Review: XCOM The Board Game

By Dave Neumann 16 Feb 2015 0
Here comes the Skyranger... wait, no. It's a cat. Here comes the Skyranger... wait, no. It's a cat.

At first glance, XCOM: The Board Game looks like your typical high-spec Fantasy Flight board game. It's got loads of detailed plastic tokens, a forest worth of heavy stock cardboard chits, and enough ambiguity in the rulebook to turn the forums at Board Game Geek into a particularly rowdy episode of Jerry Springer.

It's that rulebook that makes this into something quite different from your usual Fantasy Flight Game. XCOM: TBG doesn't actually ship with a rule book, which is why I'm talking about a cardboard game on Pocket Tactics: there's an app.

No paper rulebook in the game, but the app holds your hand through setup and has a very well done tutorial that teaches you how to play by playing. No paper rulebook in the game, but the app holds your hand through setup and has a nicely implemented tutorial that teaches you how to play by playing.

The biggest, and really only, innovation in XCOM: TBG is the companion app, which is made for iOS and Android and freely available to download if you're curious -- though without the board game it's like getting a bowl of sprinkles without the ice cream. On the surface, the app is quite unremarkable. It doesn't seem to do anything that couldn't be done with a GM and a stopwatch. Under the hood, however, stuff is happening to make XCOM: TBG full of tension and tough choices and a powerful sense of urgency.

XCOM: TBG is a cooperative game in which players take the roles of all non-exciting people you met in the highly-regarded video game. Let me explain. Like the video game, XCOM: The Board Game details the fight against an alien invasion on a global scale. Whereas the video game focused on individual missions and soldiers fighting the ground war, the board game focuses on what happens back at the base at the leadership level of the XCOM agency. Sure, like it's video game uncle, you win by completing a "final mission", but in the cardboard version you lose if too many nations become panicked and withdraw funding from the XCOM project, or if your base is overrun by the aliens themselves. So, instead of taking on the roles of hardened commandos, players will each take control of one of the major players in the XCOM boardroom: Central Officer, Commander, Chief Scientist, or Squad Leader. It might sound a bit more dull than rushing into combat, but the game makes each role so unique, satisfying, and true to the video game, I half expected to find a green sweater awaiting me in the box.

The Central Officer plays the role of the memorably-sweatered Bradford from the video game. Central is in control of the app, telling the other players what they need to be doing. Central isn't the boss, exactly -- when it comes to decisions the other roles need to make, they have the final say. Central can only point and tell the other players to hurry up in increasingly agitated tones, passive-aggressively reminding everybody that the future of the human species is on the line here. They're also in charge of XCOM's fleet of UFO-detecting satellites and control how many are launched or used for other purposes each turn.

We will be watching, Commander. We will be watching, Commander.

The Commander is that shadowy figure who was always popping up on your view screen to tell you what a wonderful (or terrible) job you were doing. Here in the board game, the Commander is in charge of the money and making sure XCOM doesn't slip over budget each turn. They also choose which Crisis Cards enter play, which can be stressful because they're always choosing between bad and really bad: do we want to deal with one of our interceptors being shot down or a sudden surge of panic in Australia? On top of that, the Commander needs to decide how many Interceptor aircraft to send against UFO's that have entered the atmosphere.

The Chief Scientist takes the role of both scientist and engineer from the video game, crafting goodies and doling them out to the other players. While it sounds easy compared to the other roles, the Scientist has to look through a ton of cards and make decisions that affect the efficacy of the entire team.

She blinded me with...nah, that's too easy. She blinded me with...nah, that's too easy.

Last is the Squad Leader who is basically playing the tactical combat portion of the video game, albeit in very abstracted form. The Squad Leader control soldiers of four classes: heavies, snipers, assault, and support, and sends them on missions or assigns them to defend the XCOM base against alien incursions. They have the most direct effect on actually winning (or losing) the game because completing missions is the key to success.

The game is played in rounds that consist of 2 phases: the timed phase and the resolution phase. Yes, the first phase is timed. The Central Officer will bark out what the app is telling him needs doing and when that player finishes, will hit the "done" button and the app will continue to the next player. Don't finish your task in time, and the app will deduct time from the other player's turns making everyone hate you. It's not just one thing, either. For example, the Scientist will have a task that's about 5 seconds long to fill their hand with new technologies from the science deck. Then, they will have about 15 seconds to pick one of those cards to research, and assign from 1-3 scientists to the task. This will happen three times, one for each Science slot on the board. In between, the Central Officer will be reporting on where UFO's have been sighted, the Squad Leader will be revealing and selecting a mission and then assigning troops to that location, and the Commander will be watching what everyone is placing on the board and counting up how much it will cost, and having the unenviable task of telling another player they can't put troops or satellites there because we haven't the money for it.

One interceptor against 2 UFOs? Actually, this is one of the less tilted engagements you'll have during the game. One interceptor against 2 UFOs? Actually, this is one of the less tilted engagements you'll have during the game.

I know what you're thinking: this doesn't sound like XCOM at all. Part of the joy of XCOM was the slow, deliberate pace. Weighing each option and covering your butt knowing that only careful consideration of your moves will keep your favorite soldiers from getting whacked. What's remarkable about The Board Game is how those same emotions pop up out of this very different gameplay experience. You're on the edge of your seat the entire time, pouring over your cards and options so that when your name gets called, you're ready to ring the bell. The flip side to this exciting co-op play is that it really works best with four players and four players only. You can (theoretically) play solo, or with two or three, but the game does lose something when players have to double up on roles. As for the solo game, forget it. This is a game where you roll dice and high-five each other as aliens are taken down -- the self high-five is nowhere near as rewarding.

After the timed phase, the app transitions to the Resolution Phase which isn't timed, and events happen in the same order each turn. This is where all your quick planning during the Timed Phase plays out. Did we go over budget? How do the Crisis Cards affect us this turn? Did we research any new techs? Did our interceptors take out those UFOs over Australia? The answer to nearly every question during this phase is handled by the roll of dice with a push-your-luck mechanism. You roll one XCOM die (each with a 33% chance of success) for each unit, scientist, interceptor on that task. You also roll an 8-sided Alien Die. If the number on the Alien Die is equal to or less than a "Threat" value, the task fails and every unit you assigned to that task is lost. The Threat value is '1' on your first roll of the task, but increases by 1 for each roll you make. So, unless you're lucky, you have to weigh if success on a task is worth risking losing all the units on that task.

This is the meat of the game, and although it is almost entirely luck-based, it shines. Every single game we've played there have been those moments when everyone stands up during a dice roll and cheers or groans at the result. I've seen grown men turn away from the table and not watch die rolls. It's delectably tense, and it's not just on the last roll of the game. There's at least a couple of these each turn because every task in the game is important and every failure, no matter which role is currently resolving their task, is a dagger into XCOM's ability to stave off the alien threat.

With so much down to dice, the kind of strategic thinking that XCOM rewards most highly is risk mitigation. You could have the greatest layout of resources during the Timed Phase as is possible, and still lose everything with some bad rolls. If you're looking for a deep strategy game where your carefully laid plans are respected, keep looking.

Remain calm and...dammit Australia! Remain calm and...dammit Australia!

So, is the app really necessary? It appears at first to be a fancy timer and not much else. This is actually true, but the app also handles a lot of book-keeping that would otherwise clog an already-busy board with more plastic and chits. The app keeps track of which nations are calm and which are in panic which may, or may not, affect next turn's income. The app also can get scrambled if there are UFO's in orbit, which provides a nice touch of atmosphere. Right when you think you have the pattern of the Timed Phase down, signals get scrambled and now you need to assign units to protect your base even though no aliens have yet been revealed. You might need to launch interceptors even though no UFO's have been sighted yet. Everything gets mixed up, and it throws a delicious amount of chaos into every turn.

The app also knows which Invasion Plan the aliens are using (out of a possible five), and makes subtle changes to how turns play out based on which plan is in place. Could this all be done with cards or other physical methods? Maybe, but I doubt it would be as much fun. With the app doing all the grunt work and changing things up behind the scenes, each game feels different even though you're pretty much doing the same thing over and over.

Deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. We'll get through this. Deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. We'll get through this.

As with most cooperative games, there are several ways to lose and only one way to win. You will lose if any 2 nations end up in full panic mode, their panic rising by how many UFOs are left over their territory at the end of each turn, or by the Commander mishandling the budget. You will also lose if the XCOM base is destroyed, which happens if the Squad Leader isn't able to take out any aliens that were attempting to assault the base this turn. The only way to win the game is to defeat the "final mission" which is located on the back of the Invasion Plan card. As you complete missions over the course of many turns, the app may tell you to flip the Invasion Plan card to its mission side, which will allow the Squad Leader to assign troops to it in an attempt to win. Until then, you have to just keep plugging away, hoping that this is the turn that the app lets you have a run at it. Again, the app adds more uncertainty and chaos to the mix.

Speaking of uncertainty, where will XCOM: The Board Game fit in five years? Ten years? What happens when technology outpaces the game and the app is no longer supported on my iPad Mist 7S? One of the comforting thoughts about my boardgame collection is the knowledge that in 30 years I'll be able to go pull Agricola off my shelf and play it with my grandkids. It won't be any different than when I play it today. Will I be able to do the same with XCOM? Probably only if it's still flying off the shelf, otherwise FFG will surely let the app slide into oblivion. That said, getting five or more years of gaming out of $40 isn't a bad return on investment.

XCOM: The Board Game is an elegantly presented and thoughtfully executed game that pumps out tense atmosphere like a neurotic smoke machine. It's a jewel of co-operative gaming that players with sufficiently large board gaming group and sufficiently robust tolerance for dice-rolling shouldn't miss. You may have to keep a relic iPad in the box with it to still be playing it in 2020, but it'll probably be worth the trouble.

XCOM: The Board Game was played on a dining room table and an iPad Air for this review.

Review: XCOM The Board Game

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