By Daniel Griliopoulos
In real life Toby’s a database guy for Goldman Sachs. Tonight, he’s XCOM’s Chief Scientist and he’s spending worryingly large amounts of our money. As Commander, I should be restraining his spending – after all, we’ll need that money to pay for Skyranger and Interceptor flights, to hire troops and to keep our satellites in the air – but it’s taking all my brainpower just to track our outgoings and keep up with the timed instructions coming in from central command. And, secretly, I really want to play with that new tech too. Which is why it’s really my fault that our brand spanking new base gets all those plasma-burn holes in the walls, and we lose North America to the alien threat. Sorry yanks!
XCOM’s complex systems and Ameritrash theme always seemed a natural fit for a board game. Yet some direct conversions, like Civilization: Through The Ages, have ended up hugely overcomplicated. So it’s a relief to play the new XCOM board game (out January 29th, £44.99 RRP) and see that that it’s retained all the tasty systems and crunchy mechanics, without becoming madly complicated. Players each take a role in the XCOM organisation and must face missions, UFOs and base invasions, and research tech together – all without letting too many countries fall, or having your base destroyed.
Much of that manageability comes down to two things. First, by going for a co-op spin, it splits the video game's single position of responsibility into four smaller, more-manageable roles, which require proper coordination on all parts to succeed. Secondly, by mediating the victory conditions and turn timing through a free app, it handles much of the background number crunching and frees players to panic about how little time they've got to make a decision.
The app also has other benefits. It can mix up the turn order, and change up where enemies appear on the map. It has multiple difficulty levels built-in, as well as a tutorial that walks you through the game much more slowly. Also, presumably, it allows creator Fantasy Flight to offer expansions, corrections and upgrades in-the-app, rather than in errata you have to trawl boardgamegeek for. Most importantly, it can give you preview information about how many UFOs are arriving and where, helping the Commander to know how much money to hold back for interceptors. Except that if there are too many UFOs in orbit, the app starts LYING to you about where the aliens will be arriving, making your choices even harder - choose to compromise on orbital defence and its predictions of future UFO activity become more unreliable.
So players take four roles, which can be combined if you have less people (you can even play alone). The Commander is a glorified accountant and flight controller, receiving a random amount of money each turn from central funding and choosing how to disburse it. The glory here is that, as well as that and deciding how much money to take from the reserves, he also has to manage the interceptors sent out to tackle the waves of UFOs, as well as dealing with crises that crop up increasingly as the game goes on. Like the video game, each of the crises involves him choosing between two horrible options: two soldiers dying in-mission, say, or every country moving one space up the panic tracker.
The Communications Officer is meant to read out the data from the app, manage everyone’s timing, and use his satellites to take UFOs out of orbit. The Science Officer handles research, allocating scientists to permanent upgrade projects, or building those projects in the workshop so they act as one-off buffs. The Squad Leader manages your men, sending the right ones on each mission and choosing whether they should be trained up or not.
EVERYTHING costs money, so there’s never enough to go around. A reserve pool can be drawn on in emergencies but it runs out quickly and any excess money disappears at the end of each turn. Handily, at turn’s end you can spend it there to hire more troops and buy more interceptors – if there are any left in the kitty.
Overspend the money and every last continent moves up the panic tracker. Ignore UFOs in particular continents, and they’ll move up the panic tracker too. If they damage your base, that might increase panic too. And if they hit the brown zone it’s game over. And if they destroy your base, it’s game over. All of those are hard enough to prevent without going on missions. But you have to do missions to win the game.
Even in the tutorial, winning against the aliens was a hectic struggle. By the end of the game, Scientist Toby’s efforts had equipped our (few remaining) soldiers with exceptionally good equipment, so we could take the fight to the alien headquarters and take it out easily. Sadly, my choice to fund science and soldiers meant that we’d not been so strong in the skies, and the aliens had pretty much conquered Earth. We called it a draw; the app told us we’d lost.
XCOM re-purposes all the elements of the original video game well. The way interceptors face off against UFOS, soldiers versus aliens, satellites versus UFOS, and scientists versus… research. With a range of different set-up conditions, there’s pretty much endless variety in how the game plays out, though I suspect that certain tactics will prove more successful than others – especially taking it slow and keeping the skies clear of UFOs. The only thing that’s missing is the ability to name your soldiers – but I guess you can do that anyway.