Review: Specter Ops
Reviewed By: Dillon
Specter Ops was released in 2015 from designer Emerson Matsuuchi and published by Nazca Games and Plaid Hat Games
Specter Ops is a hidden movement game that sets the players on two vastly different sides. One player will be taking the role of the A.R.K. Agent. The Agent’s objective is to gather information and to sabotage a Raxxon Global program through activating 3 of 4 objectives on the board. The other players will all be taking the roles of Hunters working for Raxxon Global. Their goal is to protect those same objectives, and do so by eliminating the Agent.
Right away, the stage is set for intrigue, as Specter Ops is a one-versus-many game. Along with that comes the basic idea of asymmetric sides, and even varying character powers to top it off. One of the primary ways the game gives power to the sole Agent player is through the aspect of hidden movement. This means that the Hunters will only be able to shoot at or hurt the Agent player when their characters can actually see where the Agent is on the board.
It plays very much like the familiar concept of a game most of us played some form of as children: Hide and Seek. Note it’s also totally acceptable to play Hide and Seek as adults as well. There have been a few other board games that have made hidden movement a major element before, such as Letters from Whitechapel, Fury of Dracula, and Scotland Yard. It’s a genre that seems rather popular, but doesn’t have a glut of titles – which makes a new IP very exciting to try out and see what it’s all about.
Does Specter Ops effectively take advantage of the hidden movement element to create a great gaming experience? Read on to find out what we think!
Intermediate GameSpecter Ops is a tricky game to classify for difficulty. One one hand, playing as a Hunter is typically very easy to understand mechanically: They all function with a simple set of rules and one or two wrinkles that make each of them different.
The Agent, on the other hand, ABSOLUTELY MUST know the rules of the game, and must also be very familiar with the equipment they have. Mistakes on the Agent’s part can break the game, and oftentimes the errors aren’t found until later or never realized. This can give the impression of a very unbalanced game that’s harder to enjoy.
Our recommendation is that anyone anxious to play the Agent role should read through the downloadable rules and watch a play-through or two prior to playing the game. Given a little bit of preparation, Specter Ops flows very well and requires little rules reference along the way.
Specter Ops’ components come off a bit on the minimal side when compared to other games in that price range. To start with the high points, there’s no better place to look than the most impressive component in the game: the board!
Specter Ops provides a board that just looks cool when it’s laid out. There’s enough gloss on it and exciting features that do a great job of inviting the player into the world that has been created. It’s a bit on the big size, so table space is required.
The only minor issue here is that there are occasional grid coordinates that are difficult to see at a quick glance. While this is only a minor issue, it has the potential to become a bigger issue if the Agent player can’t tell where a Hunter is, and accidentally moves or makes a play that ends up disastrous since they couldn’t quickly read the Hunter’s location.
With that said, the board is our favorite component of the game, and also one of the best boards released in 2015. This is not only for the look and quality of it, but for the design and gameplay aspects as well, which we will discuss later.
The cards for the Characters are also awesome, displaying a consistently slick art design that matches perfectly with the theme of the game. This is another area where Specter Ops kills it with immediacy – seeing these futuristic, enhanced guys and gals helps get players into the game and also lets them feel excited to bring their particular character onto the field.
The equipment cards that the Agent player uses follow suit, with some excellent renditions of how each piece of equipment would look while being used. It’s a shame that these cards are largely hidden or even in the box as the Agent can only take a few each game.
The pad of sheets that the Agents use are likewise AWESOME, and deserve heaps of praise. For a game like this, it’s imperative that the hidden player has all of the necessary information easily accessible. The sheets for each game do all of this in a clear, concise manner that makes tracking everything in the game an easy task for the Agent.
The one thing that some folks might appreciate for a game like this would be a player screen that the Agent could set the pad down behind, or even just hide the motions of their hand writing. I would suggest just using the physical game box for this to cover up a bit, although future expansions could certainly include a screen to block front and peripheral views just a bit.
Personally, I like to move my hand in multiple directions and places physically on the pad so Hunters can see to try to throw them off!
The actual minis for the characters have a great aesthetic, but the quality of the plastic that was used seems sub-par. Most of the miniatures that we’ve played with all bend far too easy and seem a bit too flimsy for only having 8 of them in a ~$50 game.
It’s also a bummer (but inherent to the gameplay) that the Agent minis only rarely come onto the board. It’s difficult to complain about lack of visibility when it comes to a crucial gameplay element, however.
The remainder of the components make up different tokens and tiles representing objectives, last-seen markers for the agent, and the car. All of these are simple and functional.
The limited quantity of the physical components also makes Specter Ops incredibly easy to store once each game is finished up.
I’m a big fan of the rulebook for Specter Ops. Clocking in at 8 pages, it leads off with a quick bit of story, the component list and then starts right into a quick-start setup guide for a first game. This is the perfect way to get gamers right into things, while not overwhelming them with all of the rules first. They also include a link to a video explanation, which is excellent.
Digging deeper into the rules that cover more of the details for things like the vehicle use and how some of the abilities work out when played out at the same time. These convey many of the concepts of the game quite well and are just enough to go on for 90% of the gameplay questions that will come up.
As much as I love the rulebook, it has one big problem: it just doesn’t cover enough of the more complex questions that arise when using certain characters. The biggest offender here is the Blue Jay agent, and the Holo Decoy equipment.
This single piece of equipment will almost guarantee a broken game if the Agent player hasn’t done research online through forums or FAQs to see exactly how this card is played. Granted, Specter Ops’ basic gameplay is very simple and the rulebook reflects that, but more attention should have been given to describing how certain pieces of equipment are used OR they could have been better explained on the equipment cards.
Gameplay in Specter Ops revolves around a few key mechanics: hidden movement, variable player powers, deduction and dice-driven combat. In the 5-player game there is also the element of a traitor character.
To start with, the hidden movement is the most prominent gameplay mechanic that the game utilizes. After quite a few plays at varying player counts, we can absolutely declare that Specter Ops executes this mechanic wonderfully.
The designers made some very smart choices by limiting line of sight to orthogonal directions only. This makes it a very quick and easy decision for the Agent to say definitively whether they can be seen. Something seemingly so small is crucial as an Agent player who has to take a lot of time determining if they are seen would very likely start to give away their position.
Another excellent decision was made in the way the “last seen” markers are used in between Hunter turns. The basic version of this is that if an Agent crosses a Hunters’ line of vision when they are moving, they put a token showing the last space that all or any of the Hunter characters saw them. This is brilliant in that it not only gives the Hunters more information to go on, but in many cases also allows a clever Agent to play head games with her pursuers. To better illustrate an example of this, let’s check out the board in the picture below.
In the example above, the Agent Cobra has been spotted by the Hunter Puppet. Cobra was on space M18 when the Hunters ended their turn.
In Cobra’s turn, he will move, but he has a few options. He could go to M17, working his way down, but that would put him into the Hunter Beast’s vision. Cobra could also take a chance by moving to either L19 or N18. The distinct advantage this has is that the last seen token will be placed right where he is in the picture, and the Hunters will have to make a decision on whether they want to pursue along the N18 path or check to see if he’s sitting at L19. They could also opt to split their forces up, which is beneficial for Cobra as well since he then has put some great distance between himself and at least one of the Hunters.
Once the Hunters end their individual turns, however, the Agent player has to reveal whether or not they can be seen. If they can be seen then the Hunters can attempt to shoot the Agent – doing enough damage (4 hits by default) will kill the Agent and win the game for the Hunters. Combat is very straightforward, with the Hunter rolling a die and checking the value against the distance in tiles away that the Agent player is. In the example picture above, the Puppet Hunter would be able to shoot the Cobra Agent with a roll of 3+.
Now, as if we haven’t already gushed about the physical quality of the map above, we have more great things to say about it here. The layout of the map in this game is amazing. The different buildings and blocks and roadways and lanes all create a very interesting field of play that manages to create tension in game after game. All of the best rulesets and mechanics would mean nothing in a hidden movement game if there wasn’t a great area to play with them, and Specter Ops knocks the layout element out of the park.
Everything is well thought out and laid out, and the placement of the objectives that the Agent has to complete are randomzied each game, while also still being in a general vicinity that presents lots of opportunities for the Agent at the beginning and then starts to tighten the noose on them towards the end when the Hunters know the Agent has to get one of two last available objectives.
There are tons of little spaces to hide in and dart through. These will be some of your only allies as an Agent in the effort to frustrate the Hunters who you can only really slow down or run away from.
The Variable Player Powers are another great addition to the game that give each player a sense of uniqueness and real feeling that they are lending something special to the team, when playing the Hunters.
This is something we consider really important, as a One Vs. Many game typically gives a lot of fun toys for the “one” to play with while the Hunters have numbers on their side and otherwise might not have a lot of interesting gameplay. Each Hunter in Specter Ops brings a unique threat to the game and will force the Agent to alter the way they try to accomplish their objectives.
The Agent, likewise, gets unique powers depending on the character chosen and then gets to pick 3 or 5 equipment cards depending on the amount of people playing. These cards are the lifeblood of what make the Agents incredibly tough to track down and then stay on top of. All kinds of fun Batman-esque gadgets like Smoke Bombs, Stealth Fields, and Flashbang Grenades.
Even cooler is that some of these equipment you don’t even reveal that you’ve used at all, or only turn them to let the Hunters know you’ve done SOMETHING. This is an incredibly smart feature and presents lots of opportunities to mess with the Hunters and try to let them think you’re doing one thing while faking them out the whole time.
The scaling seems to work very well for the most part, although we have noticed that the 2/3 player game can be quite swingy. An early lucky/smart play by the Hunters can do enough damage that the Agent will have a hard time escaping later, or just dying early. Likewise, in 2/3 player games we’ve seen a well-played Agent sneak around undetected until one or two objectives have been found – making it almost impossible for two hunters to pull out a win.
This isn’t to say that it happens often, but the potential seems higher with lower player counts.
4 players, on the other hand, comes off as quite near perfect. The Agent gets 5 cards and 6 health as a base. Those 5 cards go a long, long way when played well. This kind of game usually comes down to the last few turns and occasionally a roll of the dice. This might turn some players off, but we’ve loved the drama of that last-chance roll.
5 players presents an almost entirely different kind of game including a traitor mechanic. One of the Hunters is selected by the Agent as a Secret Agent. This creates all kinds of fascinating situations where the Agent can legally LIE if the Secret Agent Hunter would see the Agent, or shoot the Agent. It’s only when the Hunters realize through solid proof that one of their own is lying that the Traitor Hunter is turned into another Agent who can run amok.
Balancing in the 5 player version seems to falter just a bit compared to the 4 player game, just due to how much chaos and confusion the traitor can cause. We haven’t had as many chances to try this mode out, so I can’t say definitively, but personally I would still recommend 4 player as the ideal.
I give the designers a TON of credit for adding the 5 player rules with the traitor element, however. It’s such a cool concept when added to a game of this type, and really do think that it adds to the potential fun of the whole package.
Specter Ops is highly replayable. The map is incredibly well designed, although I would have liked just one more entrance that the Agent to begin the game from. Even with the one entrance, there are some great opening moves and it presents the Hunters with a dilemma immediately on any of the player counts.
The variance in rules based on the player counts also helps a lot with replay value, as 2-3/4/5 players all feel like VERY different games.
Additionally, the variable player powers are huge in creating different types of games on top of everything else. Each Agent offers a unique challenge that the Hunters will have to deal with and then the equipment cards that the Agent has available provide a wildly unpredictable experience.
I have a hard time in thinking back of memories in games in my collection that capture the pure, visceral sense of tension that Specter Ops provides on a regular basis. Everything about the game is meant to enhance that feeling, and in most of the games we’ve played – it does so very effectively.
As an Agent, you are on your own, feeling completely isolated right from the first move. You know your friends are hunting you, and you can hear them discuss just what they plan to do. You’ll hide in a corner and just hold your breath – hoping they walk right past you and don’t stop next to you or even right on top of where you’re sitting.
You’ll know you have a time limit as well, even if you can keep the Hunters off of your trail you have to complete 3 objectives and escape, and every turn you wait throwing them off is one less you have to work with. You’ll ask yourself if you can try for a big 4-move run when the Puppet Hunter can set off the motion detector in the Hunter’s car on every turn.
You do have your equipment though, and on the turns when you use it, you’ll feel like Batman – playing the Hunters for fools and misdirecting them, stunning them or just plain out-running them to leave them in the dust. You’ll feel incredibly powerful, moving in the darkness and leaving them guessing for minutes at a time without even a brief sighting of you.
When they close in, though… you will be stressed. Deliciously, utterly, and blissfully stressed – and you’ll love it.
As a Hunter, you’ve got your other friends with you. You have backup, and each one of them along with you bring some nasty Agent-killing tools to the table. You can talk strategy and try to add to the Agent’s stress level letting her know you’ll find them.
You get to play the pursuer, and when you spot that Agent, you’ll have the rush of the Hunt being on. You’ll work with your other Hunters to trap them in an area, or try to flush them out. Using tools like the Beast Hunter’s scent tracking to see if you’re close or the Puppet Hunter’s remote motion sensor from the car to narrow down just where the Agent is.
If those tools don’t pick up the Agent, however, the mood changes. You’ll start to second-guess yourself. Did you over-extend into an area leaving the map behind you wide-open for the Agent to run free through? Was she just sitting hiding and not moving for 3 turns while you ran around in circles looking for her?
In the 5 player version, you’ll even start to question and second guess the other Hunters who claim to be your teammates. One of them is a traitor, and everyone knows it. Who can you trust? Or are you the traitor yourself. Will you be able to keep the charade up to protect your Agent partner who you have to pretend to hunt?
When that agent has gone unseen for multiple turns in a row… you will be stressed. Frustrated, hopeless, and stressed – and you’ll love it.
The culmination of all that tension is when a Hunter spots the Agent, and then the game gets crazy. Hunters closing in, Agents making desperate moves to escape. These are exciting moments that you’ll remember after the game is finished, and will have you anxious to play another round.
When it’s played like it is supposed to, Specter Ops FEELS outstanding. The one thing that can really get in the way of this is Analysis Paralysis on the part of the Agent OR the Hunters (especially the Hunters!). We recommend setting a quick timer on turns – 30/45 seconds at the most – to create the optimal Specter Ops experience. Not on the first game or two, but once everyone knows the rules, it should be played fast.
Specter Ops is a slick, modern take on the hidden movement genre of boardgames. It provides consistently thrilling matches of hide and seek that are filled with tension and tough decisions.
What we Loved
- The board is incredible, in both aesthetic and in regards to design and space consciousness.
- The mix of fear and power playing the Agent, running and hiding from the Hunters.
- Hunter abilities to make each player a unique part of the team.
What we didn’t Love as much
- Some equipment cards and abilities that needed clearer explanation and examples.
- Occasional lopsided 2/3 player games.
- Minis should be a bit stronger, less bendy.