If you’ve ever played any of the newer installments in the XCOM video game franchise, you probably heard that statement in a very distinct voice; it may have even sent a chill up your spine. Whenever you hear that statement from the shadowy Council Spokesman, you can be sure things are about to get real, and in a very punishing way.
To fans of the series, XCOM has meant an excruciating struggle against impossible odds since 1994. The original game infamously had a bug where, no matter what difficulty you selected, it always ran the Easy setting, but nobody noticed it for years—because the game was that hard.
The series ran from 1994 until 1998 before falling by the wayside. Then, in 2012, 2K Games and Firaxis Games rebooted the series with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, followed by an expansion pack titled XCOM: Enemy Within the following year. In 2016, they released a sequel, XCOM 2, which recently received its own expansion, War of the Chosen.
XCOM: The Board Game was released in 2015 through a partnership between Fantasy Flight Games, Firaxis, and 2K. Eric M. Lang, who has several design credits to his name, was tapped to design, and somehow, he was able to translate the feeling of playing XCOM from a digital format to a board game with impressive accuracy.
So, after that introduction, let’s dive in.
XCOM is designed to be played with four players, with an asymmetrical gameplay mechanic. Each player takes on the leadership of a different division of the XCOM project, an extra-governmental organization funded by a collaboration of nations on Earth to repel an alien invasion. However, the game can be adjusted for any number of players between one and four. (That said, I think a full compliment of four players will deliver the best gaming experience.)
In addition to a physical copy of the game, XCOM requires players to install a free app on either a smartphone or a tablet. The app gives players their tasks, adjusting factors like the budget and the number of invading UFOs based upon the status of the board.
The game is divided into two phases: a Timed Phase and a Resolution Phase. During the Timed Phase, each player has specific tasks to complete before tapping “Done” on the app and progressing to the next player’s tasks. The roles available for players are Commander, Central Officer, Squad Leader, and Chief Scientist.
Each role plays differently from the others, having its own responsibilities and tasks to complete during the game:
The Commander is in charge of handling the budget, making sure that there is a balance across all the divisions. Each unit placed on the board during the timed round costs a credit, and if there isn’t enough money to cover all units played, it can lead to panic and disastrous effects. In addition, the Commander has the responsibility of deploying Interceptors to bring down UFOs that are attacking the different continents.
The Central Officer is in charge of relaying information from the app to the other players. They are also responsible for deploying satellites either in defensive orbit, or using them to activate helpful abilities. (Each role has a standard set of abilities at the beginning of the game and can gain additional ones over the course of the game.)
The Squad Leader is in charge of deploying troops on missions and to defend the base. They select which missions to send troops on, selecting units with abilities that match the requirements to complete mission objectives or defeat enemies.
The Chief Scientist is in charge of selecting helpful equipment to research that the other three roles can then use to improve their chances of success during the resolution phase. They select projects and deploy scientists to improve the chance of successfully completing the research for those projects.
During the Resolution Phase, players roll special dice to determine whether their actions during the Timed Phase succeeded or failed. Players roll blue d6es with 4 blank faces and 2 faces that show the XCOM logo, which represents a success. At the same time, they roll a red d8, which the game refers to as the “alien die” and which represents the players’ chances of failure. The game uses a push-your-luck mechanic where each task requires a certain number of “success” rolls to complete. Each time the players roll, they must also roll higher than a target number on the alien die, starting at one and increasing by one each time they roll until the number caps at 5. If they roll equal to or lower than that number, they fail and lose access (sometimes permanently) to all units assigned to that task. Players can stop at any time, however, and bank their successes (represented by tokens that look like the XCOM logo), then roll again to complete the task during the next Resolution Phase.
After a certain amount of time determined by the app, the “final mission” becomes available. Once this happens, the Squad Leader can deploy troops to complete that mission and win the game.
The game is seriously punishing, but it’s incredibly fun. There’s just something satisfying when you’re able to pull out even a small victory against such rough odds. When you look at those dice, it becomes pretty clear that they’re stacked against the players. With 4 out of 6 faces being blank, each die only has a 33.3% chance of success. The gear the Chief Scientist researches can be used to improve those chances, but sometimes, the dice just seem determined to destroy you. During one playthrough, we had one player complete a long series of rolls without a single success. When we calculated the odds of that happening, there was a 0.7% chance of him rolling so poorly. It seems unfair, but as they say, “That’s XCOM, Baby!”
Visual/Physical Appeal (9/10)
One thing is certain—Fantasy Flight did their homework when they were designing the pieces for this game. There are several high-quality plastic units available, and they do a great job of representing their counterparts from the video game versions. Each of these units could have easily been represented by simple cardboard tokens, but they really went the extra mile with these plastic pieces. They’re accurate to the video games, and they’ve got a good heft to them, so they feel substantial.
The design of the board is clever, too. Because each player has their own role to play, each edge of the board is customized to facilitate those roles. Everything to do with base defense and missions, which are assigned to the Squad Leader, are on the same side of the board, and the same is true for the other three roles. There are also three different sizes of card, each tailored to fit their use. Alien cards are small, so they’re easy to line up along the base and/or mission areas where they can show up. Research cards are the standard size you find in most card games because there’s no need for them to be different. Mission cards and Reserve cards are bigger so they can accommodate the units that are placed on them. Altogether, the design of the game is excellent.
This is probably also where I should mention the design of the app. It’s well put together, and it moves everything along smoothly, taking players step-by-step through each phase of the game. It even includes a tutorial mode to teach players how to play. That’s both a positive and a negative for the game, in my opinion. I like having the tutorial mode in the app, but for some reason, Fantasy Flight decided that meant there was no need to include a printed copy of the rules. Instead, the insert that comes with the game only explains setup and directs players to the tutorial for everything else. This makes it difficult when you come across a section that is unclear, because if you want to look at those rules again, you have to cycle back through the stages of the app to find them. Even including a rough summary of the rules would be extremely helpful.
Setup Time (7–10 minutes)/Play Time (1–2 hours)
Setup can take a while for XCOM, and it’s not made any easier by the “insert” in the box. It’s essentially just a narrow trench and a few plastic bags. A custom insert would be a vast improvement for this game. There are several different cards to give each player before hand, of varying sizes, but fortunately, they don’t really get mixed in with each other during the game, so it’s relatively easy to keep them separated. There are, on the other hand, dozens of tokens to keep straight, including credits, success tokens, scientists, satellites, country panic markers, the threat token, the base damage token, and of course the XCOM HQ token. All of these take some time to separate at the beginning. Meanwhile, although there are a lot of plastic figures, those are much easier to keep separate.
The game can be played in a couple of hours, depending on how long it takes you to lose. (And just as a warning, you should expect to lose during your first playthrough. XCOM is meant to be difficult, and it delivers. It’s not an easy game, but it’s a rewarding one to play through with friends.)
Complexity (Rank 7)/Teach Time (~10 minutes*)
While XCOM is a fairly complex game as a whole, each role is relatively simple to play. Every player is given two or three specific tasks that they focus on, which all influence the game in their own different ways. Coordination between players is important, but it’s not difficult to figure out what you, as an individual, are supposed to be doing.
The basics of the game can be taught in about 10 minutes, but I do recommend playing through the tutorial, which is essentially an entire campaign. For the first two or three rounds, the Timed Phase pauses for each player to figure out what they’re supposed to do, then begins following the normal timed rules beyond that point. Once players have figured out their roles, they can simply start a new campaign with normal rules, or they can play through the rest of the Tutorial and play the full campaign.
So there are two ways to look at XCOM: The Board Game in terms of theme. First, it’s a board game about mounting a global defense against an alien invasion. Second, it’s an adaptation of a long-standing video game franchise into a board game format.
XCOM: The Board Game delivers well on the first, but it knocks it out of the park on the second.
As a global defense simulation, the game includes the feelings of urgency, cooperation, and strategy that players are looking for. But perhaps even more difficult, Eric M. Lang was able to build a board game that feels like XCOM. First, the app plays music from the games in the background, adding some extra ambiance. Further, players who have experience with the video game series will experience familiar emotions as they play this game. There’s a feeling in the video game where your soldiers need to make a clutch shot, so you close your eyes tightly, say a little prayer, and hit the Fire button, then shout in either despair or victory when they miss or hit. The same feelings come when there’s a crucial dice roll you need to make. Just one roll can mean the difference between a last-minute victory and a crushing defeat.
Welcome to XCOM.
This is a game I can see myself playing over and over with friends. Each of the four roles plays very differently, so sitting on a different side of the board can mean a completely different experience. Meanwhile, the app includes several different levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Expert. Players can begin with their headquarters on different continents, granting different special abilities. The aliens can follow different invasion plans, leading to different events as the game progresses. Plus, the app controls random events, meaning you really never know exactly how things are going to move forward.
Overall, I really loved this game. I’ve seen a few attempts to translate video games into a board game format and usually ended up severely disappointed. Not with XCOM, though. Somehow, they were able to make an adaptation of a single-player game, expand it to four players, and make it feel like the original. After we finished, I immediately did a search of the other games that Eric Lang has done and discovered that he collaborated on a game design with Kevin Wilson, who designed Mistborn: House War, which you may recall I enjoyed quite a bit. I’ve already gone and ordered a copy of the game they collaborated on, so you can look forward to a review of Arcane Academy some time in the not-too-distant future. (We’ll see how soon it is, though, with the upcoming Christmas break and all…)
Before I sign off, I want to give a special shout-out to Jordan “Splice” Davis for playing through the game with me and helping me understand some of the deeper workings of the XCOM series. If you’re interested in learning more about the games, you should check out his XCOM podcast, “Tales from the Infirmary,” which is available on iTunes, Google Play, and most other podcast sites. He posts new episodes every two weeks. He also has a regular XCOM stream on Twitch, “Live from the Infirmary,” which begins at 5:30pm Mountain Time on Mondays through Thursdays.
In the end, I’ll give XCOM: The Board Game a strong recommendation, so if you get a chance, pick up a copy and try it out.
“Good luck, Commander.”