Countdown: Special Ops

Reviewed by: Chris Kovac

(The Game Master, 1 to 6 players, ages 12 and up, 30 minutes; $39.99)

Countdown: Special Ops is a 1-6 player co-operative game designed by Dutch game designers, Hans Van Tol and Gertjan Oomis, where players are members of a counter terrorist team performing various missions which need to be accomplished before time runs out.

countdownspec1To set up the game, you separate the cards into their many various decks: location, target, threat, support, secured area, deployment, bullet control (bullet control? YES) and finally, personal agenda cards. As you can see, there are a lot of different cards in this game and sorting them out initially can take a bit of time.

Target cards have three sub decks – bomb, hostage and terrorist – which are used in various missions. The assignment cards also have three sub decks – Green level 1(beginner), level 2 orange (intermediate) and level 3 (experienced). So the first thing you do after having sorted out the cards is choosing randomly, from one of the three levels of “hardness”, an assignment card. The assignment card will tell you the type of mission threat (defusing bombs, saving hostages or hunting terrorists) you will encounter, where the mission takes place (location), the level of hardness and a time chart telling you how many rounds you have for the mission based on the number of players.

On the countdown track of the mission board, the time marker is set to the appropriate number of turns and the victory point marker on zero. Next, you find the appropriate location card mentioned on the assignment card. The location card has a diagram showing you the shape of the target, how many sub areas are in the location, entry/exit points and how many threat cards go in each area. It will also tell you how many areas would have to be secured (cleared of all threats) in order to get a mission bonus. Now you build the diagram starting with secured area and entry/exit cards.

On top of each secured area card, you put a set number of threat cards (as shown on the location card). Grey areas get cards from the generic threat deck while specific target areas get threat cards from the appropriate target deck. Threat cards are things like hostages, booby traps and terrorists you will encounter over the course of the mission. Now each player chooses his character out countdownspec2aof the six available and takes the appropriate character sheet and player marker. Each character has specific powers as noted in the rule book. These special powers include things like turning over adjacent threat cards (intelligence officer), defusing bombs (bomb specialist) and healing characters wounds (medic). So players should choose carefully the right mix of characters before beginning the mission. Each character sheet has a symbol for the character marker, a character number, spaces for wounds and extra energy (you start with two) as well as two tracks. The blue aiming track charts how many extra dice you get when shooting which improves as you play the assignment The white special skills track is used in the advanced game (missions level 2 or 3 as well as Campaign missions) to keep track of any special skill bonuses you get over the course of the game. You advance on this track every time you use your special ability. A blue and white cube is used to keep track of advancements on each respective chart. Yellow extra energy cubes allow you to use your special skill more than once (you start with 2) and the wounds chart keeps track of the player’s wounds (3 wounds and the character is eliminated). The number is used to determine who is hit by threat effects during the course of the game (more on this later). You can now start the game.

Each turn of the game has five phases. The first phase is intelligence. In this phase, if a player is using the intelligence officer character, this player can turn over the top threat card in a threat stack adjacent to his character. In the advanced game, this officer can spend extra energy cubes in order to turn over additional cards. Positioning is the next phase where characters can move one space horizontally or vertically on the board (the scout can move further using his special ability). Characters can also move across secured areas (only the secured area card showing – no threats) for free. Players can only enter the game on the entry points and exit the board on the exit points.

countdownspec2The action phase is next. If a character is on a space with no threat cards, they can use their special abilities. They can use the ability once per round unless they use a yellow cube for an extra special ability use. If on a space with threat cards, they then encounter the threats. Any booby traps are activated causing a specific number of wounds as shown on the booby trap card. Wounds are distributed in a certain order of priority: hostages, then civilians, then the players starting with the lowest numbered player and working up until all the wounds have been assigned. Hostages can only take one hit and count for negative points if killed (shown on the hostage card). Booby traps can only be defused by the bomb expert character (one for each special action used) and only if revealed ahead of time by the intelligence officer. Next terrorist cards are activated.

Each terrorist has a picture, symbols showing abilities, its attack value and its defense value. Players shoot first unless the terrorist has a first shot ability, then they shoot first. One D6 die is rolled for both the shooting player and the terrorist and added to the attack value. Players also add any skill and aiming bonuses Players have to roll equal to or higher than the terrorist defense value. The terrorists have to roll a number equal to or less than the character defense value. If a player does not roll high enough, he can use one of the three one shot bullet contro cards which gives a plus two to the die roll at the cost of two mission points.

Every time you fire at a terrorist or use a special ability, you get to advance your cube on your aiming or special ability track which gives bonuses to your character as the mission progresses. Eliminated terrorists sometimes give mission points or aiming bonuses. If any terrorist survives the players initial round of firing, they get to fire back. If they get any hits, they first eliminate any hostages, then any civilians, then wound players who shot them and, if any hits are left over, cause a wound on the other player characters starting with the lowest numbered. If the terrorists are not eliminated in a round, a character may fire again or move to an adjacent card. If you eliminate all the terrorists cards, any surviving civilian cards then exit the board by themselves and they may or may not provide mission victory points (points are shown on the civilian card). Surviving hostage cards must be escorted by a team member to an exit in order to count for victory points (again shown on the hostage card). If hostages are not rescued by the time the mission time runs out, they are automatically executed costing the players victory points. If you are playing the defuse the bomb mission, you may encounter time bomb cards. Each time bomb has a certain number of time points listed on the card in order to dismantle the bomb. The bomb expert character can use his special action to speed up the dismantling of the bomb. However, if mission turn time runs out, then the bomb goes off wounding or killing people in the location (resolved like a booby trap).

In hunting terrorist missions, the characters might encounter terrorist leaders. They function just the same as regular terrorists countdownspec3cards except the abilities and attack/defence value vary depending on the level of difficulty of the game. These terrorist leaders also often provide bonus aiming points and victory points. If the game time runs out, they automatically leave costing the player victory points. Countdown is the next phase where the turn marker is moved down one space.

The final phase is recovery where all characters regain one yellow energy cube and victory conditions are checked. The game ends when either all characters are eliminated (players lose), you run out of time (you can go over three turns beyond the set mission time but this costs extra negative points per turn), if your mission score drops below -8 points (again the players lose) or if all the characters leave the game after clearing out all the red target areas with a positive score (players win). You get points over the course of the game by eliminating certain terrorists, completing the mission early (a time bonus), freeing hostages and, if you clear enough areas of the location, an extra point bonus.

The game can be played in a variety of ways including single missions, a campaign of 2-4 individual missions, with traitor cards and in real time if you feel so inclined. In a campaign, you get a set number of support cards which are one shot special effects like faster movement, additions to a character’s strength, dice roll modifiers, etc. which can be used by any character over the course of the campaign.

In order to win at this game, players have to choose characters carefully, have a plan of action yet be ready to change plans as you encounter various threats. Getting good rolls in order to eliminate threats also helps. Due to the short number of turns (between 5-7 rounds on average) you have to move quickly and decisively in order to win. Splitting forces may be occasionally necessary but should only be done rarely as most time you need the full team to handle the threats on a particular sub location.

Once you get going, the game does play fairly well and you do get a good sense of theme as your team fights it out with the terrorists in order to rescue the hostages, defuse the bomb, etc. The variety of ways you can play the game and the different ways you can play the game also help with the game play. The main letdown is the rule book which requires repeated read through in order to understand the rules thoroughly. Furthermore, the special abilities of both the characters and the support cards are explained in the rule book but not on the cards which means you are constantly flipping back to the rule book in order to remind yourself on what your characters special ability is. Printing the abilities on the player character cards would have made the game a lot easier to play. In order to fully enjoy the game you do have to put in a fair amount of time and effort in order to learn the game properly.

Overall I had hoped for a “24” or “Flashpoint” kind of feel from Countdown: Special Ops, of being part of a team out to rescue hostages but, at best, I got a decent but not exceptional game. Hopefully the game designers will learn from this game and produce better games down the road. –

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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