Designer: Brandon Beran Artist: Josh Cappel
Publisher: Grand Gamers Guild
2 players 15 min. ages 8+ MSRP $15
Cue the James Bond music….
In Pocket Ops, you are a spymaster, infiltrating a secret facility with a team of agents to steal a doomsday device. Unfortunately for you, a rival agency has sent their own spies on the very same mission. Using the tools and skills available, you must position your agents in key areas so you can grab the device before your opponent.
Pocket Ops is a game that could almost fit in your pocket. They’d have to be big pockets, yes, but it’s worth noting this is a game you can take anywhere and play anywhere. The entire game fits in a box that is 4 inches square.
Inside this bite sized box, there’s a board, a set of blueprint cards and wooden agent tokens for each player. There’s also a cardboard key card plus the dreaded doomsday device and its 2 power crystals.
The board is a three by three grid depicting the secret base. Each grid space is lettered A through I.
The nine Blueprint cards match the lettered grid spaces on the board, so each player has a card lettered A-I.
The agent tokens come in two forms – regular spies and specialists. You have 7 regular spies and 8 specialists. The general spies look like ninjas and the specialists have an icon depicting their special skill.
And the doomsday device and its crystals are how you keep score. Collect the device and a crystal and you win!
To play, each player takes their cards and general spies. Flip your specialist tokens face down and mix them up. Draw two and secretly decide which one to keep. Reveal your selection to your opponent and you’re ready to play!
Pocket Ops draws its inspiration from a game almost everyone already knows: tic-tac-toe.
The goal remains exactly the same: arrange your pieces on the board in a row of 3, vertically horizontally or diagonally.
In the classic game you draw an X or an O to claim a space. In Pocket Ops, you’ll place a spy or a specialist.
How your spies and specialists get onto the board is a much more tricky proposition in this game!
Each turn, one player will try to place a piece and the other player will try to predict where that piece is being played. The player with the Keycard token will be the Placer in the first turn and his or her opponent will be the Predictor.
Each turn in the game has three parts and goes like this:
1. The Predictor selects one of the 9 Blueprint cards and places it face down. This letter card is the Prediction.
2. The Placer selects either a regular spy or a specialist token and places it on a grid space on the board.
3. The Prediction card is then revealed. If the Prediction was correct, the token is removed from the board. If the Prediction was wrong, the token remains on the board. If the token was the Specialist, that token’s ability kicks in.
So, as the Placer on any given turn you may not actually get to play a piece if the Predictor can get in your head!
When the turn ends, the Keycard passes to the other player and roles are now reversed. The new Predictor selects a card. The Placer selects a token and places it on the board and the Prediction card is revealed.
And the game continues back and forth – predicting and placing (or not!) – until one player maneuvers three tokens into a line on the board. The first win, you grab a power crystal, The second win, you grab the doomsday device and celebrate your victory. So it’s best 2 out of 3.
The Specialist tokens really make Pocket Ops shine.
Each player has 8 of them and each one has a unique ability that will trigger if the token is played to the board.
Each Specialist’s ability changes the way you look at the board and the options available to win.
So let’s take a closer look at them.
Most are played to empty spaces on the board.
The Sniper eliminates a foe (an opponent’s token) from a space that is in a straight path (no diagonals).
The Mole allows you to switch two pieces adjacent to the Mole – one must be friendly and one a foe.
The Ninja eliminates an adjacent foe (including diagonals).
The Pusher travels into an adjacent space on the board and pushes other tokens into the next space or even off the board.
The Grappler swaps places with a foe in a straight line (no diagonals).
The Hacker allows you to play TWO prediction cards as the Predictor from now on until you make a correct Prediction.
There are two Specialists that are played to spaces already containing a token
The Courier is played to a space with your own spy. The Courier pushes that spy into an empty adjacent space (no diagonals).
Last but not least the Assassin is played to a space with an opponent’s spy. The opponent’s spy is eliminated.
These abilities, taken on all at once, might seem like a lot to keep track of, but keep in mind you will only ever have one Specialist in play during a round. Each ability is really quite easy to grok, so you only really have to keep track of one at a time (Even so, I created a simple quick reference sheet for the Specialists you can download here – it even fits in the tiny box).
The effect these Specialists have on the game is tremendous. From a seemingly straightforward game, the board becomes a very strategic battleground. No token is safe and no token can be guaranteed to stay put!
As the Predictor you have to think beyond the obvious 3 in a row tic-tac-toe strategies to see how and when and where your opponent might be tempted to use his or her Specialist. LIkewise, as the Placer you have to be cagy about when to use your Specialist. Select an obvious spot and you might not benefit from its ability at all!
There’s already plenty of cat and mouse in this game, move and countermove, trying to make the less obvious choice each round so you can just get a piece ANY piece on the board. Adding Specialists makes this game cat and mouse chased by a rhino through a hedge maze filled with angry porcupines.
If I started out this review by saying “I’ve got this great new take on tic-tac-toe” you might have clicked away or at the very least rolled your eyes a bit.
After all, tic-tac-toe, played amongst skilled players, is a game that cant be won. It’s a great discovery and lesson in life when we learn this. But it pretty much kills much of our interest in ever playing the game. The game isnt fun enough since the outcome is all but ordained.
It takes real moxie to look at a classic like this and say, I can make it relevant, strategic and fun to a modern game playing audience. But that’s just what designer Brandon Beran has done.
And even if the game comes to a draw, like the original, its not a draw. The player with the Keycard (the Placer) loses the round! Which adds another layer of thinking when the board begins to fill up.
What I love most about Pocket Ops is how it takes something so familiar and uses that foundation to do something interesting and challenging, while still preserving the essential simplicity and speed of the original. Despite all these extra layers, a typical game takes no more than 10 minutes to play.
When is a game more than just a variation? When does a game rise up out of the primordial soup to evolve into its own animal?
This might be a question for the ages but I’d argue that a game makes this leap when it finds a way to build something new atop the foundation of the old. Adding deduction and bluffing elements to the basic 3 in a row goal of the original allows Pocket Ops to make that leap.
This isn’t tic-tac-toe on steroids. It’s Pocket Ops. It can and does stand on its own two feet. You can see its family heritage but you shouldn’t be too quick to judge based on from which branch of the great game tree it grows.
If you’re looking for a quick game that you can take practically anywhere and teach to practically anyone – a game that’ll provide a challenge after hundreds of plays – and a game that’s just plan fun – stop looking. You’ve found it in Pocket Ops.