Published on November 15th, 2016 | by Colin0
Cardcore Gamer: How I escaped reality in 2016, part 1
Britain’s flopping about in the sea, Mr. Punch is the president elect, and I ran out of whisky!
Ah, board games! What would this fine country be without the quintessential activity of the white-middle-classes! What? No, not that activity, it’ll ruin the carpets.
How does one write about board games these days? There are plenty of voices offering their opinions and reviews, reporting on the latest news and new releases, or merely parroting press release copy spammed out to them via email, so what makes my particular message worth corking into a bottle and tossing amidst the waves? Is it worth the wear on my fingertips and scant free time to yank up the sash and honk some words into the busy street of the internet?
Being of a generally positive disposition, I like to think I might somewhat influence a pigeon. Anyway, the window’s open now, letting in a rather brisk gif, so here are some ways in which I have happily frittered my time while 2016 collapsed into near-dystopian sci-fi nonsense:
Sausage Negotiator! Hostage. Hostage. Hostage Negotiator. 10-15 minutes of surprisingly tense, solitaire card-and-dice play. Armed with Cool Shades and a goatee, you must Hold a Telephone in Interesting Ways to save the lives of (at least half of) the innocents and capture or splatter one of three abductors. It initially feels like a standard dice chucker in a fancy turtleneck, but there’s enough genuine gameplay to be worth conceding a slice of your lunch hour, hitting all the expected movie tropes; you’ll keep the abductor calm, listen to their demands, even call in a sniper, or rush the building if you have to – though sometimes the maths works out such that you kind of want the last couple of hostages to conveniently snuff it so that you can win the game.
In a manner similar to many co-op games,
Bratwurst Blagger Hostage Negotiator revolves around managing a worsening situation while generating ‘conversation points’ to buy useful one-shot cards for future rounds. Your options are relatively few, but the decisions you make feel like they genuinely matter; you can pursue obvious short term gains, card-burning ‘hail mary’ schemes, even multiple-turn plots, which may, or may not disintegrate due to the frustrations of the aptly named event-card-cum-game-timer Terror Deck. The abductor’s demands add the nifty twist of trading you brief windows of hope for permanent handicaps, and the game setup is semi-random to keep you on your toes. The core box contains three different nefarious people-hoarders with their own special rules to mix things up yet further, with more available in the four slightly pricey 16-card expansions.
About the theme: the hostages are sometimes killed, and in one case the hostages are a class of kids. The treatment is generally well-considered, neither cartoonishly broad, nor ghoulishly realistic, and while you do get a Die Hard-esque cool-headed terrorist, and ‘crazy teacher Pushed Too Far’, the abductors are given back story beyond “is a baddie” – one is even surprisingly sympathetic. In terms of diversity and representation my main frown was at the conversation cards, which represent you, the player, talking directly to the abductor. The art for the negotiator unnecessarily gives you a specifically white, male in-game presence. The negotiator has no independent character, nor back-story; there’s no use for him, nor his receding hairline. Cool shades though. The characters in the game (and it’s currently released expansions) are mostly male, though the soon to be released sequel Hostage Negotiator: Crime Wave stars an (again, unnecessary) female negotiator on all conversation cards. It, and its wave of expansions, deliberately include more female antagonists to redress the balance, while somewhat oddly introducing a a mix of male and female gendered hostage meeples, replacing the original’s perfectly appropriate, neutral pawns. Maybe they just want the player to identify more personally with them when one of those little wooden bits “dies”.
Production quality is pretty high throughout, including custom moulded dice and well-finished wooden bits. The player board is sturdy, though the cards are a shade thin. My copy of the game had a nasty gouge down the edge of the card deck, but Van Ryder Games replaced them swiftly and politely – thanks guys! it’s also worth noting that the designer actively supports the game on Boardgamegeek, responding quickly to rules queries and general questions.
Ultimately, while Hostage Negotiator doesn’t venture beyond the well-worn co-op template, it distils that style of play into a short, focused thriller of a game. It’s a sound framework, allowing neat variations through small tweaks to the game’s core rules. Yes, the card and dice luck can derail your plans, but the level of randomness feels right to me and there are ways to use the cards which can mitigate, or even dodge the dice altogether. Never before has such a small, dice-based title put me on a hotplate, and made me feel that the choices I made really mattered, even to the point of being genuinely stressful.
If you don’t like dice, then Hostage Negotiator won’t change your mind, but despite some thematic wonkiness in places I am impressed at how invested I have been in the lives and deaths of a handful of little, yellow, wooden tokens. I’ll happily concede my time to the demands of this little banger, even when the bock is ticking and the wurst is yet to come!