Published on February 15th, 2015 | by Colin0
Cardcore Gamer: XCOM The Board Game: First contact
Recently I wrote about app-based games. Now I’ve played XCOM, so let’s probe my mind…
XCOM: the Board Game is a newly released cooperative game, designed around a fully-integrated smartphone app and in this article, I outlined my thoughts about the potential pitfalls and benefits of app-based table-top gaming. In the past week a friend kindly introduced me to XCOM and together we defended the Earth from alien space bastards and their stupid flying saucers for an enjoyable couple of hours. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day…or at least what impressions XCOM left on my squidgy humanoid brain.
In the game you’re given a specific role to play; Commander, Chief Scientist, Central Officer, or Squad Leader, each with a different set of powers and responsibilities. In the 2-player game, you have to cover a couple of roles each and so I was promoted to Commander AND Squad Leader and promptly made myself a special hat and name badge. My jobs were to deploy Interceptors and troops to defend the globe and our base against the alien menace, while trying to complete our main mission and, in a much more pedestrian role, manage the budget. The app dictates a semi-random set of mission, alien invasion plan and alien forces and once you are ready, the Timed Phase begins.
This is the first trick the app has up its sleeve, randomly throwing out tasks for the different roles with extremely tight time limits in which to complete them; Choose a Crisis Card! Deploy troops! Research tech! 10 seconds left – “I need more funds to defend Asia. Sir, we need a decision now!” While you’re in the zone, XCOM hits exactly the right balance of pressure and fun to create exhilaratingly stressful gameplay, but when the clock stops and hindsight kicks in, it does seem that the decisions you make aren’t all that difficult or interesting. The Crisis Cards are normally a choice between two – one bad and one worse, the troops you deploy based on matching symbols with enemy cards and the research is all about which piece of kit you want the most. The lack of a set turn sequence keeps you on your toes, but also often demands you to make decisions based on little to no information; you need to deploy interceptors to defend the skies, but the saucers haven’t arrived yet.
Once the Timed Phase is over, the game switches to a Resolution Phase, where you get to see what effect your efforts have had on the state of the game. This chiefly involves rolling dice a lot and trying to get the equivalent of a 5 or a 6, while another die (a D8) decides whether the aliens destroy all your ships and soldiers. Each failed attempt raises the number on which the alien die kills you in a push-your-luck game of chicken, which in a lighter game would feel fun, but in XCOM just comes off as cheap, undermining your fast decision making with a bunch of random kicks in the teeth. After your done killing, dying, budgeting and researching, you feed some results back into the app, which then calculates your funds for next turn and adjusts the game according to your performance. This is a pretty cool touch which allows the app to manage the game length and difficulty to give a consistent experience, though without seeing how any of the parts connect behind the scenes, it’s hard to gauge exactly how much it actually does.
One of my main concerns about XCOM turned out to be entirely unfounded and I was happy to discover that the app wasn’t in the slightest bit intrusive and happily worked along in the background without any hiccups. In fact, I felt slightly underwhelmed that there was no computer voice issuing warnings, countdowns and instructions, nor any alien noises, saucer battles and panicking civilians to set the mood. The timer built into the app does break the common co-op game issue of an ‘Alpha player’ – a single person dictating the ‘best’ way for the group to tackle the game – but by the same token it doesn’t enable an awful lot of discussion and I’m not too convinced that I’d have enough to do in a multiplayer game either, as playing with just a single job to do seems like it’d be fairly boring.
Though the tone of this article is critical, the time I spent playing XCOM: The Board Game was a lot of fun and it didn’t outstay its welcome. The pacing of timed and untimed phases allows for a great balance of tense and controlled gameplay which never felt overwhelming, nor gimmicky and the app integration is pretty seamless. That said, the overall feel and mechanics of the game are rather familiar, not too dissimilar to every other co-op game I’ve played. In a way, the use of an app doesn’t take things far enough in terms of immersion, variety and most importantly hidden activity. What I really wanted from XCOM was the feeling of facing a frightening unknown alien intelligence; something which could adapt and surprise you, one which would actually make you a little bit unnerved because the advantage of software is that you cannot see what it’s thinking. Because when you look up into the starry void of the night sky, the shiver you feel at the dark spaces between the stars is what XCOM should really be all about.