By Andrew Dodson on August 14, 2014 at 8:30pm
On one of the first days of GenCon 2014, the world got its first look at Fantasy Flight Games' latest: "XCOM: The Board Game."
If you're not familiar at all with the source material, "XCOM" is a popular video game that is about 20 years old now, launching originally in 1994 on the PlayStation and PC. The premise of the game is that the player works as a member or commander of XCOM, which is an elite, international military organization and your objective is to protect the world from alien invaders. The game combines a perfect amount of strategy, long-term thinking, risk management and just a bit of raw chance thrown in for good measure. It seems like perfect source material to be turned into a board game, and how Fantasy Flight Games makes it happen is really interesting.
"XCOM: The Board Game" is a game for 1-4 players, where each player takes up a certain role within XCOM - the squad leader, chief scientist, the commander and the central officer - and each role has a different responsibility within the game. The chief scientist, for instance, focuses on research and gaining access to new technology and the central officer has the task of looking at the big picture and mediating issues between the different roles and a special app to achieve the objective.
Right off the bat, when you see this game set up, you're going to notice that it utilizes an electronic app (which can be used on a PC, tablet, phone, etc.). In order to play the game, it is mandatory to have a device that uses this app. While the app is free, this is the first time that I've seen this fusion of analog and digital game devices. While this concept may turn more traditional board gamers off, Fantasy Flight Games has assured us that the use of the app is not just some silly gimmick. The rule book for this game is only four pages long (which is madness if you consider any other game by Fantasy Flight ). The app literally drives the game.
When you start the game, the application tells you which aliens you're going to be encountering, where the XCOM base will be, the panic level of the different countries, and generally tells you how to set up the board in the beginning. Once you hit the start button, things start going fast.
The app changes to a view of the world map and a timer... a timer that is counting down to...
You don't even have time to think about what its counting down to. Notifications start popping up, calling the different player roles into action. The scientist has to draw and strategically utilize technology cards. The squad leader picks a mission and deploys troops. The commander is drawing crisis cards and keeping track of diminishing funds. Things happen. Each of these rounds is only 20-30 seconds each. There is a pause button, sure, but as you play the game and start going into more advanced difficulties, your ability to push the pause button becomes a limited thing. Time literally becomes a resource.
At the end of the round, the resolution phase begins - which is the only time the players are given a chance to breathe. There is no timer. The players sift through the ashes of their victories and defeats in the last round. It's in the resolution phase that the players examine everything they accomplished (or failed to accomplish) and determine if the different nations of the world are going to continue to fund the XCOM organization. Funding could increase or decrease depending on how effective the team was. The cost of everything is determined and paid for: new units are recruited and new interceptors constructed. Then, all the crisis cards are dealt with, some of which can be disastrous for the team.
The resolution phase does have an element of untimed chaos involved in it. In order to research new technologies, defend the XCOM base from attack, complete missions on the ground, or shoot down UFOs, the players have to roll a set of custom dice. The number of dice you're allowed to roll is determined by choices you made in the previous timed round and how you distributed resources. Obviously, you want more dice so you can have more success. A lot rides on the luck of the roll in this portion of the game.
And then the timer starts again and the next round begins.
Once a certain amount of time has passed and a certain amount of missions have been completed, the application has the players put down the final mission card. By this point, you can only hope that you've acquired the necessary technologies and resources to give you the slightest of edges against the alien invaders. Win or lose - it all comes down to this.
"XCOM: The Board Game" is due for release at the end of this year. While there is a little bit of controversy in the gaming community about why it was necessary to make an electronic app mandatory for a board game, I consider it to be an interesting bridge that Fantasy Flight is attempting to cross. If you're at GenCon and you're given the opportunity to demo the game, you should definitely give it a shot and see what you think.
Humanity needs you.
XCOM: The Board Game