If you’ve ever seen a DIE HARD movie (or really any action movie) you’re going to remember some memorable and tense hostage negotiation sequences. The title game Hostage Negotiator by Van Ryder Games has all of this and more. Its tense nature kept me and my students on the edge of our seats the entire time we played.
Here I’ll explore how I used this table top game in order to screen and interview our 2016 Orientation Leader Team at St. Thomas Aquinas College. I use the mechanics of the game to encourage students to make difficult decisions, optimize their outcomes, and determine how well they reason and solve problems in a group environment.
What is Hostage Negotiator?
Hostage Negotiator… is not like other games that I’ve played before. Yes, some games have more adult and serious themes. But Hostage Negotiator takes it to a whole new level where the player (you guessed it: a hostage negotiator) needs to free hostages taken by an antagonist possessing both unscrupulous goals and a slew of demands.
If there is one word that I can use to describe this game it would be: tense. Each turn represents a “conversation” between the player and the hostage taker (abductor). I like to imagine myself on the phone trying to talk down a crazed individual. Each conversation can earn the player “conversation points” which builds into the game’s hand-building mechanic that allows you to use more powerful cards later in the game.
Conversely conversations can also trigger the “threat-level” to increase or decrease which affects the demeanor of the abductor. Too high of a threat level? You’ll lose a hostage and roll fewer dice: exposing yourself to even more disastrous consequences. Low threat level? You earned yourself more dice and perhaps even a hostage or two released.
Like any good game there are a few ways to win the game, but many (many) brutal ways to lose. The game takes both skill and chance in order to succeed and is one that requires a logical focus, calm demeanor, and a trust in your dice rolls.
Why did I choose it for the OL Interviews?
Like some other great cooperative games like Pandemic and Hanabi, there are only a few ways to win. Hostage Negotiator shared that difficulty. I wanted this to be a challenge for prospective orientation leaders. This game provided that.
My plan was to pair applicants together. Really, their availability was how I determined their partner. But I also tried to choose two students who weren’t familiar with each other. I wanted their partnership to be challenging.
Lastly, I chose this game because it is designed to play solo. Murphy’s Law tells me that things can go wrong – so should anyone choose to drop out of the interview process I knew that I could always evaluate a student playing alone.
What were the learning outcomes?
Being an Orientation Leader is pretty much 100% unlike being a hostage negotiator. I outlined that before I introduced them to the game. What I was looking for was: who could address problems and challenges, how two or more people could work together, and how they reacted physically and emotionally when the cards were literally stacked against them.
Specifically I was looking for the students who were going to tough it out and make the best out of a far from ideal situation. I wanted thinkers and doers. At the end of the day I wanted students who were going to take charge and find a solution…together. I wanted students who were not just going to lone wolf, or quarterback their way through the game. I wanted students who were going to work with one another to build consensus and find a solution in a brutally difficult and fickle game.
How did it play?
Hostage Negotiator played… well like a hostage negotiation situation would. Very anxious in the beginning as students tried to play different cards in order to get their desired result: a peaceful resolution and rescue of the hostages.
I really tried not to give players too much strategy. If they made an early mistake I let it slide to see if they would make up for it later. Some groups did, some didn’t, some took their time analyzing moves, and other just rushed into it.
Overall, the game played like I expected it would: difficult and challenging with a mix strategy and luck that was debilitating, but also fueled fiero when strategies paid off.
Pros and Cons
Hostage Negotiator was a great game that provided the kind of difficultly that felled most applicants. A few groups got to play between 1-2 times. But most got at least 3 attempts which allowed interviewees to examine strategies and determine how to best improve for the next play. This achieved my goal of examining how each applicant worked and how well they worked with one another
While the structure and the play met my own learning objectives and expectations the theme fell flat for most of the potential new orientation leaders. Compared to welcoming new college freshmen, negotiating for the lives of hostages held in the mitts of a violent abductor left much to be desired. Though, I blame this on me as I am new to solitaire gaming and didn’t know of the wide variety of other options available.
What would I have done differently?
As with most game rules explanations I got progressively better and better at running through the main points of the game in two minutes or less. This means that the first groups to hear from me got a much different explanation than the last few groups where I had everything streamlined. Next time I run through something like this I should practice the rules run through a few times beforehand.
I would also include time for at least two game plays. Some groups got up to three plays, some groups only one. I was hesitant to run over the allotted time that each group gave to me; but making sure everyone had adequate time to answer the debriefing questions is the most crucial component. It’s why I chose to run interviews like this to begin with.
Lastly, better theme. Enough said, I think that this team of orientation leaders are done with negotiating for hostages.
There just aren’t that many games like Hostage Negotiator out there. It’s more serious and adult theme really makes it stand out from other games. It’s no doubt an anxious, but fun time, with strategies that are often made or broken by each roll of the dice.
Its difficult and unforgiving nature is why I chose it specifically for the Orientation Leader interviews. I wanted to see how new applicants would deal with the difficult nature of the game and how they would work with each other in order to overcome the challenge.
I definitely got all of this and more out of the 11 play through interviews. The situations that arose definitely put students to the test with some wanting to jump right into the game and others taking their time to analyze how their actions would impact them in the long run
Overall the theme didn’t really work with this group of students – after all connecting hostage negotiation to being an orientation leader is a pretty far stretch.
In the end Hostage Negotiator by Van Ryder Games hit all of the main points it intended to. It created tense situations where carefully planned decisions and foresight were necessary to be successful (or at least more successful than others). Its use as a games-based learning tool was successful and I’m looking forward to bringing more table top games to help train future student leaders.