Specter Ops was a 2015 release by Plaid Hat Games and designer Emerson Matsuuchi and belongs to the hidden movement genre, a mechanism I have found very enjoyable and frankly under-used in board gaming. Try and think of a few...you'll probably name Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel and Scotland Yard; there are others of course but these are arguably the most famous games in this category. Scotland Yard is a light family game, Letters from Whitechapel is a bit more grizzly thanks to its theme but the gameplay is fairly straightforward, and Fury of Dracula is a deeper and longer experience that has benefited from two new editions over the years, the latest also released in 2015.
What is it about?
2-5 players will choose which side they will be on: Agent or Hunter. In 2 and 3 player games, you will have 1 agent vs 2 hunters; in 4 player games 1 agent vs 3 hunters and in 5 player games you're up to 1 agent vs 4 hunters, but with 1 traitor in the midst of the hunters. Depending on the number of players, the agent difficulty can vary. However, overall the Hunters arguably have the advantage over the Agent which probably distinguishes it from other games in this genre in which the single player seems to hold all the cards.
The game is set inside a large facility with moody lighting and lots of hiding places. The Agent player notes their movement on a sheet of paper and only places their miniature on the board when in plain sight of one or more of the hunters. This means that there is significant tension introduced from the start. The Agent knows that they probably want to avoid being spotted for as long as possible but in the knowledge that they only have 40 turns to complete 3 objectives and escape; meanwhile, the hunters are desperately trying to close the net and catch the Agent before they can get away and hide among the myriad dark corners that they must use if they are to survive.
The Agent has a few pieces of equipment to use in emergencies e.g. smoke grenades or holo decoys but they cannot kill the Hunters, only stun them. The Hunters can do damage to the Agent and this is one of the ways of finishing the game in their favour, chipping away all of the Agent's health points before the objectives are complete. The Hunters have a car which allows them to speed across the road spaces on the board a lot quicker than any Agent can move so it can feel very challenging as the Agent, particularly when new to the game. Each character also has one or more special abilities e.g. Orangutan (Agent) is so tough that he starts with 2 extra health; The Puppet (Hunter) can drive the car without being inside it or even use its remote sensor to try and get a bearing for where the Agent is.
As previously mentioned, the game employs a movement sheet where the Agent keeps track of their movement. The Hunters are playing a deduction game, trying to narrow down the hiding places where the Agent could be and then attempting attacks with dice rolls. The Hunters move their miniatures on the board. Tokens are placed on the board if the agent crosses the line of sight of any hunters; if they end their turn in plain view of the hunters then their miniature is placed on the board and their identity is revealed.
The board is, in my opinion, absolutely stunning. I have seen some complaints that it's hard to read the grid references, for instance, but I haven't had that problem myself and for me it would take away from the theme if the board was covered in large gaudy letters and numbers. The game also has 8 miniatures depicting the 4 Agent and 4 Hunter characters. Take a look at The Beast below; the detail is excellent and dramatic. I wouldn't want to run into him in a dingy corner of the facility. Tokens and cards are of good quality, decent thickness and a nice tactile feel to them.
The rulebook is not perfect and I have experienced some frustration trying to locate particular rules. A laudable attempt to keep things brief actually means that some useful information is not included (e.g. an overview of all of the agents and hunters would be nice). However, this has largely been fixed by some official FAQs and user contributions on boardgamegeek and it does not detract from the overall quality of the game.
Specter OPS is highly interactive, particularly when playing with 3 or more players because there will be almost continuous debate about the possible location of the Agent, tactics the players might employ, evaluations of what might happen next. At 5 players, the interactivity jumps to almost unbearable levels as the Hunters are not only trying to kill the Agent but also trying to work out who is secretly working against them. If you are the traitor, you're trying to inconspicuously help out the Agent without getting caught. Once identified, they then become a second Agent.
The game itself is also interactive by its very nature so even in a 2 player game, there is no question of this feeling like multiplayer solitaire. Every decision you reach, every move you make, is done in the knowledge that your opponent(s) is trying to get inside your mind and figure out how to outwit you. It makes for an incredibly absorbing experience.
Replayability and possible expansion material
At the time of writing, a companion app is in development (click here for an interview with Emerson Matsuuchi, the designer) while there is also talk of new maps, characters and equipment (whether official or fan-made). These will undoubtedly help for replayability, for if there is one criticism that I could level at Specter OPS it is that the games might start to feel a little samey. There will still be tension, there will still be crying out in frustration or jubilation...but there may also be an underlying feeling that the game experience is too much like the previous one. Let's just say that there may be a little future-proofing going on here to head off any possible negative headlines. That being said, the game still feels fresh after 17 plays so perhaps there isn't a replayability issue at all; however the addition of new maps/characters/equipment could only further improve this excellent game. I look forward to the addition of the app; the possibility of a play-by-play rewind of the previous game sounds too good to miss so I really hope the app includes the ability to record the movement of the Hunters, as well as the Agent.
It will come as no surprise to the reader that I love this game. The tension delivered by a fairly simple set of rules (fiddly FAQs aside) is far beyond what I have experienced in other games. The exhilarating experience of our first game has not diminished through further plays and I can't think of many better ways to spend a couple of hours. I would never say that this is a game for everyone; it offers a very particular type of experience which may or may not appeal to you. But all I can say is that if you are a fan of hidden movement games you should undoubtedly give this a try.
Available at Gameseek for £39.96 delivered.