The XCOM name has come a long way since its first outing in the mid-90s, and yet while the games themselves have become modernised the core gameplay has remained untouched for 20 years: plan how to develop resources, head to the battlefield and go up against the aliens using a turn-based strategic combat system. Indeed if you look closely, the repeated turn-based style is more or less a board game in digital form, so it stands to reason that an XCOM board game would make a lot of sense. Having been sent a copy of that very game, we spent some time with XCOM: The Board Game and found it to carry all of the excitement of the video game series, just as long as you allow yourself to get into your roles.
XCOM differs from other strategy boards games in so much as it relies on some technology being present, be that a phone, tablet or computer of some sort. By using the accompanying app you have time limits introduced to speed up the action and add some urgency to decisions, and with each of the four players having very specific roles to play it also does a useful job of telling everyone what they need to be doing at each point in the game. This, coupled with the included tutorial, means that learning the rules isn’t so much of a problem as it might have been with such a deep and varied set of roles and responsibilities. Using an app as part of the main gameplay might seem like a bit of a diversion away from “proper” board gaming, but it works extremely well and something I can see more games using in the future to add features which aren’t readily available in traditional games. When setting up the game it tells you what needs placing where and how everything else should be set up and ready before the players start the game itself.
The ideal setup is to have four players – you can go with less if you like, but that means doubling up on roles and when they’re already tricky enough to keep up with doing two jobs at once is very tricky to maintain. Each round starts with the real-time phase where the app does what it’s built to do and tells each player what to do, when to roll the various dice and how quickly to make decisions based on the current situation, cards available or whatever else needs urgent attention. At this point the Central Officer is in charge, calling out instructions and updates delivered by the app for the other players. They will also bring in and move aliens, again depending on what the app tells them to do. The Chief Scientist will be in charge of researching and developing new technologies, the Commander worries about various crisis cards which crop up throughout as well as sending out troops and Interceptors to deal with the aliens, and while all this is going on the Squad Leader is controlled the ground troops, defending the XCOM base and setting up missions when the app says it’s time to. Most of this happens under a countdown timer only visible to the player holding the app, making each timed round incredibly stressful and frantic.
Like I said, a lot for one or two people to do.
After the timed stage is over, everything then gets resolved in a second, at-your-own-pace phase. It is, if you like, time for the AI from the video games to take their turn. At this point the results of cards played, dice rolled and decisions made will all start falling into place. Aliens will move, continents will panic, troops and Interceptors get wiped out and all of your hard work and desperate rushing will either start to form a brilliant victory or (more likely in our play-throughs) start forming the foundations of a crushing defeat. It’s a slower paced, but no less intense part of the game – money is sorted (let’s hope you didn’t go over budget), battles are fought, missions progress. Dice rolls become a game of risk and reward, with more rolls offering more rewards and more UFOs destroyed, but also increasing chance of horrific failure. When the dust has settled, as long as you’re still in one piece and fighting fit, you’re back to the next timed phase.
The focus is very much on cooperative gameplay, considering the consequences of your actions and how it might not only affect the other players, but your overall mission of protecting the world. It’s hard to even say which role is the most important amongst the four on offer; obviously whoever controls the app is controlling much of the action, and the most experienced player is probably best qualified to be barking out urgent instructions, but apart from that each job has its own challenges and rewards. The scientist will probably feel the pressure slightly less, with their job focussing more on scanning their cards and distributing research to allow the rest of the team to deal with the impact of their decisions, but as long as everyone is giving it their all then you’ve got a very intense couple of hours to enjoy with each play through of this.
But that then leads us to the one potential issue – the game moves at such a fast pace everyone has to be on the ball and wanting to play their part. Get someone who can’t really be arsed or isn’t interested and their contributions will be flat and detract from the overall game plan. When everyone really pulls together and gets into the scenario put in front of them, desperate to do well and help to guide their team to an unlikely victory against the bad guys from space then it’s one of the best team-based board games you could imagine, and if you all loved the video game then you’ll probably get close to exploding with joy. But all it takes is one person to lose interest and the whole things falls over, which is a huge shame, but to be expected when there’s so much at stake.
So XCOM: The Board Game certainly isn’t just for fans of the digital incarnations of the series. It’s an excellent co-op game for you and a group of keen friends to spend many evenings enjoying. The first game will be tough while you learn the ropes (although being able to pause the timed parts of the game and dig into the detailed in-app rulebook help with the learning process) but once you know what’s what you’ll get so engrossed in the game you’ll struggle to keep track of time. It’s a shame it relies so heavily on having four willing participants, but that’s a small ask for something you’ll enjoy so much. This could have gone very wrong, but Fantasy Flight did a great job.
XCOM: The Board Game
Available Now, RRP £44.99
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