards, for instance if the cost 1 cards are already in hand or have already been played this round — and as such, playing a card facedown for a guaranteed, non-threat roll-dependent conversation point is more often than not a valuable option, one that new players could easily forget or forfeit as an unexciting move as they would find it more valuable to play the card for its face-up double-success effect, overlooking the potential damage that could ensue and failing to prepare proper mitigation.

The ability to play cards facedown as well as face up, and for two different effects, greatly contributes to what makes Hostage Negotiator such a unique game system. Those three options make playing each card an excruciating choice of foregoing one option for another and temporarily closing a door, even moreso because the cooldown system prevents the player from purchasing a card for the following round. More than the card effects themselves, this forces the player to correctly time their plays so as not to allocate resources to a test they cannot mitigate while having to wait two rounds before they can hypothetically attempt it again, all the while suffering penalties and an important tempo loss.
While it may not sound very entertaining on paper, one key strategy element of Hostage Negotiator is the possibility of doing nothing during a conversation phase. A negotiator can choose to play no card, give the abductor the silent treatment, skip to the spend phase, spend nothing there and just purchase the cost 0 cards, then move on to the terror phase and the next conversation phase. This strategy is one of the best ways to prepare for a major turn, as replenishing the player’s hand gives them more fuel to convert 4s into successes or to play cards facedown for conversation points in order to purchase one high cost card or several low cost ones. While at first there doesn’t seem to be much luck mitigation in the game, skipping a whole conversation phase is in fact one of the strongest ways to mitigate luck, by lowering the risk factor and making more options available.
While it may be tempting to play one’s freshly acquired Minor Extraction with nothing but a What I Meant Was… as a backup plan, this would only make the player succeed on a 5 or a 6 with a potential reroll of a single die also succeeding on a 5 or a 6, whereas doing so with the same two cards but with six other cost 0 cards in hand as a backup increases the odds by giving the player the opportunity to succeed on a 4, a 5 or a 6 and to reroll to the same effect of succeeding on a 4, 5 a or a 6, turning a 33% chance of success into a 50% one, per die.

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It’s definitely a pool of meeple blood you see under those meeple corpses.

The game is all about risk mitigation, and how much the player wants to bet on a roll or a draw. Since some terror card have additional penalties of +1 threat level for unrevealed demand cards, opting out of revealing demands is likely to quickly increase the threat level, but will also give the player more cards to be played facedown, therefore accelerating their game, at the risk of a tempo loss in the next rounds. Major and minor demands will similarly give the player opportunities when conceded, but will also come with a downside that could well cost them the game. Knowing when to concede them is also a key component of the game, turning them into another very interesting design point. Demands also provide a moment of respite when drawn, since they effectively negate the terror phase by having no effect when revealed. More on demands later.

A minor terror is no lesser terror

The terror deck, which acts as timer for the whole conversation, initially allowing ten rounds before the pivotal event starts, makes those choices more difficult by posing a variety of threats, mostly revolving around raising the threat level, with a couple direct hostage kills. Out of the twenty-one terror cards from which to draw the ten that constitute the terror deck, three are minor demands, meaning there will be games where none appear. Eight of the remaining terror cards will punish the player for not revealing demands by increasing the threat level on top of their regular effect. Most of these already increase the threat level as their regular effect, but some result in a direct, non-mitigatable hostage kill. Of the remaining cards, some will increase the threat level, two will result in a potential or direct hostage release, one will add hostages to the pool, making it more difficult for the player to meet the win condition and extending the game’s length, and three will accelerate the game, either by having no effect but to resolve the next red terror card — in effect making the deck one card thinner and the game one round shorter — or, in the case of the dreadful Your time is running out, discarding two to five other terror cards.
Only two of the eighteen non-demand cards can be directly mitigated, as they force a threat roll, meaning that the player always has to be on their toes by making sure the threat level doesn’t get too close to the ‘K’ — which could otherwise result in hostages being killed rapidly — or that they have saved enough hostages that an instant kill doesn’t result in a instant loss instead.
The most dreadful card for a new player probably is the aforementioned Your time is running out. While it doesn’t have an immediate effect on the threat level or hostage situation, it often vastly accelerates the game and ups the pressure by ushering in the pivotal event faster than the player is comfortable with. While it gives the player a choice between discarding two terror cards and then shuffling the card back into the remaining cards, or discarding half the terror deck, rounding down, then discarding itself, both these options seem to put a serious dent in the player’s chances as they significantly reduce the number of rounds they have to win the game, unless Your time is running out is drawn late, at which point it doesn’t really do much. It can potentially be a very frustrating card, especially if it is often part of the terror deck, and putting it back in the box during set-up would sound like a reasonable way to reduce the inconvenience it causes. With a little more experience, though, the card is actually a breather, as it has no immediate effect, doesn’t immediately alter the game’s state, and only removes a single terror card from the deck if shuffled back, making it less damaging than I’m growing impatient, of which there are two copies, which instructs the player to draw and resolve the next terror card, reducing the deck’s size and still triggering a most likely detrimental effect. Your time is running out should of course never be discarded if it removes more than one card from the deck.
The limited number of different effects makes the terror deck the element of the game that benefits the most from expansion cards, abductors aside, as they increase the unpredictability of the criminal’s behavior and make the game more varied and interesting.

I just want to be heard

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Timing demands properly, especially Escape demands, can lead to a 5 dice threat roll with little drawback (game played using several expansions).

While they first act as a hindrance or a relief during the terror phase, demands can provide the player with welcome boosts or even alternate victory conditions. Because they all have drawbacks, such as ending the conversation phase if the threat roll they’re used for is failed, instantly raising the threat level, or losing the player the game at the end of the conversation phase, it is important for the player to time them well if they intend to concede them. Contrary to conversation cards, demands require no threat roll to provide a beneficial effect, making them an important asset to prepare for a big move such as playing an expensive card that could lead the abductor to surrender like Secret Extraction (from Crime Wave), depicted above, which can rescue up to three hostages and which, with two hostages left in the pool, could win the game. Some, like the escape demands, are best saved until the very last turn of the game, be it the pivotal event or the turn where the player will either win or lose, given that their drawback effect is that the abductor will escape at the end of the conversation phase, resulting in a loss. Conceded during a pivotal event, their drawback will not take effect as the game will be lost anyway at the terror phase. They can also be saved for a turn during which the player intends to eliminate the abductor, even if that does not win them the game, as all demands will be removed from play when the abductor is eliminated and the second in command enters play.
Revealing an escape demand by itself is not without risk. Since there are only four different ones, chances are relatively high that the revealed one is Secret Passage, which cannot be conceded and provides no benefit, but will punish the player for taking too long to win the game by making it more likely that the abductor escapes once the last hostage leaves the hostage pool. This effect will not take place if the demand is unrevealed, but if it is, the player should either consider eliminating the abductor to make the demand disappears, or make sure they can reroll dice or convert a 4 into a success, since the card triggers a roll that is considered a threat roll, to avoid immediately losing the game.
The other three demands all require spending 4 conversation points — the same amount needed for major demands, with the notable exception of Edward’s — for effects that are not guaranteed to win the player the game but, if timed correctly, will put them in a favorable position. Because no minor demand grants conversation points, chances are low that the player will be able to concede both a major demand and an escape demand during the same turn.

It all comes down to this

While games can, and will, end before it is reached, as demonstrated above, the aforementioned pivotal event comes with its own ruleset, disposing of the conversation phase/spend phase/terror phase structure and merging the spend phase with the conversation phase. In effect, this lets the player spend their conversation points to purchase new cards at any time during which a card is not being resolved. The first drawback to this change is that cards played are not made available again during the whole event. The second drawback is that, during the terror phase, the player will be unable to draw a terror card and the abductor will escape, resulting in a loss. This change makes cards which result in ending the conversation, such as Small Talk, extremely risky, and forces the player to consider each action’s consequences on an entirely different level, making the pivotal event a high stakes, exciting turn that feels much more like a puzzle than anything prior to it, where cards, as a resource, become that much more valuable. A guaranteed conversation point in exchange for a card holds more weight than a potential two or three conversation points that could also result in an ended conversation and a lost game, or the loss of two to three other cards to convert a 4 into a success to avoid said loss. While the game is usually tense from start to finish, it never is as tense as during those special endgame turns that play like a different game within the game.
The six different pivotal event cards themselves have widely different effects, ranging from ongoing effects hindering the player, to one-shot effects that are usually devastating, such as discarding cards from hand until the player only has four left, or giving the player one less die to roll for the remainder of the game. Because they have effects that are so different from one another it is difficult to prepare for them, and they can wreck a strategy fairly easily, or even be helpful if they reset the threat level back from ‘K’ to 2. It should be noted, though, that games going into pivotal events are usually not games where everything is going according to plan, or well, and they more often than not act as punishment for taking too long to achieve a win condition.

Those sunglasses are meant to hide the panic in your eyes, really.

Thankfully, there are different paths to victory that can be achieved prior to reaching this terrifying situation, and it will be important for the player to work on their timing and to dismiss distractions to achieve their goal and avoid seeing the dreaded golden card back. While it would be tempting to amass conversation points and purchase one of the high-end cards, those are usually counterproductive and a temptation best avoided. It is entirely possible to win the game without ever purchasing them, focusing solely on the Minor Extraction and What I Meant was… cards to usher hostages out, while trying to maintain a threat level of 3 to 6 by using the cost 0 cards to fuel rerolls or convert 4s into successes. But it is just as possible to focus on lowering the threat level into convincing the abductor to release hostages — a strategy I almost never use myself, as I’m more of a “high risk, high reward” sort of player. Both strategies of course have their pitfalls: the terror phase will often raise the threat level, sometimes by two or three levels. While this means more cards will be dedicated to lowering it if relying on an S-level strategy, it will also mean some casualties when working on Minor Extraction, and the need to get the threat level out of the ‘K’ range with a single die at hand. Grim as it may sound, the beneficial side of the latter strategy is that killed hostages will make the game faster. As long as half of the hostages are saved, more killed hostages means meeting the victory condition that much faster — although this won’t work in every game, because it also means instant loss against Edward.

The built-in balance of the number of rolled dice for threat rolls, which includes threat rolls caused by terror cards or escape demands, is a fascinating concept which also serves as a distraction, luring the player into spending resources to lower a threat level that consistently keeps on being raised by failed conversation cards and terror cards, meandering with little result while the clock keeps ticking to the inevitable and often deadly pivotal event. While rolling three dice per roll is of course desirable, one can’t help but wonder if it is really worth all the invested resources and tempo loss in the end, when rolling two dice and occasionally lowering the threat level out of ‘K’ range is likely to yield stronger results over the course of the game. This calculation has to be made anew with each new abductor, depending on their starting threat level, but also on their special effects: rolling more dice against Donna also increases the likelihood that she releases hostages on a double 6… Or kills them on a double 1. Approaching the ‘K’ level is more dangerous when facing Edward, as mentioned above.

These distractions come with their own downside: more often than not, a game of Hostage Negotiator will revolve around the same five different conversation cards, including the starting cards, with the others being ignored by the player as they are too situational to be used. These situational cards act more like a rite of passage, luring the new player into thinking that more expensive equals better, while they actually offer bigger risks while providing little more reward. As a general rule, it is more effective to have the abductor surrender after all the hostages are saved or killed, than to eliminate them, as the second in command will be killing hostages faster than the abductor themself would. This is not to say that ordering the abductor eliminated will not be a strong option or that a Major Extraction won’t do the trick. Should the player come upon enough conversation points to afford these conversation cards or get them for free, they will constitute an interesting tempo gain during the final turn of the game or the pivotal event. Releasing three hostages with a single threat roll as opposed to four through two threat rolls, provided the player gets a double success each time, constitutes less of a risk, especially if the third release leads to the abductor’s surrender.

I think I heard a shot

Unfortunately, this reliance on the same set of cards, as well as the limited amount of abductors provided in the base game, means Hostage Negotiator will quickly reach its replayability limit. Once the player figures the general strategy out, and attains a consistent win rate against each abductor, these will no longer provide enough of a challenge and the game won’t raise the stakes to motivate the player to face them again. While there is a list of achievements in the rulebook and it is pretty fun to tackle, it isn’t necessarily very challenging and will not be as effective as adding more threatening terror cards or new specific demands for each abductor.
This lack of difficulty tweak, in fact, plays against the game both during the initial plays and in later plays. Initially, there is no way for the player to reduce the difficulty, which can lead to frustrating games that could result in the player deeming the game too random and giving it up altogether. Learning the ropes makes for a brutal experience if the player cannot figure the general strategy and the game can feel like there is no actual luck mitigation — I should know: At first, I was so frustrated with the game that I was asked to playtest the app’s tutorial to see if it helped me get better at HN.
Later, Arkayne, Donna and Edward prove trivial and experienced players should achieve a very high win rate against them as they provide little challenge, and will have to rely on expansion packs to keep the game fresh and interesting. This isn’t problematic in itself, but it will make the Hostage Negotiator experience cost more than some people are comfortable with.

Three of a perfect pair

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Your foes will start with various degrees of anger and instability.

While the three different abductors will require the same general strategies of earning conversation points, reducing the threat and releasing hostages, they will pose slight variations in the game’s overall tempo and the way the player will try and tackle these challenges.
Arkayne is a vanilla — meaning, neutral and with no particular ability — abductor that serves as the game’s metric. With average stats in his starting number of hostages, demands, and threat level, he will ask of the player to correctly time when they play conversation cards and concede demands, and will serve as a good introduction to the game for a starting player.
Donna starts with a lower threat level, making it easier to start rolling three dice for each threat roll early on and to try and have her release hostages by reaching the ‘S’ threat level and then lowering the threat, but she also has the highest amount of hostages, starting with 12, which gives her room to exercise her passive ability of randomly freeing or killing some when rolling double 1s or 6s — an ability that is more likely to happen when rolling three dice, making it quite synergistic with her starting threat value. Her demands aren’t particularly different from Arkayne’s — they even share one — but her starting threat level and large starting hostage pool will bait the player into trying to lower the threat level repeatedly while the terror deck keeps on raising it, making it easier for the game to stall if the player fails to release hostages with Minor Extractions in the meantime. Having her kill some hostages may prove useful as she will otherwise be going for the long game, 12 hostages being a lot of people to release, with the possibility of her abducting another 3 through the I’ve Taken More Hostages terror card.
Edward has average stats but changes things a lot by having an alternate win condition as his sole major demand, and an alternate loss condition, making him both very threatening and interesting to play against, as he forces the player to exert more control over the threat level, which will quickly ramp as the result of his kills becoming +1s instead. Because he only has one major demand, and no escape demand, he will also feel very similar from one attempt to the other, with little variation to justify repeated plays. He will also give fewer opportunities for the player to gain threat roll-free effects like the Wire $10 Million major demand shared by Arkayne and Donna, forcing them to slightly rethink their overall approach to the negotiation as they will need to release the 7 hostages themselves through threat rolls.  Because the threat level will consistently increase and the game is lost if it reaches ‘K’, Edward is also an abductor who encourages the player to try and reach the ‘S’ level to convince him to release hostages by then lowering the threat level.

Cease all your fires!

Eliminating the abductor is usually not an optimal choice. Doing so is costly as only cards cost 7 and 8 allow for it, and risky because, if the abductor is killed but hostages remain in the pool, the second in command will take the abductor’s place and start killing hostages each time the threat level increases with no way of being killed or reasoned with since all demands are removed from play when he appears, making the blood count much higher. If half the hostages have already been saved his appearance will have little impact and may even make achieving a victory condition easier, which is likely, given that the two cards that can eliminate the abductor also free hostages. But there will also be situations where the player chooses to eliminate the abductor early to cancel a penalty for conceding a demand, or to remove a taxing passive effect. They can also fail to obtain two successes on the cost 7 card and eliminate the abductor without saving any hostage. In such cases, most of the Terror cards and failed threat rolls will result in hostages being killed, leading to an early game loss.
Both the conversation cards will also result in dire situations if the threat roll fails, as the cost 8 one would lose the player the game while the other would result in two kills, +2 threat level, and the end of the conversation phase, a situation likely to cause a serious dent to the player’s chances of victory.

A word on expansions

Expansions are what make Hostage Negotiator really take off. While the base game itself works admirably well as a gaming system, it is limited by the amount of content offered in the base box. The Abductor packs expand the system by adding one abductor each, with their own major demands, specific terror cards, and tweaks, which can include conversation cards that are only used against them, or new card types such as tactics or locations. Most of the cards for these abductors can only be used with them, with the exception of some terror cards from the early packs, which also help make the terror deck a little more varied and reduce the odds that some annoying cards, but also minor demands, show up.
Crime Wave acts as an alternate stand-alone set, complete with new conversation cards, abductors, escape demands, terror cards, and pivotal event cards, as well as instructions on how to use conversation and terror cards from both the base game and Crime Wave together.
Demand packs add alternate demands and unique cards for abductors from the base game and the first abductor packs, making them harder overall, and less predictable.
Negotiator packs add personas with a unique power to use during the game. While a nice addition, they’re the product that brings the least replay-value to the game.
Career introduces a campaign mode but needs several other expansions to be played, and has not been released at the time of this review.
While the base game’s replay value isn’t ideal, the ability to customize the game to one’s liking is one of the strongest points of the system, and some abductor packs like #4 and #7 even come with ways to make the game easier or harder by including a certain number of specific cards in the deck.

Theme, artwork, and components

Theme

If we forget the thematic disconnection of welcoming a couple of hostage deaths as they get the player closer to their goal, Hostage Negotiator is a remarkably thematic game for one that is this abstract. Since conversation cards represent the negotiator trying to reach out to the abductor and convince them to give them a little ground, the player is always gambling with an extremely unstable and heated person ready to lose it at a moment’s notice, and this is brilliantly translated into the risks taken by playing conversation cards that can backfire into making the situation even worse. The threat level is a good measure of the abductor’s state of mind, their coolness or their anger coming and going during the conversation. The reduced or expanded number of dice rolled is a mechanically ingenious way of depicting the negotiator’s ability to reach out to them through their growing anger or anxiety.
While all of the conversation cards have flavor text, their vague titles are enough for imaginative players to try and create an actual dialogue while playing, with the terror cards having the kind of names that can be used to envision an angry person shouting over the phone before gunning a couple bystanders down. While it is not in the least necessary, imagining the verbal exchange actually taking place will greatly enhance the thematic experience and the components give enough tidbits to nudge the player in that direction without restricting their imagination too much.

Artwork

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This is war.

There aren’t many art pieces in Hostage Negotiator, but they’re not of the highest quality. Inconsistencies such as the negotiator’s sunglasses having bolts on some cards but not on others, the release hostage icon’s color going from dark green to light, yellow-ish green, and awkward or goofy faces such as Donna’s all contribute to making the game look less professional than what it could be.
The overall graphic design is grim, as it should be. The conversation cards look the least interesting, having no background, but the resolution bars look vibrant and are strikingly easy to understand. The Negotiator’s face at the top of them is a little weird, and he fails to  properly convey expressions, but the speech bubble representing the card’s name is a nice touch without being too goofy or comic-book-like.
It is a little weird to have the terror and demand cards feature barbed wire instead of police cordon, as barbed wire has nothing to do with a crime scene. The wire makes the card threatening enough, and makes it relatively easy to differentiate the different card types at a glance, although said card type also is written on the card itself. The pseudo bullet holes on the Terror card are there to help differentiate cards that can only be used with certain abductors, but the overall graphic design belongs more to a terrorist attack or a warzone than to a hostage situation, at least to this reviewer.

Components

The iconography is really clear and non-text effects on the cards can be understood at a glance. The same is true for the board, which has welcome reminders for most of the different game states and lets the player keep track of everything they need to know easily, thanks to the wooden bits provided: current conversation points with the blue CP token, threat level with the red abductor meeple, hostages and their current status (saved, in pool, killed) with the yellow meeples. The bits themselves, while not extraordinarily thematic, do enhance the immersion, as it is easier to immerse into a killed hostage situation when one can push a meeple to lay down on its back like a dead body.
After years of playing with the Meeple Source’s custom meeples, though, it would be difficult for me to revert back to the generic CP token and the red, generic abductor meeple.
Although it’s linen-finished and I have never used it since I own the bigger Crime Wave one, I have noticed that my board is showing wear already, and that although it has been stored in the Crime Wave box, one of the corners is peeling slightly, which is concerning.

The cards themselves are linen-finish, which isn’t my preference as it shows wear more easily, and in a more noticeable way than non-linen cards. Although they were sleeved from the beginning, a couple of my conversation cards have white wear marks, despite never having been shuffled. They are of medium quality, not too flimsy, but not too thick either. There is color inconsistency, with some, from the same box, being darker than others.

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You will learn to hate these red dice as much you do Death Angel‘s.

The 15mm engraved dice come with straight corners. They are numbered from 1 to 6 in the lower right corner of each face, with 3 of them being completely blank, one showing two cards and 2 of them depicting a police insignia. The white filling of my copy is close to perfection, and despite my having 3 different dice sets for the game (this one, the bigger ones from Crime Wave, and a set of metal dice from Javelin), they remain my favorite, due to their size and tactile feel. They seem to be well balanced and most of my threat rolls using two of them end up with a random assortment of results. I haven’t noticed obtaining more blanks than successes or vice-versa.

Rules

The rules for Hostage Negotiator are relatively straightforward and easy to remember. There won’t be room for card interpretation or timing issues for the most part. The Quick Reference page at the back of the rulebook does an exceptional job reminding players of the win and loss conditions, round structure, card effects and outcomes, and icon effects. The rulebook itself is concise and illustrated with many clear examples, especially regarding threat roll outcomes for playing cards. Some tips are also provided, which new player should really heed. In hindsight, in my experience, the only rule that escaped my mind was the handsize limit of ten cards, a situation that shouldn’t often occur.

Conclusion

Few games manage to make every moment feel tense the way Hostage Negotiator does. One of the most rewarding experiences to be played under thirty minutes, it is easy to learn but understanding how to best overcome the odds will be challenging for new players. Returning players will find a good number of expansions to put their skills to the test. While the base game itself won’t warrant a very high number of plays, the 17 available abductors and the addition of a standalone expansion turn Hostage Negotiator into an almost infinitely replayable game which fully deserves its status as a staple for solo players.

An impressive game system that truly shines with expansions.

A huge thank you to Liz Davidson for her amazing editing skills.
Hostage Negotiator belongs to Van Ryder Games. Header image from Boardgamegeek.com

 

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