Xcom: The Board Game - Does it Work?
Electronic enhancement of board games in not new however, the method of the inclusion is unusual and opens new possibilities for board games. This past summer at GenCon, there were two board games that incorporated electronic devices in the play of the game. The offering from Iello (World of Yo-Ho) has yet to be published. In World of Yo-Ho, players use their smart phones as the pawns in the game. (There is much more but this is not a discussion of that game.) The second offering is from Fantasy Flight - Xcom: The Board Game and is based on the popular video game.
Xcom is a co-op game in which a smart phone, tablet or computer is an active and integral part of the game play. There are many co-op games, themed in a variety of ways, but all appear to have a one thing is common - an ever increasing threat that the players must react to and defeat and in this, Xcom is not different. Among gamers, Pandemic is the ‘Risk’ or ‘Monopoly’ of games. Whenever a new co-op game is being introduced, one will inevitably hear: “It’s like Pandemic, except...”. As I believe most gamers who have played co-op games have probably attempted a game of Pandemic, I too will use Pandemic in explaining Xcom and the effects of the electronic input.
In Xcom, aliens are invading the Earth and it is the task of the players to prevent the total subjugation of the planet. Each player (1 to 4 can play), takes a role and attempts to eradicate the ever increasing threat. If this sounds like ‘Pandemic in Space’ then you have the same thoughts I had when I first encountered it - and you, like myself, would be mistaken. Xcom is as different from Pandemic as World at War is from Risk.
Xcom was designed by Eric Lang (Quarriors, Marvel Dice, Chaos in the Old World, Warhammer Invasion, etc.). It appears Lang took the basic ingredients from Pandemic, added a few more, enhanced others and the result is an unusual and unique experience. After several plays (and not a single win), I believe there are four factors that make this an exceptional experience.
The App - The app serves to drive the events in the game. It works similar to drawing the country cards in Pandemic in that it announces where the aliens will invade next. If that was the sole purpose of the app then I would consider it an unnecessary gimmick. It is in the other things the app does that the game becomes alive - it becomes a real time experience. One player will control the app during the game announcing what is occurring. The events that occur (alien invasion, tech research, placing military units, etc.) do not happen in the same order each round and this makes for a much deeper game. For example: alien ships might arrive in orbit around the Earth and in a later phase, a player may launch satellites to counter their advance. However, the satellite launch phase may occur prior to any knowledge of the orbital invasion. Resources are in short supply so to launch or not launch the satellite defences is a critical decision and this is where the game ramps up the tension. The app includes a timer for each event and time is short, very short. You must decide whether to deploy the satellites within a matter of seconds (literally) as any delay eats into the available time for subsequent events. It is real time and stressful; some players did not enjoy the tension - this is not a typical co-op where everyone can analyze every possible path. Could this be accomplished with a deck of cards and a timer? Probably but if it was workable, it would be clumsy at best.
Resource management - The second factor that differentiates Xcom from other co-ops is there is a significant, critical resource management aspect. You have only so much money each round and everything costs money to deploy. Satellites, research, troops, it has a price and, as it is in short supply, this is a major consideration each round. You want to do it all but your choices are limited. In addition to that, the decision must be made in real time; someone needs to be watching the store or deficit spending can have horrible ramifications. This not only increases the tension during the game, it provides a new level of discussion/planning between rounds. Can we allow the aliens to increase in an area so that we can better deal with the infestation somewhere else? At the beginning of the game, resources are plentiful however, as the game progresses and players absorb losses, the remaining resources become precious.
Differentiation - In basic Pandemic, the diseases are simply different colored cubes. The expansions provided some differentiation but not in any significant way. Xcom blows this away with the variety of different aliens and the approaches to eliminate them. There are alien decks for the occasions when aliens have reached a base or as part of missions. (Not only are there different alien groups, each member of a particular type of alien may have a special and unique advantage. Aliens in orbit are dealt with in one manner; aliens on the planet in a completely different manner. There are four types of soldiers to confront the aliens who have landed and not every soldier can combat every alien. One player controls the soldiers in the game and it is a tough role. The decisions as to which soldiers should confront which aliens is not only difficult, it must be made in seconds (literally again) as that timer is counting down.
Random factor - Combat resolution in Pandemic (eliminating cubes), like in Chess, is fixed; the results are knowable in advance of the first move. Lang has introduced a random factor here; the results of a particular combat or research attempt cannot be known in advance. Dice are rolled for each attempt and a die is rolled for the aliens. It is possible to succeed at something and yet lose a precious unit in the activity. Planning between rounds becomes more critical as the game progresses as the alien invasion increases while the ‘good guys’ resources take blow after blow.
Xcom is a very, very tense experience. Though each of the mechanics in the game is familiar, the combination of the various mechanics and the real time aspect make this an extremely challenging game. There is a learning curve; what the different techs can provide, what the various soldiers can do and then there is the problem of limited resources. I have no knowledge of how the app is programmed; whether there are specific patterns or not, I cannot say. The difficulty levels in the game increase with the type of aliens that appear and by shortening the time allotted for each action. It will be interesting to see if any future expansion of the game would include additional types of phases that would appear in an app update. Based on my personal experience to date, I believe the app is integral to providing this particular gaming experience; this is not a gimmick - it is the real deal.
A word of warning - it has been my experience with co-op games that they tend more to the family level of play; a non-gamer can be included in the group and the game works fine. That is not the case for Xcom. Where Pandemic is a Target/Wal-Mart game, Xcom is for gamers. This is a deep and complex game; it is not a family game or a game that can easily accept non-gamers.