Wednesday, April 01, 2015

XCOM The Board Game

I got into the XCOM franchise of games from Firaxsis with the modern relaunch in 2012. It's one of the few games I played a lot of when I got my new PC in 2013, even recording a YouTube series that included a squad of my friends defending the world from X-ray threat. Claire and I also enjoy watching another YouTube play by XCOM expert player BeagleRush, who plays at a level so far above me it's like someone who previously had never heard music listening to a full live symphony every week, and just like that hypothetical fellow, I thoroughly enjoy it every week, but have no idea how it's all done.

When Fantasy Flight Games announced an upcoming board game, I was mildly interested, but assumed it was going to be a miniatures strategy game mimicking the mission gameplay from the video games, and I am terrible at those. So, when previews started arriving, I grew more intrigued, as the designer Eric M. Lang decided to present a game focusing on the base management and global phase of the game instead, and I love that stuff.

XCOM The Board Game is a one to four player co-operative game where the players take on the four key roles of the XCOM Project command.

The Commander looks after global concerns, deploying Interceptors, while also keeping close track of the shared budget, and demanding that other roles "stop buying so much stuff!" Sending too few Interceptors results in UFO's staying on the board, harrassing everyone. Spending too much money has disasterous results on global trust in the Project, because clearly if you can't balance the books, you shouldn't be battling the mooks.

Speaking of mooks, the Squad Leader is in charge of the troops, assigning soldiers to missions and defending the base from attacks. Their role is most obviously critical to success, as successfully completed missions accelerate the chance of the final mission being triggered. But unlike some other roles, when things go bad for the Squad Leader, they go really bad, as soliders die and are taken away from possible combat rotation until the Commander can afford to buy them back.

The Chief Scientist spends their time researching new technology to upgrade the various roles in the game, providing new armour to the Squad Leader, the alien element Elerium to the Commander, or Alien Alloys for their own department, among others. While it is the most relaxed of the roles, it is also, aguably, actually the most vital to overall success, as it is the Scientist who keeps everyone else going when the chips are down.

Finally, there is the most interesting role in terms of mechanics, and also the most controvertial in terms of what it brings to the table, the Central Officer. Their role is to deploy satellites to orbit, but mostly to relay information to the other players. They do this using the free to download app, available on most popular devices and operating systems.

The app has caused some waves among core tabletop gamers, as some seem to feel that a board game should be without electronic attachments, especially one that isn't included in the box. To that, it's worth noting that:

  • Games have often come with nontraditional elements, from Atmosfear's videos to Scattergories' clockwork timer.
  • Everyone has a phone or tablet these days. Access to the app is unlikely to be an issue with even just minor effort.
  • The tasks of the app could be replicated with cards or dice, but only with extreme complexity in set-up and execution, and lots of limited-use components.

The XCOM game app lays out initial set-up, acts as a tutorial and rulebook, controls the game difficulty, what aliens you'll face and where your home base will be located. Relayed during play through the Central Officer, it tells players when to perform actions, from drawing cards to deploying units, and puts every such action under a tight time limit. The game has been built with the app in mind from the ground up, not tagged on halfway through developement, and it shows. It makes complex elements remarkably clean, while adding a tension and excitement that a deck of cards or roll of some dice could not.

Despite having those very seperate roles, communcation and player interaction is vital toward the success of the XCOM Project. Table talk is encouraged, especially during the Resolution Phase. The game is broken into two distinct phases, Timed and Resolution. The Timed Phase is, as you could guess, timed. The app tells you how much time you have to complete the task assigned, from a comfortable 30 seconds, to a few frantic moments. During the Timed Phase, players will commit their units to tasks, or chose cards to put into play, but nothing gets resolved. No dice get roled.

All the dice action happens during the Resolution Phase. This is not timed, allowing players to talk about how things went last round, and plan for the next, as well as activate cards for a wide variety of effects. It's a nice bit of downtime for everyone involved, allowing players to relax, grab a snack or use the washroom. It reminds me of something I heard about in relation to action movies. It's can't be go, go, go action for a full 90 minutes because you'll exhaust the audience. That's why so many great action movies have laugh-out-loud moments, or quiet, somber character pieces. This makes XCOM a much more relaxing game to play than other timed board games, such as Escape The Curse of the Temple or Space Alert.

I've had the joy of playing XCOM: The Board Game a lot recently, and with a wide variety of people, both friends and gamers I had only just met, thanks to a recent convention. I've taught the game to about a dozen or so people, and I can confidently say that it's remarkably easy to teach once you've had a game or two of practice. Pro Tip: Start with the dice rolling, in a broad generalisation. It gives a good basis for understanding why everything else happens. After a quick overview of how the game works, the first round covers most quetions that come up, and the game flows smoothly after that, even for new players.

XCOM is a fast, fun and intense. It's a fantastic co-op game that eliminates any possibility of "Expert Instruction", the possibility of a co-op game becoming a single player experience with viewers. Each player has their very specific roles, and while there is sometimes room for short discussion, the decision falls to the active player, often leading to tough choices that at least feel like you have ownership of that choice, even if it's the lesser of two evils. Actually, it's always the lesser of two evils.

It's a pity that all the rules are in the app. The box includes a single sheet for setup, but no paper rule book. While everything is in the app, it's not convenient for quick referencing rules. Relatedly, there are a few rules that the initial tutorial doesn't touch on, requiring players to search through the ap for answers to questions about exact mechanics or timing. This hurts especially when the tutorial seems to teach everything, while not actually doing to. Also, while most steps during the Resolution Phase will remind players to complete all elements of each step, one or two are missing, such as when a continent drops into full panic (the orange zone), you should move any UFOs in that continent to orbit. This is mentioned in the rules, but not the screen that asks about each continents status.

I love playing XCOM The Board Game, but it's not for everyone. I have a hard time getting it onto the table, and it's highly dependant on who shows up for games night. Anyone that has played it enjoys it, but not everyone is hungry for a second run. If you enjoy some tension in your games, a fun co-op experience and the truth that you will fail far more often than you will succeed, even on Easy, then XCOM might be for you.

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1 comment:

Jason Pure M said...

Hey Denis,

My name's Jason and I'm the deputy editor at Pure M. We're primarily an Irish music website but we're trying to branch out into other areas of culture too like literature, gaming, film, etc.

Would you be interested in contributing once a week to the gaming section on our site? This could be board or video games, or whatever you feel like!

Unfortunately we can't pay any of our writers as we're still a relatively new site, and from your blog it seems that your life just got a whole lot busier! But if you're interested, just send me an email at jason@puremzine.com

Best of luck, mate.
- Jason