Don’t Judge a Board Game by its Cover

Visual Rhetoric

In college, I studied communication and art. One of my favorite classes was Visual Rhetoric, where we dissected how visual images communicate and persuade.

Judging books by their cover was my job that semester. Whether it was an actual book, a print advertisement, a photograph, or the overall design of a space, we were seeing and analyzing all semester long. And it’s certainly something that has stuck with me.

New friends

Recently my husband and I met a few new game friends and these friends happen to be a part of a YouTube channel where they review board games. The past few Wednesday evenings we have met up to test out a few new games they’re in the process of reviewing.

Since I love learning to play new games, I was happy to help (and volunteer my husband in the process). It all started with Ophir, a game I actually won in a contest they were running. After that we played Lift Off, a fun game where you’re trying to save little aliens from a planet that is about to explode.

Enter: Specter Ops

When Mark, one of my new friends, mentioned we’d be playing Specter Ops this past Wednesday, I can’t say I was overly excited.

I have a fairly open attitude when it comes to playing games, similar to trying new foods. In short, I’ll pretty much try anything once. Happy to have friends to play games with, I said that sounded great and we scheduled the time to meet at a new game place in town, Dungeons & Drafts.

Why was I less than thrilled about playing Specter Ops? Well, first off, the name of the game does not sound that appealing. I had heard it mentioned a few times before and never had so much even looked into what type of game it was. From the name alone I knew “it didn’t sound like me.”

Then there’s the cover of the box:

Specter OpsImage Source: Board Game Geek

Blue and red: not my most favorite colors. Dark/attack-like: all I see is a giant battle going down (read: war game). Metal sci-fi edges with some sort of fire explosion going on: rough and tough and definitely not up my alley.

I seriously thought this was a silly sci-fi war game where we’d be battling for hours on end. And if it weren’t for our new friend’s suggestion, I would have simply said “pass” on pretty much all accounts.

Actually playing the game

All I can say is that I’m really glad I didn’t pass this one up. It’s basically the board game version of giant a hide-and-go-seek game. One person plays “the agent” who is trying to accomplish a few goals (aka: get to three of four specific squares on the board) and then escape… all without being caught by “the hunters” (which would be all the other players).

(Side Note: There is a five-player variant where one of the four hunters is actually a traitor and is trying to help the agent win the game. There are several little changes to make the game perfect for two, three, four, or five players, which I really appreciate. While thus far I’ve only played the 4-player game, I think this is one small design choice that will make the game a huge success.)

The game is played on a giant board with lots of little squares on a grid, labeled by letters and numbers. It’s actually a gorgeous board.

Specter Ops - Board

While it’s very dark, the lighting and shadows are designed incredibly well. You feel like you’re actually in a giant warehouse running around and hiding and ducking behind things so you don’t get caught. “Line of sight” (meaning: can the hunters see the agent?) is an important element in this game, so the way the board is laid out with objects to block their vision as well as open roads to see really far works quite well.

When we played on Wednesday, I was the agent. You get four character choices (Blue Jay, Spider, Cobra, Orangutan), and I chose Blue Jay. Basically these four characters give you special abilities which make you a better agent. There are characters for the hunters as well (The Prophet, The Beast, The Gun, The Puppet), which likewise give them special powers throughout the game, too.

All of the characters have their own miniature, which I can’t say I was the biggest fan of, honestly. I would have been completely fine with regular pawns to move as our characters. However, they did make for a pretty cool photo during our game on Wednesday. I had just been caught by a hunter and it looks like I’m about to fall backwards off the game board during our little stare-down.

Blue JayImage Source: Boardgame Corner

Playing the game again

It’s not even been one week, and I can’t wait to play this game again.

It falls into the “deduction game” category, which I didn’t even know existed prior to a few days ago. More specifically it’s a “hidden-movement, deduction game,” meaning that when you’re the agent, the hunters don’t actually know where you are moving on the board, unless they can “see” you (aka: that whole line of sight thing). Deduction games exist and there are even sub-categories of this category. Who knew?!

This game reminds me a lot of Clue, which is easily my most favorite game growing up. You’re moving only a few squares at a time, trying to quickly get from one area of the board to another. If you’re a hunter, you’re trying to figure something out – where the agent is – much like who did it, in what room, and with what weapon. If you’re the agent (or the traitor as well), you’re keeping information secret from the other players on a pad of paper, tracking your notes throughout the game. The only thing it was missing is the hidden passageway from one corner of the board to another.

Tomorrow is our weekly #WednesdayGameNight and I’m crossing my fingers that this one is on our list again.

Words of advice

I won’t sit here and tell you not to judge a game by its cover. It’s something we all do all the time. But what I can leave you with is a quote from my first lecture in Visual Rhetoric:

We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. – John Berger

Keep your eyes open and, more importantly, keep your mind open to playing a game that might not “look” that intriguing. Just because the box or the title of the game isn’t drawing you in, if someone you trust suggests it, be willing to give it a shot. Hopefully, you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

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