Designed By: Eric M. Lang
Published By: Fantasy Flight Games
(Single-Player is a new series designed to review tabletop games that can be played solo, as well as with friends. While I do talk about playing the games with friends, these reviews will primarily focus on the single-player experience.)
Game was provided free of charge by UK distributor Esdevium Games
Opening up the chunky box of any new tabletop game is followed by a simple, natural reaction; reach for the rulebook. But XCOM: The Board Game doesn’t have a book chock full of rules to learn, rather it has a simple four-page setup guide that gives you the basic information needed to lay out the board, cards and playing pieces needed. You see, XCOM is powered by a free app that can be downloaded on a smartphone, laptop or PC. It’s the driving force behind everything in this co-operative game, merging technology with good ‘ol dice.
As the name so subtly suggests this board game is based upon the rebooted XCOM series, attempting to capture the same sense of constant tension and difficulty that makes the videogame such a pleasure to play. It goes about it rather differently, though. In fact, in many ways this cardboard replication is quite different from its inspiration. Unlike the purely digital version where you can take as much time as you like to ponder tactical choices in combat or where to focus your developmental efforts the board game opts to crush its players in different fashion with using a timed phase where you’re given short spans of time to quickly make important decisions, like what technology to research, how many Interceptors to deploy and whether you can afford to field any troops for an optional mission. UFOs invading? Better hurry, you’ve got twenty to deploy them! Need to defend the base? Here’s another mere twenty seconds to pick troops. Take too long and the next stage gets time taken off, while making a decision quickly gives you extra seconds to make the next call. It’s stressful, fast and brilliant.
The idea is that you or up to four people take on the roles of leaders with XCOM, a program designed to defend Earth from a massive alien incursion. To win you must hold off long enough to embark on the final mission, where you’ll hopefully crush the opposition. In your way are countries on the brink of panic that must be managed, incoming UFOs, a lot of tough decisions and alien troops attacking your base. When you boil it all down XCOM is essentially a resource management game, but it’s so well presented and so intense that you’ll rarely think of it as anything less than a fight for survival.
Before we delve deeper into that, though, let’s talk briefly about the components, which are nothing short of great. Fantasy Flight Games are known for producing high quality games, and that’s certain the case here. The small, plastic soldiers, UFOs and Interceptors that will be strewn across the board are not the most detailed, which painters will find slightly disappointing, but still look good and help bring a little personality into the game. The board itself has a lot going on, yet manages to look quite sleek and retains the visual style of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, as do the many cards make up a large chunk of the game. Finally there’s a small pile of tokens made of solid card stock. Overall it’s a well produced game that oozes quality.
Once set up it can take up a reasonable amount of space. The board is clearly designed for four players to sit around, each side containing everything each player requires based upon their chosen role as Commander, Central Officer, Chief Scientist and Squad Leader. This can make solo play immediately tricky as you need to find a way to lay out a considerable amount of tokens, figures and cards directly in front of you, as precious seconds fumbling to find things can be costly. It’s worth spending a while coming up with a system that you can reuse each time you play XCOM: The Board Game, as having the locations of everything memorised helps make up for the fact that you’ll be dealing with it all personally. Aligning the board is also a tad weird as you’ll inevitably end up feeling like something isn’t right. If you want the world map to be the right way up, for example, it means having the research spaces backwards and the mission cards sideways so that you’ve got to turn your head slightly to read them.
Moving on the digital app is basic but effective at its job. Initially I had a problem as the app wasn’t displaying correctly on my phone, forcing me to use my computer which sits a few feet from where the board was setup – hardly ideal as it meant trying to rush back and forth between the two. UPDATED: app is now working fine after the latest Android update became available for my phone. The app contains a tutorial to guide you through the basic mechanics, plus an FAQ and a rulebook of sorts, but that didn’t stop me from wishing I had a physical copy of the rules for quicker, easier consultation. The app lets you leap out of the game at any time to examine the rules and then resume play, but it’s not quite the same. Speaking of which the tutorial does a decent enough job of guiding you through the basics of the game, yet there’s also a lot of a areas where it struggles or rules are left a little unclear, forcing you to stumble through the rules to find out the truth. Some judgement calls will be needed. Aside from the tutorial mode there’s a total of four different difficulty settings to choose from, from Easy to Legendary.
There’s four different roles in the game that are assigned to the players. Each role has a series of duties that must absolutely be attended to. The Central Officer is responsible for relaying all information from the app, quickly communicating to the team what’s going on at any given time. They must also spawn UFOs on the board, track the current threat level when rolling dice to resolve actions (more on that later) and decide how many satellites to send into orbit to battle incoming enemy craft. UFOs are a constant problem because if left unchecked within a country’s airspace they’ll cause panic, moving that country one step up the panic ladder for every unidentified craft present. Countries that go into the red are beginning to lose faith in XCOM’s ability to defend them, and your budget will take a hit as a result. Should any two countries move into the final orange zone its game over, thus combating the UFOs is a top priority. Likewise UFOs in orbit can cause problems, because they can scramble signals and move down to threaten countries directly on the next turn, adding even more problems to deal with.
Meanwhile the Commander has to maintain the fluctuating budget and decide how much of the emergency funding to use each turn. Unsurprisingly this also means that the Commander is often at the centre of vast debates about where finances need to be going in any given situation, as at the heart of XCOM: The Board Game lies the constant shifting of funds that determines whether countries will be defended or left to fend for themselves. Should there be a surplus of credits at the end of a turn new Interceptor jets and troops can be bought, while a deficit sends countries spiralling into panic. The Commander is also in charge of sending out Interceptors to defend countries currently under attack from UFOs. The Commander must shoulder one of the worst burdens in a game already intent on smacking you in the face; the Crisis Cards. Every turn the Commander must draw at least two (but usually more) of these and then decide which ones will get resolved during the later resolution phase, essentially having to choose between the lesser of two evils and therefore almost always being the most disliked person at the table. Crises range from countries coming under attack from even more UFOs to losing half the available emergency funding. Early in the game there may only be one crisis card to resolve per turn, but later there will be multiple cards, equalling multitudes more problems.
The Squad Leader is unsurprisingly the man or woman in charge of the troops, not only choosing which of the two missions drawn to embark on but also what soldiers to potentially send to their demise. Missions are entirely optional, but do tend to offer up rewards like free Interceptors or a reduction in panic for their completion, so it can be worth sending out some soldiers to complete them whenever funds are available. To win the game the you need to complete the final mission listed on the back of the Invasion Plan card, and completing regular missions will hasten when you get to do it, but even if you never complete a regular mission the app will eventually ask you to flip over the Invasion Plan, letting you battle for victory regardless. The Squad Leader must also draw cards when an enemy assaults the XCOM base and then send out troops to defend it, too.
Finally the Chief Scientist is that nagging voice that complains about how nobody is willing to spend money in all important research. Every turn the Scientist gets new technology and must decide what to try to research and how many scientists should be assigned to the task. They’re also in charge of salvaging enemy materials for bonuses, such as extra credits for the Commander to work with.
Importantly none of these rules overshadow the others, each needing to be balanced out and offered the funds they need, which is why every turn is a constant battle between them to decide where to spend cash. This is all fine and dandy with four players involved, but when playing solo the game politely informs you that you’ll be taking on all four roles yourself. It’s a substantial amount of information to track. Playing on your own there’s ten cards with abilities to remember at the very start, plus six research cards that must be examined carefully. Meanwhile you need to keep on eye on what countries are where on the panic track, consider the missions at hand, deploy your various troops, satellites and Interceptors and manage the budget. Every turn is a barrage as the app spits out alerts and instructions, demanding your undivided attention at almost all times.
The catch is that the order in which the timed phase plays out is randomized to a degree, and certain things can come up more than once. It’s entirely possible to deploy Interceptors to deal with incoming UFOs, only for the app to spawn even more afterwards, ruining your carefully planned defense. Likewise enemies intending on kicking down the door to your HQ can appear after you’ve already dispatched troops to defend the aforementioned door, leaving you severely undermanned. Thematically speaking it nicely replicates the video game in that it can be nigh on impossible to predict just how royally screwed you are at times, but naturally this can cause frustration, too. You can, after all, lose the game because UFOs spawned in a defenceless country after you had already decided where to position your Interceptors. With no cards or abilities that can destroy or move the UFO you can only watch in annoyance as countries fall into panic and the game is lost.
On the one hand playing solo is incredibly satisfying simply because everything is in your hands. There’s no bickering about the plan; you create it, you execute it, and victory comes down to your shining brilliance. Defeat is, of course, totally not your fault. It does, however, have to be said that something is certainly lost when there isn’t four people sitting around the table. A big part of the game is the act of communication, the constant debates between players about what needs to be done versus what can actually be afforded. The scientist is adamant that more money should be directed toward her this turn because she holds a piece of technology that she swears will make a huge difference and wants to commit three researches to its completion. The Squad Leader is yelling that he doesn’t have many troops left to defend the base, let alone embark on a mission, and thus credits absolutely need to be left available at the end of the turn to recruit new soldiers. The Commander really, really want some more Interceptors because there’s a lot of UFOs hovering around countries that will go into full panic if they aren’t destroyed. Meanwhile the Central Officer is grumbling because nobody ever remembers how important satellites are. Inevitably everybody will probably end up annoyed and the world will be doomed. Good stuff.
Your enjoyment of the solo experience boils down to how well you handle multitasking and tracking information, especially when under pressure to do it all quickly. Some house rules can help, such as one of mine where I decided I was allowed to use any card that would normally have to be activated during the timed phase in the brief moments before and after. It’s also worth noting that on the easy setting you can pause whenever you like for an indefinite period of time in order to assess the board or just go take dinner out of the oven. On harder settings there’s still a pause button but even this is timed. On hard, for example, you may only get fifteen seconds of pause time. However, you can hard pause the game by pressing the menu button, because naturally there will be situations where the game genuinely needs to be halted for phone calls, people knocking on the door, dogs wanting out and bodies to be hidden. Well, maybe not that last one. The only thing missing is some sort of save feature so that you can come back at a later time, but that’s perfectly understandable. An average game will run 1-2 hours in my experience, so just make sure you’ve got the spare time.
Once the timed phase has ended you move on to the resolution phase where dice are used to determine whether your plans come to fruition or if everybody dies horribly. Let’s use tackling an enemy as an example; for each soldier assigned to combat you grab one XCOM die, with extra dice being available in certain situations, and then you add the alien die and roll. Each of the XCOM die has two success and four blank sides, with successes obviously being the goal of every roll. In this instance a success might be enough to kill the alien, or it may take two or three to finish the job, which of course you could potentially roll in a single toss of the dice. As for the eight-sided alien die its result gets matched against the current threat level, measured on a meter at the side of the board, with the highest possible level being five. If it’s higher than the current rating everything is fine, but if the number is lower then it’s counted as a loss. In combat a loss means all soldiers in the fight are killed, but all successes rolled still count, so it’s entirely possible for a squad to die heroically completing the mission. Assuming the enemy isn’t dead yet you can continue to roll, but for each roll of the dice the threat meter goes up one , increasing the chances of failure. Other tasks in the game are resolved in the same manner, with some small alterations; Interceptors are destroyed, but satellites and scientists are “exhausted”, meaning they can’t be used for the rest of the turn or the next one. In most instances the threat meter is reset between tasks, so when you move from resolving one country’s UFO problem to another’s the meter gets put back to one, but in some instances it isn’t, namely base defenses and missions, further increasing the odds of defeat if you push too hard.
There is one further complication to attacking enemy aliens directly; icons. Each soldier type (Heavy, Support, Sniper and Assault) have two icons listed on their reserve cards, with one being a yellow-bordered speciality, like the sniper’s ability to blow heads off at extreme range. To attack an enemy alien you need to match the soldier’s icons to the ones listed on the enemy card, otherwise they can’t attack. Also, you can only attack an alien with as many soldiers as there are icons listed on the alien’s card, usually up to a maximum of three. If an alien has a yellow-bordered icon assigning a soldier with a matching yellow-bordered icon nets you an extra XCOM die to roll during the battle. What this does, aside from make it more difficult to quickly figure out what troops to send to war during the timed phase, is force you to seriously consider the makeup of your squads. By choosing carefully so that one soldier can be used to battle several aliens you can cut down on expenditure and risk, although obviously this comes at the cost of having slightly less chance to win.
This isn’t a game where strategy wins, it’s a game where strategy simply helps tip the odds in your favour, and thus even the best player can be undone by the cruel whims of fate. Some people will hate this, and that’s understandable. With so much going on and so much to keep track of it’s understandable that a person would ultimately want success or failure to be determined by how well they balanced the various needs of the world. In XCOM: The Board Game, however, the dice can undo everything you’ve worked toward, so while there is still a feeling of danger and tension during the resolution phase, after all a couple of bad roles can really mess up the rest of your game as you struggle to regroup, mostly there’s just acceptance. Once the dice are rolled there are some cards that can help, but mostly it’s down to chance. For people like myself, though, the element fits with the videogame, where missing a shot with a 95% chance of success was nothing short of heart wrenching. Sometimes your best plans get screwed because of luck. Sometimes a decision made ages ago comes back and kicks you in the ass for being so stupid.
As a solo expedience the game becomes far more enjoyable the more you play it, familiarity helping to overcome the fact that you have to do absolutely everything yourself. Once you understand what a specific bit of technology does or can remember all the abilities at your command without having to read the cards the game flows much better. Those first few play throughs, however, can feel a bit rough as you attempt to absorb all the information needed to successfully defend the world from the incoming alien hordes. I admit to struggling quite a bit, as I’ve always been one to calmly think my way through a problem, except when my temper gets the best of me, in which case a hammer is often the default solution to just about everything. Fridge needs fixed? Hammer. Wall damaged? Hammer. Bothersome neighbour? Hammer.
Ultimately the app that controls this game was easy to perceive initially as nothing more than a strange gimmick, one that could potentially mean that some time in the future the entire game will become unplayable if the app disappears or if new technology becomes somehow incompatible with it. However, it’s not simply some cheap gimmick. Sure, with a stopwatch, enough mechanics and sheets to consult and other nonsense you could probably replicate what it does, but it would not be as elegant or effective at delivering a constant pressure on the players. The app itself is part of the theme, this cold, calculating thing that seems determined to ruin your life one decision at a time. It’s almost ominous, a dark figure that presides over everything you do, taunting every action with a countdown.
XCOM: The Board Game is a successful merging of modern technology and tabletop gaming to create a bridge between two hobbies that I love; videogames and tabletop games. It’s a tense game that demands you constantly make tough calls, weighing up the risks and trying to balance your always stretched resources. As a four-player game it’s fantastic, driving a strong sense of teamwork. As a solo game it earns my recommendation, albeit with some caveats; if you aren’t great at tracking lots of information at the same time, or with don’t like the idea of trying to deal with everything during a timed phase, steer clear. This isn’t the game for you. Otherwise this is a fantastic game for XCOM fans and gamers in general. As good as it is, though, it really does benefit from a full contingent of people, all of whom preferably have military training and a patient attitude.