A preview of Pocket Ops

Whenever I hear a game is inspired by a classic game, I’m always intrigued. King of Tokyo puts a new spin on Yahtzee. Letter Tycoon is like Scrabble with cards. So many games manage to offer up a fresh take on a classic idea.

So when I heard that Pocket Ops was inspired by tic-tac-toe, I was immediately interested.

Just kidding.

No, actually, I was like, “Is this a joke? Tic-tac-toe barely even qualifies as a ‘game.’ What’s next? Fill in the blank? Connect the dots? There could be a whole Highlights Magazine collection.”

Even after reading the publisher’s description of Pocket Ops from Marc at Grand Gamers Guild—which essentially said, “Yes, this is based on tic-tic-toe. Yes, I know, that sounds crazy. Everyone makes that face that you’re making. But it’s actually really good.”—I still didn’t believe it.

Then I actually played Pocket Ops.

In Pocket Ops, you’re a spymaster sending spies to infiltrate a facility. Like tic-tac-toe, it’s a two player game with a three-by-three grid and your goal is to get three of your spies in a row. However, unlike tic-tac-toe, each turn, before you place a piece, your opponent uses a deck of cards to guess where you’re going to place. If they predict correctly, your placement is rejected: you can’t ever go where your opponent thinks you’re going to go.

This whole new layer of second-guessing transforms Pocket Ops from the trivially tractable tic-tac-toe into an entertaining, and even slightly sweat-inducing, experience.

Prototype components for Pocket Ops.

On top of that, Pocket Ops includes several types of special pieces that allow you to take an action after you place them (“assassins” that remove an opponent’s piece, “pushers” that push adjacent pieces, etc.). All of the specialists feel equally useful and interesting. Each round, you get a random one, so there’s plenty of variety and you never know exactly what to expect from your opponent.

Prototype specialists for Pocket Ops. Some of these are stretch goals for the Kickstarter, and will likely look much nicer in the published version.

This game is legit.

The first play of the game, you’re thinking, “It’s basically a one-in-nine shot in the dark to guess the other person’s move. And yet, most people go for the center square in tic-tac-toe… are they going to go for the center square here… or do they think that I think they’re going to go for the center square…”

As you get more and more pieces onto the board, it gets more and more interesting. You’ve got to wonder about things like whether the other player is going to go in the same space where you just blocked them last turn. Are they going to go for​ the immediate win, or are they not going to go for the win because they know I’ll probably block them? Also they haven’t used a special piece this round, maybe they’ll try to remove my piece…

As there are fewer and fewer open spaces on the board, it becomes clearer where you need to place, so the amount of second guessing keeps going up.

Plus, you’re almost never out of the game. Even if you’ve totally failed and the other player has three spots where they could win, you can still come out on top if you can successfully anticipate their next move.

There’s nothing more gratifying than when you watch your opponent decide what to do and put their piece on the board, and then you flip over your card and show you knew where they were going before they did.

Even if you lose, Pocket Ops is always best two out of three. The first win gets you a power crystal, and a second win means you get to power up the Doomsday Device (although, even though it’s called a “Doomsday Device,” by putting it together you are actually saving the world, not blowing it up). If you want to get cynical, the Doomsday Device is an unnecessarily elaborate score tracker, and yet… it’s just fun. There’s something tremendously satisfying about putting that crystal onto that empty, crystal-shaped space for the win.

Feel free to make celebratory noises that sound like a device powering up. Or not.

At this point in time, Grand Gamers Guild is a relatively new publisher. However, judging by their previous campaign for Unreal Estate, it’s clear that they care deeply about making solid games with excellent art and graphic design, and about keeping backers in the loop with frequent updates (and a surprising amount of puzzles).

Honestly, I doubt I will ever be able to look at tic-tac-toe again without thinking about how Pocket Ops is better. This is tic-tac-toe 2.0. This is tic-tac-toe fixed. This is tic-tac-toe transformed into a pocket-sized, take-anywhere, play-with-anyone board game where there’s actually something intriguing and fun going on.

Pocket Ops is on Kickstarter through June 26.

Disclaimer: A prototype review copy of this game was provided by Grand Gamers Guild.