XCOM: The Board Game… COM at me bro!

Base Game Review

Players: 1-4

Play Time (Box): 60 – 120 minutes

Play Time (Goof): 60 – 120 minutes

Producer: Fantasy Flight

Designer/s: Eric M. Lang

 

I work fulltime, and with all these amazing games in the world I usually don’t spend a particularly long time playing one game for too long. Having said that, I’ve returned to XCOM: Enemy Unknown many, MANY times.

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I also own XCOM: Enemy Within for my iPad. It’s a great game (although there are a few UI issues with the app). Recently I did a play through where I named soldiers after my closest friends, and begrudgingly sent them Facebook messages to inform them when they were KIA. The hardest thing was telling a friend that his loved one died due to an Exalt attack.

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As you can see, I was super respectful

I may have also hacked off my girlfriend’s arms and legs to turn her into a MECH trooper. Which ah…isn’t an indication of what I’d really do to my girlfriend…

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Honey? But you look cool now!

5 February 2016, ‘Join us or become them’. XCOM2.  I’m more excited than a Thin Man spitting on an entire squad. The moment it releases I’ll be running and gunning to my computer and nothing short of a Muton Berserker will be able to move me from my chair. Except maybe a Chrysalid. I hate those things so much.

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Whose idea was the Site Recon mission?

In the meantime, I’ve been playing ‘XCOM: The Board Game’. Does the game scratch the same itch? Will I return to it over and over with the same compulsion as the computer games?

Will the developer hear my pleas to not put Chrysalids in the upcoming XCOM2? (Nope).

Lets do the review and find out.

 

Gameplay (6/10)

There’s a bit of a mixed view out there in the tabletop community these days. Are hybrid games a positive or negative contribution to the market? A hybrid game is one that incorporates some kind of digital element, such as an app on a tablet or smartphone device. In this case there’s also a website version. There are some concerns that as software updates that certain digital components wont be available anymore and therefore the game will be unplayable, such as outdated apps. And that’s a valid concern. Let me counter it with one of my own:

“Pffffffft. Hybrid games are cool.” – Goof, 2016.

But seriously: games often get re-released, apps get updates and there’s always going to be those one or two tech savvy people out there who will release something on a website somewhere that will let you continue to play the game. I think the likelihood of never being able to play again seems small and the time frame that you have with a game before that happens will likely be years; which means you really should have gotten plenty of value out of the game by then. And it doesn’t counter the above-mentioned, most critical point: hybrid games are cool.

There are two phases to this game: the timed phase and the resolution phase. During the timed phase, you have limited allocated time to complete tasks and watch as the world collapses around you. You’re reacting and trying to keep the team’s head above water at the minimal cost possible. Your adrenaline gets pumping and you’re attempting to make snap decisions such as which crisis to deal with and which troops to send on a mission. And you’re crossing your fingers hoping you’ve got it right. There have been many occasions where we’ve put what we believe to be the minimum required defences in line only to have the app bring more aliens to our doorstep.

This timed aspect can also negatively impact the game as well- there are four roles and while the game says you can play it single player or with less than four…I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve played the four player and two player variants the most, and I’ve dabbled a little in the solo variant for the sake of this review. With the amount of time you have and with the different decks you have to almost memorize to be able to make the decisions as fast as you need to; it’s just not fun. When there are four players, you can use the time on other people’s turn to check out your hand of cards, to focus on which of your assets to use and to use that time planning what actions you’re going to take. It’s not much extra time but those seconds really count. When you’re playing all four roles you don’t get a moment to even look at what you’re doing, such as the tech cards before you’re expected to play them. The two player variant is a lot more manageable the the solo game, but it can still be a real shock for a new player to suddenly have an overwhelming number of decisions to make with minimal prior information.

Part of this comes from the fact that each role feels incredibly different.

So I guess you were really playing two different people in Enemy Unknown?

So I guess you were really playing two different people in Enemy Unknown?

As the Commander you’re trying to handle the financial side of XCOM, deciding which crisis to tackle as they arise and command the fleet of interceptors you have at your disposal to take down Alien UFO’s. When I play this role I like to allocate a part of the budget to each officer to use and use emergency funding for when tasks mean a certain role requires more income.

As the Central Officer, you’re relaying information that you’re reading from the app while commanding the satellites to utilise the Orbital Defence Network. You’re often heavily involved in most people’s turns.

The Lead Scientist decides which technology to research next. You’re also pretty much the chief engineer (for those of you that’ve played the computer games). The player in this role has to manage which technologies are given priority balancing the potential hand of six you draw up to each turn. It can really make a huge difference when played correctly as it can mitigate a lot of the luck element. It’s a bit more fiddly, as you’re trying to complete tasks with as few scientists as possible given the budget and the need to spend a large amount of it on defence.

If you didn’t lose many troops in the videogame, expect to lose a bunch in the board game. And when your Elite Soldiers die, it feels as painful as ever. The Squad Leader decides between which mission takes precedence as they come up and also defends the base. They have to be careful not to spread their troops too thin or push them too hard. Losing a soldier is a big deal but losing two or three to a single task is heartbreaking.

The resolution phase is where you get a bit of a breather. I’m not that into timed games, but having this resolution phase gives the team a chance to come together, see how things went during the last phase and talk about a plan of attack. Because the timed phase is so chaotic, this phase feels like it’s the cooperative part. This completely changes my opinion about the timed phase and really allows me enjoy the cooperative aspect of the game. Because you’ve got to have a plan, and then you’ve got to trust that people will adjust their strategies during the timed phase appropriately. It negates the ‘Table Captain’ aspect almost entirely. You’d have to be really dedicated to being a controlling douche to Table Captain this game.

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Rolling the dice in the game is also stressful, as there is always the chance of failure which is almost catastrophic. As you continue to attempt tasks, the chance of failure rises and while I think this is an interesting idea and certainly fits with the theme of a daunting task against almost impossible odds. It’s also just not fun to fail every time and lose all your troops. I can accept heavy losses, and I want the game to be hard. But your successes in this game feel almost like they’re pure luck; which yes, it’s true you can mitigate by adding more resources, but when money is such a small resource in the game and you have four people fighting over what they need to complete their tasks it’s just not possible to give yourself that occasional safe throw where you will more than likely succeed. I don’t mind losing in a game, but I do want to feel like I’ve accomplished SOMETHING. And there have been games where I simply don’t.

I just wanted to take a moment out to explain something: I love cooperative games. I love the atmosphere of us against the world, the new players and experienced players working in unison and the joint feeling of triumph or defeat when it’s over. But it is very easy for me to get bored. If a game is too easy, then I will not bother playing. I get nothing out of going through the motions on a board game. I get excitement out of a team of players overcoming insurmountable odds and coming out on top. I’m more than happy to put everything we’ve got into a game and lose in a spectacular fashion. If a game is too easy…what’s the point?

Having said that, this game is brutally hard. Even the ‘easy’ mode is challenging. Earlier this week I sent out this tweet:

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We had our ass handed to us in the tutorial.

Pros: ++Exciting, +Challenging, +Unique Roles, +Table Captains can suck it

Cons: –Not well balanced for less players, –lack of a feeling of accomplishment

 

Theme (6/10)

The videogame of XCOM had two main parts. The part where you get to build your base and research cool technology; and the part where you use said technology to kick some alien ass (or at least attempt to have your soldiers survive). I even set up a command centre when I played this game last. And I felt very immersed.

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XCOM Command…Aussie Outback Edition

There are a lot of games out there that capture that second element. Getting a squad together and going to fight the enemy. Gears of War: The Board Game, Level 7: Omega Protocol and even Doom: The Board Game. And that’s where I thought XCOM was going to go. Four players representing the four basic classes of soldiers with some cool equipment and technology to fight aliens with. And I still want to play that game. Because that’s not at all what this is. XCOM: The Board Game thematically is the Commander, Central Officer Bradford, Dr. Shen /Dr Vahlen and a Squad Leader all making decisions from XCOM HQ. It’s an interesting theme, and if you’ve played Enemy Unknown then you’ll notice a lot of the technology and assets are similar. Even the HQ location affects one of the assets the commander has available to them in a big way.

However, I don’t find this game thematically immersive. You’re trying to win the game, but I never feel like you’re trying to stop an alien invasion. I don’t know if miniatures of the Aliens would have helped, but it needed something else. Something to make you realise that these horrific aliens were trying to invade and use us for their nefarious purposes. The Squad Leader has the aliens pictured on cards in front of them, but even when I play the Squad Leader I never feel that immersion that I look for in games.

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One thing that you don’t see often in games is that XCOM:TBG has a soundtrack. The app plays several of the themes from the video game series. For me, this tied very well into the emotions that I have tied up in the nostalgia and passion for Enemy Unknown. When ‘Breaking Ground’ starts playing, I am geared up and ready to man my battle station. Looking for the point of view of someone who hasn’t played the videogame, I asked my girlfriend what she thought of the soundtrack while we played. She told me she felt it was immersive and elevated the stress levels of the game, but having no prior connection to it she felt it got repetitive.

The soundtrack was actually a little intrusive after awhile, even for me. It’s hard not to pay attention to that sudden and intense beat. I tried turning it down so that we could communicate and hear ourselves think, but in the end I had to switch it off. And I’ve found that held true in a number of groups that I’ve played in, and it’s not always me manning the app.

I will say this for the music: it makes the ending satisfying. Too often I’m playing a cooperative tabletop game and we’re getting towards the end when that final step is taken the game just ends. That’s it. Done now. And that leaves me with this unsatisfied feeling inside. Games almost need an action to take to finish it off well. You’ve won and in honour of that victory you get to do x action instead of y action. Videogames are usually pretty good at this because they’ll have ‘Victory’ or ‘You Win’ splashed across the screen and you have to click to move past it; giving you that feeling that you are accepting your victory. This…kinda sorta happens in games like Pandemic, where you slide that last vial up. Or Lords of Waterdeep where you have to count your final score. It gives you that step between the immersive action and the return to life.

That feeling

That feeling

Pros: +Consistent terminology from series, +Excellent music, ++Satisfying ending

Cons: –Not immersive, -Intrusive soundtrack

 

Production (7/10)

Look, I’m an easy guy to please (…you had to go there) and I get why they did this. Maybe I just have big hands or I’m used to playing with big components (if you know what I’m saying), but tiny cards… I just… No. They’re difficult to shuffle and they’re frustrating to play with.

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I’ve never liked them in any game I’ve ever played. I’m not saying that different games don’t make them necessary but that doesn’t make them a positive. With this game being a hybrid and already incorporating the app in such a way that you don’t have to flip over dozens of different decks of cards (are you listening Arkham Horror?) I feel that the app could have assisted here or maybe even have several versions of the free app at the table and each person can access that instead of having to play with tiny cards. Having said that, the card size does utilise the board space very well, which is why I understand the disappointing decision they made.

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With four different roles and four different sides of the board designed for each role, they manage to make some pretty spectacular use of the space on the board without making it feel cramped. The scientist feels like they’re in the labs and the Squad Leader feels like they’re in the trenches. As the Commander you’re surveying the different country’s panic levels and you have clear sight over the global map. The Central Officer…they actually feel slightly disconnected from the board. But the reason this isn’t a bad thing is because their attention will often be focused on the digital app.

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The miniatures are really high quality. Which can be expected from Fantasy Flight Games; the company well known for its amazing quality pieces and incredibly high prices. Which surprises me that the tokens don’t appear to be of the same standard. They’re just made of cardboard and don’t appear to have any kind of protection on them. Although I am obsessive about protecting my components, you can see the wear and tear around the edges already. And this is from only about a dozen plays. This is more of a concern to me then the fear of not having the app one day. Damage on physical components is a huge concern to me.

Also, some of them are oriented strangely

Also, some of them are orientated strangely

The artwork on the cards isn’t mind-blowing, but what is a great addition is that it’s very in keeping with Enemy Unknown. Even the artwork on the App, at least in part, comes directly from the videogame itself.

Takes me back

Takes me back

The app is easy to use and feels really well integrated. If the app was clunky I feel like this would have dragged down almost every aspect of this game. The rules are relatively easy to navigate from here too. I usually hate it when a game will tell you to download the rulebook from their website. But since you have the app here anyway, it’s not like it’s going out of the way to be painful. It’s just going to teach you how to play in the first two turns of the game. And I really like that aspect. Not everyone is able to learn from the rulebook, I have several friends in my gaming circle that prefer to watch a video example or would rather learn as we play the first game. And this game really taps into that.

Pros: +Excellent use of board space, +High quality miniatures, ++Great app, +Consistent artwork from series

Cons: -Tiny cards suck, –Weak cardboard components

 

 Conclusion

This game is stressful. Don’t expect to be able to play this game while scrolling through Facebook on your phone (although, those of you who do that in any game need to stop). You’ll need to focus, and you wont want to play this before you go to bed. You’ll be too hyped up. In that aspect, it’s really fun. The problem is that people aren’t always looking for that level of adrenaline. People may not want to play a timed game that can really induce some high levels of panic and urgency.

But when you do, this is the game to do it. I’ve played some excellent games that can really get me thinking and trying to come up with the perfect combination or strategy to win. And I get excited by those moments in games. But not like this. The feelings here are something else.

The biggest drawbacks for me are the lack of immersion, the inability to get the full experience with less players and the shoddy quality of the tokens. When you’re paying as much as you do for a Fantasy Flight game, you really expect everything to be of a high standard.

This game is absolutely fun. I give XCOM: The Board Game:

6/10

So if you’re looking for something to do with friends and you really don’t want to tear yourself away from the XCOM world, consider getting XCOM: The Board Game.

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