Game Buzz – XCOM: The Board Game

I’ve never really been a video gamer.  Growing up, I had a Game Boy, and played the heck out of Tetris, but I didn’t ever really keep up with the trends.  So I don’t know a whole lot about XCOM, the sci-fi franchise about repelling an alien invasion.  But I do know that, in the board game world, there’s a lot of excitement about

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

XCOM: The Board Game was recently published by Fantasy Flight Games.  The game was designed by Eric M. Lang, is for 1-4 players, and takes about 90 minutes.  It’s a cooperative game where you are leaders of the international organization XCOM, and have been tasked with the defense of humanity.  The big thing that makes this game especially notable is that it is playable with an app that can be downloaded to an Android or iOS device, or even to your PC or Mac (links at the bottom of this post).

This game comes with a board showing a map of the world, 12 plastic XCOM soldiers, 8 interceptors, 24 UFOs, 5 custom dice, and over 200 tokens and cards.  There’s also a Getting Started guide, but most of the rules are contained within the app.

Each player is assigned a role – Commander, Central Officer, Chief Scientist, and Squad Leader.  The Commander is responsible for managing funds and deploying interceptors.  The Chief Scientist is responsible for researching technology and upgrading your forces.  The Central Officer is responsible for tracking UFOs, assigning satellites, and relaying information fro the app.  The Squad Leader leads forces to attempt to complete missions.  The scenario card for the scenario you’re playing is placed out (the app will tell you which one).  The Squad Leader forms an enemy deck, and the XCOM HQ token is placed somewhere on the map (again, the app describes this).  Each player gets some asset cards that can be used in the game.  The panic track is set up, with each continents tokens placed in various positions.  If two continents get too panicky, you lose.

Each round of the game has two phases – a timed phase and a resolution phase.  In the timed phase, the app will tell different actions that must be performed by the players.  In the resolution phase, you audit your budget, acquire new units, resolve crisis cards, perform tasks, and refresh units and cards.

I’m using the app as I’m writing this post, and right now I’m going to go through a sample tutorial round to see how the actions work.  As per usual with these overviews, I haven’t actually played the game, I’m just learning from the rules.  The tutorial mode pauses after each action so you learn by doing.  At least for the first two rounds.  The HQ is in Africa, and the Scenario is Occupation.  So, here we go.  Deploying in 5…4…3…2…1…

  • NEW TECHNOLOGY AVAILABLE  The Chief Scientist can draw a hand of six cards.  Later on, he will research some of these.
  • XCOM BUDGET: 12 Credits – The Commander takes 12 credit tokens from the supply.  This is used to pay for actions.
  • UFOS DETECTED! – UFOs show up.  The Central Officer places them in the areas shown in the app.  In this case, North America and South America get hit.
  • ASSIGN RESEARCH II – The Chief Scientist can research one of the six cards in his hand, placing it on the research II space.  You can assign up to three scientists to the technology, spending one credit per scientist.
  • CHOOSE MISSION – The Squad Leader draws the top two cards of the mission deck and chooses one.  Each mission has three tasks, as well as two rewards.  If there are enemy spaces, you draw alien cards and place them face down on the mission.
  • CRISIS! – The Commander draws the top two cards of the crisis deck and adds one to the crisis pool, discarding the other.
  • UFOS DETECTED! – More UFOs, this time both in Africa.
  • ASSIGN RESEARCH I – The Chief Scientist can research another card, this time in space I with up to three scientists.
  • ENEMY IN THE BASE – Draw a card from the enemy deck and place it in the base.
  • DEPLOY SQUAD TO MISSION – The Squad Leader reveals any enemy cards on the current mission, then chooses up to four soldiers from the reserve and assigns them to the mission.  Each soldier has two skill icons, and these will help if matched with the current mission.  Each soldier costs a credit.
  • UFOS DETECTED! – They keep coming.  Two are placed in orbit, and one is placed in South America.
  • EMERGENCY FUNDING AVAILABLE – The Commander starts the game with ten credits in reserve.  In this phase, he makes the decision to take some out if extra is needed to pay for stuff.  Anything you don’t spend in the budget during the round is lost.  The emergency fund isn’t replenished.
  • DEPLOY SATELLITES – The Central Officer takes up to three satellites and places them in orbit.  Each one costs a credit.
  • CRISIS! – The Commander draws two more crisis cards, adds one to the pool, and discard the other.
  • ASSIGN RESEARCH III – A third opportunity to research, as before.
  • DEPLOY INTERCEPTORS – The Commander takes any number of Interceptors and places them next to any of the six continents (up to three per continent).
  • ENEMY IN THE BASE – Draw another enemy and place it in the base.
  • DEFEND THE BASE – The Squad Leader can assign any number of units to the base defense.  Skills should match to give you a better chance.
  • UFOS DETECTED – Run for your lives!  One UFO to Asia, one to Africa.
  • ENDING TIMED PHASE – Any excess time not used is placed here, giving you a few more seconds to do some extra stuff and spend the remains of your budget.

Now it’s time to resolve.  Resolution always happens in the same order.

  • AUDIT THE BUDGET – Count the number of satellites, soldiers, scientists, and Interceptors, then turn in one credit for each.  If you came in under or on budget, proceed to the next step.  If you don’t have enough money, the most panicked continent increases by one for each unpaid unit.
  • RECRUIT SOLDIERS AND BUILD INTERCEPTORS – If there’s a surplus, the Commander can spend any remaining credits on soldiers and Interceptors.  These go from the recruitment pool to the reserves.  Any unspent credits are lost.
  • RESOLVE CRISES – Look at the top card in the crisis pool, resolve it, and continue until all have been resolved.
  • RESOLVE TASKS – Each task that has units assigned to it will resolve.  The player in charge will roll one XCOM die per assigned unit, plus the red alien die.
    • Resolve research from I to III, trying to roll successes for your assigned scientists, adding a success token for each.  If the number of successes equals the research cost, the task is complete and the tech is researched.  Each loss rolled exhausts a scientist, which can’t be used for the rest of the round or the next round.
    • Resolve orbital defense by rolling one XCOM die per satellite plus the alien die.  Each success destroys an orbiting UFO  Each loss exhausts a satellite.
    • Resolve global defense by rolling one XCOM die per Interceptor on a continent.  Each success destroys a UFO.  Each loss destroys an Interceptor.  After the task is resolved, the panic level of that continent increases by one per UFO remaining.
    • Resolve base defense by matching symbols of your soldiers to the enemies, then rolling one XCOM die per soldier.  Each success adds a success token to the enemy, which is destroyed when successes equal health.  A dead alien goes to the Chief Scientist as salvage.  If a loss is rolled, each soldier assigned to the enemy is killed.  After resolving tasks, add one damage to the base per living enemy.  If the base is destroyed, you lose.
    • Resolve the mission by assigning soldiers to the skill icons, then rolling dice.  One success is required to complete a task with no enemy, and tasks with enemies must result in the death of the enemy.  Losses kill the assigned soldiers.

If you haven’t lost the game at this point, you refresh exhausted units and cards in the reserve, then return units from the board into the reserve.  If any UFOs remain in orbit, they may scramble communications and your actions may appear out of order.

The game is over when the base is destroyed (you lose), when two continents get too panicked (you lose), or the final mission is completed (you win).

This game has been getting a lot of attention due to the app.  A lot of people are up in arms, saying that it is an abomination to let electronics infiltrate our board games.  The biggest complaint is that the app is required – there’s no alternate way to run the game.  Fantasy Flight seems to be making the assumption that their target audience will have access to the app – a phone, a tablet, a computer, whatever.  I think that’s a safe assumption – video gamers definitely have access, and odds are good that SOMEONE in your group has a smart phone and the ability to download this FREE app.  Personally, I’m glad to see this kind of innovation – along with other games like Alchemists and Golem Arcana, this is an experiment in keeping board games relevant in an increasingly digital world.  I’m not saying board games are obsolete – they are in fact getting MORE popular these days – but I also think it’s a good idea to prepare for the future.  Look at the music business.  They actively opposed digital music back in the 90s, and are still struggling to catch up.  So I think it’s good to have games that are trying to find ways to integrate technology while still maintaining the physical nature of a good board game.  And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.

As for gameplay – as I said, I don’t know XCOM, so I can’t speak to the similarity to the video game.  But this looks like a pretty solid real-time cooperative game in the tradition of something like Space Alert.  It looks very difficult to win, and it’s something that will be different every time.  It’s nice that there are different roles so each person knows what their job is.  The app is VERY well designed, and I think does a great job of walking you through the game – at least, from my play through without ny components in front of me.  So this is a game that I’m looking forward to trying.  Thanks for reading!

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