Buzzworthiness: Pocket Ops

Thanks to the Grand Gamers Guild for providing a review copy of this game.

When you look at the rankings on BGG, each page shows you 100 games.  You have to go to page 138 to find Tic-Tac-Toe, which is at the very BOTTOM of the rankings ladder.  Seriously, it is apparently the worst of the worst, even beyond such chestnuts as Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, Bingo, War, and LCR.  Today’s game takes a shot at improving the system, called

image provided by Grand Gamers Guild and artist Josh Cappel

Pocket Ops is a game by Brandon Beran that will be published by the Grand Gamers Guild.  It’s a two-player only game that takes Tic-Tac-Toe to the next level, adding in elements of intrigue and deduction on top of the familiar make three in a row concept.  The game either has gone up on Kickstarter, or will be doing so soon.  The basic concept is that both players are spymasters, trying to gain access to a doomsday device in order to steal it from the facility where it is being built.

Pocket Ops comes with a board with a 3×3 grid, each square showing a different letter of the alphabet (A-I).  There is also a doomsday machine, two crystals, a set of nine letter cards per player, a set of five specialist tokens per player, and another set of regular tokens (spies) for each player.  Each player claims a color, taking the corresponding specialists, spies, and cards.

At the start of each round, you will shuffle up your specialists and draw two of them.  From those two, you will select one to be your specialist for the round.  There are five available.  When both players have a specialist, reveal them, and it’s time to play.

Choose one player to go first.  The other player will choose a letter card corresponding to where they think the first player will go.  Then the first player will place a spy in a spot.  If the other player was correct, that spy is removed and the turn is over (a specialist that was guessed is removed from the round entirely and will not be used again).  If incorrect, the spy remains where it was placed, with a specialist taking their action.  Here’s what the specialists can do if they stay in position:

  • ASSASSIN: You place this on an enemy spy and remove it.
  • SNIPER: Remove an enemy spy from an orthogonally adjacent room.
  • PUSHER: Moves into an orthogonally adjacent room containing an enemy spy.  That spy is pushed to the next room (or possibly off the board).  If it is pushed into a space with a spy, that spy is also pushed.
  • GRAPPLER: Swap positions with an orthogonally adjacent spy.
  • HACKER: You may play two prediction cards instead of just one on the next turn.

Play alternates in this way until one player makes a line of three in a row.  At that point, he takes a crystal and a new round begins.  If the winning player already had a crystal, it is placed in the doomsday device and he wins.  So you need to win two rounds to win the game.  In case of a draw (no chance that either player will ever make three in a row), the start player loses the round.

image by BGG user kamus73

COMPONENTS: I was only sent a prototype, so I can’t really judge the final quality of the components.  However, art is being done by Josh Cappel, the great artist behind the original Pandemic, as well as others.  The board is just a 3×3 grid, basically showing the layout of the bad guys facility.  Each letter corresponds to the name of the room – Armory, Barracks, Command, Data Banks, Elevators, Foundry, Germ Lab, Hangar, and Innovation.  The specialist tokens have easily distinguishable symbols on them, representing what each does.    My copy does not have a reference card for these symbols, but I would hope that would be included in the final version.  The cards are tiny, but that’s not a problem since you won’t really be shuffling them.  Everything is pretty small – mine fits comfortably into a sandwich baggie.  Definitely a pocket game.

THEME: The theme of trying to thwart a supervillain is of course tacked on.  Naming all of the rooms helps with evoking a bit of the theme, but it’s Tic-Tac-Toe.  There’s not a lot of thematic opportunity there.  I actually think it might have been better to go with two different supervillains attempting to steal what they need to turn on their doomsday device first rather than playing the good guys.  Because you’re competing for the same goal, it feels like a real Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea situation (splitters).

MECHANICS: As mentioned, this game shares a lot of its mechanisms with Tic-Tac-Toe.  While TTT has a horrible reputation of being a broken and largely solved game (if you can’t beat a chicken at the game, you shouldn’t be playing), this game adds two elements that make it much better.  First is the specialists – having a variable special power you can bust out at any time actually provides strategy to a game that previously had extremely little.  Next, the deduction element of trying to determine where your opponent will go means that you can’t play in the scripted manner TTT success calls for.  With two small changes, Pocket Ops has added some depth to a game that famously has none.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Pocket Ops is a game of tactical decisions, but you need to figure out a basic strategy from the very beginning of each round.  When you first draw your two specialists, you have to figure out which one you want to work with.  This will help determine your play style for the game, and you can try to set up some traps in order to use it most optimally and unpredictably.  Figuring out when to use your specialist can be tough – you don’t want to use it too early, but you don’t want to use it in a place that doesn’t make sense either.  The deductive element has choices that are a little wild at first, then becomes a “clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of me” situation.  I outlined the optimal strategy on April Fool’s Day a few years ago, but that just doesn’t work here.  If you have a space to place in, you can bet your opponent will predict it, so you may want to use that turn to place and try to set up a better situation for a later turn.  However, your opponent may foresee that and go somewhere else, so why not try for the win?  It’s a tough choice to make.

ACCESSIBILITY: Everyone knows TTT.  This game adds a couple of things, but I think anyone will be able to pick it up, no problem.

REPLAYABILITY: The game takes 15 minutes, which in itself adds to its replayability.  Each game will be slightly different as well thanks to the specialists,  so that also helps.  I don’t think this game has infinite replayability, but the prediction aspect definitely does make it a lot less scripted than regular TTT.

SCALABILITY: This game is for two players only, and I don’t really envision any way to change that.

INTERACTION: This game is all about reading your opponent, trying to predict where they’ll go, and thwarting their plans.  Thus, it is highly interactive.

FOOTPRINT: The game is very small.  You could conceivably play on an airplane tray, though I’d be careful about tossing around words like “assassin” or “sniper” if doing so.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Surprisingly, yes.  It’s clearly Tic-Tac-Toe, which is an initial turnoff, but there’s a lot more going on here.  It’s certainly a MUCH better game that TTT is – more strategic, less predictable, and more fun.  I’d highly recommend you give it a try sometime.

Be sure to check out the Kickstarter, which can be found by following this link.  Thanks again to the Grand Gamers Guild for providing a review copy of Pocket Ops, and thanks to you for reading!

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