So, I'll level with you, I was pretty excited to pick upthe XCOM Boardgame with the gift certificate I got for Xmas; I lost a lot of sleep to the updated version of the PC classic that came to the PlayStation 3 a while back, Fantasy Flight Games have tremendous production values, and I was intrigued by the idea of a boardgame that required a free app in order to be played.
And after the first time I played it with two friends, I thought I had made a terrible mistake.
Seriously, I was wondering if I could take the game back to Mission Fun and Games for partial credit, that's the degree of concern we are talking about here. I mean, at the end of the day, I already have Pandemic to scratch my cooperative playing itch, and I know someone with a copy of The Captain is Dead!, so how many non-competitive gaming options did I need, anyways?
The three of us played our XCOM game a couple of weeks ago, and frankly, the tutorial kicked our ass. Yes, the process that introduces you to the game, almost discouraged us from ever playing it again. Not only did we lose badly, but we were left baffled at precisely how anyone could overcome the combination of flying saucers terrifying the populace, alien creatures invading our hidden base, and the missions that came up every turn that would enable us to win the game. On top of all that, the delicate balance needed to succeed honestly made the game feel a bit more like work, than play. Things looked pretty dire indeed after that first misadventure.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, we were probably in the wrong mindset for that initial game; we were far more oriented towards something more beer-and-pretzelly...especially the beer part, if you catch my meaning. The game also has an intensity that is fun (on reflection) but requires a fair amount of focus, at least part of the time.
In XCOM, you and your teammates (up to 3) are in charge of defending the Earth from a variety of alien invaders. Each player has a role to fulfill: Commander (manages the budget, deploys interceptors), Central Officer (manages the app, deploys satellites), Chief Scientist (researches the alien tech to develop better weapons and equipment), and Squad Leader (trains and deploys military ground forces). Each player has their own set of resources and cards to manage, with more to come over the course of the game as newer, better tech is developed.
Each turn has two phases, the timed phase and the resolution phase, and this is where the app comes into play. During the timed phase, various elements occur in a random order, so in one turn the Chief Scientist may have to begin by drawing a set of cards and begin selecting which technology he wants to develop first. The next might kick off with the Squad Leader having to draw two missions from that deck and choosing which one to pursue. In either case every element in the timed phase has an associated timer, and the player must complete their task before the timer runs out. It's one thing to say, "All right, I can't dawdle when it's my turn to act...", but it's a whole 'nother thing when the app draws your name and the Central Officer barks out, "Commander, you have thirty seconds to deploy your interceptors!"
On top of the fact that you might not know if there are any more saucers expected following your interceptor deployment, every resource that gets placed on the board comes with a cost, so when you get to the resolution phase and count up 3 interceptors, 2 scientists, 2 satellites, 2 soldiers defending the XCOM base and 3 taking the fight to the foe on the selected mission, there had darned well better be 12 credits in the kitty. For every credit you come up short, another saucer is added to the board, increasing panic and making victory that much more elusive.
During the resolution phase, the timer gets put away and players use their allocated forces and applicable cards to thwart the invaders. The more of whatever you have thrown at the situation (scientists for tech, soldiers for aliens, interceptors for saucers, etc), the more of the blue XCOM dice you get to throw. Each six-sided dice has two success symbols on it, and the tougher the task, the more successes you require.
The good news is you can take as many rolls as you need; the bad news is that every roll must be accompanied by a standard 8-sided die called the Alien Die. There is a difficulty counter that starts at 1 and increases by +1 on each subsequent roll, and if the red die is equal to or lower than that number, you can't roll any more, and some sort of bad effect is visited on that resource: soldiers die, scientists are exhausted, interceptors are shot down, etc. Needless to say, pretty much every dice roll comes with a decent amount of associated stress or tension, so accumulating cards that allow you to reroll the Alien Die becomes a priority fairly quickly! Luckily you do start with one, but deciding precisely when is the best time to use it can be a difficult consensus to reach.
In order to keep things interesting, there is more than one way to lose at XCOM: if aliens successfully damage your base enough times, that's all she wrote. More threatening however, is mounting panic. Each saucer left over a continent increases panic there at the end of the resolution phase, through yellow to red and eventually chaos (which is orange, strangely). There are limited ways to reduce panic levels, and once a second continent succumbs to panic, the game ends; sic transit gloria mundi and all that.
Some of the cards let you use your resources off the board in order to achieve certain effects, so, for example, one tech card lets you put two scientists on it and bring on a replacement interceptor for free, or place a satellite on a card in order to move a saucer from one continent to another like a sheepdog. One thing we failed to notice in our first play-through is that you can play multiple resources on some of these cards, so while you can't use four scientists to get two interceptors (because the card has a maximum of 1listed on it), you can use three satellites to herd a like number of saucers around! Since we always had a surplus of satellites about and saucers were a continual problem, this revelation would have been tremendously helpful, but I only discovered it after the fact while perusing the online forums at the FFG website.
Playing a solitaire game afterwards once I knew this, and taking full advantage of the unlimited pause button that the Easy mode of the game allows, I was able to defeat the aliens fairly handily, but that's the catch, isn't it? Ideally, I won't be playing the game by myself, I will have teammates to negotiate with for scarce resources and cash, and we will all have the ticking clock to contend with.
And this is where the game transitions from tragic to brilliant; by giving each player their own cards to manage, a strict time limit, and a shared budget, Fantasy Flight has created a co-operative game that is almost impossible to quarterback.
For those of you who haven't played many co-op games, or who have, but with decent human beings, 'quarterbacking' is a name applied to the situation where one player takes a dominant role in the game, to the detriment of the other players. I've never encountered it myself personally, but it is easy to imagine a game of, say, Pandemic, where one player says, "Okay, I think I have a solution set here; can I see your cards? Yeah, so, you need to go to Tehran, here, I got it, cure one disease and then meet him in Istanbul. You give him that card, yeah, good, then you, you need to use your special ability to move me to Atlanta like this, it's okay,I like to move my own piece, then you use your two moves to get to the research station in Mumbai, shuttle back to Atlanta like this, give me those cards, no, those two, yeah, and then on my turn I can cure the disease and we win the game! Wasn't that fun? Guys? Hey, where are you going?"
Now, I think the best way to avoid an unfortunate scenario like this playing out is to just play with better people, but hey, none of us is without flaws, and this behaviour can often be coached out. On the other hand though, if you should find yourself unable to escape playing a person you suspect of having this particular trait, maybe on a retreat or at a gaming convention, how reassuring it is to know that there is one game in your cupboard that even an experienced player will find it difficult to hijack!
For the rest of us, the rest of the time, when we have the latitude needed to select both our games and gaming companions more diligently, we are left with a very decent cooperative game. XCOM boasts a good looking board, better looking pieces, great art, and all the other trimmings we have come to expect from Fantasy Flight Games. There are also some novel play mechanics, including a three way balancing act between the aliens, time, and sharing resources with the other players.
Having come around from thinking I'd wasted my money (and gift certificate!) to feeling good about my purchase, there are still a few things I would change about XCOM. First of all, while I appreciate having the rules embedded in the app, I would pay another $3-4 for a hard copy; sometimes the other players want to look something up during the timed phase and loading up the app feels prohibitive.
I can't really recommend the game for solitaire play either; other players can read over their cards and plan their actions while the active player completes their action in the timed phase, and there is no opportunity for this by yourself without pausing, which spoils the fun somewhat. Besides, there's a really good video game version of XCOM for solo play, so I hear.
The app itself is perfectly functional but a bit humdrum; the iPad version of Pandemic does a much better job of integrating things like dramatic changes in music, or flashing lights whenever an epidemic occurs. Considering the resources the developers must have had to work with, courtesy of the video game developers, some more cut scenes showcasing mission outcomes or even mounting panic would have been appreciated.
I wish the Tutorial was more random and less static; going through the same motions every time you introduce new players to the game could get old fast. Alternatively, a tutorial video outlining key concepts would be helpful, which is how The Captain is Dead! manages it.
Similarly, I think having the app itself read out the assignments, perhaps accompanied by appropriate sound effects like air raid sirens or Morse code signals would have added more atmosphere than having the Central Officer do it, and eventually the players would begin to associate the sounds with certain game actions, streamlining things even further.
Still, it is gratifying to see the victory screen when the combination of planning and luck sees you finally put paid to the invaders of our homeworld!