Review: Hostage Negotiator

By Dick Page 27 Mar 2018 0

Review: Hostage Negotiator

Released 09 Feb 2018

Developer: Peter Kossits
Genre: Card Game
Available from:
App Store
Google Play
Reviewed on: iPhone 6S

If there were ever a thriller that was criminally underrated, it is 2002’s Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell and directed by Joel Schumacher. Farrell's (at the height of his popularity) fast-talking publicist is trapped in what is apparently Manhattan's last standing phone booth by an unseen sniper (Kiefer Sutherland, likewise, regarding the popularity), while good cop Forest Whitaker tries to convince him to come out (of the phone booth). It's an 80-minute near real-time showdown set in a box about one-meter square. There's a lot of tension to be derived from a hostage situation, which is why it also makes a great theme for a card game, albeit one that could be more thrillingly presented in app form.

If you missed the Kickstarter, Hostage Negotiator is a solitaire card game about being the guy who talks down abductors, sweet-talking them to release the hostages in exchange for demands like pizza and the release of international war criminals.

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The theme is well-represented in the cards and counters. Each round is a 'Conversation' with the abductor and cards represent different tacks you can take in the negotiation. Building up 'Conversation' points means you are building a rapport and can buy more expensive and useful cards, while lowering the 'Threat' means the abductor is calming down and reduces the risk harm coming to the hostages. Additionally, you have to first find out what the abductor's demands are. (That's a major plot point of Phone Booth, the best hostage film no-one’s heard of.)

Each abductor has different demands which may change each round and may make more demands later. Conceding these demands can give a powerful bonus at a great cost. Eventually, it all comes down to a final conversation after a randomly chosen Pivotal Event where you put everything on the line to get those last hostages out and capture or eliminate the abductor before they escape. If you saved at least half the hostages, you win.

The interface is about as WYSIWYG as YG. Art assets from the print game have been given some minimal animation and outlined with basic rounded rectangles. It's functional, but not flashy. In this way, it's a lot like the movie Phone Booth, which limited its entire world to the phone booth and the section of street it was on.

Some of this visual design is a misstep for a mobile game. Although you can zoom in, cards are normally too small to be looked at closely, so the flavour text at the bottom is superfluous. Similarly, there's not a lot of visual distinction between cards. Each one has a speech bubble with the name of the card next to a drawing of a Steven Seagal lookalike with a walkie-talkie that represents your character. Perhaps this is simply the result of the theme (i.e. ‘conversation’) not lending itself well to illustration above words alone. Telling the difference between cards at a glance or a distance depends on the player recognizing the mechanical effects, which are listed below the standard artwork. It would be better if the cards had some larger and more dynamic art instead: An Extraction card could have an illustration of a tac team in action, for instance.

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Although the game is perfectly functional, the lack of additional visuals feels like a missed opportunity in the mobile version--a chance to make the card game feel more like a real hostage negotiation and liven up an otherwise staid presentation. Instead, the most you get are some counters flying across the screen representing your failure as a negotiator (a rather subdued way to represent actual cold-blooded murders). You wouldn't want flashiness to slow down the gameplay, but as-is there's no difference between playing the game on the table versus a tablet.

The quality of the adaptation aside, Hostage Negotiator is an interesting solitaire game with a significant amount of luck. Every standard Conversation card you play requires a dice roll of between one and three dice (usually two), needing a five or six for a success. After each round, you must draw a new 'terror' card, which sometimes has a positive effect like a hostage escape, but usually makes things worse, sometimes much worse. Which is pretty much what happens in Phone Booth.

That means you'll succeed about half the time, utterly fail about a quarter of the time, and have to buy success the rest of the time, with the odds getting better or worse depending on how well the previous dice rolls went. This may accurately represent the unpredictability of dealing with someone out of their mind enough to take hostages, but it can also be frustrating to only be one bad draw and two bad rolls away from losing. The name of the game is threat management, but even that can be a challenge if the dice aren't going your way.

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If you can play your cards carefully and with an eye on the next round, Hostage Negotiator is quite strategic, despite the heavy element of chance. Games can frequently come down to one final pivotal moment in the last round where a single roll makes or breaks the game. Players who aren't bothered by misfortune will enjoy pushing their luck and trying to keep all the plates spinning. Fortunately, rounds are extremely short, especially with all the number crunching taken care of for you. Almost as short as 81-minute hostage picture Phone Booth.

One great element of the game is the variation in the conditions and objectives of each session. The player chooses one of four possible hostage-takers, and each has their own set of demands and special rules. One, apparently inspired by the Denzel Washington film John Q, is a father who's taken over a hospital ER to get his son medical care. He won't hurt anyone normally, but if you let the game's 'threat level' get too high, he'll kill everyone and escape. There's also multiple ways to resolve each negotiation. Get the threat level low enough, and you can get the hostage-taker to release hostages one at a time. Other cards will let you take them through police action or eliminate the hostage taker with a sniper. For our John Q., you have the special option of gaining enough Conversation points (the game's currency) to concede his demand for medical care.

The multiple random options for setup and the possible ways to resolve the game make this a solitaire with a bit more replay ability than most. The app includes the first Abductor expansion from the card game unlockable for winning against the first three abductors, and there's space for more in the future. Like, for instance, one based on the Colin Farrell modern classic Phone Booth.

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If you are already a fan of Hostage Negotiator the physical card game, then this app version is an excellent way to carry it in your pocket without stuffing a deck of cards and some dice in your cargo shorts. Automating dice rolls and resource tracking makes playing the game a breeze, with most rounds clocking in around 10-15 minutes depending on how much thought and care you put into your negotiations. You'll get statistic tracking too, which is a nice bonus, but not essential.

What is essential though, is that Phone Booth expansion. Seriously, where is it?

A plain adaptation of fun solitaire game with a strong element of luck.

Review: Hostage Negotiator

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