Game Review: X-COM

We had four over to The Gaming Annex about a week ago. After some hemming and hawing about what to play, Nick Sima pulled X-COM down from the shelf. It had been a while since we played. I’ve now logged 12 plays of this game. It’s about time I wrote a review of it.

Board Game Review: X-COM the Board Game

X-COM Terror from the Deep
X-COM Terror from the Deep

XCOM has enjoyed a successful run as a video game. It’s earliest iterations were DOS games in the mid 90’s from Microprose. It’s been updated, reimplemented and fleshed out many more times since then. The theme is always the same: extraterrestrials are threatening humanity’s existence. An elite force called X-COM has been developed to be mankind’s last, best hope for victory.

I’ve never actually played any of the X-COM video games. When the announcement was made that Fantasy Flight was going to release a board game version, I wasn’t terribly excited. Others in the group were, however. But the excitement was very cautious because board game adaptations of video games have been problematic. It was Dr. Steve who first taught us how to play…

X-COM the Board Game: the rules

XCOM The Board Game has created a lot of buzz in Muskegon
XCOM The Board Game

The rules for X-COM the Board Game are light. Like super light. Like the size of a restaurant menu. The rules are just four pages in all.

Despite this, the game was quite frustrating to learn. The lightness of the rules was an obstacle to learning the game. We had substantial questions and difficulties getting started the first few games. The rules, being so scant, were not much help.

X-COM: the components

X-COM dice and fighters
X-COM dice and fighters

Being a Fantasy Flight game, you should expect top notch components. And X-COM delivers. The game comes with nice sculpted minis like the squad members and the fighters. The artwork is good. The game board gives the feel of a war room where you and your teammates are strategizing your resources on a global scale.

The game requires an app. It’s free. And the game cannot be played without it. The app works fine. It’s sound effects add to the drama. And the user interface is easy enough. And the app will either make-or-break the game for most game groups. More on that below.

Game Play

X-COM board game review
X-COM game play

X-COM is a cooperative game where players must work together to stem an alien invasion of earth. Each player has a job they perform. And there are four jobs to be performed. Because of this, the game is ideal for four players. If you play with fewer players, you will have to double up on some of the roles.

Each game round has two phases. The first phase is the frenetic “timed phased”. In this phase, the app dictates with player/role is active and what they have to do. The player will have 8 seconds to perform the action. If you take longer than 8 seconds, more aliens will show up; if you take less time, you get bonus time at the end of the phase.

The second phase is the “resolution phase”. This is where all of the decisions made in the timed phase are resolved. You will roll dice, mitigate your dice rolls with various special abilities, make some tough decisions when the dice don’t go your way, etc.

X-COM app from FFG
X-COM app from FFG

I noted above that the app will make-or-break the game for most groups. This is because of the timed phase. If you don’t like the timed phase, you won’t like this game. And the timed phase really does require an app. Nobody could manage their own role and keep track of 8 seconds without an electronic device. If you are a tabletop purist, you will probably frown upon the inclusion of an app.

As I stated, there are four roles in the game. Each role has control over different functions. There is the Central Officer, the Commander, the Chief Scientist and the Squad Leaders.

The Central Officer assigns satellites
The Central Officer assigns satellites

The Central Officer runs the app. He reads (quickly) the messages coming from the app. The other players must be Johnny-on-the-spot if they are to make sound decisions in 8 seconds. The Central Officer is in control of the satellite defense. These satellites will protect earth’s resources so you will get more funding each round. The Central Officer has a lot of mitigation at his fingertips. He can allow other players to reroll dice and he can move pieces on the board once per game round.

The Commander in X-COM
The Commander in X-COM

The Commander is in control of the X-COM budget and the fighter defense. With only 8 seconds to make each decision, the players may accidentally go over budget. The Commander has to guard against this because the results will be disastrous. The Commander has to also place fighters on any continents to protect from aliens that made it past the satellites. Aliens cause the continents to panic. If the panic tracks get too high, the players lose.

Chief Scientist from X-COM
Chief Scientist from X-COM

The Chief Scientist uses whatever funding he can get to research new abilities for the players. He might find ways to augment the satellite defense for the Central Officer. Or find new fighter technology for the Commander. Maybe the Squad Leader needs new weaponry for his troops. The Chief Scientist must read his hand of cards quickly. The long term strategy of the game will be dictated by what technology cards are persued.

Heavy and assault
Heavy and assault

A game of X-COM is won or lost by the Squad Leader. The Squad Leader must complete enough missions for the app to say, “reveal the final mission”. Completing the final mission yields victory. The Squad Leader has four different troops he can deploy. These troops are suitable for different mission types. However, the Squad Leader must also defend the X-COM base from aliens. If the base takes enough damage, the players lose.

Thoughts

Squad leader mission
Squad leader mission

The game flow of X-COM the Board Game is unique. The app will direct one player to do a thing in 8 seconds. This could be assign troops to the mission, assign a technology to be researched, or maybe place satellites to defend the globe. But the app is random. You might be placing satellites to defend the globe before all the aliens show up. If so, you may place too many satellites (and waste money) or not place enough satellites.

The game fixes one big issue with cooperatives: each player is engaged. In many classical coops, an alpha player can dictate the activities of the other players. While that may be optimal, it is not fun. In X-COM, it’s difficult to assess what is optimal because you only have 8 seconds. Your teammates might shout their suggestions to you, but it’s difficult to communicate and analyze in the time given. This is a very good mechanic. If you don’t like this mechanic, you will not like X-COM.

X-COM is ideal with four players. If you play with fewer players, someone will have to play more than one role. This is too much, given the time crunch. I would recommend this game as a four player game only.

But if you are looking for a four player coop, X-COM offers a welcome departure from Pandemic and that ilk. The frenetic play is exhilarating. It’s not a brain burner like Pandemic but you still feel like your contribution matters. The rules are not explicit but the app is quite well designed. Once you have the rules down, X-COM will be a nice game to get your blood pumping.