The Specialists board game: A four-sided review

The Specialists board game is a 1-4 player family game that plays in about an hour. It’s recommended for ages 14+ on the box, but that’s way higher than the reality. I’d say gamer kids of 10 would be fine with it – maybe a little lower.

The theme sees you putting together a team of (you guessed it) specialists to pull off a series of heists. It works well enough, but in reality this is a largely abstract dice drafting and set collection card game.

In the box you’ll find six reversible boards (that come together to make the main board), four small player boards, 21 dice, 100+ cards, and 150+ cardboard chits. The iconography is clear and the stylised cartoon art evokes the Oceans 11/cool heist style theme well. All the components are standard quality, making the £30-ish price feel about right. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, at the time of writing you’ll have to import it. But hopefully it will make its way to the UK.

Teaching The Specialists board game

The Specialists board game borrows mechanisms from all over the place, putting them together in an interesting way. So gamers will get the hang of things very easily. Players use dice they draft each round to hire and/or activate specialists as part of their crew. Each dice number will always ‘hire’ the same type of crew member (hacker, safe cracker, muscle etc). But the dice number needed to ‘activate’ them will vary. Each specialist will provide you with a symbol of their type – either permanently (if hired) and/or just for that turn (if activated).

Just once, when you hire a specialist, you can activate them to get resources. This works as it does in Deus. You can trigger each specialist you already have of the same type as well as the new one. The difference here is you also have the option to trigger only the one you just got – but as many times as you have crew of that type. This can be important, as each crew member gives different resources (equipment – a spent currency needed for all heists – victory points, dice etc) which may be valuable/not at different times.

The heists

After the hiring/activating part of your turn, you can (potentially) perform a heist. All you need is enough equipment (which you then spend, so have to build up once more) and enough crew symbols of the right types. These can come from one-off tokens. But largely they’re on your crew members, so build up over time – giving you access to more valuable targets. There are 10 cities you can ‘visit’, across four continents. But you can only pull off a heist in each city once.

Completing a heist is guaranteed if you meet the requirements. In each city you initially have a choice of casino, bank or (two) jewellery robberies. A casino gives you the most money (read: victory points), then banks, then jewellery. But in the reverse of that order, having done that type of heist may trigger various crew bonuses. For example, a triggered specialist may give you one equipment for each jewellery heist you’ve done. Similarly, you get bonus tokens for your first jewellery and bank heists. As well as for collecting three of the same type of specialist, one of each type, or being the first onto a continent board.

The game ends after 12 rounds, or if someone manages to pull off seven heists at the end of an earlier one. The winner is the player who has accrued the most cash from their heists.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While I enjoyed my plays of The Specialists board game, the pacing nagged at me. It just doesn’t feel quite right. Especially at the start, if you don’t get lucky, it’s easy to go several rounds without actually doing a heist. Sure, things will probably even out later. And those who start slow can finish big. But too often it feels as if you’ve ‘failed’ in a round. Which isn’t a good feeling to have so often in a game. It also lacks a narrative arc. As while you do get to pull off higher ranked heists later, their rewards are simply slightly more of the same things. Especially as there is no risk for the rewards.
  • The thinker: There are long term decisions to be made here. Do you want to go lower yield heists to potentially increase repeat bonuses? Will you try to spread out your crew’s skills, or specialise to get some juicy bonuses? These choices should be interesting. But the high levels of unmitigable luck can easily make them insignificant. As while there are potentially strategic decisions to be made, whether they have any meaning is going to come down to a variety of tactical decisions – but most of all luck. Sadly, there really isn’t enough dice mitigation and card choice to make this a game that’s actually about decisions.
  • The trasher: While you can’t mess directly with your opponents, passive interactions can make a massive difference. As a tactical game fan, I quite enjoyed The Specialists. Your choice of dice and specialists is quite limited each round and you can clearly see what everyone else has – so can mess with them. Each is going to be useful for something later, so sniping won’t hurt too much. So keeping an eye on your opponents can alter your decision. Perhaps you can stop them getting a full set/their third of a type for a bonus? Or get into a continent first to ensure a bonus marker. Not a favourite, but I did enjoy this one.
  • The dabbler: I love the theme and art integration! The game is simple and plays smoothly. But it can become frustrating if what you need doesn’t come up at times you can get to it first. That said, in bum rounds, there’s always an extra option (‘the informant’) available – which gives you a small something (a dice, equipment etc). You can have some fun with the theme, as you hire your crew and head off to the various cities to complete your heists. But overall I found it a little dry. And the frustrations and slow pacing weren’t conducive to really get into it. Overall, it was fine. But it didn’t really spark my imagination.

Key observations

The Specialists board game is rating a solid 7.3 on Board Game Geek at time of writing. Which feels fair. It is a well-produced and good-looking game. The boards don’t really slot together to make a cohesive whole, which is odd. But otherwise it looks great. And everything works, is simple to understand and, it pootles along nicely for about an hour.

In a crowded market, is this enough? The criticisms of the game so far seem to be incredibly mild. It’s described as “meh”, “OK”, or “mildly positive”. But for me, that’s exactly the problem. I had a nice time each time I played The Specialists. But the reason it came off the shelf was because I needed to review it, not because I had a particular desire to play it. For this reason, I’d suggest it could well have legs in the mainstream market for people looking for a nice, well themed family game. But in the hobby arena, I’d suggest it’s found wanting.

I felt it was under-developed. And wonder what a more experienced publisher would’ve done with the same core card mechanism, art and premise. The dice mechanism feels out of place, putting too much randomness into what should’ve been an interesting puzzle of a game. It’s as if the publisher thought, dice will help it sell to the family market – but haven’t really implemented it well enough to get away with it. What you end up with is most of a euro game, with a light family game mechanism trying to drive it along. This can work well, but I don’t think they’ve quite pulled it off here.

The rulebook also comes in for some criticism. It seems reasonably well laid out, with examples etc. But a lot of edge cases have been missed and it’s pretty clear the English rules weren’t checked by a native English speaker. We got by, but it isn’t great. The solo mode is, well, OK. But if anything you feel the lack of dice mitigation even more than usual. And you’re basically aiming for a ‘Hall of Fame’ score with no real difficulty settings.

Conclusion: The Specialists board game

I was excited to play The Specialists. I dig the theme, love the Deus-style card triggering mechanism and enjoy a family game. But unfortunately, the game just didn’t quite rise high enough to be a keeper. Because while it looks great and plays smoothly (once you’ve got your head around the rulebook), it just doesn’t spark brightly enough. I’m sure a lot of people will get a real kick out of it. But for a long-in-the tooth gamer such as myself, who has seen all this before, there wasn’t enough to make me come back for one last job. Bad Company won the battle of the Essen 2021 family robbery games for me.

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