Thursday, 7 January 2016

X-COM the board game

This Christmas, I got my metamour a copy of X-COM the board game, another box full of pieces from complexity merchants Fantasy Flight Games. It's designed for 1-4 players filling four roles between them:

  • The Commander places interceptors to shoot down UFOs, but more importantly oversees X-COM's funds each turn.
  • The Central Officer controls the placement of satellites to shoot down orbiting UFOs, and controls the digital app which provides UFO placements and random events.
  • The Squad Leader controls the deployment of soldiers to complete missions and to defend the X-COM base from alien assault.
  • The Chief Scientist assigns research projects and researchers to provide all roles with additional assets in order to do their jobs.
The three marshmallows standing in for
UFOs are a sign that things are not going
So, the key words you may have spotted in there were 'digital app'. You can't actually play X-COM without a tablet or smartphone to run the free companion app which provides random and plotted events and also contains the rules (there is no paper rule book.) But don't let that fool you; there are all the usual cards and tokens you'd expect from Fantasy Flight, and little plastic models to boot.

Each role has a set of accompanying asset and reserve cards. The assets have abilities to aid in the performance of the role, while the reserves are resources to be assigned: Interceptors, Satellites, Soldiers and Researchers. The Commander also gets a stack of credit chips to represent X-COM's money each round. The Chief Scientist gets a deck of technology cards, which can be researched to grant new assets. The Squad Leader has a stack of mission cards, each including three tasks, some or all of which may be filled by drawing from the alien deck, with defeated aliens becoming salvage, which can be spent by the Chief Scientist. The Commander gets a stack of crisis cards which make bad things happen. There is also a set of success tokens to track how well a task is going, and the dice. The game includes five blue six-siders, each with four blank faces and two X-COM symbols, and a red eight-sider.

Each game has an invasion scenario, which determines the base location, one of the Commander's assets, the final mission, the selection of aliens and the shit that goes down when the base gets dinged up.

Each turn begins with a timed phase, in which the app is king: research projects and defence assets are assigned, while aliens are played into base assaults, UFOs placed on the world map and Crisis cards drawn. Each time a crisis turns up, the Commander has a matter of seconds to choose between the top two cards. Similarly, the Squad Leader gets to draw two mission cards and play one, and the Chief Scientist chooses between a hand of six tech cards to fill three research slots. At the end of the timed phase, you count up assigned resources and audit against the available funds. If you've overspent, one of the continents gets more panicky. If there's an underspend, you can get more soldiers or interceptors, and believe me; you'll need them.

When base defence goes wrong, or rather, just before that
The timed phase is followed by the resolution phase. First, all crisis cards are resolved, then each player in turn runs through their tasks: Research, orbital defence, global defence, base defence and the mission. Resolving a task involves rolling a number of the blue X-COM dice and the red alien die. You can roll as many times as you like, but each time the threat level rises, and if the alien die comes up equal to or lower than the threat level, you lose your assets. Satellites and researchers are disabled for a turn; interceptors and soldiers are glooped.

Guess who's coming to dinner. Just FYI,
those are stacks of four UFOs, not single
If there are UFOs left on any continent, that continent gets more panicked. If any aliens attacking the base aren't killed, the base takes damage. As the base takes damage, more bad shit happens. As panic rises, funding drops (and the chances of getting yet more panic from overspending rises.) It is incredibly easy to enter a spiral of failure, as we discovered in the game where we ended up having to use marshmallows for UFOs because we ran out of the little plastic ones. A key part of that was that our Chief Scientist had a run of terrible dice rolls, so were were shoring up the dyke with no tools. Research really is the key to success, it seems.

Victory comes when - or rather if - you unlock the final mission and complete it, but you can lose by having the base destroyed or too many continents crash into total panic. It's tough; almost Pandemic tough.

The main strength and weakness of the game is the app. It provides a lot of pace and variation, but until you get into the swing of it it can feel a bit mechanical, as if you're just a process not a player. The rest has a fair bit of the old X-COM flavour, from the tech cards which mirror advances from the game to the crushing sense of inevitable doom that creeps over you as a play through becomes untenable and the marshmallows close in.

There is also an issue with the size of the game. The board and additional cards are the absolute limit of what my table can hold, leaving me feeling that my hardware may no longer be adequate to run a modern board game.