Review: Black Ops by Osprey Games
Black Ops is a new skirmish miniature game from Osprey Games. It is subtitled “Tactical Espionage Wargaming” and the back cover copy describes it as a game that “recreates the tension and excitement of modern action thrillers such as the Bond and Bourne films.” The cover, however, goes a step further with a bandana-wearing operative reminiscent of Solid Snake (from Metal Gear Solid) backed up by some future-tech wielding bad-asses. It is written by Guy Bowers and follows the format of all the other Osprey Games titles; 64 glossy, full colour pages of concise rules that focus on a very specific type/genre of game. A constraint of the low page count is the text is quite small for my aging eyes, and the many charts have black writing on blue/grey background making them difficult to read. The art in this book is excellent, being a mix of original art pieces and others pulled from Osprey’s historical books. It is also liberally illustrated with photographs of miniature figures representing a number of modern military actions such as fighting insurgents and boarding a warship.
The basic rules are quite straightforward; groups of similar figures are activated on the turn of a card, at which point they can move and/or attack. Black Ops uses a standard deck of cards, with one player being the “red” faction and the other activating on “black” cards. Aces represent the “heroic” leaders (also called “aces” in the game), Kings are the heavy weapons operators / teams, Queens are specialists (medics, hackers, etc), Jacks are the grunts and 2’s activate any civilians on the table. I haven’t played many card activation games before, but this works very elegantly. Every figure gets two activations during a turn, and aces get an additional activation when a Joker is revealed (note – you need a “black” and “red” Joker – my deck didn’t differentiate so I had to colour one of the jesters in!). I am a big fan of the Bolt Action drawing of dice, but this card activation adds an additional layer as you may get a turn, but not be able to activate the specific figure / fire team that you wanted.
Figures are defined by a short “stat line”, their weapons/equipment and maybe a special rule (usually only aces and specialists). The stats cover shooting, fighting, skill/motivation and their ability to resist injuries which, in my mind is about all you need. There is a broad list of weapons that covers all the essential stuff you would expect. I like that weapons are defined by “type” (pistol or heavy pistol; assault rifle or battle rifle) rather than going down the rabbit hole of a huge list of different-but-same weapons.
When a figure is activated they can stand still, move cautiously, advance or go for an all-out run, however the speed they move affects whether they can attack and may apply modifiers. When shooting you need to roll over a figure’s Accuracy on a d6 to hit and the target can attempt to shrug off hits by rolling over their Save value (which can be modified by the weapon being used, body armour or cover). The “roll over” mechanic should be familiar to pretty much anyone who has played a war-game before, however all the modifiers are “backwards” to my preprogrammed brain – advantageous situations apply a negative modifier (-1, -2 etc) to the target number, while challenging circumstances add (+1, +2 etc) a penalty. I get why (modifying the target number makes the roll fast) but most games simply apply the mod to the die roll and players do the same maths anyway. It’s a minor quibble, but one I kept stumbling over (“Oh, +1 to the target’s Save is good…”).
I have to give a special mention to the suppression rules in Black Ops. When you lay day suppression fire you place tokens next to the target, and when the target activates they must choose to keep their head down or to activate normally and take the hits. It is simple and elegant and perfectly captures the point of suppression fire.
All of this is pretty standard fair for wargames. Solid and useable. Where Black Ops really shines is in the stealth missions. In stealth missions one side is the “defender”, with a portion of their force on guard duty, while the other side must infiltrate the area and complete a specific objective. Guards are pretty much on “autopilot” until the alarm is raised, their actions dictated by a roll on a chart, modified by the amount of noise the infiltrators have made. Noise is generated by running, climbing, fighting and shooting. It can also be created by civilians raising an alarm and guards spotting hidden infiltrators. At first it seems like a straightforward task to sneak into the enemy compound but the guard’s random movement, the presence of civilians, and the need to scale obstacles or cross open ground make it quite challenging. A number of scenarios (there are six, plus six example maps, making a total of 36 possible missions) add another layer of difficulty by having the target of the mission moving, hidden, and/or guarded. It is challenging, intense and fun! In one game I was obviously deep in enemy territory as all the civilians began to raise the alarm before the end of the first turn! Once the alarm has been raised the defenders will be reinforced very quickly, so it becomes a bloody, fast-paced and tense battle to see if the infiltrators can complete their mission before the odds stack too far against them. It is a great simulation of what I have seen time and again in movies.
Black Ops easily handles solo play. As the guards start out automated in stealth missions, half the work is already done, but Black Ops also has rules for “neutrals” who are not operated by players but by rolls on a chart. I played two solo games and had a blast. The enemy acted in a logical manner 95% of the time and were always challenging. Only occasionally did a guard turn to move into a wall, or do something weird. In these instances my first instinct was to smile as it reminded me of glitchy computer AI’s; when I finished laughing to myself I simply adjusted the action based on logic and the next most likely result on the chart.
Future TechBlack Ops packs a lot into its 64-pages, providing an exciting, challenging and fun experience. With that said, there is a part of me that wishes it delivered a little more on the promise of the front cover; futuristic weapons and tech are relegated to two short charts on the last two pages of the book, and hacking, jamming and other electronic warfare are only two skills on the Specialties chart, each with a meagre half-line explanation. I would have loved some rules for using drones to spot enemy, and sensors, alarms or other electronic surveillance gear is a logical addition for defenders in stealth missions. The inclusion of such things would then give specialists something to do beyond unlock doors or activate/deactivate the mcguffin at the centre of the enemy compound – there could be a tense cyber-battle raging between opposing hackers as they try to operate or shut down surveillance gear, drones or even enemy exoskeletons (although it does not need to go as far as Infinity does). To be fair, these elements are simulated in an abstract manner; for example, a specialist with the Jammer skill can cancel the IED or RT (radio operator) skills, and in a campaign a high “Intel” force can spot hidden troops before play. For me, though, this binary on/off isn’t quite as fun as having specialist actually do something. It’s hardly a deal-breaker though, and some of the specialist options are quite good – I really need to take an interpreter next time I head into enemy territory, and a medic is always handy!
Black Ops is a really solid game of modern stealth combat. It offers the intense feeling of classic “stealth” console games like Splinter Cell, Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid. I am loving the potential of this game, and have already thought up a bunch of mission ideas to extend my play options. I have a couple of black hawk helicopters waiting to drop troops onto the table (or extract them), and I think the rules will work perfectly for a Resident Evil-style infiltrate-then-escape-the-zombie-horde game. If you have a hankering for some tactical espionage wargaming, or would like a solid set of modern solo wargaming rules, Black Ops is worth checking out.