Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Artist: Steven Hamilton
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
Number of Players: 2-5
Playing time: 60-120 minutes
You are an agent of A.R.K. You have infiltrated a facility of the oppressive Raxxon corporation. Your mission: retrieve three key pieces of information hidden inside the vast compound and escape while remaining undetected. Your only tools are a few key items, your wits, and the darkness of the shadows. You hear the rev of an engine close by, and your worst fear is realized. Hunters. Genetically modified super-humans created by Raxxon to protect its precious secrets from people. People like you. You slink into the shadows, peering past crates of gear and equipment for a glance of their vehicle as they drive through the facility, trying to track your movements. Have they spotted you? You weigh your options. Maybe the best choice is just run past them and hope they don't notice. You open your pack and take out a small syringe filled with an adrenaline boost. Bracing yourself, you jab the needle into your thigh and wait for the rush to overcome you. There. It's time. Book it, now! Keep low, keep hidden. Run! Did they see you? You turn a corner and catch your breath. You're so close to the first objective, but you can hear voices approaching. Heavy footsteps. A voice like a machine. The low growl of something not-quite-human. They are coming. And the only direction is deeper into the facility...
Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel is a one-versus-all hidden movement game from Plaid Hat Games and designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. In a typical game of Specter Ops, one player acts as the agent, while the remaining one to three players act as the hunters. The agent player moves around the board secretly, marking their movements on a separate map, while the hunters move their characters on the actual board attempting to find the agent. If a hunter ends his turn with a line of sight towards the agent, the agent must reveal themselves, and the hunters can attempt to attack by rolling a die.
The agent characters have one goal: enter from the top of the board, complete three missions, and get out. If they are attacked enough times to lose all of their hit points, they lose. If they cannot escape in 40 moves, they lose. There are four total agents to choose from, each with a unique ability and item, and a choice of several other pieces of equipment that can temporarily boost their speed or stun, blind, or trick opposing hunters.
Meanwhile, the four hunters have their own unique abilities, as well as a vehicle that can move them quickly throughout the board. The vehicle is equipped with a motion sensor that can track which direction the agent is in in relation to the vehicle. In a two-player game, the opposing player acts as two hunters. At three or four player counts, each player takes control of one hunter. And at five players, four act as hunters, but one is secretly a traitor working with the agent.
Specter Ops is one of my favorite games of the past year, and it has given me some of the most tense, strategic, and enjoyable gaming experiences that I've ever had while gaming. For one thing, it is incredibly easy to teach and to learn. The manual is short, well-written and well-designed, and I've found most games rarely need further instruction past a few specific rule clarifications. It is also very easy to teach, and most first-time gamers quickly get the hang of the game within a few moves.
Playing as the agent can be very difficult, as advanced players can begin tracking your movements fairly quickly and corner you before you even have a chance to respond. In some games you'll be moving around the board while easily dodging your opponents. Others games find your constantly on the run while the hunters dog your tail. The items at your disposal are helpful, but are limited. However, one of the agent's advantages is that the hunters do not know which of the four characters were chosen, so until they spot you they have no idea what you're fully capable of.
Playing as the hunter is less stressful, but by no means easier. Everything you say, discuss, and do is in full view of the agent. They know your moves and abilities, so you need to coordinate and work together to find the optimal approach each turn. Because of this, Specter Ops really shines as a team effort. The game works well as a two-player experience, but being a hunter on a team of one or two other players is a lot more fun. There's nothing as delightfully sweat-inducing as listening to everyone argue that, just maybe, you're on that space right there (and you totally are but you say nothing to avoid betraying any hints). In a five-player game, one of the hunters acts a double agent. I've yet to play that version, but reviews on it from others have been mixed, with some loving it and some finding it unnecessary and unfair.
In addition to the engaging gameplay, Specter Ops boasts great artwork, a well-designed board, and miniatures depicting the characters. The cards and board really help capture the cyberpunk atmosphere that the game wants to convey. One of my few complaints about the game is the quality of the supplied miniatures. I've yet to play with a copy of the game that did not have at least one broken miniature, and it's never the same one. My copy came with two that were were warped, and another that keeps falling out of the base.
This game hits a lot of my sweet spots, with solid gameplay, theme, and artwork. It's semi-cooperative and challenging, yet it's easy to teach and play. Most importantly, it's just fun. I sometimes like to think of it as a simplistic version of the original Metal Gear Solid, but mostly because the designs appear directly inspired by some of that game's more colorful characters. If you've never played a game that uses a hidden movement mechanic, I highly recommend checking out Specter Ops with some friends who are looking for a new experience.