The cooperative board game genre has a great addition, and it comes from an unlikely source: the pc gaming community. XCOM, the turn-based alien invasion strategy game, makes the leap from the monitor to the table, and the result is an intense team experience.
Back in 1994, a relatively young pc gaming world was introduced to a new turn-based game: UFO: Enemy Unknown (a.k.a. X-Com: UFO Defense). It was based on the well-worn science fiction trope, alien invasion and abduction. While the XCOM series was, and still is, short on story, the addictive combat mechanics and endlessly customizable soldiers have kept it a favorite of both players and critics alike. Since its early beginnings, XCOM has seen no less than ten video game releases, countless clones, and even a couple of novels written within the confines of its universe. But, even for the most dedicated, XCOM’s latest incarnation might be a bit surprising–XCOM: The Board Game.
In recent years, there has been a bit of a renaissance in cooperative board games–maybe not so much of a renaissance as a revolution. Outside the paper and pen RPG, tabletop co-op has been a strictly niche market. However, with games like Pandemic and Dead of Winter, a broader audience is finding interest in these team endeavors and including them in their game night rotation. What is so different about the cooperative tabletop game? The typical competition that defines classic board games like Risk or Monopoly has been replaced by players teaming up to surmount common objectives, together–or perish trying. While it’s been exciting to see the development of more of this style of games, XCOM, with its previous focus on single and multiplayer competition, seems an unlikely fit for cooperation–but it works.
Let me begin by saying that there is a fairly steep learning curve with XCOM: TBG. However, do not let this dissuade you from playing it. Most of the complication comes during the initial setup, but once playing starts, gameplay is fairly clear–intense, but clear. If you’ve played any of the pc or mobile games, you will easily recognize all of the details included here: continents in panic, soldier and interceptor deployment, technological research, etc. But much of the familiarity ends there. This is an entirely different game than its electronic counterparts.
Taking Command of XCOM
While XCOM is hardly a traditional RPG, role playing is certainly part of its immersive architecture. From the outset, each player chooses the rank and responsibility of an officer of the defense force. The Commander manages the spending/budget and deploys interceptors against alien UFOs. The Chief Scientist researches technology and upgrades units. The Central Officer controls the XCOM tablet/phone app and relays information to the other players–I’ll cover the app in a moment. And finally, the Squad Leader manages missions and defends attacks on XCOM headquarters. The game board’s design places each player at particular side for the management of their chosen role. Each assumed role is essential to the success of the team and requires regular communication with teammates.
The App and Phases
Although XCOM:TBG is not the first game to use an electronic app, its inclusion is not simply peripheral–it contributes to the game’s intensity, and you’ll often want to throw it through a nearby window (in the best possible way). As with the pc version, XCOM:TBG is turn based. But, don’t mistake this for a drawn out, six day, no sleep, no shower round of Risk. The app keeps the game moving at a brisk pace; each game, if played at a normal skill level, should last about one hour. There are two main phases while playing: the timed phase and the resolution phase. During the timed phase, the app guides each player (by role) through each action in defense of planet earth. The precious seconds tick away as important decisions must be made, and made quickly. This pressure makes the players feel the urgency, the danger at hand. You can literally feel the weight of continents on your shoulders as panic spreads globally. During the timed phase, aliens attack, satellites are launched, soldiers are deployed, and the heart rate increases.
Next, during the resolution phase, you operate without the stress of the timer. Here, the consequences of earlier decisions are played out. This is where the dice are rolled. Launched interceptors attempt to down UFOs as they hover over continents, and squads repel futons, thin men, floaters, and mechtoids (all your favorite baddies from the video game). Again, the tablet/phone app guides each player through their responsibilities one at a time. Trust me. My friends and I, following each intense timed phase, were happy to relax, breathe a moment, and kill some aliens at our own leisure.
The largest weakness of XCOM:TBG, as mentioned earlier, is its lack of story detail. But this is a small complaint. It was (as with the video games) never intended to be an RPG steeped in lore. That being said, there is a repetitive nature to the rounds. The game is ultimately won through the repeated completion of “missions” until the “final mission” eventually appears on the app screen. In short, it a survival game with its participants sharing resources and trying not to die. If two continents enter the red panic zone, or if your base is destroyed, you lose. If you complete the final mission, you win. Pretty simple. However, with the unique characteristics of each player’s role, there is enough depth and replay value to keep you entertained until the next alien apocalypse.
Overall, XCOM:TBG is a worthwhile addition to your tabletop collection. Keep in mind, it is best experienced with the maximum four players participating. It can be played with fewer, but players will have to double (or triple) up on responsibilities. But who knows? A challenge like that might appeal to some of us more hardcore gamers. The XCOM series has built an intriguing universe over the last twenty years or so. It has always been simple in story, complex in strategy, but undeniably fun. With its entrance into the tabletop world, it has remained true to that legacy.