Apr 15, 2015

[Games] XCOM: The Board Game

I've had a weird history with the X-COM franchise over the years. In the PC world, I've always been fascinated by the story behind the game. It's a classic science fiction concept after all - humans trying to deal with alien abductions all around the planet. The slow crawl of fighting alien UFOs, defeating alien ground troops, and salvaging their technology all made for a compelling game. The turn-based nature really drove the strategic element of the whole thing, although it had one heck of a learning curve. And the slow crawl through unexplored alien landing sites led to a lot of creepy moments. The X-COM games really created a distinct experience and I'm thankful the games were made to begin with.

When news of a board game based on the franchise came out, admittedly I was pretty excited. I wanted to see how they were going to translate the various strategic layers of the game including resource management and squad-based tactics all in a static board game. As things progressed, news that the game was going to require an app to run the different scenarios certainly upped my curiosity factor and it certainly provided new ways to make this game even more unique.

XCOM: The Board Game is a tabletop adaptation of  recent Firaxis XCOM reboot game. The board game was published by Fantasy Flight Games and supports 1-4 players. The previously mentioned game app is mandatory to play the game and is available for both iOS and Android or for your desktop computer. And if you still don't have those options, you can run the browser-based app.

In the game you need to manage four different roles that are part of the XCOM game. The Commander is responsible for tracking the level of panic in the different continents that support XCOM along with assigning interceptors around the world to fight off alien UFOs. The Central Officer relays updates from the companion app and is also responsible for deploying satellites as part of the orbital defense initiative. The Chief Scientist assigns research-related tasks and allocates scientists to your projects. And the Squad Leader deploys soldiers to missions and handles base defense. Regardless of the number of players involved, someone will need to handle each of the different roles. Thus a 1-player game has the player dealing with all four roles at once.

Most actions in the game are resolved with a varying number of XCOM dice and the Alien Die. XCOM dice are six-sided dice with only two faces that represent successes. The Alien Die is an 8-sided die that interacts with the level of threat for that particular roll. You typically select a number of dice based on the resources involved in the roll (e.g. number of interceptors, number of satellites, number of soldiers). The Alien Die is also rolled and compared to the current threat level. You keep rolling until you attain the needed number of successes or the Alien Die is equal to or less than the current threat level. You are allowed to re-roll your dice as many times as you want per task, but every re-roll causes the threat level of go up by one to a maximum of five.

The dice aspect sounds simple enough since you'll be rolling an average of 2-3 dice for more aggressive roles together with the Alien Die. But That's still a 33% chance of success per die with increasingly difficult odds related to the Alien Die. At times the low success rate gets pretty frustrating, but in hindsight it nicely reflects the level of difficulty often experienced in the game.

The board game is an amazing translation of the original computer game. The added nuance of dividing the resource management challenge across the different roles was a great idea and it forces players to communicate more openly all with the added pressure of the companion app counting down per action step. And it's hard to think about the team budget as the Commander when you see everyone allocating resources as they see fit since pretty much every piece on the board costs money. A scientist can quickly drain your funds early in the round just be maxing out all research projects, thus leaving you with insufficient funds for troops to send on the mission or satellites to place in orbit.

And the app also plays more subtle roles in terms of randomizing the initial mix of aliens or determining your budget per round. Success in a mission and a lack of UFOs around the planet really help you while failing to deal with such threats can delay your progress significantly. And should you leave any UFOs in orbit, communications can then get disrupted and the app will start randomizing how it relays information to the Central Officer. Thus you may be forced to allocate interceptors before you know where all of the UFOs will land around the planet. All these little quirks just add to the dynamism of the game.

It's a pretty hard game to master even on the easy level, but you can argue that the same can be said about games like Pandemic and Forbidden Desert. But the game in itself is pretty fun and the challenge is one you really want to defeat. And once you're comfortable with the easy level of difficulty, things just get worse at higher difficulties - and that's just how the game works.

XCOM: The Board Game is tough, but fun and a great game for fans of the original XCOM computer game. I strongly recommend you play with a larger number of players since juggling more than one role can get pretty dizzying at times. Thus the game gets 4.5 Alien Crisis cards really messing up your game out of a possible 5.

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