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XCOM – The Board Game Review

We’ve barely entered 2015 and already we have a hyped up mega-release in the board gaming world.

Ever since XCOM was announced as a board game it has got a lot of fans of the computer game hot in anticipation, although it’s also received a bit of sceptism from gamers and technophobes who aren’t too keen on having an App as a fundamental aspect of the game.

Now I have the following two advantages working for me:

  • I’ve never played the computer game or any iteration of it.
  • I’m perfectly at home with technology and using Apps as a resource

This means that not only am I not going to be biased with regards to the franchise being stamped on, but I’m also not going to needlessly rate the game down just because it requires an App.

As some of you may know, I readily welcome the use of Apps in board games – we are in modern times after all and companion Apps, in the past, have really improved the experience and speed of games. With the help of Apps – 7 Wonders is a lot easier to score, Sentinels of the Multiverse makes HP/status tracking less of a chore and my throat is thankful that I don’t have to spout out the entire night time phase of One Night Ultimate Werewolf leaving it all to Eric Summerer. Even Alchemists makes life easier with the potion mixing App function it uses.

So with that all being said, this is a review I’ve looked forward to writing since I heard about the forthcoming release. A sci-fi themed co-operative game with an App requirement, based on a franchise, published by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Eric Lang – who pretty much dominated 2014– this should be interesting…

XCOM Board Game Cover

Designer: Eric Lang

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

# of Players: 1-4

Ages: 12+

Play Time: 60-120 Minutes

BGG Rank/Rating: 308 / 7.33

<PUNCH> Welcome To Earth!!!

XCOM is a co-operative game which requires an App to play. The App teaches the main rules of the game (a basic book shows the setup and component list) as well as takes you through each phase of the game, round by round. You win the battle for Earth if you can hold off the alien invasion long enough to complete the final mission based on the alien’s invasion plan. You will lose if your home base is destroyed by raiders or the world descents into chaos through sheer panic.

Each player takes charge of a role (Commander, Central Officer, Squad Leader, and Science Officer), each of which has different assets, actions and abilities during the game. Each player has various resources at their disposal such as scientists, satellites, interceptor jets and various soldier units with which to fight the aliens. However, all of these cost money and there’s a limited amount of funding available from the world.

XCOM Board Game In Play

The first half of a round is a timed phase where the App spouts out important updates for the players to react to. UFO’s will be placed on the board, alien foot-troops will be placed in the base and on missions and each player will have to perform specific actions in a limited amount of time. The order in which these events occur is dictated by the App depending on the invasion plan, the difficulty and how well the players have fended off orbital satellite attacks.

In the second half of a round, in turn, the players resolve the after-effects of what has occurred in the timed phase.

The Science Officer – Researches technologies to help the other team members.

The Central Officer – Fights off orbital UFOs.

The Commander – Checks the funding and fights off UFO’s from the different continents.

The Squad Leader – Resolves missions and base defences.

These tasks are all done by using dice in which a predetermined amount are rolled and all successes collated to see if the task is passed or the enemy is killed. However, in addition to rolling for successes there is a red alien die that you roll to determine the alien’s reaction to the threat. If the die is equal to or less than the threat level (1 to 5) then you suffer a loss of units or resources. You can re-roll the dice looking for more successes, but doing so pushes the threat level higher.

When all actions are resolved, the next round begins with another timed phase. Play continues until one of the win or loss conditions is met.

The App Is Telling Us What To Do… Does It Still Feel Thematic???

First off the bat, the App is fantastic. It’s never once crashed or frozen or bugged out on me. It’s intuitive, functional and contains all the rules in an organised index format. The tutorial is also very well laid-out giving full descriptions of every role in the game and how they are supposed to act in each phase. You really owe it to yourself to run through the tutorial in full for your first game, solo or otherwise.

The music/sounds are an added bonus and being a piece of software, expansions to the game should be easy to implement by way of downloaded content and updates. However, I don’t recommend using this on a phone with a small screen. Ideally you want a large screen phone or any kind of tablet to allow for easier control and for showing other players.

The timed phase helps to keep the game flowing and forces you to think fast. Some have argued that it’s a little un-necessary, but I don’t mind it here. It keeps the tension up as you’re quickly making decisions between various options and each one you make is meaningful to the game. I don’t quite get why the Commander collecting his funds needs to be timed, but it’s a minor quibble. I like that you can pause the App if you’re really struggling or helping out a new player, but don’t go abusing this.

XCOM Board Game App

I particularly like how the order in which events take place is jumbled up by the effectiveness of your Orbital defence. For example I had a solo game turn where my satellites had an Epic Fail moment and left 3 UFO’s in orbit. As a result, on my next turn I ended up having to place my interceptors out first before even knowing where the UFO’s were going to turn up! It’s a really cool implementation of simulating a scrambled communication network, an example of how well the theme ties in and how an App can be used in innovative ways to do some clever tricks.

The resolution phase is where the main action takes place with the die rolling and seeing the effects of your earlier planning. The process is done in clear and separated steps and once you know what you’re doing, each can be done quickly. The theme isn’t as strong in some aspects as it could be. Skill tests, for example, are based on symbols on cards rather than any explanation for why you’re making the test and even killing enemies is based on using particular units but without any explanation of why you would need that unit in the first place. Such elements of theme will require a bit of roleplaying from the players, but the effects caused by success/failure do make sense. UFO’s will scramble orbital satellites and cause panic over the world, aliens will damage your HQ in raid attacks, scientists will become exhausted from over-working on research projects and the alien corpses from missions are given to the Chief Scientist as salvage for use with their assets.

But of course, a lot of the fun derives from all of the players shouting at each other to get their jobs done. I still find it hilarious when the Commander is reminding his officers that he can’t afford to fund their efforts and wants the Science Officer to hire cheap labour! The timed phase keeps everyone on edge and as you only have limited time to discuss amongst your colleagues, the light panic can cause some amusing outbursts. There’s also not much room for alpha gamers to spoil the experience as you only have so long to perform your actions so new players can feel like they are contributing to the efforts.

Each player gets enough to do on each round with dice and cards and tokens to not feel left out and every role is crucial. It’s hard to pick a weakest link among them as each have their pros and cons so in a way they are very well balanced, but to summarise my thoughts:

  • Commander – tricky task to manage the budget, but involved and you get to use the cool interceptor miniatures for global defence.
  • Central Officer – doesn’t get as much to do in the phases, but controls the App so it’s good if you like barking instructions out (one for the veteran players)
  • Squad Leader – next to no assets to use but you get to use a variety of squad miniatures and are heavily involved in the resolution phase
  • Science Officer – not much variety in actions, but a key player in the game and has plenty of choice in techs. Lots to think about quickly in the timed phase.

If there’s anything that feels a little lacking in the theme it’s the climax of the game in the final mission. The choice of the objective at the start of the game has a bearing on how the App behaves but it doesn’t feel like you’re assaulting the enemy stronghold or destroying a master plan or anything like that. The final mission is exactly like a normal mission, just a bit harder. And if you didn’t know the game well you wouldn’t be able to tell which objective you were playing without someone telling you.

Bow Down To Our Alien Overlords…Was It The Dice’s Fault???

As you can tell, a lot of the resolution phase is dominated by throwing dice to pass a skill test, kill an enemy or conduct research. On top of this you have the threat mechanic which again is dependent on a die roll and one which probably has a more drastic effect on the immediate situation. Now, for some gamers who like full control, this might grate on them a bit as defence plans can go awry simply by bad rolls.

XCOM Board Game CardsHowever, this game lets you mitigate this much more strongly than in other ventures. Firstly, the threat mechanic is based on “push your luck” meaning that the player is making the choice to keep re-rolling rather than cut their losses and remain cautious. Yes, you can bust on the first roll with an unlucky “1”, but that’s a 1 in 8 chance and techs can help in this fashion.

There’s also another mitigation aspect! The technologies, that the Science Officer can bring out, focus a lot on improving the odds of success for the other roles. Improved guns allow automatic successes on enemies with the right unit and various assets will do the same for UFO’s. Some assets even allow re-rolls in certain situations, as mentioned above, and others may increase the number of dice thrown. If you want to mitigate the luck in this game, you better have a good Science Officer for they are your best friend in doing so.

Because of both of these factors, I don’t feel that the dice issue is as bad here as maybe in other games. Take Ghost Stories, a co-op I also enjoy, but one which is beating you down in general, let alone when you get a bad roll. Robinson Crusoe is also a game that could easily fit in this category. Even then, how many Co-op games do you know that don’t have a decent amount of luck involved – whether by a die roll or drawing from a deck of cards? To be fair, on easier difficulties, you don’t get completely screwed by a few bad die rolls in X-COM but you’re no less tense when your squad leader is attempting the final mission and it’s everything to play for!

I Feel Like I Can Take The Empire On By Myself… BY YOURSELF???

XCOM allows for up to 4 players (which is a pain in itself as so many people want to play), varying the amount of roles that each player will have. But as a result, this means that much to my delight you can also play it solo when your friend’s are busy……yes…..busy. But then you’re taking on all four roles including the operation of the App by yourself and it’s a whole different experience.

XCOM Board Game Base Defense

Having to be concerned with your own single role is daunting enough, but when you have to worry about all of them you really need to have your brain in gear. It’s a great way to learn the game via the tutorial, but can be overwhelming for some. The tension racks up as you’re trying to juggle all the different requirements, particularly the Commander’s XCOM budget. It’s a great way to test your mental arithmetic and multi-tasking skills and this makes solo-play fun. Yes, you lose the banter and shouting, but you’re engrossed, all the way through, and the background music and sound effects of the App help keep the immersion constant. If you don’t like the App music, stick on your favourite movie soundtrack, it all works. I like having Aliens playing when I’m attempting Legendary Encounters!

XCOM The Board Game… The Final Verdict

Eric Lang has done it again, putting out a very cool game that has good lasting appeal and tense co-operative play. With multiple roles, multiple objectives and multiple difficulties there should be plenty here to keep this on the shelf for a long while. The timed phase adds a nice degree of tension and the theme is adequately portrayed in the game, but it would have been nice for a little more differentiation in the final mission objectives.

The App itself was a vital part of getting this game to work and it does the job nicely. Clever innovation and smooth operation make this a breeze to use with XCOM and it’s actually an easier way to scout for rules via the index then referring to a booklet. I wonder if some Euro games could benefit from this – imagine how useful it would be to have an App rules index for an Uwe Rosenberg game.

The dice will also be a concern for some. Coupling having to get successes in general with the threat mechanic means that bad luck can screw you over regardless of good planning which keeps up the tension and makes it a good challenge, but can also make it frustrating at times. It can be mitigated, but it’s still going to play a part.

The best co-op ever? No it’s not; others have stronger theme and a wider audience. But a damn fine one? Certainly yes and it even makes me fancy giving the PC version of XCOM a go… Oh for some extra hours in the day!

You Will Like This Game If:

  • You want a Co-op game that brings out the teamwork among players. You can’t be a lone ranger here.
  • You like unique player abilities in games – each role plays very differently.
  • You want a challenge – this is no cakewalk even on easier difficulties.

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • You don’t like timed actions. Half the game is timed and full of tension and pausing it constantly will only get irritating.
  • You don’t like the chancy nature of the dice – the progress in the game is going to be partially luck dependent regardless of your strategies.
  • You are in the camp of not liking having to use an app to dictate half your game.
5 (100%) 1 vote
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Luke Hector

I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.

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