So Much Sand in Space
When I was six years old, I wanted to make my money at the helm of a starship. However, spacefaring hasn’t moved on nearly as quickly as I’d hoped. So perhaps pushing around a plastic starship and slamming down metal “space coins” will help conquer my disappointment with the real world.
Xia Legends of a Drift System is billed as a sandbox space board game for 3-5 players. You’ll start out as a plucky captain of a lowly starship and work towards becoming “space famous”. The video game Minecraft typifies the “sandbox” game. Essentially, players are freed from the structure and direction normally found in games and are encouraged to forge their own path instead. Although most sandbox space video games with an open universe have been disappointing, I’d still consider selling your children and/or parents and/or beloved pet to get my grubby hands on an early copy of the upcoming video game No Man’s Sky. But will a space sandbox game work on the table?
Cody Miller and the Kickstarter Gang
Clearly, a lot of people felt that it would. Xia Legends of a Drift System generated more buzz than a billion bees. It made nearly $350,000 on Kickstarter and became something of a cult hit. Before the game even hit retail, debut designer Cody Miller had already won over the hearts and minds of his backers by providing them with weekly updates and involving them in plenty of the decision-making.
While this is all wonderful, the buzz generated from bona fide “fanboys” can be dangerous to regular customers post-Kickstarter because their frothy love for a game can sometimes hide some pretty nasty flaws. For that reason, it’s worth taking a grumpy and sceptical look at whether Xia Legends of a Drift System is worth around seventy of your hard-earned British coins. You need me, a curmudgeonly git still upset about the fact there isn’t a starship dealer wedged in between the gym and McDonalds, to have a look for you.
Prepare Your Table for the Invasion
Xia Legends of a Drift System fires on all cylinders when it comes to components. You’ll open the massive box to find a good-looking manual (which contains links to video tutorials if you have an aversion to reading), a ludicrous quantity of ship layout boards, a “fame point track”, sector tiles, decks of cards, cubes and markers, dice and tokens. If you’re like me, you’ll be drawn immediately to the holy trinity: funky orange damage markers, metal credit tokens and twenty-one starship miniatures. The box inserts are lovely too, which is good news when you’ve so much stuff to keep safe.
The twenty-one individual starship models are a huge draw for Xia Legends of a Drift System. I’ve seen a bit of grumbling online from people about the paint jobs, but I don’t buy it. If you’re having difficulty understanding why a £70 game from a first-time publisher with twenty-one ships in it doesn’t have X-Wing quality paint jobs, you might also be unsure about why the wheel, electricity or the internet are good ideas for humanity. These plastic beauties are a triumph.
In a gloomier world, we could have had all players pushing around different coloured ship models cast from the same mould. Instead, the “better” ships are bigger and the sense of achievement when you upgrade and plonk down a mightier starship is palpable. Tossing around metal coins (whilst imagining board game producers who still put out games with paper money being handed down custodial sentences) makes the experience feel high-end. Yes, you’re paying a premium price for Xia Legends of a Drift System, but you’re getting a premium product with a bombastic amount of bits. Of course, all those goodies in the box make for a very big footprint. I’d strongly recommend the back of a blue whale as the ideal place to play – if you can keep the blighter from diving.
Your Very Own Starship
To begin, all players choose a ship mat and its corresponding miniature. If you’re like our group, you’ll festoon yourself with a spacefaring name like Jackson Nakamura, Calamitous Space Ace or Fancy Sue the Space Shrew. If you aren’t, you’ll just get on with the game and collect a trivial number of space coins, lay out sector tiles equal to the number of players and plonk down your newly purchased breadwinner onto the board.
There’s a track from 0-20 to show how “space famous” everyone is and together you will choose how long you want the game to be by placing a marker down somewhere on the track. Whoever gets to that point total first is the immediate winner. Unless you’re insane, I’d strongly recommend choosing somewhere between 5-8 points for your first run through.
Clearly, Cody Miller’s primary focus is on theme. Each starship has its own unique name, layout, stats and special ability. You’ll strap engines, missiles, shields and the like onto your ship with tetromino shapes which very quickly give you a sense of investment. On the back of the ship mats you’re provided with information about your ship, including a backstory. Everyone I’ve played Xia with so far, has found this feature charming. Tens of minutes were wasted discussing things like whether it was necessary to swap out The Krembler’s white carpet for something “less likely to stain”. Or should the white racing stripes on the hull be redone in yellow? You’re also given a victory paragraph if you win with your given ship, which is exactly the kind of thing you want from a thematic game like Xia Legends of a Drift System.
It’s great to see that Cody Miller has released templates for the game to the online community here, in case you have the time and inclination to make your own sectors, mission cards and such for the game. Whether you’ll use this or not, it’s a classy move. Far Off Games have also mentioned that there is an expansion for Xia Legends of a Drift System in development.
How To Become “Space Famous”
Being a sandbox game, there are a wide variety of ways to get yourself fame points and seize victory in Xia Legends of a Drift System. You can go after other players, you can pick up fancy hats from one corner of the system and deliver them to another corner of the system, you can mine or harvest goods and sell them for profit. You can buy victory points if you get yourself enough credits, complete missions from cards that you will draw in specific locations and become more famous if you upgrade to the better versions of your ship. Most players will quickly work their way out of the initial sectors, drawing more of the system out onto the table from a face down stack. Collecting exploration tokens from these new sectors is another route to being the best space captain.
A very good barometer for predicting whether someone will like the game comes up in another way of bagging yourself some fame. Once per turn, whenever you roll a natural 20 on a 20-sided dice, you get a fame point. Why? Because you’re lucky and tales of your extraordinary exploits have spread, that’s why. If the thought of this has terrified and/or incensed you enough to reach out and shield yourself with a zero-luck board game about managing a post office, then you’re probably going to need to give Xia Legends of a Drift System a miss.
Another hilarious feature is that, if one of the other feckless captains you’ve chosen to play the game with is “stranded”, and you provide them with help, you’ll also pick yourself up a fame point. It’s funny because the rules say they can’t refuse the help and after you’ve provided assistance, you can visualise bragging about the incident at the quarterly captain’s meet up at the Lucky Moon Space Tavern.
Arming, Disarming and Jumping Puddles
While the bread of the game is you moving around your mini on the game board, the butter of the game is you fiddling around with bits on your ship mat. On the left of the mat, you’ll find an armed and disarmed section. In Xia Legends of a Drift System, armed means that you can move a cylinder over to activate the tetromino-shaped nodes you’ve outfitted. You might use an engine or some shields or lob a missile at someone.
To rearm, you’ll need to spend the energy located at the bottom of the mat. If you ever run out energy, you’ll become “stranded”. This limits you to a number of minor actions but still allows you to use a bog-standard impulse drive (bottom left) that will let you crawl through the system like a half-salted snail. In the top right, there is a space for your bounty. If you get up to anything naughty in space, you will become an outlaw and a bounty will be placed on your ship that encourages other players to come and dispense a good dose of summary justice.
Spaces on your ship mat that haven’t been filled up with engines and missiles can be used for cargo. Essentially, some locations in Xia Legends of a Drift System produce certain cubes that you can buy and other locations in the system have a demand for those cubes. It’s not rocket science… Well, actually it is rocket science. It’s rocket science being used to pick up and deliver. It feels a bit similar to Galaxy Trucker, another lovely and brutal thematic space game that you should definitely consider purchasing.
If at any point you take damage, you’ll take one of those fancy-looking orange crystals and assign it to one of your hull spaces. If it goes into a space that has cargo, the cargo is jettisoned. If it’s one of the control nodes (an orange spot on an attached engine, for example) you can’t arm that node with one of your cylinders until you repair your ship, which can only be done by landing on a planet. For brevity’s sake, I have chosen to omit a variety of Xia’s other systems from this review. If you want to learn more about combat, the three NPC models that can appear in your games or titles, you can take a gander at Xia Legends of a Drift System’s rulebook here.
Space is a Cruel Mistress
As mentioned, all ships come with a special ability. The Puddle Jumper, shown here, can use energy scoops to “collect ambient Energy from space” by rolling a D20. This brings us nicely to the game’s relationship with dice. Always remember: space is a cruel mistress. The game will live or die for you based on whether you can stomach Xia Legends of a Drift System’s narrative/dramatic Ameritrash experience.
For example, there are sectors in the game where you’ll essentially roll a D20 and blow up if you roll a 1-3. If that upsets you, go play the post office game discussed earlier. Some turns will be magnificent and some will be awful. If that upsets you: post office game. Being blown up by a rival space captain when you just wanted to build pretty sandcastles in the sandbox could definitely happen. If that upsets you: post office game. There are nights when I fancy a cold, hard game devoid of catch up mechanics and ludicrous dice shenanigans, but there are nights when I fancy beers and curry with some good friends, who can gleefully take a torpedo on the chin “courtesy of Mr and Mrs Lulz”.
Xia Legends of a Drift System: Five is a Crowd
But the game isn’t perfect. In fact, there are times when it’s flat-out inelegant. Xia Legends of a Drift System is secretly a roll-and-move game because the engines you strap to your ship are still ultimately a dice rolling crap shoot. That means one turn you might be zipping along like the Starship Enterprise and the next you’re sputtering along like a one-winged drunk space crow. As a result of this, the length of each player’s turn can vary quite dramatically. In fact, while your mileage may vary, I can’t recommend this game with five players as later into the game the downtime stacks up considerably.
Don’t get me wrong: you’re very invested in what the other players are doing. As they might have just become a juicy target for piracy or picked themselves up a bounty, but with more than four players it’s still going to be a while before you are pressing buttons at the helm of your starship again. Xia Legends of a Drift System isn’t even particularly good at offering ways to mitigate bad dice rolls like another big stompy space game you definitely have to play before you die. This honestly didn’t bother me, but it’s a very valid complaint.
A Big Ol’ Clunky Beauty
A board game billing itself as a ‘sandbox’ is always going to be a little bit clunky, and Xia Legends of a Drift System is no exception. There are plenty of different systems for new players to learn and you will have to be patient when teaching the game. Xia Legend sof a Drift System isn’t particularly heavy, but there are many moving parts. A smarter person than me might have been able to figure out a way of sanding down Xia’s rough edges to make a more elegant experience, but I can’t honestly recommend better ways to implement its systems.
Ultimately, Xia’s dice rolling and the inherent meanness of blowing up your rivals and disrupting their turns, will be deal breakers for some. But if you invite people into your sandbox that won’t take themselves too seriously, there are plenty of toys to go around. I highly recommend you pick up Xia Legends of a Drift System.
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I love playing board games and RPGs with people and spend far too much money on the hobby. I'll play any game at least once. In an ideal world, I'd find a suitcase of cash and become a full time board game player.