It Takes One to Tango
I can think of any number of reasons why someone might not get along with Hostage Negotiator. Principally, it may strike some as odd that a game where the word “negotiator” consists of fifty percent of its title should be solo game. Even odder still, that it should be a pretty darn good solo game.
Before we go any further, I’d like to get another pair of objections to Hostage Negotiator out of the way. First of all, yes, wheedling for people’s lives makes for a pretty grim topic. The base game comes with three hostage-takers, and while one of them is sort of what you’d expect from a harmless Hollywood blockbuster — a terrorist leader who’s grouchy for terrorist reasons and seizes a handful of government workers — the other two reside in significantly murkier territory, especially the teacher who takes her class hostage because she’s been denied tenure. Get a grip, lady. If every educator who was denied tenure decided to wave around a pair of Glocks, half the country would be up in arms.
The second objection is more difficult to address because it’s also the core of Hostage Negotiator’s gameplay. Upon establishing the situation, complete with hostage-taker, hostages, unknown demands, and so forth, each “round” plays out as a conversation between you — the Hostage Negotiator himself, a cool guy who wears cool sunglasses, even at night (especially at night) — and the baddie with the gun to a bunch of innocents’ heads.
These conversations revolve around a series of cards, each representing one of the topics you can bring up when you’ve got the baddie on the line. Maybe you open with some small talk, a way of getting your target to open up a bit. Maybe you jump straight into asking about his demands. Maybe you order him to chill out. But whatever you do, you then pick up some dice, rattle them across the table, and, as often as not, say a swear word. Maybe even a string of them.
It’s hardly surprising that the dice have been the most divisive element of Hostage Negotiator’s design. They’re simultaneously galling and entirely essential to the gameplay, establishing an uncertainty as you jockey back and forth, sometimes succeeding at establishing a rapport and other times making chit-chat about the wrong topic and gritting your teeth while the bad guy slams down the phone. Or worse, shoots the nearest warm body in the face. Without the dice, the game could have easily felt too safe. After all, the last thing we want from our fictional unhinged criminals is predictability. Even so, the dice can feel perhaps a little too vexing. One time, I had Edward Quinn (basically Denzel Washington from John Q.) on the line, willing to talk, multiple hostages released, on the verge of turning himself in. I’d all but won. A string of bad rolls later, everyone was dead. An entire series of cleverly-timed conversations, a long ebb and flow to our dialogue, all flushed down the drain because those damn dice wouldn’t cooperate.
It’s a problem without a solution. Ditch the dice and Hostage Negotiator is robbed of its tension; leave them in and it goes on feeling overly capricious at the worst of times. There’s a genuine thrill in pulling off a successful extraction without the bad guy even noticing, one that couldn’t exist without the possibility of disaster behind every roll.
For anyone willing to overlook its more frustrating moments, Hostage Negotiator is just so tight. For one thing, you’re constantly tasked with keeping any number of balls in the air at the same time. At each scenario’s outset, you don’t even know what the bad guy wants, let alone whether you should accede to his demands for a temporary bonus or just continue insisting that there have been some delays with his requests. There’s the baddie’s “threat,” gauging his state of mind and possibility letting you roll extra dice. And while it might sound less than crucial to just shoot the breeze with the guy on the other end of the line, here those otherwise modest interactions are codified as “conversation points,” letting you trade in on your trust to purchase better options for later conversations. Reaching the point where you can make promises, enter the building personally for some facetime, or call on snipers to take out the target all make for exciting crescendos to the action. There’s real drama here, even when some of it gets lost over the course of a dozen played “small talk” cards.
It’s also neat that each attempt plays out somewhat differently. Every new game provides a randomized set of demands, plans for escape, and terror decks, the latter of which acts as a timer that gradually messes up your plans. It’s unfortunate that there are only three criminals in the base game, with the truly interesting hostage-takers only available in the (overly pricey) expansions. More’s the pity, especially since these baddies are far more interesting than the vanilla terrorist, school teacher, and desperate dad. There’s an impatient CEO who might demand a clean suit, a pair of unhinged drug-dealing twins, a falsely accused cop who uses his knowledge of Stockholm Syndrome to sway hostages to his side, and a punk fleeing for the border in a stolen bus. Every single one of these is an improvement on the original formula, provided you’re willing to pay for them.
Hostage Negotiator isn’t without its frustrations. The dice can transform a smooth session into an infuriating one, and the base game only comes with three hostage-takers. Even so, there’s plenty of drama on offer here, providing a tidy push-your-luck puzzle that’s constantly threatening to pull the rug out from under your well-worn jackboots. Whether you’re trying to capture the bad guy or take him out, there’s a humming wire of tension to nearly every choice in the game. It may not be perfect, but like its protagonist, it knows how to talk the talk, even when things aren’t going its way.