Review: XenoShyft

By Dave Neumann 14 Sep 2015 0
What do you mean you can't read the cards from here? What do you mean you can't read all the cards from here? Sigh.

If you've spent five minutes perusing Pocket Tactics you are likely aware of two things: I'm really into boardgames and I'm also a huge dork. Every now and then these two qualities will combine and I try my hand at creating another VASSAL module.

For those who aren't aware, VASSAL is a toolkit that lets you create digital boardgames for online or solo play. So, when the urge hits, I will start to scan cards and chits from a board game, import them, and then program the thing up so that I can solo my way through a game for which a professional app doesn't exist. The problem is, I'm neither an artist or a graphic designer. I have no experience with creating a usable and friendly user interface. In short, all my VASSAL modules are ugly as sin and so convoluted that I'm the only one who can figure out how to actually play the game in question.

XenoShyft is kind of like that.

While there’s a lot of bad to talk about here, the game itself isn’t the problem. XenoShyft is a cooperative deck-builder which plays out over nine rounds. Each player controls a division of the NorTec Corporation, whose base you are defending against an alien force known as The Hive. Survive for nine rounds, and the base is safe, but if the base ever drops to zero hit points, everyone loses.

Game play takes place in two major phases, the one where you buy stuff and the one where you fight stuff. There are smaller clean-up phases here and there, but nothing to worry about. Buying troops and equipment is done with resource cards that you’ll draw into your hand each turn. The board that holds the new troop cards is static every game. That is, the same troops will always be available in each game of XenoShyft you play. While that may seem dull, what is interesting about is how it unlocks new troops over the course of the game. During the first three rounds, only the top row cards are available, which leaves you with only the Ranger at your disposal. As you progress, more powerful cards with different abilities will become available for purchase. These cards feature super soldiers and mechs who each have a different ability that you can trigger during combat.

Much of the time, commands are given in nondescript text in the upper corner. In this case, it's asking me to heal a troop, even though I have no troops in play. Sigh. Much of the time, commands are given in nondescript text in the upper corner. In this case, it's asking me to heal a troop, even though I have no troops in play. Sigh.

On the other side are the equipment cards. This board consists of nine randomly chosen pieces of equipment that will change from game to game. There are 24 different equipment types—without any expansions—so pulling the same nine cards between games is unlikely. Equipment consists of armor, medical supplies, weapons, and more.

After drawing six cards and then playing and spending your resources on new stuff, the combat phase begins. Each player has their own combat lane onto which they’ll place troops and equipment. You can place a maximum of four troops at the beginning of this phase, but there are equipment and troops that will allow you to add to the combat line as the battle wears on. On the other side of your line of troops are drawn four random aliens, face down. You have no idea what you, or your comrades, will be facing until the fight actually begins which makes combat absolutely fantastic.

The purple glow means that my unit has a power he can use. To do so, I have to leave this view entirely to activate it. Sigh. The purple glow means that my unit has a power he can use. To do so, I have to leave this view entirely to activate it. Sigh.

Combat is the real meat of the game, and the details of it are quite simple. Each troop and alien has a defense and attack value. Simply compare the two, and remove the guy who dies first. What makes it great, however, are the special powers of the aliens and the powers of the troops and equipment on your side. Figuring out how to defeat the four aliens in your lane becomes a puzzle of when to apply special powers or to play a special equipment card. Whereas all the other phases of the game can take seconds to finish, the combat can be a real brain burner as you try to work out how to handle the incoming wave. Kill all the aliens, and repeat the process in the next round, but with a new hand of cards. If you fail to kill the aliens, the ones that are left will apply their damage to the base’s hit points. Again, if that hits zero, everybody loses.

If it sounds simple, it is. Even with a fairly crappy tutorial and never downloading the rules, I managed to figure out how to play the game after a few aborted tries. While it’s simple to learn, it’s also incredibly difficult to win, and a pall of doom hangs over the entire game. Just as your troops get more powerful as the game progresses, so do the Hive, so you’re never exactly sure what you’ll find, other than it will be terrible and, very likely, lead to your base's destruction.

If you can’t tell already, I love XenoShyft. Absolutely love it. In fact, after playing XenoShyft for a week on my iPad I moseyed on down to my FLGS and purchased a cardboard copy. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before, but the app kind of forced my hand. There are issues.

So, are all those yellow cards worth 1, 3, or 6 resources? Can't tell, can you. Sigh. So, are all those yellow cards worth 1, 3, or 6 resources, and what kind of troops are those? Can't tell, can you. Sigh.

The developers of XenoShyft decided to hew as close to the cardboard version as possible, and the game suffers for it. There are two boards displaying 16 full-sized cards. As you might imagine, these two boards, along with your hand of cards, fills up an iPad screen. In fact, the app zooms way out so that both boards can be displayed at once. This means that the app requires constant zooming and scrolling. After a few plays, you get to know the troop board, but this is a particularly bad design when you have nine different cards each game that must examined constantly during play. Not only do you have to scroll and pinch a lot, the actions are quite unresponsive. Everything is done with two fingers, and the game doesn’t always react well to attempts to scroll. Either the screen doesn’t immediately move, or it scrolls too fast, and beyond what you were trying to see. Also, pinch zooming doesn’t center on where you’re pinching, but on the screen’s center, which requires more scrolling.

You can tap-and-hold on a card to zoom in on that card, which is okay for the board, but in your hand cards are obscured until you do this. Is that a ranger or militia? I have to tap to see. Is that a 1 resource card or a 3 resource card? Tap to see. All of this could have been avoided with a little card redesign.

You will see this a lot. The game is hard, which is just how a cooperative game should be. You will see this a lot. The game is hard, which is just how a cooperative game should be.

Combat is an entirely new problem. As you fight, the troop and alien zoom to fill up the screen, which is fine. That is, unless they have equipment attached. The equipment card is unreadable, and untouchable in this zoomed mode. Instead, you’ll need to shrink both cards and then tap on the attached equipment card to see what it does and/or activate it.

Also an issue is the “Done” button that appears in the lower right corner. This is your main mode of input to the game, and you’ll continuously hit the “Done” button. Unfortunately, it will do different things depending on what’s happening in game. Sometimes, it will just zoom in on the current conflict and other times initiate fighting, even if that’s not what you wanted to do. With no Undo button on the screen, mis-clicks can mean game over.

It's not just the fiddliness that makes it such a misstep. Cards are unreadable at the normal zoom level. You need to zoom in or tap-and-hold to read anything. Also, the game isn't very smart. For example, one of the division's powers is to heal one of your troops. This option comes up even if you have no wounded troops, or even if you have no troops in play. Also, it's confusing as hell. The text for commands like these appears in the upper left of the screen with nothing but a cancel button on the bottom. The first few games I had no idea what was happening and why I wasn't progressing to the next round automatically, assuming instead that the game had frozen.

Can I just reiterate how awesome combat is in this game? Can I just reiterate how awesome combat is in this game?

On top of all this, and the main reason I purchased the cardboard version, the game has no pass-and-play. Now, for most board games pass-and-play is unnecessary, but for a cooperative game in which a single player could easily control multiple hands it’s a necessity. The game does offer solo play, but only with the ability to control a single division. In the app’s defense, however, it does offer a fairly robust online multiplayer system.

As bad as the user interface is—and it is completely horrible—I still can’t hate too much on XenoShyft. Much like those old VASSAL modules of mine, once you get over the learning curve and figure out how the UI works, it’s manageable and the game underneath isn’t hurt by it. I’ve been playing 4-5 games of XenoShyft a day for the past couple weeks and I’ve adapted to it. It's been worth it. If the developer could get their stuff together and make the UI for this one remotely intuitive or, better yet, include a pass-and-play mode, XenoShyft could easily be a four or five star game. In a more polished state, it would be my favorite digital board game of 2015, thus far. In its current state, however, its a chore to play. Here’s hoping the devs keep on it and polish XenoShyft so it can become what it should be: one of the best board games on the App Store.

XenoShyft was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: XenoShyft

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