I love heist games. Get a team together, rob a bank, pull off a big “score” at a casino, run away with millions in cash and prizes.
Burgle Bros? Yes, please. I’m one of eight living gamers who thought Escape Plan was a work of art. (I know a lot of “Lacerda Snobs” (my term) like to dump on Escape Plan, but I love it.) To me, Clank! is a heist game and I love it; while Caper: Europe wasn’t one of my favorites, the artwork and the theme really landed well for me.
I also love heist movies: all of the Ocean’s flicks (well, maybe not Ocean’s Eight, which was strangely average despite a stellar cast), Heist, The Score, The Italian Job, Heat, The Sting, Logan Lucky, Inside Man.
When I stopped by the Explor8 booth at SPIEL ‘22 to learn more about The Specialists, I was hooked right from the jump. A heist board game with spectacular-looking art! Casinos! Thick cardboard money tokens! And a playtime of about an hour? Sold. The team at Explor8 handed me a review copy, so I was excited to bring this back to the States to get it on the table.
I’ll Take All of the Money Now
The Specialists is a dice-drafting set collection game for 1-4 players. Players rob banks, casinos and jewelry stores to amass millions. At the end of the game, the player whose crew has stolen the most cash wins.
Across a series of major cities, players recruit specialists into their crew as full-time members or as one-time contractors. They do this by drafting dice from a dice pool on their turn, then using the dice to hire a specialist and optionally using a second die to trigger a reward.
Then, using all of the specialists hired on the current and previous turns, you’ll be able to take down a single business in a single city on one of the four continent boards (South America, Europe, Asia, and…Las Vegas, which is apparently its own continent). To complete a heist, the game makes things simple: bring the right number of drivers, acrobats, hackers, actors, safecrackers and heavies to the party, and you’ll leave with cash, assuming you have the right equipment. (We’ll come back to equipment in a moment.)
If a player can’t take the hiring and/or heist action as a part of their turn, they get a small bonus for passing, maybe a free activation of a specialist or a couple million bucks. (I know, “a couple million bucks” sounds like a lot. But in a game where players end up with $50-$70M in cash, it’s a drop in the bucket.) When a player completes their seventh heist, that’s the last round of the game. The Specialists will automatically end if no one completes their seventh heist by the end of 12 rounds.
The Specialists is pretty breezy because drafting a die, hiring a specialist, and completing heists only takes a minute or two. My two-player games of The Specialists took about 45 minutes, and experienced players can definitely knock this out in half an hour.
How Many Mr. Greens Do We Need?
The Specialists was an above-average time at the table, but it was never groundbreaking, overly thematic, or exceptional in the way that the finest games make memories for the players. I wasn’t disappointed with this, but I was a bit surprised.
That’s because it never feels like a heist movie. I was critical of games such as Caper: Europe in certain areas, but it always felt like I was in a foreign country, getting gear, setting up accomplices, and committing crimes. Burgle Bros.? Same thing. The heists feel dangerous, there are cops/bouncers everywhere, and you might not make it out of the building with your loot.
The Specialists feels like a film from the 1970s or 80s where the “good” protagonists (thieves, who double as possibly murderous people) always get away. But at least in those films, there are characters trying to get in the way of the nefarious plans.
There’s no real drama in The Specialists. The biggest drama in my plays? The card draw each round. Depending on your player count, 4-6 cards appear in the specialist market each turn, and the first player that round gets dibs on the most options for their heist plans. I was shocked how often I needed, say, a driver card, and none came out in a round, or I was late enough in the turn order that another player snaked the only helpful card in the display.
That turns The Specialists into a tricky proposition. It’s not always a skill-based experience.
Other factors make planning a bit tricky as well. The biggest factor is the equipment requirements. Each heist requires having 2-5 equipment. Equipment mainly appears as a bonus when activating specialist cards, but not all cards offer equipment, and sadly the cards don’t specialize their bonuses by card type. That means that all six specialist categories offer all of the game’s different bonuses. As a backup, you can spend a die as a wild equipment on each heist. (Ultimately, this is quite dangerous because extra dice are rare.) While there are other ways to make a little bit of money in The Specialists, heists are the main way to score. And if you don’t have equipment, you can’t do heists.
The game’s thematic opportunities abound, but the four-person design team didn’t take advantage of enough of these opportunities. You’ll be excused for looking at the box cover of The Specialists while thinking that you will be taking on the role of one of those six characters.
No. You, the player, are a nameless, faceless criminal gang leader who is essentially a behind-the-scenes handler (imagine the Jon Voight character from Heat). As the leader of, uh, Purple Gang—I made that up, but I am the owner of the purple player board—I need two drivers, a heavy, and a hacker for a job in Lima. When recruiting, you’ll be able to hire a driver named Ms. Orange.
But, ALL of the drivers are named Ms. Orange and feature the same picture. In The Specialists, the specialists are both the specialty AND the character. This led to some interesting questions during play:
“Do you think it would have made more sense to use drivers (orange) as a suit or character class, then create a pool of different-looking art featuring different people as drivers? Or does it feel like the budget was tight for additional illustrations?”
“Now that I have three Mr. Greens, I qualify for the Mr. Green Expert Tile.” [Each specialty has a tile available for players who can race to get these awards first, which provide the owner an ongoing player power.] “Does it make sense to hire more Mr. Greens?”
“Does it feel right that I need two safecrackers to rob a bank? Don’t most banks have just one safe???”
Also, I think the game would be more interesting if the goal was simply to hire a crew to pull off a heist, with more economic elements at play. For example, you never need to spend a single dollar to hire a specialist. You do, however, need to draft a rolled die to hire someone. I’m still not really sure The Specialists needed the dice at all; couldn’t all of the action here be conducted just by using money? That would also eliminate one facet of the luck factor on display every round.
A Solid Find (When It’s On Sale)
The Specialists provided a decent amount of fun for my family game night. It plays fast, it’s fun to imagine robbing a jewelry store without any consequences, and some of the milestone awards available on a player’s turn provide decent ways to plan out your next turn.
While I was hoping for a thematic home run, I’m fine with what’s here. The core experience includes two mini-expansions that provide variable starting setups for each player, as well as a “hideout” card that provides a one-time bonus. For experienced gamers, I recommend starting with these mini expansions straight away.
The game’s production is great, and even though I wanted different specialists to hire for various jobs, the artwork of the board is solid (albeit a little busy) and the cardboard money chits do a great job. Yes, I swapped out my money tokens for poker chips—it just made the game feel more like a heist game!
All good, never great. If you can find a copy of this one on sale at your local game store, give The Specialists a look.