Stealth is a well-worn staple of video games nowadays, whether you're eagle-diving onto an unsuspected guard's head in Assassin's Creed or making a hasty wardrobe change in Hitman. While at a glance the genre may not be as obviously popular or prolific over on the tabletop - nobody's pulling off silenced headshots in Monopoly, after all - stealth board games have existed in cardboard for almost as long as they have on TV screens.
One of the earliest stealth board games was Scotland Yard, released in 1983 - just two years after Sega arcade game 005 pioneered the genre for video games (or four after stealthy shoplifting game Manbiki Shounen released on PC in Japan, depending on who you ask). Scotland Yard introduced the idea of hidden movement gameplay, with one player controlling invisible criminal Mr. X as they led the police on a goose-chase around London. Instead of a pawn or token on the board, Mr. X tracked their movements on a notepad, with only occasional clues given to the pursuing detectives as they attempted to corner the slippery criminal before they ran out of time.
Hidden movement board games have become one of the tabletop's most popular sub-genres in the decades since. Options range from retellings of Dracula (Fury of Dracula) to a number of games about hunting down Jack the Ripper (the best being Whitehall Mystery), and even a modern successor to childhood classic Battleship in the frantic team-based submarine-battling game Captain Sonar.
For those who prefer their stealth games to be mined from a particular vein of tactical stealth action, Specter Ops offers the closest answer to a true Metal Gear Solid board game.
One player takes on the role of a Snake-a-like secret agent infiltrating the facilities of Raxxon, the Umbrella-esque corp that also appears in zombie co-op hit Dead of Winter. Everyone else takes on the roles of superpowered baddies trying to find and eliminate the sneaky threat, a la MGS1's Foxhound, Snake Eater's Cobras or Guns of the Patriots' Beauty and the Beast Unit. Fans of Kojima's eccentric bosses will see more than a few sly nods here, and for good reason - creator Emerson Matsuuchi originally designed the 2015 game as a Metal Gear Solid board game, but was unable to secure the licence from Konami.
Like carefully skating the edge of a vision cone, the unseen agent must thread their way across the map in search of objectives while avoiding the hunters' lines of sight, tracking their route on a hidden notepad. Crossing a line of sight means placing a miniature as a 'last seen' reminder, something that'll feel instantly familiar to anyone who's played a video game in the last 10 years. At the agent's disposal are equipment cards - you'll have to provide your own iPod and rations, sorry - that can be used to stun, distract and disrupt the searching baddies.
The hunters have their own abilities, including the option to hop in a vehicle to cross the map or use its motion sensor to narrow down the agent's location. If the hunters are able to catch and inflict enough damage to the agent before they complete their objectives and escape, they win.
At its heart, Specter Ops - and the hidden movement genre as a whole - is an extravagant game of hide and seek. Its embellishments - abilities, objectives, items - keep things fresh time after time and provide a richer experience overall, but the appeal remains the same: stay hidden, or find the person hiding. Sliding out of view while your opponents fruitlessly hunt in the wrong place never gets old, while finally cornering the nimble agent is a satisfying reward for minutes of tactical searching and net-closing.
The original Specter Ops is great by itself, but its 2018 sequel Specter Ops: Broken Covenant improves on near-perfection with the option to have a hunter turn traitor and gain new abilities partway through the mission, as well as a better balanced experience thanks to the option for agents to pick up additional items from supply caches around the map. (Did somebody say OSP?) On the other side, the hunters can be accompanied by a scent-tracking dog to keep the agent on their toes.
If it sounds like Specter Ops would make for the perfect stealth framework to slap the Metal Gear Solid name on and make an easy buck, you'd be right. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we'll be able to play an official MGS board game anytime soon. After the success of Specter Ops, Matsuuchi announced a licensed Metal Gear Solid board game in 2018, originally planned for release in 2019, only for the project to be delayed and ultimately cancelled last year. A second, separate Metal Gear Solid board game based on the iconic boss battle with Psycho Mantis only surfaced earlier this year after it too had already been shelved.
With the future of Metal Gear Solid not looking promising across the board, Specter Ops will continue to be the next best alternative for those of us looking to scratch our stealth-action itch on the tabletop. After all, what more do you need for stealth greatness than a cardboard box?
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