Board Game Review: Specter Ops – Definitive Hidden Movement

I’m usually a big fan of hidden movement games. So when I heard about Specter Ops, it quickly went onto my want-to-try list. And I can certainly report that the game is awesome. Not only was the hidden movement fantastically implemented, but it has essentially killed off my desire to play most other similar games.

The Basics. In the future, all of humanity is ruled by the Raxxon Corporation. But a few murder-inclined dissenters want to bring the system down. One player takes the role of the Agent – the secret infiltrator attempting to complete objectives within Raxxon. The others become the genetically enhanced Hunters seeking to find and destroy the intruder.

The Agent has a separate sheet of paper which displays the board. They mark their movement on that sheet in order to keep it secret from the Hunter players. Meanwhile, the Hunter players run around on the board trying to find the Agent. They see the Agent only if the Agent is in the same row or column and there aren’t any obstacles in the way.

The board as seen by the Agent

The Agent also places four semi-random objectives on the map. To win, the Agent must complete three of them and escape the board. And, to help him in this endeavor, he can take three equipment cards that provide one-time special bonuses. Perhaps a flash-bang to temporarily blind the Hunters, or an Adrenaline Shot to move additional spaces in a turn.

For the Hunters to win, they must either kill the Agent or prevent him from escaping the map for forty turns. To assist them, they have access to a vehicle that can get them across the map quickly and is equipped with a motion tracker that can be used to narrow the Agent’s location. Plus, they have their own special powers.

In the base game, the Agent faces off against two hunters. With four players, though, the Agent faces off against three hunters but gets additional health and equipment. With five players, there are four hunters but one is secretly a traitor attempting to help the Agent as best he can.

The board as seen by the Hunters

The Feel. Wow. Now this is a hidden movement game. Specter Ops does an amazing job of fostering excitement and tension on both sides. The Agent feels like the hunters are breathing down his neck at all times. And he has precious few equipment to evade them. Meanwhile, on the hunter team, it can feel like the Agent could be doing anything. Doubling back? Straight ahead? A side route? And just when you close in, some nasty piece of equipment sets you back.

And the great thing is that the game is exciting throughout. The second round usually sees the first activation of the motion detector which notifies the hunters which quarter (roughly) of the board the Agent is in. From there, the game is on. The Agent has to stay on his toes or else be clobbered.

Equipment can mean the difference between life and death

Even though the hunters don’t get any special equipment, they each have a unique power that makes them formidable. The Prophet, for example, requires that the Agent announce when he plans to flip an objective – giving the hunter team a one turn jump on a possible location. Meanwhile if The Beast is within four spaces of the Agent, the Agent must announce that he is “close.” Bringing the right combination of hunters, and utilizing their skills most effectively, is key to ferreting out the intruder.

Even though the gameplay is fantastic, there are some niggling detractions. First and foremost is that the rules are not always clear. They give you the gist of the game, but certain edge cases are left out. For example, in a five player game there may be two hidden agents. When the motion tracker is used, does it work on both agents or just the primary? And if it works on both, do they announce separately so the hunters know which is where? Unanswered.

And, while these edge cases can and do crop up, it is easy enough to just pick a ruling and go with it. They don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the game. Just know that you have to either examine a FAQ or be prepared to make a call on a rules question on the fly. The nice thing is that the ambiguities don’t imbalance or mar the game in any significant way.

The Agents

Components: 4.5 of 5. The pieces are absolutely stellar. The game comes with eight fantastic minis representing the four hunters and four agents. The inclusion of the agents is actually really neat since they spend most of their time off the board. The board also uses embossed numbers so that the black ink can be seen even in dark areas of the board. The one minor complaint is that with so many cool minis, it uses a simple chit to mark the hunters’ car instead of getting its own mini. Oh well.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Specter Ops is almost a pure strategy game. The Agent player picks his particular character and special equipment with no randomness involved. The hunters are the same. From there, players make their own decisions about where to run and when to use equipment. There is some luck in the combat, though. It’s a simple system relying on a die roll – but it requires hunters to get in close and provides for especially tense moments near the end of a game.

Mechanics: 4 of 5. This title wonderfully implements hidden movement. It keeps everyone extremely engaged the whole time and more often than not, results in the whole game coming down to a frenzied escape attempt. While it is unfortunate that certain interactions and edge cases are not better explained, the main thrust of the game conveys a phenomenal experience.

Replayability: 4 of 5. As with many strategy games, Specter Ops is about playing against the particular opponent, more than the mere rules of the game itself. You have to decide where the Agent will go. As the Agent, you have to time your equipment just right to elude your pursuers. Plus, the game plays very differently at varying player counts and the special powers keep things changing from play to play.

Spite: 0 of 5. As a team game, there is no spite as I usually define it.

The Hunters

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Specter Ops is crazy fun. The hunters have just the right tools to start zeroing in on the Agent. Meanwhile, the Agent is given just enough equipment to squeak out of close situations. And the final dash toward the exit can be exhilarating. It’s surprising how often the agent is making a run for it and the hunters are trying desperately to knock off those last hit points. But regular thrills are just part and parcel in this title.

(Note, agent and hunter minis do not come prepainted)

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