Friday, July 31, 2015

I Am Ninja...You Can't See Me - "Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel"

I immediately bought Fury of Dracula when it was re-published back in 2005 for two reasons:
  1.  I like horror-themed games.
  2.  I like hidden movement games. 
Unfortunately even Fantasy Flight's version, reprinted from the highly-thematic but rather-dated Games Workshop 1987 original, is still pretty fiddly.

So color me delighted when designer Emerson Matsuuchi recently delivered a modernized take on hidden movement games in the form of Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel.

Here's the mission briefing directly from Plaid Hat Games:

Stealth, the search, the fight, and the thrill of the hunt. Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel puts you and 1-4 friends in the middle of a war for society that's fought in the shadows.
Specter Ops Board and Setup

On one side, a lone A.R.K. agent infiltrates a Raxxon facility, seeking to retrieve three mission targets and escape alive. Equipped with unique skills and tools, the agent moves in secret.

On the other side, two or more genetically enhanced Raxxon hunters, alerted to the intruder's presence, take no prisoners as they attempt to eliminate the A.R.K. agent before a successful escape. Super-human mutations and keen coordination aid them in their duty to destroy Raxxon's enemies.

Each turn, the A.R.K. agent marks their moves secretly, indicating their board location only if they pass through a hunter's line of sight. If the A.R.K. player can collect three out of four mission objectives and escape without losing all their life points, they win. Four agents to choose from as well as 12 equipment cards means a variety of strategies and experiences are possible.

The Raxxon hunters move every turn as well, and drive a vehicle that rushes across the board and detects the motion of the A.R.K. agent. Every time a hunter gets the A.R.K. agent in their line of sight, they have a chance to do damage to the agent. Four hunters, all with different powers, complement the four agents, and all eight characters are represented by high quality miniatures.
Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel features a streamlined ruleset great for veteran and rookie gamers alike. Several game modes accommodate 2-5 players who must utilize strategy, deduction, and stealth to win. Plot your moves in secret or hunt down the intruder. Specter Ops is an exciting stealth game that belongs in every gamer's collection.

Looking for all the intel on this one? Then click on the following link to download the full rules!


Way back on June 10'th I experienced a harmonic convergence of sorts: I.E. I wasn't working and it was actually my turn to pick a game. So naturally I went with this, the latest HAWTNESS and it certainly didn't take a lot of arm twisting to rope Andrew, Dean, John, and Mike into a game.

John did his usual awesome job teaching the game to us but he was hesitant to play the Agent again since he'd been stuck with that particular role during his last three outings. We did a random draw for this hot-potato and the responsibility fell on Mike, who seemed less-than-enthused with the prospects.

We then drew our random Hunter roles and here's what we ended up with:





Side note: in a five-player game of Specter Ops one Hunter will always be designated as a secret sympathizer. In order to set this up, the Agent player passes a Secret Role Card out to each Hunter, with one clearly marked with the red-themed "Agent" graphic. Whoever gets this card has to try and help the Agent complete their mission and escape.

Naturally, the other Hunters have no idea who this traitor is at the beginning of the game.

So, after Mike surreptitiously passed the Secret Role Cards out to us we were on out way! 


As The Puppet, Dean drove drove our Vehicle close to Mike's entry point (!), which is always N1 on the map. We immediate hopped out and tried to hone in on his position.

For some oddly-inexplicable reason, John decided to climb right back into the Vehicle on his very next turn. Hmmmmmm. Dean then used his Remote Sensor ability to trigger the Vehicle's Motion Tracker, but he didn't pick up anything. Next up I used my Quadrupedal Movement to bound five spaces into the vanguard, looking to sniff out some enemy movement next turn. Finally Andrew moved up one space and took point at a crossroads in an effort to maximize his Quick Draw ability.

When Dean set off another fruitless Motion Tracker sensor ping some of us began to wonder why he took this useless action a second time. Using my Enhanced Senses I took a goof whiff of the surrounding air and discovered that there was nothing within my vicinity. John triggered his Post-Cognition ability and discovered that Mike had been at R1 two turns ago. Andrew remained in overwatch, waiting for something to cross his path.

John decided to pop out of the Vehicle again. Um, ooookay. Thinking that I was too far away from Mike I moved up another five spaces and prepared to survey the air again.

In what appeared to be a random gamble, John charged down a nearby corridor, hoping to spot something but to no avail. With the Vehicle still parked on N14, Dean triggered the Motion Sensor once again, revealing that Mike was somewhere in the north-east quadrant of the board!  I rushed over to Q5 and, to my surprise, spotted The Spider just chillin' out at Q9!

When Mike tried to rabbit Andrew snapped off a Quick Draw shot, but the -2 range penalty resulted in a miss. During Andrew's main turn he tried to cut off Mike's anticipated escape route by hustling over to a better vantage point. I tried to guess Mike's position and pounce on him but I was completely off. In an attempt to guess Mike's path, Dean moved south and spotted Le Araignée trying to make a break for it at L11. He fired off a quick shot, nailing him for a point of damage! At this stage, Mike was starting to feel like a rat at a terrier convention. 

In a desperate bid get away, Mike dropped a Smoke Grenade on L8, leaving a Last Seen Token behind at L10. Unfortunately the gambit didn't work. I tore after him, ending up in J9 where I delivered a point of damage to the Agent! Dean tried to converge on this position for a shot but whiffed on a roll of "1". Andrew moved up one space to try and leverage his Sniper Shot. John shifted his position one space south to keep Mike from sneaking out along the main avenue.

In an attempt to polish Mike off, Dean booked over to L12 but couldn't see him. Meanwhile, John casually drifted over to K15, making it fairly clear who the Agent sympathizer was! I took a gamble and raced over to M10 but the slippery bastard wasn't there. Since I'd only moved three spaces I decided to prospect the air for clues using with my Enhanced Senses and discovered that he was "close"! Hunkered down in his little hidey-hole, Andrew waited patiently for Mike to rear his arachnid head. Sure enough, he tried to make a dash for it at N13, giving Andrew a chance to activate his Quick Draw for another hit!

Andrew rushed over to where Mike was last seen at O13 and got off another shot. Unfortunately he rolled a "4", which was a miss. After trying to estimate how far Mike could have dared to move I ran directly to R14. Sure enough, the poor bastard was standing in that very same spot! In doing so my Brutal Strength caused two damage to him, which was the equivalent of making a wish and ripping ol' web-head limb from pneumatic limb!


And John was revealed as the dirty, filthy traitor!


The game only took about an hour or so to play and was over by Round Nine. I'm really kicking myself for not playing a second match; instead we chose to play another game that I didn't like as much and we didn't end up finishing. If I had my time back I definitely would have had a second bash at Specter Ops instead, perhaps with another random person acting as the Agent.

And that's not to say that Mike didn't do a good job. In fact, I know that I probably wouldn't have done much better. Sure, there were a couple of early tells and maybe he didn't exploit his connection to John all that well, but the Agent's job is definitely the harder one. Clearly the person who has the most experience in the game should take on this role.

And hey, let's face it, we were a pretty tenacious bunch who, by some minor miracle, actually worked really well together.



  • Just look at that gorgeous board with its embossed co-ordinates, twisty corridors and colorful quadrants! Movement Sheets, figures, cards,'s all beautifully realized.
  • Simplicity. Unlike the bloated and fiddly Fury of Dracula, this one is simple, elegant and easy to jump into. There's only eight pages of rules and that includes thematic lore, set-up, four and five player tweaks and - "Yay!" - an index. Line of Sight and Ranged fire rules have the potential to be very complicated, but in Specter Ops these elements are incredibly intuitive and thematic. Super-seriously, this sucka is as lean and mean as The Beast!   
  • There's plenty of variety. The Hunters and Agents all play quite different from one another thanks to multiple special abilities. Add in Agent Equipment, the Hunter Vehicle, the Motion Sensor and variable Mission Objective points and you've got a pretty decent amount of re-playability. Plus, with just with one play you quickly realize just how infinitely expandable the concept is.  
  • Genuine tension. The cat-and-mouse game play is really friggin' fun. Even though Mike didn't get as far as he wanted to, it was still a very tense and frantic experience. I can only imagine what it must be like when the Agent keeps slipping ninja-style out of those Hunter dragnets and then starts flipping over one Mission Objective Tokens after another. Plus, as a Hunter, it's viscerally thrilling to spot your prey and then swarm over them like a pack of rabid hyenas. 
  • Set-up time is ridiculously quick.
  • Clearly the game's sweet spot is with two or three players. I think four players would be okay but the five-player Traitor mechanic feels like an afterthought that was just boiler-plated onto the rules. It makes the game feel clunkier than it ought to be. 

Hey, look, if you dig games like Scotland Yard, Specter Ops is a must-buy. What designer Emerson Matsuuchi understands more than his predecessors is that hidden movement is complicated enough without adding a bunch of unrelated rules and concepts. Not only is the secret progress mechanic as intuitive and fool-proof as possible, he also managed to resist the urge to tack on a bunch of "chrome", I.E. irrelevant mush.

Specter Ops is the high-water mark for hidden movement games and it easily earns five pips outta six with a tilt up towards the Raxxon Global headquarters building.  

Wanna hunt your buddy down like a dog in the street? Then click on the following pic to learn more about Specter Ops: Shadow of Babel and help keep this blog free of corporate influence!